There are many ways to access identity and cultural knowledge and material. In the first edition of “Techniques corner”, we looked at metaphors and how analyzing them can give insights to a society’s cultural framework. In this second edition of techniques corner, we will be looking at the analysis of folktales.

What are folktales? 

Folktales are stories that are transmitted over generations of people, generally through oral storytelling. They change over time and are subject to individual interpretation and modification by each storyteller. It is not just the literal story of a folktale that is of interest to the identity and culture researcher, but also the symbolism that it contains and the cultural values and beliefs that it attempts to impart upon the listener. 

The analysis of these stories and what they mean to the people that tell them, and come to mean to those who absorb them, can be an important way to access how cultural values and meanings are constructed and used by a community of people. The idiosyncrasies of storytelling and the referencing of folktale elements by people in everyday life can reveal a great deal about the divisions and boundaries of power, status, belonging and ‘us’ and ‘them’ concepts in the society at large. Similar to metaphors, folktales are a window into how identity is made and from what ingredients.

Techniques to keep in mind when analysing folktales: 

  1. Seek out multiple tellings of the same folktale. 
    1. Make sure the variations are told and commented upon by people who have different backgrounds and see themselves as belonging to a diverse range of internal cultural groups. You may want to consider looking at:
      1. Gender divides – talk to people from many genders.
      2. Religious divisions – talk to people from diverse religions and belief systems.
      3. Generational divides – talk to people of from different age groups.
      4. Ethnic or regional divides – talk to people from different ethnic and geographical groups.
  2. Compare the different accounts of the same folktale both from storyteller and audience perspectives.
  3. Ask yourself these questions: 
    • What are the key themes and sub-themes of the story? How do these relate to divides of power & belonging in the wider community or society? 
    • Around what keywords and sub-themes are interpretative variations (between individuals or subsets such as gender/religion/generational groups) occurring? 
    • Within these variations, what social norms are taken for granted and what is being contested? 

Folktales and the lessons they teach are important in maintaining a shared collective consciousness in a society. By constructing differences and division between groups, these stories and the widespread knowledge of them are powerful tools in the creation of divisions in society, but they can also be used to help bring about peace and cohesion by resolving conflicts and constructing linkages between communities.

*This version of Techniques Corner references some methods and perspectives found in Finding Culture in Talk – A Collection of Methods (2005) edited by Naomi Quinn. If you wish to learn more about techniques such as these, give this fascinating book a read!
Interested to learn more about the concepts and techniques involved in identity and culture research? The OICD Institute hosts a variety of educational materials and activities.