“Post-Folklore”: Anthropology and Economic Development in European Peripheries, 1950–1995 

European Anthropology does not really exist.1 Or, rather, it doesn’t exist as a specific discipline with a single, agreed upon name. Instead, since the 1970s, a plethora of names marking subtle distinctions in focus and approach entered the continental academic landscape. Some examples: “European Ethnology,” found at a variety of European universities; “Empirische Kulturwissenschaften” (empirical cultural studies), especially prominent in German-speaking countries; in France, Ethnologie de France or Ethnologie et Patrimoine; at the University of Zurich, “Populäre Kulturen” (popular cultures); and at some universities, for example in Frankfurt, you’ll find amalgamations such as “Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie” (cultural anthropology and European ethnology).2

What these fields of inquiry all have in common is their origin in what was called, until the 1970s, “Volkskunde” (literally translated, the “study of the people”) in German-speaking countries, and “folklore” and “arts et traditions populaires” (popular arts and traditions) in France. Investigations in popular culture had increased especially in the nineteenth century, as an epiphenomenon of bourgeois anxiety over intensifying industrialization, most of the time attached to either associations (“Vereine”) or museums (The Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris was, for example, founded in 1937 as a – much smaller – sibling to the famous Musée de l’Homme). There were few professorships or teaching positions at universities specifically dedicated to it. Rather than the “high culture” of art, literature, and music, Volkskunde was concerned with “low culture” found predominantly in rural and peasant villages and landscapes; only a small minority of researchers was concerned with the culture of the working classes. Exhibitions, village monographs, atlases, as well as collections of artefacts, photographs, legends and fairy tales accumulated over the decades.3

Volkskunde scholars and the like were mainly concerned with non-bourgeois cultural phenomena “at home,” often taken to represent an “original,” preindustrial root of nationality.4 In other words, Volkskunde was the investigation of local “premodern,” oral cultures, as opposed to the study of “premodern,” “exotic” cultures abroad, which was the domain of French “ethnologie” and German “Völkerkunde” (the study of peoples). This European division of labor was shaped by its economic and social history: the internal “Other” came to be represented by peasant populations, whose social life was shaped by their long feudal history and recent introduction of capitalist economies. This constellation might just be the most important difference to the North American context, where the internal “Other” were the displaced and diminished Native American and First Nations populations.5 It might also be the reason why Volkskunde and arts et traditions populaires were institutionalized more prominently than folklore was in the United States.6

During the “boom” of the social sciences and humanities in Europe after World War II, these strands of inquiry – Volkskunde, arts et traditions populaires – were increasingly professionalized as the empirical study of popular and everyday culture was integrated into the academy.7 Their transformation was shaped, I argue, by a reorientation towards economic policy and, later, through practical engagement in economic development and in the construction of cultural infrastructures still visible today.8 These aspects are to be found in Europäische Ethnologie just as much as in Ethnologie de France and Kulturanthropologie and Empirische Kulturwissenschaft; this is why, despite the many names and distinctions, I will use “European Anthropology” as an umbrella term in the following.


Fig. 1: Ferden in April 2021. Photo by the author.

Researching the history of European Anthropology involves a lot of travel. Archival documents are held in research capitals like Berlin and Paris, but just as often in remote places such as the Swiss village depicted in figure 1. The dark-wooded house in the middle of the photograph holds parts of the papers of Arnold Niederer, a Swiss Volkskunde scholar (or European anthropologist) who held the respective chair at the University of Zurich from 1964 to 1980. The small house is located in Ferden, a village in the Lötschentalin the Swiss alpine canton of Valais. Niederer is one example of Volkskunde scholars who were involved in a thorough reorientation of the discipline after the Second World War.9 His research, spanning from the 1950s to the 1980s, is an example of how an entire field of anthropological study transformed and professionalized itself through its interaction with economic development.

