An invitation to participate in an interdisciplinary debate

Folklore, understood as traditional expressive culture, is universally accepted as constituting an important part of the cultural heritage of mankind. Folklorists, whose prime task it is to research, document, and teach folklore, are concerned with a field of study that is at the same time highly sensitive to extraneous interference and heavily pressurized by modern developments. Often dealing with contemporary issues of living expressive culture, folklorists are confronted with an imminent need for responsible action, and thus, ethical behavior.

While the scientific occupation with folklore is concerned with various forms of traditional expressive culture, verbal expression constitutes a common concern of all its branches of interest. Words, whether oral or written, are essential for the performance and documentation of verbal art, music, plays, rituals, and even for the production of tangible objects. Thus, the discipline of folk narrative research faces a particular responsibility in terms of ethical guidelines for instruction, research, and publication. Some of the neighboring disciplines in the humanities, such as anthropology, ethnology, archaeology, sociology, philosophy or history, in a number of individual countries, have in the past shown a considerable concern for the ethical behavior of their members. However, folklorists on the general scale have so far not given any priority to the consideration of a code of ethics. Debates concerning particular cases have been initiated only by spectacular breaches of ethical behavior. Today, it appears imperative to propose a focused, international and interdisciplinary debate in order to create and further awareness about the ethical dilemmas especially pertinent to the documentation of verbal art, as well as the basic assets, implications, and ethical responsibilities of the discipline.

Suggested outlines

Though there are codes of ethics in the neighboring disciplines which could easily be adapted to the requirements of folklore studies, it seems advisable that the folklorist debate start by considering its own position. The following remarks without any aspiration of being comprehensive might serve as initial suggestions as to how to outline the potential for a code of ethics for folklorists.

The stages of research concerned encompass the

  • preparation, including the initial conception of a plan of work, the communication with responsible or relevant people, the arrangements for research etc.,
  • realization, concerning the actual gathering of data, whether by field work, research in an archive or documentation center, or any other research activity, and
  • publication, comprising all steps necessary for the adequate documentation and analysis of the data collected, and also including the accessibly published final results as well as due acknowledgements and an adequate sharing of revenues.

Key topics for the debate might be:

  • awareness of and sensitivity towards the various stages and positions implied, such as
  • the individual (What is my position as a researcher?);
  • the goal (Why am I doing this? What is it I want to achieve?);
  • the object (What is it I am dealing with?);
  • the method (How do I go about my research?)
  • the implications (What are the possible repercussions on the people researched?);
  • the informant (Who am I dealing with?);
  • the choice and availability of data (How, where and under what circumstances do I collect my data?);
  • the result (Which criteria do I apply to which choice of data? Which of the results do I publish for which audience?);
  • responsibility in terms of accuracy, representative selection, adequate treatment of sensible data, and
  • respect for the personal or communal dignity of the individual or people researched.

More than other disciplines, folklorists pursue their activities in an international arena and profit from interdisciplinary interaction. This may result in different definitions and priorities, conflicting experiences and points of view. Yet, it also affords the opportunity to generate a lively and productive debate with the potential for furthering individual and international understanding.

Proposed steps

FF Network has agreed to support such a debate, to serve as an initial, and probably constant forum for the debate. As a first step, it is proposed that the debate consist of collecting various opinions and approaches, besides considering existing relevant documents. Above all, this concerns above all the Unesco documents International Code of Ethics (Code of Athens), the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, the Draft Treaty for the Protection of Expressions of Folklore Against Illicit Exploitation and Other Prejudicial Actions. Also, existing codes of ethics of neighboring disciplines ought to be discussed, such as the one recently proposed by the American Anthropological Association (final draft, March 1, 1997; see

The purpose of the present communication is to invite active folklorist participation in an ongoing debate. The idea is to discuss ethical issues from various angles, while taking into account on an international level the points of view of different cultural and disciplinary backgrounds. Also, efforts in neighboring international organizational bodies, such as the International Society for Folk Narrative Reserch, the Société International d’Ethnologie et Folklore, or the European Association of Social Anthropology, will be considered. Moreover, national folklorist associations, such as the British Folklore Society, the American Folklore Society, or the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Volkskunde will be invited to join in the debate. A constantly available forum for the discussion and the necessary distribution of information has yet to be decided on. Since international participation also implies varying degrees of access to means of communication, this question shall have to be considered with all due care. As an initial forum, the present author offers his address: Prof. Dr. Ulrich Marzolph, Enzyklopädie des Märchens, Friedländer Weg 2, D-37085 Gsttingen (e-mail, Tel. +49 551 395357, Fax +49 551 392526).

The eventual goal of the debate might be the proposal of a code of ethics to a suitably large international organization, such as the Folklore Fellows. Yet the prime objective of the present invitation is to initiate the debate as such, to further the exchange of ideas, the process of communication and the resulting creation of awareness.

Ulrich Marzolph
Enzyklopädie des Märchens, Göttingen

(FFN 14, December 1997: 11-12)

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