Focus on Societies

American Folklore Society

Since its naming and formation in the middle and late nineteenth century, the field of folklore studies has pioneered an inclusive view of culture and creativity in communities by examining expressive life across boundaries of time and distance.

Folklorists, using the core concepts of our field—including art, context, folk, genre, group, identity, performance, text, and tradition—work to understand the intersections of artfulness and the social world of everyday life, community-based creativity in a global economy, and both cultural communication and conflict within and across religious, geographic, and ethnic divides. We describe the relations of lay and expert knowledge in complex society and advocate for mutual understanding and respect within the world’s diverse cultural commons. Folklore and folklorists have also contributed unique intellectual insights to the creation, analysis, and evaluation of public policy.

The American Folklore Society (AFS) serves the field of folklore studies, comprised of people and institutions that study and communicate knowledge about folklore throughout the world. Our 2,000 members and subscribers are scholars, teachers, and libraries at colleges and universities; public humanists working in arts and cultural organizations; and community members involved in folklore work. Many of our members live and work in the US, but their interests in folklore stretch around the world, and today about one in every eight AFS members is from outside the US.

The humanities discipline that AFS serves is organized somewhat differently from most. A number of universities support centers, programs, and departments in folklore studies that offer undergraduate majors and minors, graduate degrees, or most often both, and whose faculty and students energize the field by creating their own approaches to scholarship, teaching, public service, and professional preparation. The majority of folklorists in academic life, though, work solo or in small teams across the range of humanities and social science departments at US universities, engaging in undergraduate and graduate teaching, research and publication, and service in our field and in those of their departmental homes.

Public Engagement

Most notably, in the last 45 years, folklorists—building upon the long history of public interest in our subject and of public engagement by our field—have built homes for their work in government arts and humanities agencies at all levels, in not-for-profit organizations devoted to public education about folklore, and in private consulting practice. These days, almost half of US folklorists, including an increasing number based at universities, work in this “public sector,” engaging with audiences of all ages and descriptions through public programs, including cultural tourism programs, festivals, museum exhibitions, and the development of curricula for K-12 school programs.

In the past 15 years, AFS has taken leadership roles in a number of national and international folklore studies initiatives. In partnership with other institutions in our field and others, we maintain several scholarly communications resources and tools, including the AFS Ethnographic Thesaurus (made possible through the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), the online Folklore Collections Database for information about the holdings of archival repositories in our field (supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities), the H-Folk listserv for international folklore scholarship, the folklore entries in the MLA International Bibliography, and the Open Folklore portal to open-access folklore studies scholarship available online, part of our larger scholarly communications partnership with Indiana University Libraries.

Since 2007, supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and other government and private funders in China and the United States, we have engaged in a number of collaborative projects with the China Folklore Society and with Chinese and US university departments and research centers, museums, and libraries: conferences, exchanges of early- and mid-career folklore scholars and public folklorists, publications, exhibitions, and professional development activities for museum professionals. We are in earlier stages of similar initiatives with institutions and people in Japan and Mexico, and we work regularly with sister folklore societies worldwide, such as the International Society for Folk Narrative Research and the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore.

In 2002, we began coordinating a program for the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, through which folklorists and oral historians have offered more than 400 community-based workshops on documenting the wartime experiences of US veterans; we now share that work, which has reached some 10,000 people, with our ACLS sister society, the Oral History Association. Finally, using support from the National Endowment for the Arts, for the last eight years we have assisted organizations and individuals in public folklore by enabling them to take advantage of helpful consultancies and professional development opportunities, all of which produce best-practice and case-study reports that we share openly online.


Our annual meeting is the largest single gathering of folklorists in the world and offers multiple opportunities for face-to-face communication and a growing online presence as well. Our flagship publication, the Journal of American Folklore, began in 1888 and is one of the oldest and most respected folklore journals in the world. It is now accompanied by a multimedia site for audio and visual documentation to supplement JAF articles and reviews. We also publish five other journals (Children’s Folklore Review, Digest, The Folklore Historian, Jewish Cultural Studies, and New Directions in Folklore) as well as the AFS Review newsletter and opinion/essay venue, embedded in the AFS website.

We issue position statements on a variety of cultural, educational, and professional issues, part of our ongoing advocacy for the work of folklorists, traditional artists and communities, and the appreciation of vibrant expressive life. We support the work of six committees and some 30 sections and discussion groups, and award prizes, travel stipends, and other forms of recognition and support for outstanding work in our field.

About AFS

Members of three groups made common cause by creating the AFS in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1888: scholars in then-developing humanities departments at colleges and universities, museum anthropologists, and private citizens with an interest in the subject. Today, the Society produces publications, meetings, and both print and web resources to support our members’ work to study, understand, and communicate about folklore, and to help them build professional and social networks inside and outside our field. AFS was admitted to the American Council of Learned Societies in 1945. The AFS has a membership base of 1,025 individual members. Ourprincipal publication, the Journal of American Folklore, is published by the University of Illinois Press. AFS is headquartered on the campus of Indiana University-Bloomington and receives support from the IU College of Arts and Sciences.

For more information on the American Folklore Society, visit

Excerpted from Learned Societies Beyond the Numbers: 2015.