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Folkloristics needs to broaden scope of its research in internet context

Author  :  Li Xiangzhen     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-09-20

The internet touches every facet of daily life, offering people a platform through which knowledge and information can be accessed conveniently. In the cultural sector, it has substantially altered existing forms of folk culture and the way it is inherited. Folkloristics, the study of traditional folklore and grassroots culture, is thus changing.

In the past, folkloristics tended to emphasize knowledge and culture of a specific locality or region. In the internet context, contact with the outside world has expanded beyond a particular area, increasing communication and the flow of knowledge between cultures. 

In this process of interaction, some new folklore phenomena have emerged and gone viral across the internet. For example, dancing in public squares is popular among middle-aged and retired women. Many of them download instructional videos online to learn new exercises. It is the sharing of network resources that makes the varied manifestations of this cultural form in different types of spaces—online and offline—highly similar.

In this context, studying new folk phenomena like square dancing requires researchers to rise above the perspectives of regional culture and study them as phenomena that transcend time and space. In addition to traditional textual analysis and field investigation, the internet era permits new research methodologies, such as network investigation and online data analysis. 

Online fieldwork is easier relative to traditional methodologies, but there is greater variation and uncertainty in the data, which requires scholars to be more theoretically skilled and academically rigorous.

With a strong problem-oriented consciousness, researchers are able to discover valuable online sources and to have dialogues or conduct interviews with inheritors of folk culture directly through the internet. The transformation of folk culture and social life brought by the internet has made online folklore chronicling an essential necessity for contemporary folkloristics. 

When conducting fieldwork online, researchers should learn to connect folk culture with social development and present the relationship in a plain academic language—this is how online folklore chronicles come into being. Notable Chinese folklorist Zhong Jingwen was the first to mention the concept of a folklore chronicle in the history of Chinese folklore. He defined a folklore chronicle as a recording of folk customs and events, and he continued to refine the concept in his later works. Liu Tieliang, another folk culture scholar, stressed the importance of blending research on folklore chronicles with a certain degree of problem-oriented consciousness. Liu argues that these problems should be of probative significance and drive forward the development of the fundamental theories of folkloristics.

Thanks to the progress of network technology, some folk culture exclusive to particular social groups can be better understood by society, and some folk ceremonies that have long been unknown to the outside world can be experienced by more and more people via the internet. 

Increasing interconnectedness is making it harder for researchers who specialize in unique forms of folk culture because there are fewer to study. Scholars of folklore need to divert their attention from cultural peculiarity and rarity to ordinary life—the realistic meaning of folk culture is usually embedded in daily life rather than peculiar or rare cultures, the former of which thus should be taken as the focal point of research.


Li Xiangzhen is from the Department of Sociology at Wuhan University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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