The Practice of Folklore
Essays toward a Theory of Tradition
Winner of the 2020 Chicago Folklore Prize
CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title for 2020
Despite predictions that commercial mass culture would displace customs of the past, traditions firmly abound, often characterized as folklore. In The Practice of Folklore: Essays toward a Theory of Tradition, author Simon J. Bronner works with theories of cultural practice to explain the social and psychological need for tradition in everyday life.
Bronner proposes a distinctive “praxic” perspective that will answer the pressing philosophical as well as psychological question of why people enjoy repeating themselves. The significance of the keyword practice, he asserts, is the embodiment of a tension between repetition and variation in human behavior. Thinking with practice, particularly in a digital world, forces redefinitions of folklore and a reorientation toward interpreting everyday life. More than performance or enactment in social theory, practice connects localized culture with the vernacular idea that “this is the way we do things around here.” Practice refers to the way those things are analyzed as part of, rather than apart from, theory, thus inviting the study of studying. “The way we do things” invokes the social basis of “doing” in practice as cultural and instrumental.
Building on previous studies of tradition in relation to creativity, Bronner presents an overview of practice theory and the ways it might be used in folklore and folklife studies. Demonstrating the application of this theory in folkloristic studies, Bronner offers four provocative case studies of psychocultural meanings that arise from traditional frames of action and address issues of our times: referring to the boogieman; connecting “wild child” beliefs to school shootings; deciphering the offensive chants of sports fans; and explicating male bravado in bawdy singing. Turning his analysis to the analysts of tradition, Bronner uses practice theory to evaluate the agenda of folklorists in shaping perceptions of tradition-centered “folk societies” such as the Amish. He further unpacks the culturally based rationale of public folklore programming. He interprets the evolving idea of folk museums in a digital world and assesses how the folklorists' terms and actions affect how people think about tradition.
A particular strength of this volume is Bronner’s extensive knowledge of the discipline and its historical underpinnings. While he explicitly makes the case for better historical contextualization of the material as part of an ongoing tradition at various points in the volume, its value is made abundantly clear in his analyses. This volume provides an excellent example for students of folklore to show how and why this step is crucial to an analysis of any folk practice or object. In doing so, Bronner has produced a thought-provoking volume that explores the future of our discipline through the lens of its past. In particular, he explores its connections to cognate fields, some of which have been largely overlooked in the discipline as a whole.
I consider The Practice of Folklore to be part of a new wave of folklore scholarship that refigures folklore as a discipline the subject of which is human social and cultural interaction in everyday life. Simon Bronner has taken his place among the leadership group of current folklore scholars. His past productive scholarship and the present work certainly position him among those who articulate folklore theories for the twenty-first century.
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