Folklore at the University of North Carolina

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The Folklore Program at the University of North Carolina emphasizes the study of creativity and aesthetic expression in everyday life and the political implications of that expression as it unfolds in contested arenas of culture.  The study of folklore focuses attention on those expressive realms that communities infuse with cultural meaning and through which they give voice to the issues and concerns that they see as central to their being.  These realms are often deeply grounded in tradition, yet as community self-definitions develop and change in light of shifting social, political, and economic realities, community-based artistry likewise evolves.  Folklore thus moves beyond the study of the old and time-honored to explore emergent meanings and cultural forms.

The primary vehicle for the exploration of contemporary folklore is ethnographic fieldwork, the real-world study of people’s lives in everyday settings, grounded in conversation and participatory engagement.  In Folklore courses, students often move beyond the university to engage experts of the everyday in the communities they call home.  Given this focus, the Folklore Program emphasizes North Carolina and the American South and encourages students to draw upon the University’s archival holdings and related strengths in the study of Southern history, literature, and culture. The expertise of our core faculty offers broad coverage of the expressive realms of music, narrative, festival, architecture, belief, language, food, and art as articulated in communities defined by race, gender, class, ethnicity, region, faith, and occupation.

The Folklore Program offers an MA that readies students for either employment in the public sector or further academic study.  We also offer a minor in Folklore for students earning a BA or PhD in other departments and a BA major in American Studies with a Concentration in Folklore.

The second decade of the 21st century is the seventh decade of the Folklore Program’s formal presence at UNC. Founded with an eye to regional study, and deeply integrated with the University’s long-standing focus on the South, the Program maintains its commitment to the study of regional folklife. This commitment, however, in no way limits our vision. Students and faculty still do much of their fieldwork in the South, with recent theses on pimento cheese, the different ways several generations of a Tennessee family engage in the performance of Country music, the verbal and visual artistry of homeless men in Chapel Hill, the re-emergence of women’s roller derby, the memories of place that sustain the African American community in Natchez, and a multi-ethnic low-rider car club near Greensboro.  Other students have found it productive to work on topics as varied and far-flung as the artistry of master-level science fiction costumers in Boston, the folksong revival in Albanian-speaking communities in Southern Italy, and the practice of contemporary shamans in Siberia. Program members work extensively in the public sphere, pursuing projects with museums, arts councils, media production companies, and a range of grassroots organizations.

The Folklore Program at UNC is part of the Department of American Studies. Some of our faculty hold appointments in American Studies, others–in keeping with Folklore’s interdisciplinary nature–in the sister departments of AnthropologyEnglish, and History.