The 1989 Recommendation Ten Years On: Towards a Critical Analysis
Anthony McCann
with James Early, Amy Horowitz, Richard Kurin,
Leslie Prosterman, Anthony Seeger, and Peter Seitel


The 1989 UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore represents an historic step in the formulation of cultural heritage policy, one that moves the global family of nations significantly closer to a convention on the important topic it addresses. Folklore and traditional culture play an important role in shaping the consciousness of a majority of the world’s population. They contribute immeasurably to the quality of life on our planet. Yet they often seem inimical to—and often suffer great injury from—the culture of the economy and technology that dominates the globe. The 1989 UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore addresses this universal problem and makes progress toward some remedies. The present commentary shares the intent of that document.

This critique is based on reports from regional conferences and on additional readings and consultations. It offers some criticisms of the 1989 document, proposes some revisions, and suggests actions that will move UNESCO closer the goals shared by the 1989 document and this one. At the most general level, it addresses these questions: Are the perspectives and methods articulated in the 1989 document still valid after ten years? How may they be improved for the work over the next decade in a way that will lead to an international convention on Folklore and Traditional Culture?

The Need to Expand the 1989 Recommendation

The principal critique of the 1989 document to be made is that it is too limited—not in its field of focus, which, as noted, this document shares, but in the way it defines the elements which compose that field of focus. In the interest of better informed, more effective governmental action, the present document proposes expanding the enumeration and description of groups that have a stake in creating, preserving, studying, and disseminating folklore and traditional culture. It also urges a more inclusive definition of folklore and traditional culture itself, one that includes not only artistic products like tales, songs, decorative designs, and traditional medicines but also the knowledge and values that enable their production, the living act that brings these products into existence, and the modes of interaction with which the products are appropriately received and appreciatively acknowledged. Finally, the critique will raise questions about particular points of terminology and interpretation in the 1989 document.

Specifying the Role of Folklore and Traditional Culture
(In the Preamble to the Recommendation)

With sharpening of focus, the important role that folklore and traditional culture play in the contemporary world can be better understood and addressed with public policy. But even more importantly, this keener perspective will help the family of nations to appreciate that the beauty and wisdom of folklore and traditional culture are produced by particular people, and without them would not exist. The policy to be developed and shaped into an international convention must be systematically informed by this fact: there can be no folklore without the folk, no traditional culture without living participants in a tradition. The well-being of these agents of creation—whose strength and numbers are threatened daily by well-known forces such as ethnic cleansing, economic marginalization, a global entertainment industry, and religious fundamentalism—must be placed at the center of international cultural policy.

The important role that folklore and traditional culture play in contemporary society needs to be specified in policy. They do nothing less than validate the social identities of citizens and empower them for creative problem-solving. Public recognition of these aesthetic achievements, philosophical visions, and ethical understandings helps mobilize the creative energies of individuals to engage in a dialogue about the present and future.

Folklore and traditional culture have positive roles to play in a wide range of social contexts, from fostering intergenerational communication and continuity to creating culturally resonant sounds and images adaptable for use in commerce and entertainment. Not to address the social worth of folklore and traditional culture and its creators, to leave them to be distorted or banished by political or economic forces, leads to a myriad of woes: from individual identities of youth shaped by transnational market forces rather than by locally relevant, community-based ideas; to local communities who are only cultural consumers, not producers—the detritus of history, rather than its makers. Not to address the social worth of folklore and its creators is to abandon the discourse of cultural heritage to its debasement by fomenters of ethnic conflict.

Expanding the Groups Addressed by the Recommendation
(In all of its parts)

The groups whose institutional activities are addressed by the 1989 document are primarily research scholars and government cultural workers. These must be expanded to include local groups of producers, non-governmental organizations, and various private-sector institutions in the culture industry whose business interests from research to marketing intersect with the activities of folklore and traditional culture.

