#FolkloreThursday: Occupational Folklore

#FolkloreThursday: Occupational Folklore November 10, 2016

If you work a career that has you in contact with other humans, it’s likely that you’ve been exposed to occupational folklore, or the informal traditions that accompany a career.

Photo from Unsplash by Uğur Gürcüoğlu.
Photo from Unsplash by Uğur Gürcüoğlu.

As defined on the New York Folklore Society’s page:

Occupational Folklore refers to the shared knowledge held by workers within a specific occupational group, as expressed through narrative arts, shared techniques and information, and through shared technology and hand-made objects.

While historically, the focus of scholars of occupational folklore (or laborlore, as it’s sometimes called) has been on old-timey, romanticized, and gendered occupations – the cowboy, the miner, the sailor – today we acknowledge that any profession potentially generates folklore that would be of interest to us. Folklorists have studied the lore of airline stewardesses, bartenders, retail workers, and homemakers too.

When we study occupational folklore, there are a few ways to approach it. Obviously we want to do fieldwork if we’re able to, using participant-observation and interview techniques to obtain information from the workers. Sometimes we study laborlore according to the type of work involved, focusing on industrial jobs vs. rural jobs, crafting jobs vs. traveling jobs, and so on. Thus you might find studies of miners contrasting with studies of lumberjacks, or blacksmiths contrasted with factory workers.

Studies of occupational folklore might also emphasize the genres that dominate a given profession. Common genres found in the workplace include folkspeech (often jargon used on the job); folk narratives (like personal narratives about an individual’s experience, or legends about well-known characters in the profession); jokes and pranks; folk beliefs and stereotypes; customs or traditional behaviors (such as strategies for manufacturing items, or selling them); and body art (ranging from how people customize their uniforms to beliefs about what it’s “appropriate” for people in a given profession to wear).

Labor unions occupy a significant place in occupational folklore studies. Archie Green was a folklorist who devoted his career to the study of occupational folklore, and among other things, he documented the songs of industrial workers and unions. Protest songs and work songs are a topic I haven’t studied personally, but I know it’s a pretty important one in the landscape of occupational folklore.

The workplace is an intriguing site of study for a couple of reasons. For one, often there’s an institutional culture, a play-by-the-rules facet to work life, that isn’t necessarily interested to folklorists. We’re not as into the formalized aspects of culture, but even in highly regimented workplaces, there are some breaths of informal culture and variation. Maybe the regulations or rules say to do things a certain way, but we’ve “always” been doing it this way, and thus new employees are inducted into the ranks of seasoned workers through a folkloric education process.

Gender, social class, and other identity markers also figure significantly into workplace culture. Some professions remain highly gendered; others are less so. Studying these shifts over time can give us insights into how changing gender norms, for example, and where those intersect with other facets of identity. The concept of emotional labor is especially relevant here, as all jobs involve emotional labor of some sort (subsuming your feelings in the moment of being a professional is required of everyone), but those moments are often disproportionately distributed. In other words, women – especially women in service occupations – frequently face greater pressure to smile and be pleasant than men in similar positions.

My working hypothesis about why occupational folklore is so common especially in America goes beyond documenting the existence of workers as unique folk groups. I believe that economic inequality is simultaneously real and common, and yet also taboo as a topic. Sure, we can talk about it on the internet all day, but when we try to achieve reform, we bump into all sorts of obstacles. Belief in the American Dream, the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps meritocracy, remains strong. But when we share about labor experiences, we insert ourselves into the dilemmas of capitalism. We embody its contradictions. And thus, little by little, we contribute to the conversation, and possibly initiate change.

Want more? Watch this 15-minute documentary about the folklore of ironworkers in the Midwest. Also, check out the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, as they’ve got an extensive list of laborlore resources.

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