The ‘Text/Context’ Controversy and the Emergence of Behavioral Approaches in Folklore

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Folklore Forum





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In hls 1972 introduction to Folklore and Folklife, Richard Dorson referred to an upcoming group of young scholars as "Young Turks" due to their new and highly theoretical approach to the study of folklore. As noted by Hasan El-Sharny in 1976, the label was somewhat dubious in that it indexed internal strife and conflict; perhaps Dorson foresaw the debates and controversies that the ideas of this group would provoke for the next twenty-five years. Although many so-called Turks protested Dorson's identification of them as a "school" and stated repeatedly and publicly that their views on the subject of folklore were extremely diverse, for better or worse Dorson's label stuck. This group, along with other contributors, came to be perceived as initiating a theoretical revolution in folklore embodied by what is now called the "textlcontext" controversy.' In their efforts to make folklore a legitimate social science, these scholars drew upon the study of language and psychology, calling for a "behavioral" approach to folklore that shifted the conceptualization of folklore as an extractable item or "text" to an emphasis on folklore as a kind of human behavior and communication. Conceptualizing folklore as behavior redefined the job of folklorists: rather than identifying the origin and change over time of specific kinds of folklore texts and known variants, many folklorists began producing highly contextualized, ethnographic descriptions of the uses, processes, and communicative nature of folklore in specific settings. This paper offers a very brief introduction to some of the arguments and players during that shift in orientation, spanning the years 1965-79.

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