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Oral Tales from Anthropological Localities

The aim of this project is to reinsert folklore in an interdisciplinary history of the comparative study of culture.

About the group

To do this, we explore the epistemologies, knowledge practices and definitions of objects in comparative culture research in the first half of the twentieth century. Since most histories of anthropology, folklore, and religious history routinely partition an earlier intellectual formation according to contemporary criteria and disciplinary boundaries, this is a highly needed supplement to the current historiography on disciplinary formations as well as the imagery of “otherness”.

Folkloristic became somewhat discredited in the later part of the twentieth century, and is accordingly often left out of the equation. However, the field played a particularly significant role in the history of the human sciences. Notions like “culture”, “collective memory” “informants”, and what Baumann and Briggs have called “a poetics of otherness” were for instance initially calibrated as tools for fieldwork and practical investigation here. It is also often forgotten that folkloristic had comparative and anthropological ambitions; even when it turned to the most local of details and oral tales. In the Norwegian context, for instance, R. Christiansen underscored that folklore collectors furnishing the Norwegian Folklore Archive with material needed to keep in mind that the tales they collected at home «have parallels in primitive cultures». Thus the collection of oral tales represented regional, national and anthropological locations at the same time.

Moreover, oral narrative – collected both at home and abroad – furnished the stuff with which important trends and turns in the human sciences in the 20th century worked with to define the nature of human culture. On the one hand this was based upon the assumption that primordial culture and national identities were found in oral tales; on the other the work with a corpus of tales beyond the written text had salient influences upon methodologies for reading written texts and literary narrative.


By reinserting folklore in an interdisciplinary history of the comparative study of culture, the project aims

  • to shed new light on the history of knowledge in the human sciences, and,
  • on how folkloristic contributed notions of identity and otherness that were fundamental for the definition of cultural heritage and policy in global and national contexts.

To do this, the project is designed as a series of case studies that traces the international entanglements of concepts, practices, scholars and institutions across national boundaries and continents. The Norwegian case studies focus upon The Institute for Comparative Research on Human Culture (Institutt for sammenliknende kulturforskning) and the Norwegian Folklore Archive (Norsk Folkeminnesamling).

Published Feb. 8, 2017 2:15 PM - Last modified Feb. 9, 2018 4:13 PM