Abstract: 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. Likewise, 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 heart of practice theory since its inception. In Central Problems of Social Theory (1979), for example, Giddens explores a broad range of topics in social philosophy—the relationship between action and intention, the nature of the subject, the role of ideology in social life—but at each turn, he circles back to what he sees as a “duality of structure” by which structure and agency co-constitute one another. For Giddens, this duality involves a relation of intimacy that goes beyond the dialectical or simple spatial metaphors: it cannot be characterized by a push and pull of mutually opposing forces and is more closely coordinated than the X and Y axes of a two dimensional graph. Describing this duality, Giddens writes that “structure is both the medium and the outcome of the reproduction of practices” (pg. 5). Giddens allows that in any given empirical case study, the researcher may bracket out large-scale structural or institutional contexts and study the strategic conduct of agents, or, alternatively, place an epoché around situated practices and study the structural dynamics of institutions. However, for him, these are strictly “methodological” moves. To Giddens, the fundamental reality of social life is practice, the situated conduct of agents, which unavoidably involves both structure and agency at every turn. In characteristically difficult language, Bourdieu develops related ideas, arguing that practice is produced by “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular.’” Yet, Bourdieu immediately continues that this regularity cannot be understood as “the product of obedience to rules” and that while practice is “collectively orchestrated” it is not the “product of the orchestrating action of a conductor” ( 1977, 72). Instead, practice is both the fluid, agentive product of agents and the means by which social order is reproduced.
Whether we take as our starting point the complex social logic Giddensian duality or the twisted language that explains Bourdieuvian habitus, it is clear that practice theory seeks to offer a fundamental reconceptualization of the notions of structure and agency. One way to gain entry into these new ideas is to take stock of our everyday intuitions about these topics. Agency appears to be about people doing things, structure points to societies and institutions, and a solid footing of common sense seems to underlie these common concepts. For example, while some spiritual traditions may advocate quietism or determinism, most people find it hard to conceptualize everyday conduct in a way that completely erases agency. I buy a gift for a friend’s birthday, sign a form to register for a class, or argue with a police officer about a parking ticket. Psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers can argue indefinitely about subconscious motives, structural constraints, or first causes, but in quotidian behavior, I feel myself to be the initiator of my actions. No matter how powerful psychodynamic, structural, or philosophical arguments may be in undermining the intellectual basis for the notion of self or will, my everyday talk and everyday experience of everyday conduct understands it as my own conduct, something that I have brought into the world, something that came about because of my agency. Likewise, everyday talk typically understands social structure in general and institutions in particular as things, in and of themselves. We speak of a company hiring a new employee or giving a raise, a letter being lost by the postal service, or an (agentless) change in university policy. Individuals are “beaten down by the system” or as “work within the system”; we try to learn “how the system works,” as if an organization was a mechanism, not a group of people, and we routinely distinguish between an institution and the actors within it. In one of the earliest articulations of office folklore, Alan Dundes and Carl R. Pagter based their discussion of the meaning of photocopy lore in the language of our mundane reification of structure: urbanites, they write, are defined by “the unhappy experiences in battling ‘the system,’ whether that system be the machinery of government or the maze where one works” (1975, xix).
Of course, our lay materialism knows that it is always people, not institutions, that perform concrete actions (hiring an employee or providing a raise), but our lay sociological imagination knows that they can only do so when wearing an institutional hat. It is not Jane Doe herself who gives me the raise, it is Jane in her capacity as my supervisor who does so. What authorizes her to do this is the institution, which seems to have an existence beyond the individuals who at this moment hold this or that post. Now if a nuclear bomb were to go off today on the campus of our university, it’s clearly the case that, in some important sense, the institution would cease to exist. Following out this intuition, we might say that, obviously, organizations depend on the material reality of a specific group of actors. Yet individual faculty, staff, and students are continuously being hired and fired, enrolled or expelled, and this does not cause us to question the existence of the institution.2 Indeed, institutions are clearly something more than an aggregate of individuals, and we routinely talk about them as abstract structures, sets of roles, or systems of empty placeholders that individuals temporarily inhabit—entities that take on “lives of their own.” These terms are as intuitive and seemingly unproblematic as they are fundamentally opposed to the lay materialism that tells us that I can’t file my parking request if the parking clerk is out sick today, that knows that I can’t receive a diploma from Greendale Community College (the fictional school featured in Community, a recent television show from the United States) because the comical Dean Pelton, the uncaring Professor Duncan, and their colleagues don’t exist to give it to me. Indeed the more we think about structure and agency, the more we see that our everyday talk about institutions is deeply muddled, attributing agency to both individuals and institutions without any clear understanding of what they are or what it might mean for either to initiate an action. This confusion leads to fuzzy thinking about power relations, their legitimation, and the reproduction of society. Problems regarding structure and agency such as these are precisely the ones that practice theorists have sought to resolve.