The work of scholars and government cultural workers is addressed principally in the sections of the Recommendation that pertain to the study of folklore: identification of folklore (section B), conservation of folklore (section C). and international cooperation (section G) among state and scholarly organizations. The Recommendation should be expanded in this area to include the kinds of ethical protocols followed by members of many scholarly societies, such as those governing the giving of informed consent to be studied, maintaining secrecy of traditions and of particular sources of information where necessary, compensation for participation in research, and proper attribution of contributions to research. This resituates and expands the call for an international code of ethics for dealing with folk groups articulated in the 1989 Recommendation under Dissemination of Folklore, Section E (g).

The creators and sustainers of folk and traditional cultures are clearly the most important constituency to be considered in formulating policy, for without them there is no living folklore and the crucial role it plays at many points in society. Ways must be found of actively involving these local producers of folklore and traditional culture—whether organized into corporate enterprises or as individual practitioners—in the process of researching, framing, and implementing any UNESCO Recommendation that may become binding on member nations. They bring perspectives and have vested interests that are central to the issues involved.

The same can be said of the many NGOs whose practices regularly address the traditional cultures and folklore of local groups, usually for the purpose of devising and implementing plans for sustainable economic development. Many NGOs have extensive knowledge about the important role that traditional culture can play in education and development and about the intersection between local groups and global economic and cultural industries.

Many businesses today create wealth using the forms and materials of traditional cultures—local cooperatives that produce and market handmade crafts, industrial textile manufacturers that employ traditional designs, producers of audio recordings of traditional music, pharmaceutical manufacturers that use indigenous knowledge of healing plants, promoters of tourism, and entertainment conglomerates that employ various forms of ethnic representations for motion pictures, amusement theme parks, and children’s toys. This large commercial sector has developed ways of dealing with folklore and traditional culture that affect their production, dissemination, and preservation. These institutions must also, therefore, be brought into the process of devising and implementing policy in this area.

In general, the Recommendation needs to address the market as an important factor in the evolution of folklore and traditional culture. Regulation of market forces—already instituted in a great many other areas—may be needed to assure the continued health of folklore and traditional culture. The creators and perpetuators of folklore and traditional culture may need protection from market forces and/or support for alternate forms of exchange if that is their desire; or they may need help in devising ways to participate in the market, if that is their desire. The choice of protection or participation is perhaps nowhere as problematic as in the area of tourism, which can bring benefits to local communities if they can participate with some degree of control and share in income generated, but which can also have negative, culturally destructive side effects.

Expanding and Sharpening the Definition of folklore
(In Section A of the Recommendation)

Another point of expansion needed to fully address the important role of folklore and traditional culture is their definition. Among academic folklorists, this definition has undergone a paradigmatic shift from one based on the individual items of folklore (tales, songs, decorative designs, and traditional beliefs and medicines) to a more inclusive one based on the event of creation or recreation as a social act. The current academic definition of folklore is based on that act, on the knowledge and values that enable it, and on the modes of social exchange in which it is embedded. Folklore is not only the song, but also the stylistic, compositional, and symbolic knowledge that practitioners exercise in its creation and the event it is performed at, which affects its selection, style, and significance. This expanded operational definition has proved to be most productive in research into the many dimensions of meaning expressed in a particular instance of folklore performance and in critical understanding of the relationship between folklore and other social sciences such as linguistics, anthropology, and history. Understanding folklore as social activity rather than as items also articulates the connection between the preservation of folklore and the cultural dimensions of human rights concerns.

To the other social groups who also have a stake in folklore and traditional culture, a definition based on the act of creation or recreation, its antecedent knowledge and value, and its historical context of performance is also more productive of meaningful insight and action. The information specified by this definition is necessary to understand the connection, for example, between folklore, on the one hand, and, on the other, shared cultural identity, philosophical vision, ethical understanding, and aesthetic achievement. These aspects of shared knowledge are bases for social value and collective action. Seen in the perspective of this broader definition, the problem of preserving folklore for its important social role is clearly situated within the historical context of local communities. Recommendations and policies about folklore and traditional culture must address the realities of that context and the institutional practices of all the groups that affect its condition and existence.

