Friday 21 November 2014

My reflections on the "Newer Researchers in Folklore Conference", Warburg Institute

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being invited to attend the “Newer Researchers in Folklore Conference”, organised by The Folklore Society and held at their central London base in the Warburg Institute, Bloomsbury. As many have expressed with some trepidation, all is not well for English folkloristics; while we have seen the University of Chichester open its Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy, the past decade has witnessed the closure of other departments devoted to the field. In the academic sphere, folkloristics is rarely accorded the respect and recognition that it deserves, and indeed in many cases is barely visible and very poorly understood. Further, folklore itself is widely associated with Morris dancers, Maypoles, and all things twee, rather than being understood as encompassing all of the popular beliefs, customs, and traditions of any given society; the "lore of the folk", if you will. Understandably, this sorry state of affairs is one that greatly concerns the Folklore Society, and it is was clear that one of the core purposes behind this conference was to find a way to reverse this decline and inject new life into this fascinating old discipline.

Organised by Dr. Matthew Cheeseman and Dr. Paul Cowdell (the latter of whom could unfortunately not be at the event itself), the one-day conference was also attended by the Society's President, Professor James H. Grayson, as well as its Vice President Robert McDowall and prominent British folklorist Jeremy Harte, while Dr. Caroline Oates kindly dealt with the organisational issues surrounding food and drink. However, these eminent scholars were not to take centre stage, for as its name suggests, the day was devoted to "newer researchers", which in many, although by no means all, cases was a synonym for "younger researchers". Certainly, the majority of us in attendance were either in the midst of our doctoral research or stepping out into the daunting early stages of an academic career. Although I recognised a few familiar faces from earlier folklorist events, this was nevertheless the first time that so many of us in these early stages of academia had been brought together in one place to discuss the field and our role in it.

Our opening keynote speaker was Professor Diane Goldstein, the director of the University of Indiana's Folklore Institute, one of the foremost departments for folkloristics in the United States. In her talk, she outlined the academic opportunities that were open to folklorists in her own part of the world, championing the term "folklorist" as a badge of pride and suggesting that as a discipline, folkloristics can be differentiated from sociology as a result of its ideological bent. Suggesting that better days for folklore studies may well be on the horizon, she provided a number of useful suggestions for how those here in England can galvanise to improve conditions for the discipline and bring it up to the standard present in much of North American and Europe. This was followed by a talk from a representative of publishing company Taylor & Francis, who produce the Folklore Society's peer-reviewed journal, Folklore. As could be expected, some comments were raised regarding the ethical problems of author-financed open access services, something which has attracted a lot of attention, at least in Anglo-American academia, over the past few years.

After lunch, we embarked on a series of presentations, in which we each introduced our research, future plans, and our own relationship to folklore. First up was Gunnella Thorsgeirsdottir, an Icelandic scholar who has recently completed her doctoral research into the folk beliefs and practices surrounding pregnancy and childbearing in Japanese society.  She was followed by Bristol-based independent scholar and journalist Gideon Thomas, who discussed his interests in Anglo-American folk musical traditions. Next was Dr. Will Pooley, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute of Historical Research who specialises in traditional culture within the Francophone world. He was followed by a scholar with whom I co-organised last year's third "Popular Antiquities: Folklore and Archaeology" conference, Dr. Tina Paphitis, who has recently completed her work on the folklore of archaeological landscapes in Britain. Taking quite a different approach to the study of folklore was Dr. Victoria Newton, who is presently a Research Associate at the Open University; her specialism is in popular beliefs surrounding women's contraception and fertility in contemporary Britain. Next up was Éva Gyöngy Máté, a Hungarian doctoral candidate at the University of Debrecen who has been looking at the mediality of landscape in contemporary Scottish fiction.

Doctoral student Melanie Lovatt proceeded with an introduction to her work with individuals living in old age homes from a perspective rooted in material culture studies. She was followed by independent scholar Alice Little, who outlined her research into both musical instruments in museums and on historical folklore collectors like Percy Manning. French-American doctoral student Nicolas de Bigre proceeded with an outline of his work with immigrant communities in North-East Scotland, focusing on their personal-experience narratives of being an immigrant. Next was Ben Kehoe, whose recent master's degreee thesis examines late nineteenth-century Sicilian popular perceptions of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Revolution of 1860. Heading back to the U.K., Ceri Houlbrook discussed her approach as a "folklore archaeologist" in analysing the fascinating tradition of coin trees in modern Britain. Social historian Erika Hanna then offered us a discussion of her work in analysing Dublin's Urban Folklore Project, which was carried out from 1979-80. Adopting a very different approach was independent scholar Michelle Griffiths; herself a performance artist, she has been looking for new avenues in which to combine folklore and artistic expression. After I then outlined my own research projects into both Anglo-Saxon belief systems and the contemporary Pagan use of archaeological monuments, paying particular attention to my use of folkloric sources, Cheeseman then rounded the day off with an outline of his doctoral research in the folklore of student life.

The conference provided a fantastic opportunity to bring together newer researchers who are all, in one way or another, embarking on studies within the remit of folkloristics. We were able to meet one another, learn of each other's research, and discuss our shared concerns and obstacles, as well as potential ways of dealing with them. In doing so, it was undoubtedly of great value to the field. However, what became particularly apparent was that few, if any of us, identified solely as a folklorist. Instead, we tended to think of ourselves as scholars of archaeology, history, sociology, or literary studies first and foremost, and as a folklorist second, third, or even fourth. Some, including myself, were even hesitant about labelling ourselves "folklorists"; in part this was because most of us lacked in-depth academic training in the methodologies and theoretical perspectives of folklore studies, but also because there are few if any academic positions in English academia for a self-described folklorist. Conversely, others, not least Professor Goldstein herself, urged us to proudly label our best work as "folklorist", thus hoping that greater academic exposure and impact will result in an improved future for the field. I hope that she's right, and (for better or worse) I will certainly be more comfortable in declaring myself a folklorist in future.

UCL Events' review of my recent Petrie Museum lecture

For those who missed my recent lecture at UCL’s Petrie Museum on the subject of archaeology and occultism in the films of American experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, you might wish to check out a review here, authored for the UCL Events’ Blog.