On the most basic level, the classical statements of practice theory acknowledge that structure is constituted by the practices of its agents, and, in this sense, practice theory is a kind of materialism—not in the sense in which Marxist political economy is materialist (though Bourdieu’s work and the early writings of Giddens are usually understood as neo-Marxist in their orientation),3 but, in a weaker sense, that they understand social phenomena as comprised of concrete, embodied actions in the spatio-temporal world, rather than abstractions or ideals. But rejecting any retreat into bourgeois voluntarism, Giddens and Bourdieu recognize that social structure is the site in which power relations are constituted. In this context, the critical problem for social theory to understand is how, if social structures are constituted by the actions of their agents, power relations are maintained over time. What keeps situated conduct from being purely individual, unconstrained, and capricious? What regiments behavior, allows typified relations between actors to be maintained, and social structures to emerge and be reproduced?
The answer is that conduct is never the radically self-initiated, autonomous creation of individuals; it is always situated in social and historical context, always is “both constrained and enabled” by the context of past practices (an oft repeated Giddens construction), and always carried out in anticipation of future ones. The materialist focus on concrete acts of social practice thus problematizes our lay ideas about both structure and agency. In Central Problems in Social Theory, for example, Giddens uses a sophisticated critique of action/intention models of social conduct to rethink the notion of agency. In this view, actors do indeed make their actions, but they have incomplete understandings of their own motivations, operate in social contexts that they can never fully understand or acknowledge, employ social resources, norms, and commonplaces that come to them from a pre-existing history, and produce consequences that ripple out beyond their immediate, situated intentions. Likewise, Bourdieu offers trenchant criticisms of the idea of rule following to show how relatively fixed dispositions, which are always implicated in relations of power, play out in extraordinarily flexible, context-sensitive ways. A similar logic is at work in the practice theory analysis of signification. Both authors critique traditional humanistic visions of subjectivity that see the person as able to lift herself outside of discourse or social life to create meaning ex nihilo, but they also reject any mechanical determinism in which the guiding hand of structure or discourse controls the actions and experiences of agents. In contrast, they envision a “decentered subject,” one that makes meaning, but always does so within discursive and social contexts, using the tools of discourse to produce and reproduce discourse, having the potential to be an agent within history but never a purely free-willing one.
Thus, while a specific, concrete actor issues a speeding ticket, authorizes a form, or approves a raise, the very terms that make such conduct intelligible emerge from a history of past practices and only have meaning as anticipations of the future practices of others. It is through the complex embedding of present action within the concrete past and the lived anticipation of the future conduct of others that structure is reproduced. This is one dimension of what Giddens called structuration. Central to this process is what Bourdieu referred to as habitus—taken for granted, embodied dispositions to particular forms of action, a set of regularities that are shaped by power and reproduce the social order but which, in situated context, are remarkable in their improvisatory, flexible character.4 Understood in this way, practice both produces and is produced by structure; it both produces and is the product of agents. It is the primary material reality from which the fictions of the purely self-willing subject and reified, autonomous social structure are abstractions.
The reproduction of institutions and the notion of reasonableness
Of course, this reorientation of the notions of structure and agency in terms of practice is only a starting place. The work of Giddens and Bourdieu speaks to a wide range of issues in social analysis, and significant among these is the nature of institutions in modern societies—companies, schools, state bureaucracies, NGOs and other organizations. Shaped by enlightenment notions of rationality, our everyday intuition tell us that institutions are established through documents such as mission statements, bylaws, and compendia of policies and procedures—in short, texts. In contrast, practice theory holds that such documents never fully regiment behavior. Their implementation implies and relies upon the tacit knowledge of habitus. Going further, Giddens suggests that the hallmark of modern institutions is a high level of structural reflexivity; here, monitoring practices observe and regiment other practices in the organization, reflexively shaping them and the “system” from which they emerge. Any faculty member who has been required to write an annual report, or any department chair or head who has had to issue an annual review, is familiar with these kinds of reflexive, bureaucratic processes.
