A tale of three buildings: Certifying virtue in the new moral economy



One expression of the spread of auditing and bureaucratic accountability in global society is the emergence of certifications of virtue, typically after completion of a review process designed to ensure objectivity. In this article, I analyze regulatory interactions in a U.S. construction project, including the procedure for formally certifying buildings as energy efficient and “sustainable,” to bring into focus the sometimes-paradoxical effects that highly rationalized regulations have on those obliged to comply with them. The case illustrates how virtue is reduced to a checklist of measurable properties whose integrity is maintained through rituals of verification and rigorous risk management. The issues involved lead me to reflect on anthropologists’ inclination to demonize bureaucratic regulation in their ethnographic accounts even as they insist on formal accountability in their own communities and professional networks.