In the 1950s, Arnold Niederer wrote a dissertation on the transformation of work and life cultures in the valleys near Ferden. After World War II, village structures in the Valais underwent significant changes: while alpine agriculture went into decline, the construction of numerous large hydroelectric power plants led to the flooding of entire landscapes and an influx of workers. This transformation, driven by investments in industrialization of the Valais, became the focus of Niederer’s research. He developed his expertise in the so-called “adaptation” problems of the inhabitants. When the crises of the 1970s shook Europe’s industries and industrialization policies, Niederer produced knowledge about “regional identity,” criticizing top-down development policies and explaining how effective regional development plans needed to involve the local inhabitants. In an increasingly science-driven national administration, ethnographic research like his was welcomed and taken seriously by politicians.

But Niederer also took matters into his own hands. Enlarging participant observation into anthropological intervention, he built, together with his wife, a small local museum, aiming to foster cultural development and to involve the local inhabitants in the future of their economy. A student of Niederer’s, Klaus Anderegg, contributed to the cultural development of another valley in the Valais, the Simplon region. There, he established an “ecomuseum” in the early 1990s to spur development and provide an economic alternative to the construction of yet another hydroelectric power plant. The concept of the ecomuseum was intended to make visible the historical interaction of human labor, climate, animals, and geography in a landscape.10 Its core was not a single museum building, but rather a number of “antennae” spread out over the whole area. The most important “antenna” was, in the case of Simplon, the Stockalperweg, a path named after the very rich Swiss merchant Kaspar Stockalper (1609–1691), who had built a route over the Simplon pass to Italy for his commercial endeavors. The Stockalperweg was restored and protected as part of the ecomuseum (fig. 2); it opened in 1991. The ecomuseum has since helped transform the area into a privileged destination for “historical” and “slow” tourism. Participant observation and its societal implications were, in these years, intensely debated in Anglo-American cultural anthropology on a broader scale, fueled at times by the demands and practices of social movements as well as critical investigations into the discipline’s colonial pasts11; practitioners argue about “applied,” “action,” or “public” anthropology to this day.  The links to economic development in the example of the “ecomuseum” suggests the importance of a historical perspective which takes into account the economic transformations during the last decades of the twentieth century.


Fig. 2: A sign explaining how the Stockalperweg changed through time. Note the logo “Ecomuseum Simplon.” Photo by the author, October 2023.
Fig. 2: A sign explaining how the Stockalperweg changed through time. Note the logo “Ecomuseum Simplon.” Photo by the author, October 2023.

This transformation—from research on migration and the problems of industrializing Europe’s agriculture, to regional identity and the development of cultural infrastructure and regional development “from below”—was not just a Swiss phenomenon, but a European one. Ethnographic research projects in France, Switzerland and both East and West Germany took place precisely in regions that were under political and economic pressure to “develop” in the postwar period.

From historians such as Matthias Schmelzer, Timothy Mitchell and Daniel Speich-Chassé we know that the paradigms of economic development and growth shaped the post-war period through new institutions such as the OECD (Schmelzer 2016; Mitchell 2014; Speich Chassé 2013). The comparison of regional and national economies relied on new statistical methods used for the calculation of GDPs, which inherently favored industrial over agricultural output. Agricultural areas were, in turn, model sites for traditional folklore investigations. What changed in the postwar situation is that these regions were exposed to hitherto unseen pressures of modernization, and that ethnographic research projects were accordingly shaped explicitly with regard to contemporary economic developments and policy.

If folklore scholars prior to the Second World War were interested in mapping cultural artefacts geographically and historically, in the 1950s and 1960s their work focused on the problem of so-called underdeveloped areas. In a peripheral region of Baden-Württemberg in the 1950s, for example, rapidly growing industry led to a huge number of new settlements built amidst highways, power lines, and other infrastructure. In the French Massif Central, highland shepherds disappeared because they could not compete with industrial agriculture, leading to precipitous depopulation. Instead of seeing folk cultures as static relics of a distant past, European anthropologists in the postwar period turned their attention to the interaction between industrialization and rural culture. In the process, they began to uncover processes of cultural adaptation and transition, in which supposedly “traditional” folk life was confronted with features of the modern technical world. In research on the key subject of migration, practitioners of European Anthropology presupposed a sharp distinction between industrialized and non-industrialized labor cultures, thus explaining political problems and challenges as resulting from processes of adaptation.