Modern institutions do not generally acknowledge the role of taken for granted, embodied knowledge in their constitution; to the contrary, the discourse of these institutions is saturated in the language of the enlightenment. Their authority is legitimated by reference to the fulfillment of human needs, the respect for human rights, and rational administration and management, concepts that are understood as transhistorical. Awash in platitudes, mission statements, collections of policies and procedures, and employee handbooks articulate these goals and methods. Such texts seem straightforward. “Our institution supports values A, B, and C,” a document might say, “and has goals 1, 2, and 3, and our staff enacts procedures Alpha, Beta, and Gamma in furtherance of them.” One difference between our everyday understandings of institutions and a practice theory perspective turns on the relationship between texts and practices. The former takes the text as a foundation that is contingently enacted in practice, and the latter sees practice as fundamental. In addition, the former sees modern institutions as instruments of rationality and sees power relations as a contingent factor of history, one which the evenhanded application of procedure, grounded ultimately in timeless ideals such as human rights, can ameliorate; in contrast, practice theory sees power as an inevitable part of social life, ideas of justice and fairness as inextricably tied to historical context, and rational administration as a phenomenon that often acts as a cover for those inequities.
One particularly striking illustration of this point is the modern legal notion of reasonableness. Reasonableness is a standard central to American law that, we would argue, ultimately rests on the phenomenon of habitus. The notion of reasonableness is ubiquitous in US jurisprudence and, as a consequence, it shapes practice in a wide range of social spheres. Staying within the context of the law, we can observe that juries in criminal trials are asked to judge a defendant guilty or not guilty based on the presence or absence of reasonable doubt about the prosecution’s case. Police officers in the US must have reasonable suspicion to initiate certain kinds of searches, and notions like reasonable accommodation, reasonable fear, and reasonable speed are found in disability law, immigration law, and traffic law, respectively. All of this ultimately rests on the notion of reasonableness, which West’s Encyclopedia of American Law defines as “Suitable; just; proper; ordinary; fair; usual”—a cluster of concepts that fuses together rationality, judiciousness, and, by reference to the “ordinary” and the “usual,” a shared community standard.5 In this context, the law defines a reasonable person as an imagined individual, who would, if he or she existed, embody all of those qualities.6 When the law speaks of “reasonable doubt” or “reasonable suspicion,” it is acknowledging that no fully explicit formula can dictate a legal standard, and it is asking an adjudicating agent (an officer, a judge, or a juror) to determine how an ideally fair-minded person in the community would see such a situation. In making judgments about reasonableness, a juror, for example, is doing nothing other than explicating her own intuitions about practice—she is making discursive and explicit the kind of judgment that in everyday life is embedded in pre-reflexive conduct. To use the language of practice theory, she is thematizing her habitus. The legal notion of reasonableness provides rhetorical cover for this highly situated act. The judge, officer, or juror is lead to say, “I am making a judgment,” thus taking some responsibility for her decision, “but it isn’t my own unique and capricious view. Rather it’s a judgment of what someone from the community would feel. And not just any person, but a fair-minded one.”
Here, anyone who has studied language cannot help but be reminded of Noam Chomsky’s notion of the “ideal speaker-hearer, in a completely homogeneous speech community” (1965, 3) and the problems that have long been associated with it—that cognition and conduct are dependent on situated context, that society is an organization of difference (rather than a collection of similar individuals), and that social life is dynamic and shaped by power relations. In sexual harassment law, American jurisprudence partially acknowledges this issue. In some US states, juries are asked to decide if a “reasonable person” would feel that the conduct of the defendant created a hostile work environment for the complainant. In other states, though, the law recognizes that judgments about workplace climate are made differently by men and women, and jurors are asked if a “reasonable woman” would feel harassed by the complainant’s actions.7 Recognizing (correctly) that men and women may have differing intuitions on matters of workplace behavior, the reasonable person/reasonable women distinction suggests the deep complexities of the notion of reasonableness and can serve as an entry point for the institutional analysis that we will develop here.
The law is a key context for institutions and their practices. In the US, institutions are, from a legal standpoint, made legitimate by filing documents of incorporation; more importantly, the institutional practices of on-the-ground actors are regimented by their expectations of the actions of lawyers, judges, police, and ultimately, the force that such actors are allowed to exert. Because they can be sued and may themselves bring suits, actors in institutions are drawn within the ambit of the law, and, as a result, all of their practices are at least potentially shaped by that discourse. In the next section, were will argue that the reasonableness standard is the clearest illustration of the way in which modern institutions rely on the tacit knowledge of practice and its habitus. Where they evoke a reasonable person in society, those acting in legal or institutional settings base their actions on socially and historically situated intuitions. However, in using the term reasonable, they obscure those praxial foundations and drape habitus with the mantle of fair-mindedness, thus legitimating their authority. The denial of the situatedness of our intuitions—and, ultimately, of power—is at the heart of contemporary institutions, and the notion of reasonableness is the clearest articulation of this fact.
