A Proposal for Integrating Folklore and Affect Control Theory


Tara M. Dunphy
University of Waterloo

Neil J. MacKinnon Department of Sociology and Anthropology

University of Guelph


As a substantive area, folklore encompasses many divergent phenomena. Folklore theorists have attempted to honor the social, dynamic, and linguistic nature of folklore. Unfortunately, previous attempts to critically account for individual and social meanings of folklore have been inadequate. Further, folklore theorists have not been able to develop an empirical measurement strategy for their cause. Affect control theory is able to incorporate the substantive area of folklore both theoretically and methodologically. This paper proposes such integration, in practical terms.

Keywords: Folklore, affect control theory, cultural sentiments

This paper proposes to integrate ACT with the substantive area of folklore. Although North Americans are reluctant to admit it, superstition, myth, and folklore exist alongside science within contemporary culture (Jahoda 1969). Folklore has an extensive history and, as evidenced by net-lore and fax-lore, has adapted to new mediums of communication.1 However, past studies of folklore have been unsuccessful in revealing the simultaneous meanings of folklore at the individual and social levels. Affect Control Theory (ACT) (Heise 1979; Heise and Smith-Lovin 1988; MacKinnon 1994) has the potential to provide insight into the meaning of folklore and rectify analytical and empirical issues faced by folklore theorists. In addition, its measurement procedures and computer simulations provide folklore with a mathematical measurement strategy.

Folklore: An Overview

Before we can understand how and why the substantive area of folklore can benefit from ACT, one must first understand the depth and history of this tradition. Folklorists have studied oral and written transmission of ancient myths, stories of ancient and exotic cultures, modern urban legends (Degh 1991), ballads, narratives, fairytales, union songs (McCarl 1986), and campfire stories (Mechling 1980).2 The ubiquity of folklore creates definitions of folklore that are diverse and inconsistent. Folklore translates to “the learning of the people” (Burne 1967[1913]: 1). The inclusion of “folk” reveals that human participants are central to folklore. Since folklorists have difficulty defining the scope of their field, we will define folklore as any story, custom, or tradition related to other members of a group through language. Thus, folklore exists within a social context.

Unfortunately, folklore theorists have neglected the dynamic aspects of folklore and favored the collection and study of stories in printed form, which divorces folktales from social interaction. Originally, folklore theorists limited themselves to the collection and salvage of stories or “survivals” from other cultures (Dundes 1975a; Dorson 1972). The initial goal of folklore researchers was limited to collecting artifacts from the past in order to understand modernity (Dundes 1975b).

Unfortunately, historical reconstruction promoted the ethnocentric notion that non-European cultures were “primitive” and that insight into their ethos via folklore could illuminate the path to European civilizations (Dorson 1972). Discontent with this approach developed on two fronts. First, the political climate changed and promoted cultural relativism over evolutionary anthropology (Dorson 1972). Second, folklorists sought to acknowledge the social context of folklore. Thus, folklore researchers incorporated the social aspect of folklore by attempting to understand the meaning of folklore for those who use it.

Attempts at understanding meanings of folklore have varied. Originally, folklorists attempted to find meaning through reoccurring patterns among various tales. By categorizing folklore into typologies, distinguishing ballads from myths or legends from narratives, they aspired to reveal underlying meanings or archetypes. While this practice successfully served to classify content of folktales into types, it did not reveal the meaning that folklore has to individuals within a culture (Burne 1967[1913]). In effect, classification addressed universal attributes of folklore, while disregarding social, cultural, and individual aspects. Classification treated folklore as something that had already happened, rather than view it as a contemporary social process. Consequently, the classificatory method failed to provide insight into the meanings associated with tales.

