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In 1964 Widdowson founded the Sheffield Survey of Language and Folklore at the University of Sheffield, with the aim of collect material and providing an academic resource centre. The Survey formed the basis of the Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language (CECTAL) which was inaugurated in 1975 within the University's Department of English.
From 1975, CECTAL and the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies (University of Leeds), were the only two institutions which offered academic courses in Folklore in the UK. This remained the case until the latter's closure in 1984.
In 1997, CECTAL was renamed the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition (NATCECT). Widdowson - who had headed all its previous iterations - remained as director of NATCET until 2004.
In collaboration with colleagues at the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies, Widdowson played a significant role in the Survey of English Dialects, being co-editor of the Survey's Linguistic Atlas of England (1978) and co-author of its Dictionary and Grammar (1994).
Between 1964 and 1999, Widdowson was editor of Lore and Language, a newsletter created as part of the Sheffield Survey of Language and Folklore, for researchers into the study of language and folklore. The back run of Lore and Language is now digitised and freely available from Memorial University.
In 1996, Widdowson published the Bibliography of British Folklore. It is an alphabetical listing of "British and Irish material [...] its primary focus is on printed books relevant to the study of folklore in England." The titles contained within were drawn primarily from three collections: The Herbert Halpert Folklore Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland; The Kenneth S. Goldstein Collection, Centre for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi; and The Library of the Folklore Society, University College London. The bibliography is now freely available online.
In 2000 Widdowson founded the Centre for English Traditional Heritage (CETH). One of CETH's research projects is the Survey of English Tradition, which aims to "collect information on all aspects of language and tradition in England and throughout the British Isles". Widdowson and Janet E Alton co-edit the centre's e-journal, Tradition Today.
In 2016, Folklore published an article by Widdowson, 'New Beginning: Towards a National Folklore Survey', which called for leading organizations to "undertake a comprehensive survey of the rich variety of traditions in our present-day multicultural society".
Widdowson holds honorary degrees from Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Edinburgh.
Between 1987 and 1990 Widdowson served as President of the Folklore Society. He was awarded the Society's Coote Lake Medal, for outstanding research and scholarship, in 2000.
Widdowson, J. D. A (1977) If you don't be good: verbal social control in Newfoundland. St. Johns: Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland. OCLC 903568266.
Orton, Harold; Sanderson, Stewart; Widdowson, John (1978). The linguistic atlas of England. London: Croom Helm. OCLC 466304700.
Kirk, John M; Sanderson, Stewart; Widdowson, J. D. A (1985). Studies in linguistic geography: the dialects of English in Britain and Ireland. London: Croom Helm. OCLC 874511439.
Upton, Clive; Sanderson, Stewart; Widdowson, J. D. A (1987). Word maps: a dialect atlas of England. London: Croom Helm. ISBN978-0-7099-5409-5. OCLC 1014618497.
Story, George Morley; Kirwin, William James; Widdowson, J. D. A (1990). Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press. ISBN978-0-8020-5887-4. OCLC 883390761.
Upton, Clive; Parry, David; Widdowson, J. D. A (1994). Survey of English dialects: the dictionary and grammar. London [etc.: Routledge. ISBN978-0-415-02029-9. OCLC 1120227862.
Widdowson, J. D. A (2002). Little Jack and other Newfoundland folktales. St. John, Nfld.: Memorial University of Newfoundland, Folklore and language Publications. ISBN978-0-88901-363-6. OCLC51496439.
Widdowson, J. D. A; Halpert, Herbert (2016). Folktales of Newfoundland: the resilience of the oral tradition. ISBN978-1-138-84548-0. OCLC 1062271032.