In the next section, we perform a close reading of a set of institutional policy documents from a large university in the United States in order to shed light on the ways that the exercise of power is legitimated in organizations, thereby highlighting key dynamics of institutional reproduction. Along the way, we will touch on ideas familiar in practice theory and other forms of contemporary social analysis (e.g. that rules can never fully describe the improvisational, situated complexity of situated practice). Our point, however, is not to equate institutions with rules and folklore with the application of those rules to situated context, nor is it to associate institutional behavior with the actions of supervisors and folklore with the resistant techniques of their subordinates. Institutions are constituted by supervisors and subordinates together, though never on a level playing field, and there is a folklore of management as well as one of resistance. In the concluding section of this essay, we will suggest the critical role that folklore plays in the reproduction of institutions, but our goal in the next section is more focused. In this next section, we seek to shed light on a subtle but ubiquitous rhetoric of institutional legitimation whereby those institutions regiment the very intuitions that they claim to be based upon. Doing so will make it easier to see the institution as constituted through-and-through by practice—always built up by the situated action of agents but never merely the result of individual caprice; always a structural arrangement of positions without ever transcending the material reality of flesh-and-blood people interacting in the world.
The reasonable suspicion complex
The contradictions of reasonableness are achingly apparent in the bizarre bureaucratic phenomena that we have referred to above as the reasonable suspicion complex. Reasonable suspicion training is at the heart of this complex of practices. Reasonable suspicion training (RST) is given to administrators in academic institutions and other organizations to teach them how to deal with the possibility of intoxication in the workplace. An individual can work for a large organization for many years and not come across RST, but the practice is by no means obscure. A Google search for “reasonable suspicion training” reveals over seven hundred thousand hits, with links to policy documents on the websites of Human Resources (HR) departments in universities, corporations, and NGOs, as well as multiple ad supported links to HR consulting firms that, for a fee, will provide guidance to individuals or organizations in this area. If an administrator in any large organization has the misfortune of suspecting that one of her subordinates is intoxicated at work, and if she contacts her superior to ask how to deal with this situation, she will likely be sent for reasonable suspicion training. Texas A&M University, where we recently taught, has such a course of instruction, and our discussion of this issue is based on a close reading of its reasonable suspicion training documents and the associated university and university system policies, procedures, and rules.8
At first blush, university policies surrounding drug and alcohol use are straightforward. As the RST documents make clear, university employees should not be intoxicated at work; it is the supervisor’s responsibility to make sure that her work environment is a safe one, and part of that means ensuring that none of her subordinates are inebriated in the office. However, accusing an employee of intoxication has serious legal ramifications. To even raise the issue of a worker’s sobriety is to make a serious step, not to mention asking her to go home, take a drug test, or undergo suspension or termination. To go down that road, one must have a reasonable suspicion that the person is intoxicated. From “Reasonable Suspicion Training,” to “Employee Interview for Reasonable Suspicion,” and “Reasonable Suspicion Testing,” the word reasonable appears again and again in the policy and procedure documents, often in awkward constructions, echoing through the texts like the ruminations of an obsessive-compulsive fixed on rationality and order, a neurotic Jimmy Stewart transformed by a fear of litigation from an amiable, fair-minded Mr. Smith into an anxious, perseverating version of Elwood P. Dowd (Stewart’s character in the film Harvey). A set of PowerPoint slides from the training cites University System policies that state that “employees may be asked to submit to a drug/alcohol test if reasonable suspicion exists to indicate that their ability to perform work may be impaired.” An “Incident Report Checklist for Reasonable Suspicion Testing” dictates thirty-six indicators of intoxication that one may observe for one’s suspicions to be reasonable, including “Smell of alcohol on breath or person,” “Speech: Slurred? Confused? Fragmented? Slow? Unusually soft or loud?” “Mood: Belligerent? Moody? Ecstatic?” “More open or nervous than usual?” “Skin Color: Pale? Flushed?” and “Prolonged lunch hour?” A set of “Supervisor Guidelines: [sic] For Reasonable Suspicion Alcohol & Drug Testing” details procedures for managing the process, including “Preparation Steps to Implement Procedure” (eight steps), “Employee Interview For Reasonable Suspicion” (six steps, all but one with multiple parts), “Request for Reasonable Suspicion Testing” (nine steps), “Procedures Following a Reasonable Suspicion Alcohol Test,” “Procedures Following a Reasonable Suspicion Drug Test,” and even more procedures to employ in the event of positive tests, negative tests, the employee’s refusal to undergo a test, further testing at later dates, and, of course, the testing procedures themselves. Six flow charts help the supervisor to select the right procedure at the right time, and the Guidelines also include a variety of forms to be filled out and signed.