In addressing the social nature and meanings of folklore, anthropologists moved beyond classification. Malinowski (1954) proposed that myth has meaning for those who use it. Specifically, he argued that myths and magic are rational on individual and societal levels, as they serve important functions in explaining the unknown or unfamiliar. Alternatively, Radcliffe-Brown (1965) proposed that magic creates anxiety (Albas and Albas 1996). Neither Radcliffe-Brown’s proposition nor Malinowki’s assertion are universally true. Both views co-exist, as folklore may reduce or increase fears depending on whether the content of a tale is prescriptive or proscriptive (Homans 1941). The functional approach does not provide an objective method nor does it tap the emic 3 meanings of folklore.

To address this deficit, Levi-Strauss (1963) sought an objective method for the study of folklore. He explored the universal structures of myth to reveal their relations to the social structure. For Levi-Strauss, cultures express structural relationships through binary oppositions, such as raw/cooked, male/female, or edible/inedible (Levi-Strauss 1963). He believed that by concentrating on the overall structure of myths and reducing them to their smallest components (myththemes), the “grammar” of the myth could be determined, which would reveal sets of relationships at one particular time (diachronic) and over the course of a culture’s history (synchronic) (Levi-Strauss 1963). While his approach provided context to classification, the “rules” used for decomposition were subjectively applied. While Levi-Strauss does provide a method for structural analysis, he does not provide an objective method of choosing myththemes or determining the choice of binary oppositions. Thus, Levi-Strauss provided the impetus to look at structural relations, but his method does not provide insight into what the meaning of these relationships are for individuals within a culture nor does it provide an objective method. Without accounting for individuals, structural approaches, like his, do not explain changes that are initiated by micro-level elements. Thus, structural theories are prone to weakened predictive power where microelements are capable of generating structural change (Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin 1994).

As the discussion of Levi-Strauss, Radcliffe-Brown, and Malinowski demonstrates, folklore has suffered from analytical and empirical problems. Specifically, folklore has lacked an objective method and has failed to simultaneously address micro and macro elements. The addition of a multi-level theory could clarify empirical issues within the field (Markovsky 1996), add predictive and explanatory power (Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin 1994; Lawler, Ridgeway, and Markovsky 1993), and account for the dynamic nature of social interaction.

By applying Durkheim’s (1966[1938]) concept social facts to the study of folklore, folklore theorists establish a link between the meaning of folklore on an individual and social level, thereby mitigating a deficiency of Levi-Strauss’s approach. Durkheim’s concept of a social fact appropriately describes folklore. For Durkheim, the essential features of social facts include externality and constraint. From a Durkheimian perspective, folklore exhibits the characteristics of a social fact; it existed before and will exist after any specific individual, although its forms may change. Since folklore contains prescriptions of behavior or descriptions of sanctions to deviants, it provides individuals with knowledge about cultural expectations. Individuals can use this knowledge to act in a manner consistent with cultural expectations and therefore avoid sanctions. Thus, folklore constrains the actions of individual members of a society and can influence patterns of thinking. Finally, folklore is collective. Individuals jointly participate in folklore, by telling it, remembering it, or listening to it. Moreover, the collective expression of folklore perpetuates blueprints for normative behavior, by expressing the shared values of a thought community.4 Thus, folklore fits the last criteria of Durkheim’s definition.

Like Durkheim’s work, Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) seminal work The Social Construction of Reality provides insight into the meaning of folklore. By refining the concept of symbolic universes, Berger and Luckmann (1966), like Durkheim, accomplish what Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown did not; they integrate meaning at both individual and social levels. According to Berger and Luckmann (1966: 88), symbolic universes are “processes of significance that refer to realities other than those of everyday experience” and are “constructed by means of social objectifications.” From this perspective, humans are social actors who actively create and participate in their social world. Symbolic universes account for the dynamic nature of interaction and incorporate past, present, and future accounts of the social universe. Through institutualization, legitimation, and internalization, individual “social facts” become objectified and symbols gain meaning. Thus, symbols have widely shared meanings and are used by individuals in their everyday lives. Since folklore is symbolic, it has meaning on the micro and macro levels. Therefore, a multi-level approach is required if one wants a general (Markovsky 1996), predictive, and potent explanatory and predictive tool to study folklore (Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin 1994).