But even when the anthropologists affirmed the need for economic development, and hence adopted the modernization imperative of the 1950s and 1960s, they remained ambivalent about the specific losses that such processes entailed. European anthropologists highly valued those economies that, under industrialization, were supposed to disappear; documenting their objects, peoples, and landscapes, and articulating the histories of these nearly vanished regional cultures. “Culture” thus gained a new meaning: it came to signify labor- and production-related aspects of the life of the inhabitants of underdeveloped areas.12

In a related development, European anthropologists increasingly reflected on their epistemic status vis-à-vis the local inhabitants. There emerged a qualitative empirical research approach to popular culture, in which researchers combined and condensed ethnographic and historical practices into a ‘European’ participant observation. This form of participant observation was characterized by epistemic virtues such as trust, reciprocity, and interaction, which became the basis for participatory interventions. In the 1950s and 1960s, these ‘post-folklorist’ anthropologists did not yet work together with institutions related to economic development: rather, they produced knowledge about migration and translated it successfully for newspapers and the radio, in a few cases even serving as experts on political committees.13 In the process, ‘post-folklore’ knowledge of modernization became part of the public and political spheres. However, it was only later—fueled by other developments such as student protest movements, the rise of environmental concerns, and the 1970s oil crisis—that anthropologists proposed alternatives to industrial modes of modernization, and were listened to by politicians and planners. By producing knowledge about European regions as historical entities, they contributed to a culturally “saturated” economic development.

It was in these years that the knowledge-based cultural infrastructures that I encountered during my archival trips first emerged. Ethnographic research became a common feature of regional development during the 1980s, but also a source of critique of top-down development practices. The institutionalization of ‘post-folklore’ studies took place to an important extent outside the universities, in the booming cultural infrastructure of an economically unifying Europe. As a result, by the mid-1990s, cultural identity was a well-researched and economized aspect of central Europe, relying on ethnographic knowledge from the decades of modernization and industrialization after WWII. In other words, this research suggests that European Anthropology has played an increasingly active role in rural development.14

The history of European Anthropology can thus be connected to a bigger debate about culture in Europe today, as part of what Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre call the enrichment economy. Boltanksi and Esquerre show how, starting in the 1970s in Europe, (local) history became a resource for state- and industry-sponsored economic development, which in turn provided opportunities for the practical engagement of experts of regional culture and history – that is, for ‘post-folklorist’ anthropologists (Boltanski and Esquerre 2020). On the basis of the history of European Anthropology, one can go a step further to argue that these anthropologists actively contributed to shifting economic policies from industrial to cultural development.

Important parts of the cultural infrastructure that emerged in central Europe from the late 1970s onwards are saturated by ethnographic knowledge. The effects of this anthropological work are still visible, not only in the Swiss canton of Valais, but in many of the villages and small towns I visited for archival reasons in the last years. These places differ substantially from one another (some are smaller, others bigger, some more industrially shaped, others rural and remote). There is nothing very special about them, and they are probably unknown to the general reader: Ferden and Simplon in the Valais (fig. 1–2); Kleinwanzleben in (east) German Saxony-Anhalt (fig. 3–5); and Le Creusot in French Bourgogne (fig. 6-7), to name a few. Getting to the villages and towns was not hard, but it took time: I used regional trains, buses, or, in the case of Ferden, the postbus (a public-transit bus for remote areas).

Fig. 3: View from the bus, travelling through Magdeburger Börde in April 2023 (in the background: facilities of the company “Nordzucker AG”). Photo by the author.
Fig. 3: View from the bus, travelling through Magdeburger Börde in April 2023 (in the background: facilities of the company “Nordzucker AG”). Photo by the author.
Fig. 4-5: Monument to the sugar beet in Kleinwanzleben (above) and information board on the “Sweet Tour” through the Magdeburger Börde (below), April 2023. Photos by the author.