The treatment of affect in the RST documents is deeply contradictory. Forceful, emotion-laden exhortations command the supervisor to enact the procedures without deviation, yet the procedures themselves should be carried out with a bland, anonymous tone. Describing the steps involved in the employee interview for reasonable suspicion, for example, the “Supervisory Guidelines” lapses into the typographical equivalent of shouting: “DO NOT accuse the employee of being ‘drunk’ or ‘on drugs’ or any similar accusations” (emphasis in the original). The tone changes rapidly in the next line, when it directs the supervisor to ask a series of emotionally neutral questions (“Are you ill?” “Have you taken any medications while at work or before coming to work?”) before requiring the supervisor to determine “if a reasonable suspicion exists.” The passive voice is telling here. The question, presumably, is whether or not a reasonable suspicion exists within the supervisor’s mind—that is, if the supervisor has a good reason to think that the employee is drunk or stoned. However, the passive voice creates distance between the supervisor and the judgment, obscuring the supervisor’s agency in the process and allowing her to imagine that the suspicion somehow floats in the air above the interaction or is located in the mind of a hypothetical (and, need we add, reasonable) community member. The PowerPoint slides likewise provide a mix of high drama and bland administration. Early in the training, the slide entitled “Why Me?” presents a clipart image of a man pulling the hair from his head with both hands, his collar open, his necktie loose, his face twisted in anxiety and frustration. Soon after, a section of the training provides medical and legal background on the phenomena of drug and alcohol abuse, with images that would be at home in Scared Straight or Reefer Madness. A stark photograph of a needle, a spoon, a pack of matches, and a length of rope appears beneath the title “Home Heroin Kit.” The clipart image of a PCP user is drawn with bold lines that bring to mind medieval woodcuts or Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” The mask of anonymous administration slips a bit in the slide that introduces the concept of reasonable suspicion, where a clipart image of a bug-eyed employee sweats under a v-shaped lamp, while a supervisor towers above him and points an accusatory finger. After this lapse, the rest of the slides on reasonable suspicion processes revert to the bland tone. “Diagnose nothing, document everything,” states one slide. Another quotes the icon of bureaucratic blandness, Dragnet’s Sargent Joe Friday: “Just the FACTS” (capitalization in the original). Here, the denotative content of the words emphasize the flat, anonymous quality of the process, while the uppercase typography drives that theme home with a vengeance. Like Dragnet itself, RST is a potboiler dressed in a grey flannel suit.
The contradictory treatment of affect in RST is merely the surface manifestation of a deeper contradiction. Like the legal standard of reasonableness, RST appears to be grounded on the standard of a fair-minded person in the community. This point is hammered home by the ceaseless repetition of the word “reasonable” in every text associated with the complex. But even a cursory reading of the documents makes abundantly clear that RST does not simply reflect those community standards: it dictates them. Our point is not merely that rules can never fully specify all of the elements of situated action or that all practices rely on tacit knowledge, though both of these things are true. Of far greater importance, we want to highlight the extraordinary slight of hand that modern institutional authority entails: RST justifies itself by reference to the common intuitions of reasonable people. Not content to be grounded on such intuitions, however, RST actually regiments the intuitions that it claims to be based on. RST uses a kind of rhetorical legerdemain to legitimate the exercise of power; by showing how the trick is done, we hope to reveal the fundamental place of power and practice hidden at the heart of modern institutions. Institutions do not step outside social life and unproblematically reflect the beliefs of a social group. They themselves are a domain of practice, one whose internal power relations establish and regiment beliefs.
The absurdity of RST is not only in the training itself but in the larger process that its logic implies. An administrator undergoing this training is presented with a series of procedures to follow and a checklist of symptoms that a person would need to observe to be reasonably suspicious that her employee is intoxicated. Here, the procedural texts approach practice in an almost asymptotic fashion, with practice receding and receding as texts become more and more specific. How do I know if the odor I smell is alcohol or cold medicine? How much aspiration of an “s” is necessary before I can consider speech to be slurred? How slow is “slow speech?” What norm of skin color exists between the poles of “pale” and “flushed?” Where are we to set the bar of interpersonal interaction, so that an excess of “openness” or “nervousness” can be determined? And how many of these elements are necessary for my suspicions to be reasonable? Does one need a subsidiary training in “reasonableness olfactory perception,” “reasonable phonemic perception,” or “reasonable interpersonal communication” to know if one either smells alcohol or cold medicine, hears a slurred “s,” or is dealing with an employee who is improperly “open?” And what would guarantee that those training texts are fully explicit? Clearly, the procedural texts can approach practice endlessly and still never catch it. Building on the work of philosopher Roman Ingarden to elaborate a practice oriented theory of language (1996), William Hanks has argued that texts necessarily entail gaps which, ultimately, can only be fleshed out by contextualized, embodied practice. How those gaps are fleshed out depends, of course, on precisely the kinds of historically and socially situated intuitions of reasonableness that the training seeks to fix. In this context, the reasonable suspicion training regiments exactly the sorts of social phenomena that it claims to describe.
