Saturday, 17 July 2010

Research into Folkloric Subjects Continues, but ...

These are odd times for an English folklorist looking at academia. Marginal disciplines are expendable as far as university financing goes (a situation already apparent under the last administration, but approaching apocalyptic levels under the present one). Folklore, which has never had a secure standing in English universities, is disregarded as an academic subject.
Yet research continues in areas of folkloric interest, and some of it is rather undermined by the absence of any knowledge of work in Folklore as a discipline. I have lately seen some postgraduate research into Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). ICH was outlined in a UNESCO Convention (to which the British government did not sign up) as 'a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development'. ICH was conceived of as the lore behind the artefacts of folklife, and the Convention set out to protect this by administrative measures.
Celebrating the importance of such lore is valuable, and European ethnologists and folklorists have enthusiastically sought to use the ICH Convention to raise awareness of folklore and its study. Of course, this leaves the question of how far folklore can (or should) be protected by fiat. Encouraging an environment where lore is respected sufficiently for its transmission to be possible is one thing; preserving a tradition which no longer has any inherent life of its own is quite another.
Certainly there is a tendency to look at ICH from the needs of institutional bodies rather than the participants in, and bearers of, the traditions being protected. As was cynically joked about institutional resistance to gypsy horse fairs in England: 'How do you know if an event's traditional? If the local council is trying to ban it ...' (The photograph, left, comes from a Travellers Times article on the 2009 Horsmonden Horse Fair).
I may be doing the postgraduate researcher a disservice, but the questionnaire I saw showed no awareness that there was any history of such questions within Folklore. The researcher seemed to view the questions largely from the perspective of administrating bodies. Maybe I am wrong: I look forward to the dissertation.
It was rather more depressing to find a similar position being taken by senior researchers at the Institute of Education, Professor Sue Hallam and Dr Andrea Creech. (I have not yet read their full report,
Music Education in the 21st Century in the United Kingdom: Achievements, Analysis and Aspirations, and what follows is based on their press release). Among their findings is the suggestion that restricted playlists limit access to a range of musical styles, and that this may have a damaging long-term impact on, for example, participation in brass band and folk music.
Some aspects of this are incontrovertible. Less folk music on the radio means fewer people will hear folk music on the radio. Put like that, it's hardly a shocking statement. Hallam and Creech also recognise other factors at work, particularly socio-economic ones. Much of the community basis for brass bands, for example, was eroded by the destruction of the heavy industry that had built those communities in the first place.
Yet this report appears during a particularly strong resurgence of interest in folk music. Why should that be, and yet not be reflected in their research? The radio is only one source of music now, as they note, and the do-it-yourself quality of much internet radio broadcasting is making a wide range of traditional musics easily available. (The English Folk Dance & Song Society has responded by drawing attention to the increased participation of young people at festivals and clubs).
More importantly, their focus on music transmission is chiefly on formal music education. This is the focus of their research, but there seems to be little recognition of the extra-mural folk transmission, learning, and making of music. The transmission of much folk music takes place through an informal group of like-minded enthusiasts - through a folk group, in one of the ways folklorists have understood that concept. Without investigating that, much is missed.
There seems to be little acknowledgement of any of the ways in which folklorists have examined groups, transmission, and folklore itself. Hallam and Creech's press statement came out at around the same time that Professor John Widdowson's 2009 Katharine Briggs lecture on the future of Folklore in English Higher Education was published (1). As I have said, I think the political climate was already making the kind of academic reconstruction envisaged by Widdowson unlikely even in November 2009. It is now, surely, dead.
In some ways Widdowson (right) followed Malcolm Taylor's Briggs lecture the year before. Taylor, unlike Widdowson, doesn't see the future of Folklore as depending on academic posts, although they both agree on the need for collaborative efforts by interested parties (eg the Folklore Society and EFDSS) in raising the profile of their work and their archives.
That's certainly a big part of the task ahead, but how do we ensure that research and documentation can continue to the same standard? I don't think this is easy. The work of earlier folklorists in fighting to establish academic status for the subject is of inestimable importance. (There was some earlier mention of this in relation to Richard Dorson in the US). Much of the work that has been done by academic folklorists is eminently readable and accessible. Some of it's harder, but just as important. It could, and should, be taken up more widely to provide a popular serious framework within which folklorists - academic or not - can work.

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1: J. D. A. Widdowson, 'Folklore Studies in English Higher Education: Lost Cause or New Opportunity?', Folklore, 121.2 (2010), 125-142

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