Before the term folkloristics can be fully understood, it is necessary to understand that the terms folk and lore are defined in many different ways. While some use the word folk to mean only peasants or remote cultures, the folklorist Alan Dundes (1934–2005) of the University of California at Berkeley calls this definition a “misguided and narrow concept of the folk as the illiterate in a literate society” (Devolutionary Premise, 13).
Shortly before his death, Dundes was interviewed by filmmaker Brian Flemming for his documentary, The God Who Wasn't There. He prominently recounted Lord Raglan's 22-point scale from his 1936 book The Hero, in which he ranks figures possessing similar Divine attributions. An extended interview is on the DVD version of the documentary.
Dundes is often credited with the promotion of folkloristics as a term denoting a specific field of academic study and applies instead what he calls a “modern” flexible social definition for folk: two or more persons who have any trait in Common and express their shared identity through traditions. Dundes explains this point best in his essay, The Devolutionary Premise in Folklore Theory (1969):
Another implication of this broader defining of the term folk, according to Dundes, is that folkloristic work is interpretative and scientific rather than descriptive or devoted solely to folklore preservation. In the 1978 collection of his academic work, Essays in Folkloristics, Dundes declares in his preface, “Folkloristics is the scientific study of folklore just as linguistics is the scientific study of language. [. . .] It implies a rigorous intellectual discipline with some attempt to apply theory and method to the materials of folklore” (vii). In other words, Dundes advocates the use of folkloristics as the preferred term for the academic discipline devoted to the study of folklore.
However, of all his articles, the one that earned him death threats was "Into the Endzone for a Touchdown", an exploration via psychoanalysis of what he contended was the homoerotic subtext inherent in the terminology and rituals surrounding American football. In 1980, Dundes was invited to give the presidential address at the American Folklore Society annual meeting. His presentation, later published as a monograph titled "Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder", uses folkspeech, customs, material culture, and so forth seeking to demonstrate an anal-erotic fixation of German national character. Reaction to this paper was incredibly strong and because of it, Dundes declined to attend the AFS annual meeting for the next 20 years. When he finally did attend again, in 2004, he again gave a plenary address, this time taking his fellow Folklorists to task for being weak on theory. In his opinion, the presentation of data, no matter how thorough, is useless without the development and application of theory to that data. It is not enough to simply collect, one must do something with what one has collected. In 2012, Linguist Anatol Stefanowitsch credited Dundes with having given rise to a still prevalent "stereotype about Germany as a culture enamored with excretion", but called his monograph "unstructured, poorly argued and flimsily sourced" and "methodologically flawed because he only looked for evidence supporting his theory, and not – as even a folklorist should – for evidence against his theory".
Dundes attended Yale University, where he studied English and met his wife Carolyn. Sure that he would be drafted upon completion of his studies, Dundes joined the ROTC and trained to become a naval communications officer. When it turned out that the ship he was to be posted to, stationed in the Bay of Naples, already had a communications officer, Dundes asked what else that ship might need, not wanting to give up such a choice assignment. He then spent two years maintaining artillery guns on a ship in the Mediterranean. Upon completion of his Service, Dundes attended Indiana University to pursue a Ph.D in folklore. At Indiana, he studied under the Father of American Folklore, Richard Dorson. He quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the field of folkloristics. He completed his degree very quickly and went on to a teaching position at the University of Kansas where he stayed for only a year before being offered a position in the University of California, Berkeley anthropology department teaching folklore. Dundes held this position for 42 years, until his death in 2005.
According to Dundes, folkloristic work will probably continue to be important in the Future. Dundes writes, “folklore is a universal: there has always been folklore and in all likelihood there will always be folklore. As long as humans interact and in the course of so doing employ traditional forms of communication, Folklorists will continue to have golden opportunities to study folklore” (Devolutionary Premise, 19). According to folklorist william A. Wilson, “the study of folklore, therefore, is not just a pleasant pastime useful primarily for whiling away idle moments. Rather, it is centrally and crucially important in our attempts to understand our own behavior and that of our fellow human beings" (2006, 203).