In a penetrating analysis of institutional dynamics, Manchester-trained anthropologist F.G. Bailey analyzed the workplace narratives of university administrators (1983). At the center of this discourse, Bailey identified a linked set of rhetorical devices, all of which characterize faculty as unable to govern themselves. Whether they are anarchic or self-interested, incompetent or uncivilized, faculty are simply not capable of running a university, and administrators are needed, the narratives suggest, to save academics from themselves. Bailey argues that the narratives, which he characterizes as “myths,” “serve a tactical purpose, to make the administrators’ activities (wielding power) more acceptable to themselves and less alarming to those over whom power is exercised” (95). Understood in this way, the representation of social relations in the narratives is an inversion of real world social relations: administrators are not elites at the top of a hierarchy, they are merely “servants” (102) of the institution that they run. While reasonable suspicion training operates in somewhat different domain from the personal experience narratives of Bailey’s administrators, the rhetorical structure of the two is similar: legitimating power, both elite discourse and reasonable suspicion training stands real world relations on their heads. Elites are servants. Training doesn’t regiment behavior, it merely describes what anyone in the community would know. Real people are hypothetical community members. Affectively laden interactions are blandly anonymous applications of procedure.
For all of RST’s Kafkaesque qualities, the specific issue at stake here (drunkenness in the workplace) doesn’t speak directly to the power relations which drive academic institutions—race, class, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, ability and disability. We don’t want our colleagues or staff to be drunk or stoned at work, and we are glad that there are ways that such issues can be handled. But while RST is politically banal, the underlying dynamics that it points to are not. Institutions built up around notions like rational administration and the rule of textual policy obscure a series of basic facts: that the institution is constituted, not through texts, but through practices; that texts can never fully account for practices; that even if they could, it is the practice, not the text, that is the body and the being of the institution; that institutions always exist in the context of large-scale power relations from the surrounding society; and that decontextualized standards of fairness often compound social inequity when such contexts are ignored.9
One may find it ironic that we have used a close reading of policy texts to make a practice theory argument, but this irony goes to the heart of this topic. By presenting a close reading of these texts, we have sought to illuminate one of the most significant means by which institutional actors legitimate their dominance and reproduce the hierarchy of modern institutions. From a practice theory perspective, texts are best understood as potentials for social action; they have no being outside the actions of agents, but they are not infinitely malleable. They can possess a degree of coherence and stability. They crystalize social relations and articulate strategies for addressing familiar situations and routines in social life. When, through situated practice, one actualizes the potentials that texts hold, and when that actualization is successful, one brings into the world a particular set of social relations. This is, of course, the broadest implication of J. L. Austin’s insights about performance ( 1965)—that the thing we do with words is create a group of social relations and, with them, a social reality. In problematizing the logic of these texts, we have sought to reveal the exercise of administrative function as constitutive practice.
Folklore and the Reproduction of Institutions
As far as we know, there is no systematic discrimination against drinkers in higher education, but there is systematic discrimination against women, people of color, LGBT people, and the disabled. Today, few mainstream American institutions would hyper-reflexively regiment the habitus of hiring and recruiting in the manner of RST to explicitly disadvantage these groups; such explicitly discriminatory discourses have been placed beyond the pale, and, more importantly, aren’t necessary to maintain discriminatory institutions in today’s world. Take, for example, what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “color-blind racism” (2001). Here, the mechanisms of racism continue to operate through practice and habitus, despite mission statements and policy documents trumpeting the values of equality. What is necessary to combat racial discrimination are resistant practices—as well as mission statements and procedure documents—that actively acknowledge the racist habitus of American society, understand how an unequal playing field makes seemingly equal rules operate as a mechanism of injustice, and affirmatively act to make institutions less racist. And, of course, we cannot discuss this topic without noting that false accusations of intoxication have been used as a technique of power to discriminate against people of color.
In the US context, issues of race/ethnicity in higher education will most likely bring to mind the topic of college admissions, images of Jim Crow segregation and the early-twentieth century limitations placed on the enrollment of European ethnics in elite US schools, and the legacy that that painful history brings to the present. But even more significant than questions of inclusion and exclusion are questions of constitution and reproduction: the ways that institutions regiment everyday behavior, the possibilities for social change that those everyday practices may have for transforming those institutions, and the way that the practices within an institution interface with other domains of social life. In this context, André Gorz’s analysis of the class contradictions in higher education—how the traditional French university allowed the children of elites to reproduce their class status; the way that the post-war expansion of the university created a structurally unsustainable number of managers, proletarianizing the middle class even as the upper echelons of bourgeoisie found ways for higher education to cement their social station; the way that radical education in universities is “dysfunctional” from the stand-point of capitalist reproduction—is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it in 1970. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Gorz’s titular prescription (“Destroy the University”), the centrality of the problem of reproduction is clear. The most potent issue for analysis is not gatekeeping but the ways in which everyday practices produce and reproduce institutions, and, through them, larger social orders.