But it was during these archival trips that I increasingly realized that the current look and feel of the cities’ peripheries had to a great deal to do with the very histories of anthropological fieldwork I was researching. When I was walking through the east German village of Kleinwanzleben (in the Magdeburger Börde), for example, I was greeted with polished brick pavement and monuments to the rich past of the village – its sugar beet industry, the subject of the ethnographic field research back in the 1960s, which I had gone there to trace. In the French municipality of Le Creusot, a shopping center welcomed me in the city center, where a refurbished-looking street led me to the goal of my journey, the castle of the industrial Schneider family. Converted into an ethnographic ecomuseum in the 1970s, the Schneider castle is still part of the local cultural infrastructure today.

It thus occurred to me that my research was more revealing about these places than I had originally guessed. In these little-known villages and small towns, one indeed finds much more than archival material from European ethnological fieldwork. The way they look today and the ways in which they present themselves to both inhabitants and visitors has in fact been shaped by ethnographic knowledge, making them part of a new semi-urban, ethnographic European landscape.

Fig. 6–7: Esplanade des Hauts fourneaux and the Ecomuseum in Le Creusot, May 2023. Photos by the author.


To return to the continental distinction between “localist” and “exotic” anthropology addressed at the beginning of this text: in what sense did localist anthropology transform into a “European” Anthropology since the Second World War? Today, the academic landscape of sociocultural anthropology in Europe is more diverse than the specific case of local anthropology briefly narrated here. European Anthropology does interact with the sociocultural anthropology traditionally concerned with the “exotic,” extra-European fields15; moreover, institutes of European Ethnology have become host to Science and Technology Studies, which at times presents itself as contributing to an “anthropology of modernity.” European Ethnology has remained a comparatively small discipline (especially in France, at least in the universities), and though it has held great appeal for students, it did not produce best-selling anthropologists like Margaret Mead, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, or Anna Tsing.

But then, the perspective developed here would suggest that intellectual stardom or bookshelves of theory are not the places to look for the current state of the field, anyway. The knowledge of European Anthropology is not to be found primarily in books or lectures at research institutes and universities or in a general theory of European culture, but in the cultured landscapes and cultural infrastructures of Europe’s postbus peripheries.

Works Cited

Althabe, Gérard, Daniel Fabre, and Gérard Lenclud, eds. 2015. Vers une ethnologie du présent. Ethnologie de la France et des mondes contemporains. Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme. http://books.openedition.org/editionsmsh/3865.

Barrera-González, Andrés, Monica Heintz, and Anna Horolets, eds. 2017. European Anthropologies. Anthropology of Europe. New York: Berghahn.

Bendix, Regina. 1995. Amerikanische Folkloristik: eine Einführung. Ethnologische Paperbacks. Berlin: Reimer.

———. 1997. In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

———. 2018. Culture and Value: Tourism, Heritage, and Property. Indiana University Press.

Berger, Stefan, ed. 2020. Constructing Industrial Pasts: Heritage, Historical Culture and Identity in Regions Undergoing Structural Economic Transformation. Making Sense of History. New York: Berghahn. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781789202915.

Boltanski, Luc, and Arnaud Esquerre. 2020. Enrichment: A Critique of Commodities. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Eggmann, Sabine, Birgit Johler, Konrad J. Kuhn, and Magdalena Puchberger, eds. 2019. Orientieren & Positionieren Anknüpfen & Weitermachen: Wissensgeschichte der Volkskunde/Kulturwissenschaft in Europa nach 1945. Vol. 9. culture [kylty:r] Schweizer Beiträge zur Kulturwissenschaft. Münster: Waxmann.

Espahangizi, Kijan. 2019. “The ‘Sociologic’ of Postmigration: A Study in the Early History of Social Research on Migration and Integration in Switzerland, 1960–73.” In Switzerland and Migration: Historical and Current Perspectives on a Changing Landscape, edited by Barbara Lüthi and Damir Skenderovic, 33–59. Palgrave Studies in Migration History. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kuhn, K. J. 2015. “Europeanization as Strategy: Disciplinary Shifts in Switzerland and the Formation of European Ethnology.” Ethnologia Europaea 45 (1): 80–97.

Kuper, Adam. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. London: Routledge.

Laemmli, Whitney E. 2018. „The Living Record: Alan Lomax and the World Archive of Movement“. History of the Human Sciences 31, Nr. 5: 23–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695118804750.