Berger and Luckmann’s concept of symbolic universes allows researchers to focus on meanings of those who use folklore and mythology. By accounting for the meaning of folktales for those who use them, researchers treat this meaning within the thought community as “truthful,” yet focus on the functional nature of this symbolic universe from an etic 5 perspective. Researchers can therefore appreciate the depth of the meaning to the entire thought community and attempt to understand how pervasive or peripheral a story is to the ethos of a thought community. In European North American society, contemporary urban legends or friend-of-a-friend tales are believed to be true, albeit sometimes by the naïve audience. Thus, the status of a folktale as fact or fiction is related to the norms and values of an individual’s thought community and their overall conception of reality.

Berger and Luckmann draw not only from Durkheim but also from the interactionist thought of theorists who contributed to the development of symbolic interactionism, such as Mead and Weber. From the perspective of symbolic interactionism (Mead 1967[1934]; Blumer 1969), folklore is a collection of significant symbols. The defining elements of significant symbols are that their meanings exist apart from a specific context; they are universal and objective. Thus, significant symbols evoke similar responses in audiences and speakers, as the symbol has intersubjective meaning that is shared by members of the culture (Mead 1967[1934]). Folklore is a collection of significant symbols; folklore conveys the same meaning to self and other through intersubjective meaning producing universal and objective responses. Through the significant symbols of language, intersubjective meaning is created in everyday social life. By implication, since folklore is transmitted through language, folklore is an intersubjective phenomenon by definition.

Symbolic interaction interprets meanings of significant symbols and investigates their impact on the everyday behavior of the people who use them. By focusing on meaning, symbolic interactionism fills the first void left by Levi-Strauss. While traditional symbolic interactionism provides a solid theoretical foundation for folklore research, it does not provide a universal and objective basis for a “scientific” approach, the second void left by Levi-Strauss. Thus, previous attempts to develop an objective method for the study of folklore have been disappointing. Consequently, we turn to a discussion of how ACT formalizes folklore and attempts to resolve internal divisions within this substantive area.

Affect Control Theory and Operationalization

While symbolic interactionism serves as the foundation for affect control theory, ACT elaborates upon symbolic interactionism and provides a mathematical method for studying identities, behaviors, and situations. Affect control theory acknowledges cognitive and emotional components of human interaction. ACT is premised in language and control. Like Mead, affect control theorists argue that language is an objective symbolic system (MacKinnon 1997). Thus, language is a universal medium to investigate social phenomena, as it evokes similar responses for all those who share the same language (MacKinnon 1997). Further, language is the medium through which social cognitions of actors are expressed and processed (MacKinnon 1994).

ACT argues that individuals react affectively to every situation and that individuals attempt to experience events in a manner consistent with fundamental sentiments. When transient impressions are not congruent with fundamental sentiments, people experience deflection (MacKinnon 1994). When differences between fundamental and transient sentiments are large, individuals attempt to adjust transient impressions through restorative action or by redefining the situation, behavior, or identity that prompted inconsistency (MacKinnon 1994). Human behavior and thought are characterized by cybernetic control, where sentiments and behavior become redefined or altered through affective interpretation. Thus, ACT views humans as “meaning-maintainers” (Heise 2000).

