This essay by Frauke Ahrens and Christiane Schwab (Institute for European Ethnology and Cultural Analysis, LMU Munich) introduces their new project examining European folklore research of the late nineteenth century. It is a shortened version of a presentation from the First International Conference of the Histories of Anthropologies (HOAIC), on December 5, 2023, as part of the Panel, “Challenging Narratives and Frameworks of Knowledge in Histories of Anthropology,” convened by Robert Oppenheim (University of Texas at Austin) and Grant Arndt (Iowa State University). Thanks to Fabiana Dimpflmeier, one of the conference organizers, for commissioning this essay for HAR.


The historiography of folklore studies has been traditionally pursued within national frameworks – not at least because the interest in popular traditions and nationalism were deeply intertwined. However, especially from the 1870s onwards, folklore studies were shaped by transnational exchange. Our project “Actors ‒ Narratives ‒ Strategies: Constellations of Transnational Folklore Research, 1875‒1905,” funded by the German Research Foundation, aims to investigate folklore studies, taking into account new approaches in the history of knowledge. It scrutinizes “transnational folklore research” as both an object and an interpretative framework, allowing us to reconsider established histories of folklore and anthropologies. The project addresses the potential and scope of the concept of transnational folklore research in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, inquiring into the extent to which transnational processes contributed to the formation, professionalization, and systematization of folkloristic knowledge and practice.

In contrast to prevailing narratives— especially in the historiography of folklore research in German-speaking countries, which has generally concentrated on the ‘national-romantic’ folklore movement as a precursor to National Socialist folklore— this project takes on a perspective anchored in the nineteenth century. This choice of temporal frame in no way seeks to downplay the serious interrelationships between the nineteenth-century folklore movement and National Socialism and the latter’s impact on the institutionalization of the discipline in Germany.1 Instead, the project encourages the exploration of overlooked and forgotten aspects of transnational knowledge production and the examination of discontinuities, while acknowledging that such transnational connections were not exclusively rooted in idealistic intentions and should not inevitably be perceived as mutually beneficially, symmetrical or productive. Our perspective recognizes that their motivations also stemmed from imperial, financial, and economic interests.

The selected timeframe for our investigation (1875 to 1905) was marked by a wave of institutionalized forms of ethnological and folkloristic practice (such as numerous journals founded in Europe) and a series of transnational collaborations in folklore studies that emerged particularly in the 1880s. From the 1890s onwards, we observe a noticeable decline in transnational cooperation, coupled with a further increase in regional and national institutionalization efforts through the establishment of new associations and journals. The last international congress during this period occurred in Paris in 1900. In addition to the specified timeframe, the project concentrates on Western Europe, with a provisional focus on German-speaking countries, France, and the UK. This focus is informed by our disciplinary position in Germany (where ‘Volkskunde’ later acquired many new names, from European Ethnology to Cultural Analysis) and an initial assessment of the sources which revealed the dominance of stakeholders from England and France.2

Our source material includes diverse documents and publications, such as the documentation of international folklore congresses; international publication projects; papers and essays in folklore journals referring to international sources and developments; international reviews of scholarly works; and the personal papers, correspondence, and obituaries of actors who transcended national borders. Methodologically, we conceptualize micro-historical units of analysis (‘transnational constellations’) constituted by networks and interactions among actors, infrastructures, media, practices, objects, epistemic orders, discursive strands, and positions across regional and national borders.

Building on the notion of “transnational constellations,” we will undertake dense descriptions and multi-scalar analyses grounded in three sets of questions and research focuses. First, we aim to examine the motives, strategies, and socioeconomic and biographical preconditions of actors whose relationships and knowledge practices transcended nation-state borders. Who were the key players in a transnationally active folkloristic knowledge production? What conditions and motivations enabled them to operate on a transnational scale? And what factors may have posed challenges to them?

Second, we ask about the narratives that determined transnational cooperation and/or were produced and reproduced within it. How did these narratives function as instruments of shared knowledge horizons, interests, and problems that created a scientific identity? How has transnational collaboration been affected by different perceptions of the role and methodology of folklore studies?  

Finally, our third research focus investigates the agendas and logics of the regional and national institutionalization of folklore research within the framework of transnational entanglements. What significance, for example, did transnational collaboration hold for regional and transnational processes of institutionalization? What, in this context, were the motives and goals behind establishing and maintaining transnational contacts? How did transnational projects contribute to delineating disciplinary boundaries and strengthening folklore research as an independent discipline?

Our aim here is not to posit large-scale, transnationally collaborative folklore research as an alternative or even “better” past, in contrast to historiographies that stress its national-romantic beginnings. Rather, the project aims to track down, describe, and analyze transnational constellations for the first time and thereby expand, complement, and challenge existing historiographies of folklore research. We wish not only to do historical research on an overlooked dimension of European folklore studies, but to propel new reflections on established disciplinary historiographies, and the self-understandings associated with them.


  1. See e.g. Vera Deißner, Die Volkskunde und ihre Methoden: Perspektiven auf die Geschichte einer „tastend-schreitenden Wissenschaft“ bis 1945. Die Entstehung und Entwicklung des volkskundlich-methodologischen Paradigmas im Spannungsfeld des gesellschaftlichen Diskurses bis 1945, Studien zur Volkskultur in Rheinland-Pfalz, no. 21 (Mainz: Gesellschaft für Volkskunde in Rheinland-Pfalz, 1997); Andrea Zinnecker, Romantik, Rock und Kamisol: Volkskunde auf dem Weg ins Dritte Reich ‒ die Riehl-Rezeption, Internationale Hochschulschriften, no. 192 (Münster, New York: Waxmann, 1996). ↩︎
  2. Although there were, of course, important actors in other countries (e.g. Giuseppe Pitrè in Italy or Reinhold Köhler in Germany), institutional efforts and endeavors mainly originated in France and England. This is evident, for example, in the organization and hosting of international congresses in Paris (1889 and 1900) and London (1891) and the formation of the International Folklore Council following the London congress. Other points of reference are publication projects (such as the Almanach des traditions populaires (1882‒1884), the Dictionnaire international des folkloristes contemporains (1902), or the Collection internationale de la tradition (1889‒1894) series), which sought to bring together actors in the field of folklore studies and their research. ↩︎