Lenz, Risto. 2022. „Alan Lomax, the South, and the American Folk Music Revival, 1933-1969.“ Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang.

Lixfeld, Hannjost. 1994. Folklore and Fascism: The Reich Institude for German “Volkskunde.” Folklore Studies in Translation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lixfeld, Hannjost, and James R. Dow. 1994. The Nazification of an Academic Discipline: Folklore in the Third Reich. Folklore Studies in Translation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lixfeld, Hannjost, James R. Dow, and James R. Dow. 1986. German “Volkskunde”: A Decade of Theoretical Confrontation, Debate, and Reorientation (1967-1977). Folklore Studies in Translation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mitchell, Timothy. 2014. “Economentality: How the Future Entered Government.” Critical Inquiry 40 (4): 479–507. https://doi.org/10.1086/676417.

Moser, Johannes, Irene Götz, and Moritz Ege, eds. 2015. Zur Situation der Volkskunde 1945-1970: Orientierungen einer Wissenschaft zur Zeit des Kalten Krieges. Vol. Band 43. Münchner Beiträge zur Volkskunde. Münster: Waxmann.

Niederer, Arnold. 1956. “Gemeinwerk im Wallis: Bäuerliche Gemeinschaftsarbeit in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart.” Basel: Krebs.

———. 1965. “Kulturelle Probleme unserer Bergbevölkerung.” Schweizer Monatshefte: Zeitschrift Für Politik, Wirtschaft, Kultur 45 (3): 218–21.

———. 1967. “Unsere Fremdarbeiter – volkskundlich betrachtet.” Wirtschaftspolitische Mitteilungen 1 (13): 1–20.

Desvallées, André (ed.). 2000. “L’écomusée : rêve ou réalité.” Publics et musées. 17 (1). https://www.persee.fr/issue/pumus_1164-5385_2000_num_17_1.

Rhyner, Niki. 2020. “Alltag”. In Gegen|Wissen, edited by Max Stadler, Nils Güttler, Niki Rhyner (et al.), V/32-V/45. cache 01. Zurich: intercom. www.cache.ch/gegenwissen.

———. 2021. “Fremde Arbeit. Kulturelle Differenz, wirtschaftliche Entwicklung und die angewandten Sozial- und Geisteswissenschaften in der Schweiz um 1960.” traverse: Zeitschrift für Geschichte = Revue d’histoire. 28 (2): 136–49. https://doi.org/10.5169/seals-953618.

Schmelzer, Matthias. 2016. The Hegemony of Growth: The OECD and the Making of the Economic Growth Paradigm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scholze-Irrlitz, Leonore. 2020. Paradigma „Ländliche Gesellschaft“: ethnografische Skizzen zur Wissensgeschichte bis ins 21. Jahrhundert. Münster: Waxmann.

Speich Chassé, Daniel. 2013. Die Erfindung des Bruttosozialprodukts: globale Ungleichheit in der Wissensgeschichte der Ökonomie. Göttingen, Bristol: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Stein, Mary Beth. 2001. “Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl and the Scientific-Literary Formation of ‘Volkskunde.’” German Studies Review 24 (3): 487–512. https://doi.org/10.2307/1433412.

Tax, Sol. 1975. “Action Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 16 (4): 514–17.

Welz, Gisela. 2015. European Products: Making and Unmaking Heritage in Cyprus. New York: Berghahn.


