There is no simple way in which to define folklore theory, however there is a way of describing it in terms of being an academic discipline. According to Michael Owen Jones, a Professor at the School of the Arts and Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, “A folklore approach, like the perspective of anthropology, sociology, or any other field, is distinguished by subject matter, basic constructs, and recurrent issues” (278). The theoretical underpinnings of folklore begin with documenting and analyzing cultural elements having to do with traditions, customs and communication.

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A romanticized view is offered by Mary Magoulick, a folklorist and Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgia College, “Folklore reveals and helps us understand our humanity. Communities throughout time and space have created stories, songs, dance, music, rituals, customs, festivals, and various material artistic genres…to make sense of and to celebrate the world and the human condition” (“Folklore”).

It is generally agreed that folklore, at least as a specialized academic discipline, finds its origins in the 19th century when it was used to supplant the terms “popular antiquities” and “oral traditions”. (Jones 278). However some would argue that as a specialized field of study folklore actually dates even earlier to the Brothers Grimm, who catalogued folk tales and myths, or further still to 17th century Sweden, where King Gustav II ordered that traditional customs, songs and narratives be recorded for posterity sake (Jones 279). This would seem to indicate a rather anthropological aspect to the study of folklore, which is fundamentally true to a degree, but current theories as they may pertain to folklore may depart from anthropology and move into other directions such as the political sphere, history or in sociocultural terms. But as Jones notes “Increasingly more researchers are conceptualizing folklore as a behavioral phenomenon, and are exploring symbolic forms as an index for psychological states and processes or examining cognitive and interactional processes, such as learning, communication, and social dynamics” (282).

A functionalist theoretical perspective emerged in folklore in a roundabout manner. Anthropologist Elliott Oring, a Professor at Cal State University Los Angeles, notes that the noted French sociologist Emile Durkheim who believed that social relations affected society as they were increasingly integrated (654). His notion was formerly adopted by key anthropologists who viewed this in terms of a functional relationship, “When a function of a particular structure in integrating the society could be shown, that structure was, in effect, explained” (Oring 654). Thus, functionalism made its way into folklore by way of anthropology, and more specifically through an essay titled “Four Functions of Folklore” which implored folklorists at the time to turn their gaze towards both the social and cultural contexts of folklore as well as the specific functions that folklore played in societies (Oring 655). The mid-point of the 20th century finds functionalism as a predominate approach to folklore studies, for example in their attempt to explain irrational behaviors in relation to narratives viewed as fanciful folklorists would utilize psychology as a means to understand the function of escape (Oring 655).

Functionalist theory was employed quite extensively during the 1960s and 70s, used as a way of understanding how narratives and beliefs become institutionalized within specific groups. For example, the theory was employed to better understand superstitions as they pertained to commercial fisherman along the Texas coast. What appears to have been discovered was that, regardless of the latest technology of the time, fishermen still respected the older ways in terms of certain “taboos” that were never forsaken “[C]oastal fishermen would not sail with women on board, they would not bring black suitcases or utter the word ‘alligator’ on board, nor would they turn a hatch cover upside down” (Oring 655).

Respecting these traditions were, in effect, a psychological hedge preventing disaster from striking; they allowed fishermen some degree of comfort, to assuage anxieties in order to feel more in control when they in fact had little when cast out to sea (Oring 655). It is then somewhat clear that functionalism as it relates to folklore serves as a way of buttressing certain beliefs and behaviors because they are reflective of stories or myths that had been institutionalized; were part of the lexicon of a specific group or culture. Functionalism is apparently seldom used today as “Functional explanations were shown to be illogical, teleological, and grounded in questionable assumptions” (Oring 666). In its stead came what would be accepted as seemingly more rational approaches, such as the structuralist and phenomenological perspectives. Perhaps functionalism was, or still is, too analytic and, thus, more susceptible to subjective interpretation and analysis. Decidedly anthropological and perhaps contextually psychological, functionalism was viewed as fundamentally bereft of viewing folklore from a broader cultural prism (Oring 666).

It would seem as if functionalism still has value in the study of folklore and perhaps it lies somewhere within the context of other folklore theories. As stated earlier in this paper, functionalism serves a purpose of understanding how myths, beliefs or narratives become imbedded within groups, therefore it no doubt retains value within the purview of structuralism where a need to understand a rationale for beliefs remains an important feature to those who study folklore. The study of folklore takes from the same trough as other social sciences and cultivates its theories through contemporary issues ranging from politics to feminism. Through such prisms functionalism may still reside because they too are subject to interpretation and analysis that would be reliant on a “cause and effect” relationship. The “why” remains a function of “its” existence; the fisherman casts to sea with the same beliefs as those before, and they feel safe and secure in them.