It is felt that some terms are used in the 1989 Recommendation to name aspects of folklore and traditional culture in ways that embed them in practices prejudicial to their continued existence. Principal among the questioned terms is "intangible cultural heritage" itself. To be sure, the term makes sense within the administrative logic of UNESCO, where it is theoretically equal and opposite to "tangible cultural heritage." But it is strongly felt that describing folklore and traditional culture as "intangible" weakens its assessed worth. The term does not define folklore in a way that implicates the significance of its social role. The phrase "community-based culture" applied to folklore, for example, implies shared values and resources for collective action. The term “intangible” also encourages the use of models for understanding and action drawn from policies that address “tangible” heritage, thus reinforcing the notion of folklore as items rather than as social activity.

It is also felt that "intangible" weakens the status of folklore and traditional culture in legal practice and, hence, lessens the possibility of protecting it with tools such as copyright. In a similar mode, an objection was also made to calling folklore part of the "universal heritage" of humankind. While the intent of this terminology may be to valorize folklore, its effect could be construed as placing folklore within "public domain" and hence not subject to protection by copyright.

The use of the metaphorical adjective "fragile" to describe folklore and traditional culture was also felt to obscure the referent and place it in a misleading field of understanding. The intention of using this descriptor is clearly to indicate the existence of a problem in need of solution. But fragility is the internal quality of an independent object or thing, and, as we have seen, folklore is a kind of knowledge and social action embedded in an historical context. It was strongly felt that words like "marginalized" and "disempowered" were better descriptors of the plight facing traditions and their practitioners, because they envision folklore and the danger to it as parts of the wider world of relationships that engender its plight.

In the same conceptual vein, the use of the subordinating conjunction that begins Section F, Protection of Folklore, was questioned. In this passage, "In so far as folklore constitutes manifestations of intellectual creativity whether it be individual or collective, it deserves to be protected in a manner inspired by the protection provided for intellectual productions." "In so far as" means "to the extent that" (not "because"), and its use implies that there is some folklore and traditional culture that is not the result of individual or collective creativity, and, thus, not subject to legal protection. All folklore can be attributed to individual and/or collective creativity, so that the "in so far as" should be changed to "because."

Expanding and Sharpening the Definition of Folk Group
(In all parts of the Recommendation)

Another point of expansion of the 1989 document is the definition of the folk group itself, the social entity that creates and sustains folklore. While it is nowhere specified in that document, one could assume from reading the Recommendation that it envisions a dangerous nineteenth-century idealization of "one nation, one ethnicity." The overwhelming majority of nations contain many ethnicities, a cultural diversity that assumes even greater complexity because of transnational relationships between ethnicities located in different nations. This cultural complexity, and the way folklore and traditional culture are embedded within it, needs to be addressed by UNESCO policy.

Further, ethnicities are only one of the kinds of groups that create and perpetuate folklore. Others include, but are not limited to, indigenous (or tribal) peoples, religious groups, and occupational groups. The folklore and traditional culture of each of these groups plays important roles both within the group and for the nation within which the group is located. But the varying structure of the groups makes their problems and the possible remedies for them quite different from one another. These and other kinds of folk groups need to be recognized in the UNESCO Recommendation so that their cultural needs can be assessed and appropriate policies developed.

Democratic Expansion of Roles
(In all parts of the Recommendation)

A final point of expansion is in the roles that are to be played by the different parties to the policy. Access to those roles needs to be democratically expanded. The roles of educator and disseminator, for example, should not be assumed to be reserved for scholars. The creators and perpetuators of folklore and traditional culture must have access to those roles as well. Devising policy about the dissemination of folklore should also address the need for greater access for the creators and perpetuators of folklore to the technical and institutional means of dissemination. In education, creators and perpetuators of folklore should be included in all aspects of curriculum development and teaching, not merely relegated to the role of providers of cultural materials to be structured, presented, and interpreted by others.

Under the auspices of UNESCO, and using all the methods and channels of communication open to the member nations, the parties to the policy recommendations—practitioners, scholars, government cultural workers, cultural entrepreneurs, and NGOs—should form a network for the exchange of information and opinion. Such a consultative body could address the subtleties of and offer solutions for local, national, and international issues in the field of folklore and traditional culture. It could also develop the agenda for a UNESCO convention on folklore and traditional culture.