In comparison to traditional symbolic interactionism and other theories that have attempted to investigate folklore, the Indiana school of symbolic interactionism acknowledges that meanings are situationally negotiated (Schneider 2002: 5). Moreover, the Indiana school “integrates culture structure and social structure as the main determinants of human behavior” (Schneider 2002: 6). ACT is a development of the Indiana school and provides “symbolic interactionist theory with [a] rigorous mathematical formalization” (Schneider 2002: 6). Based on cross cultural research by Osgood, May, and Miron (1975), ACT uses EPA semantic differential scales to obtain dimensions of affective response for situations, behaviors, identities, and concepts. The first dimension, Evaluation (E), is a normative assessment of a stimulus as being either good/nice or bad/awful. Potency (P) is an appraisal of a stimulus as possessing or lacking power. Finally, Activity (A) is a rating of a stimulus as being slow, old, and quiet or fast, young, and noisy. EPA values are obtained by presenting a stimulus (an identity, trait, behavior, or another stimulus) above three stacked semantic differential scales. Each scale is flanked by a set of qualifying adjectives. Ratings from individuals are aggregated to provide an estimate of cultural sentiments for each concept. Each dimension has correlates at the sociological level: evaluation to status (Kemper 1978), potency to power (Kemper and Collins 1990), and activity to intensity of social interaction (Collins 1990; see also MacKinnon 1994). Therefore, ACT fills the empirical void in folklore studies.

Integrating Act and Folklore

Since ACT is rooted in symbolic interactionism and since symbolic interactionism underscores the social and dynamic elements necessary to folklore, ACT is aptly suited to study folklore. ACT maintains folklore’s emphasis on process, meaning, linguistics, and symbols. While ACT may not directly study folklore-in-process as ethnographers, the mathematical models of ACT can predict likely responses to folklore and highlight the fundamental sentiments expressed by folklore. Second, both ACT and folklore require language. Third, ACT addresses folklore’s need for interpretation at both the individual and social levels. Computer analysis of ABOS (Actor, Behavior, Object, Setting) events can generate meanings from the perspective of actors and observers of such events (Heise and Lewis 1988). Fourth, symbols are shared social cognitions, which evoke cognitive meaning and affective associations. Therefore, folklore symbols retain and express both cognitive and affective meanings. Last, ACT provides the unique opportunity to treat otherwise “fictional” concepts and identities as “real.” Computer simulations with Interact (Heise and Lewis 1988; Heise 1988-1993) can place mythical creatures alongside corporeal ones. Thus, ACT is able to test the assertion that “if men [sic] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas 1951: 21); beliefs can influence or correlate with action. Within the confines of ACT, belief and action are equally important. Thus, ACT provides a mechanism to predict the behavioral consequences of belief structures expressed within a folktale.

Moreover, ACT is capable of providing folklore with an objective method, which adheres to the nature of social interaction. As a “generative” theory (Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin 1994), ACT provides researchers with a multi-level approach that has predictive power. Rather than simply describing meaning, ACT measures it. EPA scales are premised in language and emphasize inter-subjective meanings. EPA scales retain affective and cognitive tones associated with concepts, while providing a universal and quantitative measure of folklore symbols, identities, and concepts. Moreover, ACT’s methodology provides a mechanism to predict behavioral consequences. As a method and as a theory, ACT preserves the nature of folklore and addresses the significance of folklore in daily interaction.

Uses of Act in the Study of Folklore

ACT is uniquely suited to study folklore; it can incorporate folklore in various ways. First, EPA profiles provide a powerful method for assessing meanings of folklore concepts. EPA profiles for folklore concepts can be collected through ethnographic research or existing concepts can be extracted from archived folklore and subsequently rated by a thought community. The resultant EPA profiles could be used in computer simulations or event frame analysis.

Computer software used by ACT does not deny the qualitative or dynamic nature of folklore (Heise 1988). Computer simulations not only provide novel ways to study traditionally qualitative fields (Heise 1988), they also allow mythical or ethereal characters to interact with corporeal ones. Mythical characters represent corporeal identities with similar EPA profile ratings, as illustrated by Heise and Lewis’s (1988-1993) simulation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Their simulation demonstrates how an individual is likely to interact with a bad, powerful, and extremely un-lively identity, such as Dracula. Alternatively, mythical characters may represent other corporeal identities. In his analysis of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, Heise (1988) demonstrates probable acts for characters in interaction, such as a granddaughter interacting with a grandmother. The analysis of Little Red Riding Hood demonstrates how to deconstruct a story into component parts or computer analyzable events.

