Living with the heart of a folklorist

I have always worked under the assumption that the conversations, communities, and contexts of folklore can take their place as key players in the social sciences and in the world of practitioners in areas from design to conflict transformation.

I have consistently looked to folklore/tradition studies as a way to ground my social, cultural, political, and economic analyses, believing that, at heart, folklore can be an exploration of the art of being human. In this, I find folklore to have much affinity with transdisciplinary areas like social ecology.

Throughout my career I have been developing what I term a “critical vernacular ecology.” I have developed my critical vernacular ecology approach on the basis of four axioms:

  1. Vernacular (e.g., informal, non-institutional, tacit) culture tends to be theoretically illegible and discursively invisible within the orthodoxies of the social and political sciences – it has consistently been one of the roles of Folklore to redress this illegibility;
  2. Nevertheless, both the historical and contemporary study of vernacular culture provide fertile sources for new, relevant, and integrative cultural, social, political, and policy insight into the possibilities of human flourishing and the art of being human, for now and for the future;
  3. Vernacular culture also provides keys to understanding and addressing the dynamics of particular kinds of expansionary, intensifying, and generally negative cultural, social, and political change;
  4. Realising the theoretical and practical potential of vernacular culture as a tool in culture change, social and political action, cultural sustainability, and intergenerational learning requires the development of new theory from old wisdoms to make the transformative possibilities of vernacular life theoretically legible, discursively visible, and politically relevant. As folklorists, we are well placed to develop these new theoretical perspectives.

At the heart of this is the development of a political theory of transformative action emerging from a theoretical exploration of what I call ‘ordinary ethics’ (e.g., gentleness, kindness, hospitality, trust, compassion, generosity). I think as folklorists we get to hang out with the experts in ordinary ethics, and occasionally even practice such ethics ourselves. That matters, I think, more than we have imagined thus far.

In truth, I believe that the experience of folklorists and, more importantly perhaps, the people we work with, opens a window to the best of political possibility in its broadest sense, raising the quieter people to a position of respect, listening to people who do not tend to be listened to, and valuing gentle strength.

In passing, when I say ‘theory’ I mean ‘thoughtful practice’, in two main ways:

  • working to better understand what happens in order to reduce the possibilities of coercion, violence, domination, and oppression in this and future generations;
  • working to better understand what happens in order to increase the possibilities of optimal human flourishing in this and future generations.

Folklore, for me, includes explorations of creativity, entrepreneurship, power and politics, cultural sustainability, policy, education and learning, complexity, emergence, presence, parenting, community, quality of relationship, trust, generosity, hospitality, innovation, culture change, conflict transformation, poverty, indigenous politics, and much more more. Many of the key concerns in folklore are also key issues, questions, and themes in cutting-edge education, management, leadership, politics, design, activism, environmentalism and so on. If folklore as a discipline isn’t respected as a key contributor within the political and social sciences, it should be, but for that to happen we need to always find new ways to restate old wisdoms, to declare the relevance of what we do in ways that matter.

I think it is important for folklorists to have confidence in their place in the bigger picture, wherever they are, however they are employed or not employed. I don’t think living with the heart of a folklorist has very much to do with our position (or not) in an administrative structure. I think it can be an invitation to the heart of what it can mean to be human, a communicated invitation to others to continually reimagine their own possibilities for being human, and a clarion call for dignity and a deeper humanity. The folklorists I admire are people who care about people, who continually remember and testify to what human decency means. The folklorists I admire understand that the notion of ‘applied’ folklore is superfluous to requirements. Either we make a difference or we don’t. I assume that we always do.

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About Anthony McCann, Ph.D.
Anthony McCann is a coach and consultant. An experienced educationalist and social theorist, Anthony has worked as a lecturer and researcher at the University of California, the University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, and the University of Ulster. Anthony holds the positions of Research Associate with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Visiting Fellow with the University of Bristol's Graduate School of Education, and Associate of the Center for Emergent Diplomacy in Santa Fe. Anthony lives with his wife Emma and their son Aodan in Holywood, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. You can find out more about Anthony on his website: http://www.anthonymccann.com

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