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SIEF2013 11th Congress: Tartu, Estonia.
30 June - 4 July, 2013

SIEF2013: Circulation

Tartu, Estonia; 30th June - 4th July


Sincerely yours: ethnography of letters and correspondence

Location Jakobi 2, 306
Date and Start Time 02 July, 2013 at 10:30


Dani Schrire (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) email
Susanne Österlund-Pötzsch (Society of Swedish Literature in Finland) email
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Short Abstract

Letters are vehicles through which culture circulates. They have been vital in researching cultural flows. In addition, letters involve many practices of production, transfer and reception that are interwoven with textual, material and sensual qualities, which deserve ethnographic attention.

Long Abstract

Letters are all around: envelopes, stamps, bills, love-letters, recommendation letters, postcards or greetings. In handwriting or print, with a letter-head or just notes, we encounter them in our everyday experiences. Occasionally our research takes us to special archives where they are stored, all dusty and yellow.

Letter writing is one of the most pervasive literate practices in human societies (Barton & Hall 2000). They are vehicles through which ideas, stories, emotions, news, values, theories and data circulate. Hence correspondences are instrumental for folklorists, ethnologists and historians who are following the flow of cultural knowledge. Simultaneously, many practices of production, transfer and reception that are interwoven with textual, material and visual qualities deserve attention in their own right.

We invite papers that deal with contemporary ethnography as well as historical-ethnography that may relate to the following issues:

-The life of the letter.

-The dialogic nature of correspondence (discursive and/or performative aspects)

-Materiality: processes of archiving and collection, hand writing, letter-heads, decay of paper etc.

-Ethnography of post-offices and postal workers.

-Censorship, whether institutional or personal: between the oral and the written.

-The poetics of correspondence (letter genres): love letters, letters of complaints, letters from the war-front, official writing, academic written interaction, writing conventions etc.

-Sensual aspects of correspondence (sight, touch and smell): postcards, greetings, stamps, paper quality, calligraphy, decorations, drawing, scented papers etc.

-From snail-mail to e-mail: exploring cultural implications of transformations in media.

Discussant: Galit Hasan-Rokem (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The letters of Helene Maasen-Varik: mingling the personal and public in the letters of a folklore collector

Author: Katre Kikas (Estonian Literary Museum)  email

Short Abstract

The presentation analyses the letters of Helena Maasen-Varik (1869 – 1933) sent to J. Hurt and M. J. Eisen in the context of folklore collecting campaigns. In these letters we can see quite ambiguous relations between private and public modes of communication.

Long Abstract

The presentation focuses on very special context of letter writing: folklore collecting campaigns organized by Jakob Hurt (1893-1907) and Matthias Johann Eisen (1857-1934) in 1890s Estonia. The participation in these campaigns was lively, and the backgrounds of the collectors quite varied: there were writers, students and schoolteachers, as well as farmers, handicraftsman, schoolboys and servants. Many of the participants had got only minimal three-year schooling, and for them the participation in the campaign was quite rare (but welcome) possibility to use their writing skills.

Folklore collecting can be looked at as a separate domain of literacy (Barton 2007: 37-40) - one that is concerned with rendering the oral world on paper. But participating in it demanded acquaintance with other domains. As the campaigns were organized through newspapers, the collectors needed to be more or less regular newspaper readers. As it was organized from distance (i. e. the organizers and collectors never met), the epistolary literacy (Whyman 2006: 9) was also needed. In my paper I am going to focus on the peculiarities of the epistolary literacy involved in the folklore collecting campaigns, looking at the letters of one particular collector - Helene Maasen-Varik. In these letters (as those of other collectors') we can see quite ambiguous relations between private and public modes of communication.


Barton, David 2007. Literacy. An Introduction to the Ecology of Written Language. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Whyman, Susan E. 2009. The Pen and the People. English Letter Writers 1660-1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scholarly correspondence: on those things we rarely write about in letters

Author: Dani Schrire (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)  email

Short Abstract

My paper engages “the politics of communicability” (Briggs 2012) in the study of scholarly correspondence, relating to knowledge that scholars tend to leave for oral forms of communication, rather than their letters.

Long Abstract

My paper engages scholarly correspondence, discussing the types of knowledge that scholars tend to leave for oral forms of communication and not for written forms of communication (in traditional mail or in emails). It is based on my own ethnographic-history of the development of Jewish folkloristics, relating to various omissions found in written letters that leave few traces that hint to "secrets", names and personal data - all concealed or implicitly referred to in correspondences. What scholars write about in letters and what they choose not to write about is challenging for any historical research - as imagination takes the place of what cannot be found in the letters at hand. A discussion of what we rarely write about in our correspondences (but indeed still communicate about!) opens plenty of opportunities for reflection on the channels chosen for the circulation of different types of scholarly knowledge, addressing questions concerning "the politics of communicability" (Briggs 2012).

Performing seamanship in different media: case of correspondence

Author: Anne Ala-Pöllänen (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

In my presentation I will study how a single sailor is performing seamanship in a correspondence compared to a more established genre of life histories – the sea literature and the internet pages of seafarers.

Long Abstract

In May 2012, there was an article in the biggest Finnish daily newspaper about my study on contemporary seafaring and life at sea from the sailors' point of view. The article highlighted my special interest on maritime accidents and the question, to what extend does the old maritime working culture of sailors and officers have an effect on accidents. I portrayed some examples of modern ships' communities where the life onboard was as masculine, hierarchical, and colorful as on the old windjammers' time. Few weeks after the article was issued, I received a letter from a retired sailor. He started the letter by saying: "I was onboard when that [ship] sunk. Since then I've been wondering what caused the accident. I think it was the old maritime culture."

I wrote him back and asked if he could write some more memories. Since then I have received 18 letters of honest and straight forward text of life as a sailor with even some shameful adventures among the red light districts of harbors. While reading these letters I have reflected on different ways of performing seamanship. Within more common genre of seafarers' reminiscences - the sea literature and internet pages sharing seamen stories - one can find special structures performing life onboard and the seaman's life encompassing commonly recognizable stereotypes of more or less heroic figure. In my presentation I will focus on a question of whether sailors present their life story in less stereotypical way in correspondence than in more public media.

Electronic chain letter transmission: routes and reasons

Author: Daria Radchenko (KB Strelka)  email

Short Abstract

The paper analyses the history and routes of Internet chain letter migration and the participants’ motivation to continue the chain in a case-study of two relevant Russian texts.

Long Abstract

Internet folklore corpus includes a number of genres and texts belonging to urban folklore, which adapted to the new digital environment. A curious example is the practice of chain letter sending, which to a large extent retained text structure yet changed both its pragmatics and social outline. Just like their paper predecessors, electronic chain letters can survive for years and travel across countries and social stratas. Yet, they differ in the ways of this transmission, based on the switch of the practice from anonymous "seeding" to a peculiar form of direct interpersonal communication taking place in a variety of channels: e-mail, IMs, blogs and forums, etc. The lists of the chain letters senders and receivers reveal both specific structure and demographic and social outline of the chain letter "communities" in different channels of Internet communication. The presented paper analyses the history and routes of chain letter migration and the participants' motivation to continue the chain in a case-study of two relevant Russian texts, which have reached at least 20,000 persons during five years of active rotation on the net.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.