Nationalism is the fertile soil to which many folklore traditions owe their emergence and presence in the modern world. However, as the history already showed us, problems surface when the term “folklore” and its social base “folk” is embedded in the modernist, contemporary contexts whereby, for instance, they become of use of political propaganda and for various many other political aims and ends, including racism. Since folk and folklore are often bound with nationalist contexts, therefore, a critical examination of the uses of “folk” in the Ottoman Empire and Turkish republic will provide fruitful insights.
Definitions and functions of folk, folklore, and folk culture as well as related terms, which sprung out of particular social and political contexts, were used in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, serving different social and political aims in different periods. One can date the interest in folklore to the end of the Ottoman Empire, when concepts such as “national language”, “motherland”, “folk”, “culture” and “civilization” came under scrutiny (Öztürkmen 2012, 306 ; Birkalan 1995, 8). The term halk, the Turkish word for “folk” was used as a guiding concept related to the nascent Turkish nationalism of the late nineteenth century ; the empire was in decline and a new state was about to be born. At this time, the Turkish term halk carried a similar meaning to German “Volk”. It referred to the nation and people, or better, the villagers, köylü, and the rural people in one (Birkalan 2000).
Despite these widening and changing meanings, however, a handful of folklorists in Turkey categorically and systematically examined these terms, their meanings, and scope in contemporary folklore studies (Kaya 2017 ; Ekici 1999 ; Çobanoğlu 2001 ; Birkalan 1995, 2001). Considering this pitfall, this introduction maps out the uses of folk vis-à-vis the intellectual and political contexts in different periods, starting with the Ottoman period and bringing them up to date.
This article is an introduction to five consecutive articles that focus on different periods and examine the changing contexts, meanings and usages of the term. An evaluation of the changing meanings of folk and its related bundle across different traditions helps contextualize the case in Turkey, offering insights into imperial, nation-building, and neoliberal economic-political contexts and beyond. This is particularly important, since we know that since the 19th century, folklore’s strong relation to nation-building, an imagined national past, and a nostalgic tradition “lay the foundation for an authentic national culture, true to the spiritual integrity of a people” (Baumann 1992, 31).
Perspectives from the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic (1850s and 1920s)
The first period under examination lies roughly between the 1850s and 1920s. It pays special attention to the emergence of amateur folklore collectors, literary critics, and national ideologues, who aimed to form a field of research in a multi-ethnic empire, which was later transformed into a nation state. This period saw the compilation of folklore materials and an examination of national identity, which allowed the creation of a unified narrative that would become the cornerstone of the newly founded nation state. Exploring this context is a crucial part of understanding the development of folklore studies in relation to political and scholarly developments both in Turkey and in Europe.
Republican Nationalism, the ‘Racial Paradigm’, and the Rise and Demise of Folklore at the Academia (The 1920s-1950s)
The second period, from the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 to the 1950s, is often referred to as the nation-building era (Öztürkmen 1993). This period is characterized by the emergence of ’Kemalist nationalism,’ which represented a synthesis of Turkish nationalism, secularism, positivist political theory, and 19th-century scientism with a strong emphasis on a territory-based ideology (Bayır 2013). The preceding chapter explores the key developments in the 1920s related to folk culture. This chapter further delves into the developments of the 1920s and extends the analysis to examine other changes that impacted the uses of folk. Of particular significance during this period are the confluences of ideas concerning folk culture, nationhood, and racial identity, both within the realm of politics and folklore, and that of anthropology. These intersections became increasingly conspicuous and also raised complex questions in Turkey, especially in light of their relationship to global developments in the 1930s.
It was in the 1930s and 1940s that folk became an issue of dispute during the political turmoil in the country, as certain scholars used it in conjunction with the idea of “race”. Besides this right-wing-inclined use of folk, halk was claimed by scholars who were inspired by the so-called “revolutionary” socialist ideologies. Bringing the concept of halk to the core of class ideologies that went beyond taking halk only as a building block of a nation, they sought to colour it with humanistic undertones. In this period, Turkey witnessed the rise and demise of a national discipline in academia, which was born out of humanistic ideals as opposed to taking folk merely as a romantic-nationalist concept and folklore merely as a field of collecting activity without any methodological approach. In this period the heightening nationalist discourses led to fascistic treatments of a handful of scholars and closure of the academic folklore department and other cultural institutions that spearheaded folklore activities. From another perspective, these decades present the difficult road in the formation of an academic field called folklore, and its development as a popular state-intervened activity whereby nationalism succeeded in establishing an indissoluble link to folklore studies.