For the analyst of institutions, RST reveals a variety of important dynamics: On a basic level, the absurdity of RST makes clear a set of linked insights from practice theory: that situated practice is inextricably bound to social context and relies on a background of tacit knowledge and values; that language in general and rules in particular can never make fully explicit this tacit background; that practice, therefore, can never be reduced to simple rule following. Taking these insights together, we see that there is an inherent limit to the reflexivity of modern institutions: institutions may be shaped by texts, but they are constituted by practices; rules, policies, and procedures can never fully regiment that fundamental, constitutive reality. Though institutions are made of practices, texts are not merely epiphenomenal or insignificant. As tools of power, as the reification of structure, they have a significant shaping force when they are actualized in practice. Our analysis of the RST documents reveals one of the distinctive rhetorics of legitimation that is central to the exercise of institutional power. The institutional practices of administration regiment the conduct of subordinates, but it does so in a unique way—by inverting the very relations that it establishes, by pretending that exercise of power is merely its description. Here, the rhetoric of reification (rules, procedures, and organizational charts; the use of passive voice; anonymous, affectless prose) and the reference to common sense, reason, and community standards obscures the foundations of practice—and of power—that constitute institutions. Indeed as Etienne Wenger’s research on medical claims processors has shown (1998), forms, checklists, and conventions give the employee trained in administering a protocol the ability to maintain an air of detached objectivity that conceals his/her power to approve or reject a reimbursement, a situation parallel to requiring a drug or alcohol test from a subordinate, as laid out in the RST documents that we discussed above. Here, the claims processor or university administrator can deflect responsibility by arguing that he/she is merely applying a predetermined formula and following procedure, or, in cases of leniency, he/she can employ a rhetoric of agency by referencing administrative discretion or special cases.
The relevance of all of this for folklore is direct. Whether we have been attending to the ethnographic particulars of social life, refocusing researcher attention away from decontextualized texts and toward situated practices, or aggressively pursuing critical, populist projects, we as folklorists are at our best when we understand folklore as situated practice and explore the role of such practices in constituting institutions, social orders, and their relations of power. The expressive culture of the white collar world is one place where occupational habitus is thematized, but taking a broader view, it is everyday institutional practice, what we might call institutional folklife, where power is enacted, reproduced, and resisted. In this sense, occupational folklore in large-scale organizations is the folklife of modernity and is central to the reproduction of institutions.
From the perspective of Robert Howard’s recent work, “vernacular expression” refers to those forms of communication that “emerge from the bottom up,” the counter-institutional that emerges in the context of institutions (2008, 194). Offering a richly dialectical vision, Howard’s work presents significant social insights. A somewhat different approach, which we are suggesting here, is less concerned with drawing boundaries between the institutional and the counter-institutional. Instead, we would focus on exploring the ensemble of practices performed by actors at every level of a hierarchy, treating that full ensemble as constitutive of institutions, and discovering how dynamics like mundane reproduction, the cooptation of resistance by those in power, or social transformation arise from those ensembles.10 In this context, the work of occupational folklorists (e.g., Eckstorm and Smyth  1971, Korson 1938, Green 1972, Dundes and Pagter 1975, Santino 1986, Bell and Forbes 1994, Janelli and Yim 1995, Hatch and Jones 1997, Tangherlini 2000, McCarl 2006, Leary 2013) should be at the center of any practice based analysis of social life. To use the terms from Robert McCarl’s classic formulation of the subject, one might say that it is the application of workplace technique that produces and reproduces most of what institutions are, verbal art and customary lore are spaces in which practitioners reflect upon those practices (1978, 1986), and laborlore is the site where class consciousness is brought into being and class struggle, the very engine of institutional and broader structural change, is produced (2006).11 Read in this way, the expressive culture of or about the workplace—the ritualized and carefully calibrated scolding of subordinates by superiors, the company mandated after-hour recreational activities, and the very arrangement of desks in the office that Roger Janelli and Dawnhee Yim describe in their study of the Korean managerial class (1995); the stories that stressed paramedics tell to exert control over their disorderly world discussed in Timothy R. Tangherlini’s work (2000)—can be best read as reflexive practices, forms of expressive behavior by which workers and managers struggle over the meaning of work and the social relations that take place there. Inasmuch as these forms of conduct occur in the workplace, they are part of the larger mix of constitutive practices that produces and reproduces institutions. (Of course, in the culture industries, expressive practices are the primary techniques of work.) But even if a given practice is only incidental to the daily routine and only takes a small amount of company time, these forms of artistic behavior have the potential to be highly significant by shaping our understanding of the meaning of our work, ourselves as workers, our institution, or our class position and class relations. As we have observed elsewhere (Del Negro and Berger 2004, 160, n5), de Certeau acknowledged as much in the first volume of the Practice of Everyday Life ( 1984: 81, 217, n4), when he cited Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer’s ethnography of speaking (1974) as an essential means for understanding quotidian conduct. He and his colleagues drive home that idea in the second volume of that study, when they describe folklore research as “the socioethnographic analysis of everyday life” and point to it as one of the foundations of their project (de Certeau, Giard, and Mayol  1998, 7).
