First developed in the 1970s, practice theory is a body of social thought that seeks to understand the relationship between the agency of individual actors and large-scale social formations. This article draws on ideas from the practice tradition and contemporary research in folklore studies to explore one facet of the structure/agency issue--the role of folklore in the reproduction of institutions. Offering a close reading of policy and procedure documents associated with "reasonable suspicion training" (an instructional program given to administrators in large organizations to direct them in the proper handling of incidents of workplace intoxication), the article illuminates one of the key means by which authority is both exercised and obscured in contemporary institutions. The article argues for the centrality of folklore scholarship in the study of institutional orders and identifies key reciprocities between, on the one hand, practice theory, and, on the other, occupational folklore, laborlore, and organizational folklore.
In a wide range of disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, practice theory has become one of the dominant traditions of contemporary social thought. Emerging in the 1970s and 1980s from founding writings by Anthony Giddens ( 1993, 1979, 1984), Pierre Bourdieu ( 1977), and Michel de Certeau ( 1984), the tradition has been developed by scholars in anthropology (e.g., Ortner 1997, 2006), education (Wenger 1998), and sociology itself (e.g., Schatzki, Cetina, and von Savigny, 2001), and it has had a significant impact on folklore studies and the cluster of disciplines closely connected to it. In a recent article, Simon Bronner has documented the rise of practice theory in European ethnology and folklore and offered significant insights about the relationship between performance theory in North American folklore studies and the related but distinct use of the notion of practice in the European context (2012, see also Margry and Roodenburg 2012). Bourdieu's ideas about culture and power (1986) have been enormously influential on popular music studies, where scholars like Keith Kahn-Harris (2006, 2010) have extended his notion of cultural capital to understand the politics of prestige in music subcultures and the complex ways in which subcultural dynamics are shaped by the large-scale social contexts in which they are embedded. A wide range of ethnomusicologists have engaged with practice theory as well, using it to speak to fundamental dynamics in the politics of culture (Mahon 2014, 8), the relationship between musical experience and the dispositions that structure everyday life (Olsen 2014), and the cultural politics of nationalism (Askew 2002). The ideas of Giddens and Bourdieu have been central to our thinking from our very earliest research (Berger 1997,  2004; Del Negro and Berger 2001), and we have used them to examine the interplay of culture and agency in music perception (1999), analyze keywords such as identity, reflexivity and everyday life (Berger and Del Negro 2004), and explore the politics of music and other forms of expressive culture (2009). (1)
Comparing practice theory in European ethnology and performance theory in American folkloristics, Bronner observes that both intellectual traditions share a common emphasis on agency, situated conduct, and the doing of folklore. But Bronner's primary concern is with the differences between the traditions and the ways in which American performance theory has focused scholarly attention on highly framed, aestheticized behavior, rather than on quotidian or instrumental conduct. In this context, Bronner argues, European folklore and ethnology have used practice theory to provide a firmer foundation for folklife studies and opened up significant new arenas for research on everyday life. The point is not without its nuances. While Richard Bauman's seminal formulation of performance theory, Verbal Art as Performance ( 1984), expends a substantial amount of attention on the semiotic mechanisms by which stretches of discourse are framed as displays of communicative competence, Bauman also emphasizes that the aesthetic valence of the performance frame can be freighted with varying amounts of intensity. In cultural performances such as rites of passage, verbal art can be sharply set apart from everyday life and highly aestheticized, but the quotidian realm, Bauman argues, is shot through with verbal behavior that is only lightly aestheticized. In everyday life, actors may lightly frame their talk as performance, and their Jakobsonian poetics may be subordinated to the phatic function of language or the achievement of some other kind of social business. Like-wise, Roger Abrahams's theory of enactments (1977) treats performance as only one mode through which folklore may be achieved, and he places great emphasis on the dialectical interplay between "everyday life and ... heightened occasions" (81). These subtleties aside, Bronner is certainly correct that American performance folkloristics has tended to focus attention on phenomena that are in some way heightened, while practice theory has offered European scholars a distinctive set of tools for examining those realms of everyday life whose aesthetic dimensions may be vanishingly small or nonexistent.
One part of Bronner's discussion of practice theory productively explores Bourdieu's notions of doxa and habitus, as well as the complex ways in which everyday behavior is suffused with culturally specific dispositions. To our reading, Bronner's treatment of Bourdieu's habitus has an almost Geertzian quality: by interpreting the embodied practices of everyday life, the scholar has the opportunity to gain deep insights into the social world in which it is situated. There is no question that the foundational writings of practice theory are amenable to this reading, but for both Bourdieu and Giddens, the notion of practice is more frequently used to serve a different purpose. From Outline of a Theory of Practice to Central Problems in Social Theory, Bourdieu and Giddens most frequently employed the notion of practice to understand the relationship between structure and agency and to address the question of reproduction--the ways in which everyday acts of situated agents produce and reproduce society social formations, or particular forms of social order. This issue is a perennial concern for social theory and even Giddens's monumental Constitution of Society does not pretend to offer a final and comprehensive analysis of this topic. Our focus in this essay is on just one facet of this complex and challenging issue--the reproduction of institutions. Set in the broadest context, we seek to show how research on occupational folklore, laborlore, and the folklore of organizations can benefit from ideas from practice theory, and, of equal importance, how the valuable work that folklorists have done in this area can be made to speak to the wider scholarly discourse on social reproduction.
The essay develops its argument in four sections. After this introduction, the first section opens our analysis by sketching out the problem of social reproduction and exploring our everyday experience of, and common intuitions about, structure and agency. The section continues by discussing key ideas from Giddens and Bourdieu regarding the ways that the actions of agents constitute social structure. In the second section, we narrow our focus to examine the reproduction of institutions and suggest the crucial role that the legal notion of "reasonableness" plays in the exercise and legitimation of institutional power. To gain purchase in this rugged terrain, the third section shifts away from abstract, theoretical work and presents a close reading of documents associated with "reasonable suspicion training" (henceforth RST).
RST is an instructional program given to administrators in universities and other organizations to prepare them to deal with employees suspected of workplace intoxication. More than just a single course, reasonable suspicion training is part of a larger complex of institutional forms designed to manage the legal risks that workplace intoxication entails. It's a fascinating phenomenon in its own right, but our goal in this section is not simply to present, for its own sake, a close reading of a set of institutional texts. Rather, we analyze the convoluted logic of RST in order to reveal broader dynamics of power and legitimation that are fundamental to modern organizations and to gain new ways of thinking about institutional reproduction and the folklore of the workplace. Building on ideas from Giddens and Bourdieu and the social insights of anthropologist F. W. Bailey (1983), our analysis of reasonable suspicion training reveals a form of legerdemain at the heart of modern institutions, a trick of circular reasoning by which organizational administration obscures its own exercise of power. RST, we argue, justifies itself by reference to commonly held standards of reasonable people in the community; not content to be grounded on such intuitions, however, RST actually regiments the intuitions that it claims to be based on. By showing how institutions regiment the everyday practices that they claim to be grounded upon, this third section throws the problem of institutional reproduction into sharp relief. The fourth and final section of the essay uses ideas from practice theory to reinterpret central ideas from occupational folklore, laborlore, and the folklore of organizations. Here, we illustrate the critical place that folklore holds in the reproduction of institutions and the centrality of folklore studies for any scholar interested in understanding the ways that everyday conduct reproduces social life.
Practice theory and the problem of social reproduction
Understanding the relationship between structure and agency has been at the...