Accepted paper:

Pranks as rites of epistemic initiation: a cognitive approach to a short folk form


Radu Gabriel Umbres (National School for Political and Administrative Sciences)

Paper short abstract:

This paper proposes a cognitive approach to the “fool’s errand” as a subtle yet effective rite of epistemic initiation. The practical joke described in the folklore literature and ethnography reflects the interaction between cognitive mechanisms and social structures of knowledge.

Paper long abstract:

This paper analyses the "fool's errand", a type of practical joke which occurs across different societies and institutional settings in which "victims" are tricked into performing patently absurd actions. A motif in folklore studies as well as a contemporary practice, I discuss several instances of this prank found in my ethnography of Romanian villagers as well as described in literature. This paper argues that these variants share an elaborate mode of deception which can be explained by the intersection of cognitive mechanisms in human communication with a particular social structure of knowledge. The paper also discusses similarities and differences between reported forms of the "fool's errand" as well as the success of its social reproduction. Finally, I address the theoretical relevance of a study of "fool's errand" in revisiting classical anthropological approaches to rites of passage and initiation by focusing on the role of folk epistemology. I will suggest that this short form encapsulates a transmission of both knowledge and power, as well as a reassertion of the social structure underpinning the event.

panel Nar005
Short folklore forms in contemporary use