Similarly, contemporary urban legends can reveal prescriptive and proscriptive meanings to corporeal identities within the tale. For instance, the urban legend, Killer in the Backseat, portrays a Good Samaritan who warns a female driver about a killer lurking in the backseat of her car. Although it appears in various forms, there are several common threads to this urban legend. The most significant element to this tale is gender, as the “victim” is always a woman (Emery 2002). An analysis of this tale could reveal whether or not her behavior is socially appropriate for the situation and thereby demonstrate that the tale has meaning to everyday social interaction. As a result, such simulations can reveal the influence of stories on individual behavior and assess whether they express collective expectations of given identities. Additionally, one could use the story of Killer in the Backseat to assess fundamental sentiments about gender. The same story could be simulated with a male protagonist to assess how a male would be viewed in this situation as compared to a female.

Computer simulations allow mythical identities to have meanings and norms as autonomous entities. While the tale of Little Red Riding Hood demonstrates that folklore is premised in cultural sentiments, mythical identities may also be autonomous. In other words, some mythical identities may gain their EPA meaning independent of their relationship to a specific tale. EPA profiles could track changes over time or across cultures to assess the relative independence of such mythical identities. Thus, EPA profiles and computer simulations allow collective sentiments and their various manifestations to be studied directly.

Finally, cross-cultural and temporal analysis allows the comparison of meaning, rather than simply structure. The identity of “Vampire” has demonstrated its malleability. At the turn of the 19 th century, “vampire” was most closely associated with Bram Stoker’s solitary version, but the identity came to take on a collective nature in the latter half of the century with the novels of Anne Rice and popular TV shows, such as Buffy and Angel (Cavallaro 1997). With the advent of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, a mythical creature that “feeds on blood” could certainly serve as a social barometer of this phenomenon.

Overall, ACT is useful as both a theoretical base and as a methodological tool. ACT goes beyond an individual psychological approach and incorporates a micro-macro link; it provides a framework for interpreting folklore as inter-subjective meanings and is a means to assess the impact of these meanings on individuals. ACT and EPA provide the necessary apparatus to test these theories. ACT can generate new problems or areas of study. If a simulation reveals an unusual finding, folklorists can look for examples or explanation in cultures that use that tale. Alternatively, ACT is extendable to any new identities or situations that fieldwork may reveal. Therefore, feedback is possible between ACT and folklore.

ACT allows interpretivist approaches to be gauged empirically and allows qualitative research to inform EPA inventories. Since folklore is fluid and dynamic, it has lacked a concrete methodology and analytic framework. ACT can provide a universal method for interpreting the meanings of identities, traits, situations, and behavior, while respecting the nature of folklore. Thus, ACT incorporates meaning on both social and individual levels and provides an empirical method for the study of folklore.


The authors would like to thank the two reviewers for comments on a previous version of this paper.


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1. Cases of urban folklore have surfaced in emails and on websites. For instance, “the curse of Frankenchicken” has circulated in emails. This example of “net-lore” implies that Kentucky Fried Chicken (a fast food corporation) changed its name to KFC because it began using “genetically mutated” chickens. Folklore invades, pervades, evades, and endures (Emery 2000).

2. Folklore can also include non-verbal behaviors and material artifacts. However, since ACT is premised in language and this paper is an attempt to integrate folklore and ACT, we limit our discussion of folklore to oral or written transmission.

3. Emic describes an insider’s view of culture. The term was coined by Kenneth Pike (1967[1954, 1955, 1960]), but was not widely employed until Harris (1964) adopted the term for anthropologists.

4. Fleck (1979[1935]) was the first to develop the notion of “thought communities.”

5. Etic is the functional opposite of emic; it refers to the objectified and analyzed perspective of the researcher.

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