Scholarly & Literary Contributions
Ruth Finnegan’s contributions lie in three main areas each of which, initially controversial or disregarded, she developed and extended (she herself says many others had been there first, they had just not been so fully noticed):
In conjunction with others, especially the American and Finnish performance and linguistic anthropology scholars, she contributed much to the study, visibility and critical analysis of oral literature, multi-sensory performance and ‘orality’ (a handy if ultimately inadequate and misleading term) through fieldwork, conference presentations, and publications such as (among others) her ‘Limba stories and story-telling’, ‘Oral literature in Africa’ (read by July 2015 by over 80,000 readers – mainly, to her joy from Africa – on the publishers’ open access website and regularly among the top ten downloaded in specific categories in the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) site, ‘Oral poetry’ and ‘The oral and beyond’. The term and study of ‘oral literature’, largely initiated by Albert Lord and Milman Parry, now has international recognition, reflected in, among others, such endeavours as the World Oral Literature Project with its regular conferences.
Building on the performance/practice approach of that earlier work, her ‘The Hidden Musicians’ (arguably her most original, or at any rate most influential, work) pioneered the non-ethnocentric non-elitist ethnography of local music across all genres. It built on a combination of social scientific and humanist approaches to conceptualise music primarily as practice and performance rather than as text. Many others have now taken up this approach and ‘The Hidden Musicians’ is widely regarded as seminal, manifested in conference and text treatments of music.
In the 3rd level Open University course ‘Studying family and community history: nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ (first presented in 1994), Ruth Finnegan (as chair), together with well-informed and experienced colleagues, enabled students to build on their own interests and lay the foundations for their future research, whether within or outside academe, and for the important outcome of disseminating this in various forms to others. The subject itself was far from new but the approach in the course led participants to relate their individual interests to wider scholarship and take a critical as well as constructive approach to a wide range of sources, documentary and other. One of Ruth Finnegan’s delights has been the resultant foundation of the Family and Community History Research Society (FACHRS) principally but not exclusively by graduates of the course, whose members engage in collaborative first-hand research of a unique kind, reported in its associated journal and newsletter .
In her current research, besides completing a book on Fiji music and taxi-drivers’ lives, she is focusing on ‘enchantment’ and new scientific approaches to consciousness. She is thus engaged in exploring the amazing but in fact surprisingly well documented domain of human life referred to (not altogether satisfactorily) by such terms as ‘paranormal’, ‘vibes’, ‘spooky’ (Einstein’s term), ‘telepathy’, ‘remote nonlocal viewing’, ‘altered consciousness, the ‘noosphere’ and the like.
In her novel, Black Inked Pearl. A Girl’s Quest, Ruth Finnegan opens up a new genre – or rather, as with many African novels, stretches the boundaries to include in the one work elements of such (accepted) genres as novel, short story, mystic poetry, fantasy, autobiography, theology, myth and Dante-esque epic. Reminiscent of James Joyce and Gerald Manley Hopkins, the novel, born like Coleridge’s Kublai Khan in dreams, also stretches the English language with its verbal, orthographic, and grammatical innovations, chosen to fit the rhythms of the dream-infused text. In its oral qualities – best appreciated therefore in the planned audio version – it builds on the author’s experience of Ireland, Africa and African story-telling. Although a novel – a love story, a parable – it also comes out of Ruth Finnegan’s anthropological, African and literary experience. Without that it could not have been written, and is thus more related to her academic work than it might seem at first sight.