The implications of a name change

The International Society for Folklore and Ethnology (SIEF) is currently discussing a change of name.

In the latest newsletter May 2012 vol 10 Nr 1, we can read how “The Board felt that the name was problematic for a society of modern culture research”. The new name suggested is “Society of European Ethnology”. This raises at least two questions. First, what is wrong with the term “Folklore”? Second, what does “European Ethnology” signal, who identifies with it?

Folkloristics is not a separate university subject in all countries – but still, in many – and is nevertheless a field of research with its scientific organizations and journals, and with an international presence in education and research.

Connotations to the term folklore – remains from a political context in a very specific time in history – have weakened as the international field of folkloristics has developed. Even in France where the word “folklore” was strongly stigmatized, scholars engage with a critical debate about the ideological connotations in relation to the reality they work with (Christophe, 2009).

In the newly published A companion of Folklore (Bendix and Hasam-Roekm, 2012), Schmidt-Lauber writes:

“It has become a tradition that scholars of European ethnology try to explain their discipline and reflect critically on its cognitive identity. What is this discipline that calls itself “European Ethnology”? The discipline, from the perspective of which I write, is a so-called “small-discipline” in German-speaking countries. It came to questionable prominence in the 1930s, when it was called “Volkskunde”, but can also look back on an eventful history with many breaks and changes […]. It is a discipline of the German speaking countries – a “German special discipline” as the historian Thomas Nipperdey (1983:522) once described it.” (2012:559)

Based on this definition, the name European Ethnology does not support the wish of the society, i.e. “Our society needs a name that is all embracing” (SIEF Board’s mission statement from 2001)

Another aspect of concern would be the turn from an “international” society to one that deals with “European” ethnology – with the risk to exclude non-European scholars.

The issue of the name of the Society will be determined by a vote, “probably before the next International Congress in 2013” (see newsletter).

The choice of a name is a way to take a stand in relation to the disciplines. I suggest we look forward when voting for the name of the society. The question to be asked is whom the society wants to include and to engage in scholarly dialog with.

References cited

A Companion to Folklore . (2012). Wiley-Blackwell.

Christophe, J., Boëll, D.-M., & Meyran, R. (2009). Du folklore à l’ethnologie. EMSH.


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