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What Is Folklore?

Folklore, science traditionally concerned with peasant and local elements in modern culture, now extended to cover all classes of popular lore among both urban and rural populations, and among children. The early alternative designation 'Popular Antiquities' suggested that high value was placed on elements showing continuity with archaic traditions, giving knowledge of past events ignored by official or academic history, and providing evidence of legal and religious observances otherwise forgotten. Fragmentary survivals of this type may, as with 'well-dressing', enjoy the tolerance or support of present-day established authorities, though others may belong only to a subculture, and others again may be illegal. Superstitions have a double value typical of the whole field; irrational and meaningless as many superstitions are, they show their vitality by the place accorded them in the behavior of people of all kinds, and they often point to older ways of thought of which they formed a more meaningful part.

Nor is folklore confined to the archaic; relatively new working groups such as canal boatmen or railwaymen, for instance, have developed distinctive folklores. The identity of the subject has been affected by the ambiguity of the term 'people': either the 'common people' or, more comprehensively, the entire 'nation' (or some 'idea' of the nation, in which orders and estates may be separated and unequal, but still have an accepted place in relation to one another, each possessing a distinctive 'learning' or 'lore').

Another development has been that an older orientation towards ethnography and comparative anthopology has given way in some quarters to a dialectic interplay between folklore (the study of cultural forms and objects) and sociology (the study of interpersonal relationships and of the social realities within which these relationships operate).

The beliefs, traditions, and customs constituting the folklore of a group, social stratum, or nation are shown in disparate forms: popular games and the rhymes (such as counting-out rhymes) associated with them; songs, dances, and costumes; jokes (including practical jokes) and stories (including tall stories); riddles, proverbs, and fables; ritual observances marking times and seasons or the stages of a person's life; popular medicine; magical practices and witchcraft; houses and their furnishing. The traditional background has been rural, but the folklore of the city (as of industrial life in the rural setting) has been increasingly intensively explored.

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