Essay: Jay Mechling Has to Say About Folklore

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¶ … Jay Mechling has to say about folklore, students, folklorists, mediating structures and megastructures.

Before discussing megastructures and mediating structures, the first thing Jay Mechling makes clear in his essay (p. 340, Folk Groups, Folklore Reader), and he is one-hundred percent accurate in his assessment, is, that there is a built-in prejudice within the public's understanding of "folklore"; indeed, folklore is often seen as a synonym for "superstition" and "false belief," he writes.

He is indirectly alluding to the number 3 definition of "folklore" found in Merriam-Webster Online ("an often unsupported notion, story, or saying that is widely circulated..."). "Rumor" might fit into that number 3 definition, too. But what Mechling is talking about when he teaches and writes about folklore is closer to Merriam-Webster's number 1 definition of "folklore" ("traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people...").

And a further problem that goes along with folklorist studies, he continues, is that they tend to "seem unimportant" when stacked side-by-side with opera or novels - plus, professors of folklore face the credibility problems created when some less-than-academically competent folklorists "violate the revered scientific norm of objectivity..."

Meanwhile, he's involved with the kind of university folklore research that is fun inquiry, putting forth topics that seem non-academic yet are culturally dynamic, and researching social groups for their use of slang and their customs and rituals, which are authentic and original to that particular collection of individuals; he's talking about groups like softball teams and gaggles of friends who hang out at parties, bars, or in a musical ensemble.

Mechling makes it clear (341) that the folklorist study of the use of specific "slang" used by a softball team may be "every bit as important" as other "more traditional" university subjects. That is because folklorist research is looking into the topic of what it really means to be a "citizen" in this American pluralist society, not some esoteric and pseudo-intellectual topic that professors typically assign to students.

And the pivotal concept at work in folklorist research of this genre, Mechling continues, is "mediating structures" - which are "those institutions standing between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life." Mechling mentions that mediating structures is not a new concept, that indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville talked about "voluntary organizations" in the 1830s when the French writer and journalist was touring America.

Indeed, in his well-known and highly quotable work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations." Whether they gather in associations to repair a village road or to battle drunken behavior, Tocqueville observed, voluntary associations were the solution to social ills in America. Tocqueville observed that private, voluntary associations are the perfect avenue through which people form bonds, helping each other, as members of society, to learn to trust one another: "the morals and intelligence of a democratic people would be in as much danger as its commerce and industry if ever a government wholly usurped their place," he wrote. And his approach is nearly identical to what Mechling is saying, and gives legitimacy to the need to employ folklorism as a way to learn about American society.

Meanwhile, far apart from mediating structures (aka, voluntary organizations), out in the public world, there also exist what Mechling calls "megastructures," which are institutions such as universities; and they are "far beyond the size conducive to face-to-face interaction," Mechling writes (341). A megastructure such as a university promotes and prizes "efficiency, specialization, 'moralized anonymity', procedural justice, orderliness, impersonality," along with other similar values.

Mechling's view is that humans can tolerate the impersonal and sterile world of a megastructure simply because they have that "private world" (mediating structure) as a kind of shelter. And moreover, he points out that mediating structures (groups) can survive and thrive because they are "mid-range institutions" situationed between the "home world" (where one lives in privacy) and the megastructures. Within the "public" context of groups (mediating structures), are other mediating structures, and folklore is an important part of the interaction between the groups.

And with that information as background, Mechling asserts that, beyond simply doing fieldwork by studying folk groups, students engaged in his class, researching as folklorists, "are actually in an excellent position to contribute to an understanding of modernity and pluralism" (344). This research into folklore forms, content, and processes (observing and recording mediating structures' daily interactions) may help "banish triviality from the study of folklore," he says (347), and also "help us understand American culture as Americans actively create and modify it in their everyday lives."

Bibliography

Mechling, Jay. "Mediating Structures and the Significance of University Folk." Folk

Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader. Ed. Elliott Oring. Logan, UT: Utah State

University Press, 1989. 339-349.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America: and Two essays on America. London:

Penquin, 2003.

1. This is an argument in favor of the pertinence of what William a. Wilson writes.

Wilson believes that folklore must be experienced "directly in actual life" to be fully, properly understood. It seems that experiences which fall under the category "folklore" are best understood when witnessed, and not when merely heard in a lecture, or read in a textbook. At the time of the publishing of this book (1986), he had been teaching for twenty years, and he writes that students "can listen to my lectures, can read assigned books and essays" on the topic of folklore and how to collect folklore, but they also can finish his course "not understanding folklore unless they have encountered it in the actual settings in which it is performed."

That "actual setting" could just be a dinner party, where conversation is swirling around the table - but if one is not listening carefully good folklore stories can slip right by and never be taken note of - or a church gathering, the workplace, "by the fellow computer programmer at work...by your younger brothers and sisters... And often by yourself." Wilson goes to great lengths to establish the fact that one of the greatest sources of folklore lies within one's own experiences. "Rich lore" is everywhere that one has lived, worked, and interacted with others.

And in addition, Wilson insists that folklore that is worthy of being collected and recorded need not necessarily be taken from "ethnically different" or very old or otherwise unusual sources. He points out, correctly, that one "needn't pack...bags and head for some exotic place," or look in off-the-beaten-path places for these stories that are folklore stories. "The lore you are after may be no further away than your workplace, your church, your mother's kitchen...or your own memory" (227).

And it is important, he points out, that people who offer to give the folklorist stories should be treated with respect; because in the first place, you are getting it second hand, you did not experience it as it unfolded in an incident, so you, the folklorist, are asking the person to re-create information, times, dates, specifics, and make the information entertaining as well.

What is also valuable about Wilson's essay are the tips on how to find and collect (record) folklore. He even offers "The Folklore Document" (224-253), a step-by-step format for collecting, recording, and preserving authentic folklore.

Meanwhile, the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University offers a major in the discipline, with choices in focus ranging from cross-cultural or international studies, museum studies, cultural conservation, archiving, documentation of artistic performance, or "specific world areas and periods in history."

According to the Indiana University's Web site, "folklore is created when people interact with one another." "Lore," the site explains, reflects the artistry and knowledge of a group in such forms as "jokes, art, architecture, music, dance, custom, belief,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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