  1. This article is based on my dissertation project on the history of ethnographic field research in Europe after World War II. I wish to thank Nils Güttler, Eric Hounshell, Carolyn Kerchof, John Tresch, Matthew Vollgraff, as well as the editors of HAR’s “Field Notes” for their comments and copyediting as well as my PhD supervisor Michael Hagner. My research is funded by ETH Research Grant ETH-14 20-1 (2020–2024). ↩︎
  2. Scholars in German-speaking countries often refer to the “Vielnamenfach” (“discipline of many names”) to avoid lengthy numerations. ↩︎
  3. Volkskunde and Arts et Traditions Populaires each designated a range of activities, but the purpose here is to draw a more general characterization. I focus here on French and German-speaking European countries because of the particularly tight research network between these countries after World War II. In both regions, there was a push for a deepened disciplinary history in the last 20 years, see for example Moser, Götz, and Ege (2015); Eggmann et al. (2019); Scholze-Irrlitz (2020); Althabe, Fabre, and Lenclud (2015). ↩︎
  4. For the most famous German Volkskunde scholar in the 19th century, Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, see e.g. Stein (2001). ↩︎
  5. The concern with the “lower classes,” in the US, instead became the domain of early (urban) sociology. ↩︎
  6. In the second half of the 20th century, there were attempts to connect European Volkskunde and US-American folklore studies (Lixfeld, Dow, and Dow 1986; Bendix 1997; 1995). A prominent example of US-American folklore research is Alan Lomax’ study and collection of non-Indigenous North American cultural materials, and the Association for Cultural Equity (Laemmli 2018, Lenz 2022). ↩︎
  7. In German-speaking countries, this push for disciplinary transformation was particularly pronounced due to the collaboration of Volkskunde in National Socialism (Lixfeld and Dow 1994; Lixfeld 1994). ↩︎
  8. I develop this argument in my ongoing dissertation on the history of “European Anthropologies,” https://wiss.ethz.ch/en/projects/current-research-projects/projects-rhyner.html. ↩︎
  9. Niederer is not perceived as the most ‘innovative’ or ‘progressive’ Volkskunde scholar in his discipline today, and it is not my aim to prove him to be exactly this. Rather, I want to highlight the developments that encompassed Niederer as well as more prominent figures like, for example, Hermann Bausinger (whom the discipline’s history has established as the leading reformer). On Arnold Niederer as an actor in the Europeanization of the discipline see Kuhn (2015). ↩︎
  10. The concept of the ecomuseum originated in France and is associated with the founder of the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires, Georges-Henri Rivière. See Desvallées (2000). ↩︎
  11. One example is Sol Tax’ call for “action anthropology” (Tax 1975). For a historical contribution see Kuper (1988). These debates influenced anthropological disciplines in Europe: One example of activist participant observation is documented (in German) in https://cache.ch/gegenwissen/nofuture/alltag/imfeld (Rhyner 2020). ↩︎
  12. Niederer, for example, built on his thesis on communal work in an alpine valley to explain “cultural problems” in mountain areas during industrialization (Niederer 1956; 1965). In 1960s France, the Aubrac region and its culture were documented in a fieldwork project led by Georges-Henri Rivière (Musée des arts et traditions populaires, Paris), with a prominent focus on the (disappearing) work life of Aubrac’s shepherds and their cattle (published in 8 volumes between 1970 and 1986). ↩︎
  13. Swiss folklorists/anthropologists Richard Weiss, Arnold Niederer and Rudolf Braun (who later abandoned Volkskunde and became a prominent social and economic historian) all contributed to the production and dissemination of migration knowledge in the public sphere in the 1960s, when migration became highly politicized, resulting in a national referendum in 1970. Niederer in particular published lots of articles in Swiss newspapers and journals, e.g. Niederer (1967). Weiss and Niederer both served as experts in political committees, see Espahangizi (2019); Rhyner (2021). ↩︎
  14. While culture and heritage as part of European economies have been subject to recent scholarship, the role of knowledge has so far been mostly overlooked. Welz’s anthropology of Europeanization (2015) speaks more broadly about experts of “past presencing”. See also Bendix (2018); Berger (2020). ↩︎
  15. See for a joint history of “nation building and empire building anthropologies” (Barrera-González, Heintz, and Horolets 2017). ↩︎


  1. What I object here is this general notion of “European” anthropology pertaining only to the German and French traditions and conveniently overlooking South and East European ethnology – shaped in many ways by the volkskunde/volkerkunde distinction and the German traditions but also other influences that have never the less developed separate from folkloristics and are often today merged with “cultural anthropology” but hold particular distinctions depending on the country.

    • Hi Jelena, Thanks for the comment– Could you perhaps post a few references to essays, books, or even authors/schools/institutions (especially on the volkskunde/volkerkunde distinction) to help some of us who are more removed from these debates? Thank you!

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