Folklore under the Support of the Turkish State (1950s–1980s)
The significance of this period lies in the fact that while folklore studies in Western Europe adopted a transnational orientation, they maintained a national focus in Turkey. Particularly important are the developments after 1948, when the Turkish Folk Literature and Folklore Department at Ankara University, the only one in Turkey, was closed due to politically motivated persecution of academics, who were labelled “communist”, lost their positions, and left the country. Despite – or perhaps due to – the abolition of autonomous university training and research, folklore knowledge emerged in other contexts – in various milieus, formats, and venues – blurring the boundaries between academic/non-academic folklore and complicating folklore terminologies even more. One of the most important characteristics is the use of folklore to refer to folk dancing, which caused a narrow understanding of folklore outside academe. Besides, in this period, halk became everybody, as a populist understanding of the term determined folklore-related activities in Turkey. Moreover, the later part of this phase served as a fertilizer for academic folklore studies in the country, as the state-funded institutions generated an immense amount of synergy for collecting, publishing, and presenting folklore materials in journals and at congresses.
Folklore’s Return to Academia and the Widening of Folklore Departments and Programmes (1980s–1990s)
In this period, the very essence of halk underwent a transformation, while “folklore” enjoyed a resurgence within academia, flourishing through the establishment of dedicated departments and programmes, which operated under the nationalist paradigm of the era. Starting with the 1980s, academic uses of folklore returned to the stage, as the Department of Folklore at Ankara University was re-opened. However, it was closed after three months due to its chair’s sudden death. Its opening as an independent unit only came in 1993, with courses in diverse fields of folklore being offered and the uses of folk being taken to different domains. This trend became apparent in the increased academic interest in the field, as many universities offered courses, established other folklore department and implemented research projects dedicated to folklore, as well as organizing conferences and other scholarly events. This has helped to normalize the study of folklore and allowed for its greater acceptance in the wider academic community.
Transnational Entanglements and Convergences in Applied and Academic Perspectives (1990s to the Present)
Starting in the 1990s, several young researchers who came from diverse academic backgrounds and research agendas travelled to the USA to pursue doctoral degrees in folklore studies. They joined the folklore programmes in the US and saw the framework of the US folklore studies as both novel and desirable to understand the complexity of cultures in Turkey. As they engaged with more modern, emergent forms and genres of “traditional” folklore genres, they returned Turkey in the late 1990s. Taking up jobs in diverse departments including folklore, history, anthropology, political science, and cultural studies, they actively contributed to “interdisciplining” and “internationalizing” folklore (Birkalan-Gedik 2021, 117).
In the meantime, the 1990s presented crucial social and political transformations in Turkey, which posed challenges for folklore and folklorists. The newly established folklore departments at the Turkish universities, on the other hand, continued to follow “nativist” approaches and put folklore knowledge – after a 30-year hiatus out of academia – back into academic folklore studies. Furthermore, the UNESCO impact on intangible culture and the increasing European funding for folklore projects cannot be undermined, as they supported “national” cultures.
In the 1990s, the impact of works translated into Turkish, mostly from English, should be emphasized. Although the activity of translating folklore texts goes back almost a century, the translated texts on folklore in the 1990s kept up with the current theoretical and methodological discussions of the period and helped folklorists in Turkey to have access to the recent theoretical and methodological issues, particularly those discussed in folkloristics in the USA. The term folkloristics became fashionable in US folklore studies to refer to the “scientific” character of the discipline. Last but not least, newly opened folklore programmes emphasized the applied aspects of folklore, which in many folklore programmes, particularly in the USA, remained outside the academia. In Turkish academia, the applied and the academic were merged into folklore programmes where these two spheres operated next to one another.
This introductory essay endeavoured to show the entangled usages and meanings of folklore in different periods of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. These definitions and usages are the result of particular social and political contexts that have been used in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey and also on a global scale. Each usage of the term “folk” in different periods is rooted in nationalism ; however, they present us with shifting nuances.
In the first period (between the 1850s and the 1920s) folk became a significant glue for the amateur folklore collectors, literary critics and national ideologues, who aimed to form a field of research in a multi-ethnic empire. This was a romantic-nationalistic reaction and led to the initial steps of folklore research with the rural people but also the “the Turk”, which was singled out as the base of the new nation. The second period (from the 1930s to the 1950s) was the nation-building era and it was dominated by “Kemalist nationalism”, an ideology which at times stood in competition with other nationalisms. Thus, in this period, halk had the most ambivalent meanings and usages, ranging from the “nation” to people and to the peasants to be transformed into modern citizens. Also in this period, Kemalist nationalism’s focus was the folk in Anatolia, while for instance, the attention of the Turanists was directed towards the imagined links between Central Asia and Anatolia.
The significance of the period between the 1950s and the 1980s lies in the fact that while folklore studies in Europe adopted a transnational orientation, it kept a national focus in Turkey. Several usages of concepts such as folk, folklore, folk dance and folk culture were discussed, as folklore studies ceased to exist in the academia and became a field of practice directly under the Turkish state. Starting with the 1980s and well into the 1990s, academic uses of folklore returned to the academic stage, as the Department of Folklore at Ankara University was re-opened. The emergent perspectives in international folklore studies, mainly perspectives from the USA, also influenced the ways folklore was practised in academia in Turkey, not to mention the recent developments regarding tangible and intangible cultural heritage studies, which was transferred through UNESCO. The UNESCO chairs and applied folklore programmes that were opened in the 2000s are novel developments, as they had to re-think and revise the meanings and usages of folk.
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