From the early work on occupational folklore by scholars like Fannie Hardy Eckstorm and Mary Winslow Smyth ( 1971) or George Korson (e.g., 1938) to the more contemporary research pursued under the aegis of laborlore like that of McCarl, folklorists have richly explored the worlds of the workplace. As scholars like Susan Davis (2010) have shown, it is a painful fact of folklore’s intellectual history in the US that the discipline has not been immune to the heavy hand of anti-communism, and the struggle to see occupational folklore, not only as an expression of working class experience but also as a site of domination, exploitation, and resistance, has been a crucial factor in the development of this literature. The populism that is so central to folklore studies in general and occupational folklore in particular has generated a striking irony here. Folklore scholars have rightly lavished attention on workers and their lives as a critical corrective to the cultural domination of capitalist societies by the leisure and managerial classes. Folklorists have made invaluable contributions here, but, as one of the anonymous readers of this article rightly observed, our attention to the silenced voices of workers has meant that we have paid far less attention to the small group interactions, oral traditions, and everyday practices of middle managers and elites. (The work of Janelli and Yim  is an important exception here.) Structural and practical constraints make fieldwork with managers and elites a challenging enterprise, but middle management culture, elite culture, and the culture that emerges in contexts where supervisors and their subordinates interact is vital if we are to have a three-dimensional understanding of how institutions, and social life in general, is produced and reproduced.
It is, of course, far beyond the scope of this essay to try present a definition of folklore, an exercise that has generated much heat in our field and, at times, less light than one might have hoped. A more productive task, we would suggest, is to look at the crucial work that folklorists have achieved, set it in a broader cross-disciplinary context, and understand how it contributes to the wider discourses in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Taking this approach, we would suggest that the two intellectual traditions that Bronner discusses so richly—European-style practice folkloristics and American-style performance folkloristics—are complementary, with the former illuminating the situated, instrumental conduct of everyday life and the latter exploring the heightened, expressive behavior by which the instrumental is reflected upon and made meaningful. Taken together, the conduct in these two domains, the instrumental and the expressive, are responsible for the lion’s share of the constitution and reproduction of institutions. Of even greater significance, it is the interplay between conduct in these domains that folklorists have been uniquely skilled at analyzing and that is so critical in determining the shape and direction of institutional life.
Above, we suggested that expressive culture has the potential to influence even the most mundane, instrumental practice. We emphasize its potential significance, because the consequences of expressive practice for other forms of social conduct and the wider institutional or social orders that they constitute is among the most complex of topics (see Berger 2009, 97–135). The practices of occupational folklore may humanize the workplace, encourage company loyalty, ventilate social tension, exercise social control, promote a narrowly sectional unionism, generate a broad class solidarity, or foster radical change. Indeed, any single practice may operate in different ways in different contexts or may lead in multiple, contradictory directions. As Sherry Ortner (2005) aptly observed, “all practices operate within a ‘balky world’ (Sewell 2005:179) that threatens to undermine their intended meanings or effects” (2006, 10). The nexus of practice and its consequences is a place where the most significant questions about social life play out—self-interest or solidarity, accommodation or resistance, inclusion or transformation. And under conditions of neo-liberalism, these dynamics are even more complex. As Gertraud Koch has argued (2012), the post-Fordist world is one in which occupational folklore has been increasingly co-opted by elites for purposes of efficiency, management, and control, the line between paid and unpaid labor is shifted or blurred, and precarious workers participate in a complex “bricolage of activities”—some waged, some unwaged—just to make ends meet (Warneken 2006 quoted in Koch 2012, 161). When we take folklore as everyday practices, we focus attention on the site of reproduction, and it is here that the dialectics of structure and agency play out. By taking such an approach, we as folklorists can make a valuable contribution to the critical analysis of institutions, and, ultimately, of contemporary social life.