Jokes And Joking Research Paper

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The terms joking, humor, laughter, and the comic are often used interchangeably. They refer to expressive culture. A joke is something done or said in a playful manner to excite mirth. It may take the form of a short narrative or action in which boundaries are transgressed. The capacity to joke and perceive something as funny is a universal. Humor is relative: what is held to be funny may differ from time to time, place to place, person to person. Joking is a complex behavioral and cultural process in which the what is as important as the who, how, and when. This research paper reviews some forms, domains, and functions of joking.

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1. The Nature Of Humor

Humor is omnipresent yet elusive, nonsensical yet serious, friendly yet hostile, a universal yet specific. A joke can make sense across two millennia, as this ‘stupid peasant’ joke from ancient Greece testifies: ‘A peasant, having heard that parrots live for a hundred years, bought one to see if it was true.’ A joke may also change or lose its point as it moves between cultures. The ‘dirty jokes’ that provoke laughter in a Tamil popular theater hardly draw a smile from Dutch observers. Worldwide topics of joking relate to the boundaries between nature and culture (sex, food, health, death) and to persons on social boundaries (strangers and lunatics).

Understanding a joke requires intellectual effort, yet scholarly attention partly spoils the punchline. The comic is part of everyday life yet stands apart. Humor creates a momentary world of make-believe. It is closely related to laughter, yet one can appreciate a joke without laughing, and not all events and actions which trigger laughter are funny.

This paradoxical nature of humor is further complicated by the fact that it is both perception and performance, cognition and action, intellectual and emotional, institutionalized and spontaneous. Cognition is involved in grasping a double entendre or perceiving an incongruence. On the other hand, much humor touches the emotional stratum of cultural expectations and involves mimic, gestures, pantomime, and horseplay. An apt one-sentence summary of humor is ‘a play upon form’ (Douglas 1968) or ‘a play upon meanings’ (Zijderveld 1983).

1.1 The Study Of Joking

The paradoxical nature of humor helps to explain why philosophers are interested in it and social scientists have neglected it. Philosophers including Plato, who detested humor, Erasmus and Rabelais, who celebrated it, and Bergson and Plessner, have devoted learned treatises to the mechanisms of joking. In their perspective, there is a bias towards intellectual and linguistic mechanisms, especially on the awkward incongruity, perceived in surprise, which most thinkers define as the essence of humor.

Freud promoted the psychological study of humor and considered joking a regression to infantile modes of thinking and a substitute for aggression and libido. Freud concentrated on der Witz, which is the quintessence of Yiddish humor: a short, pointed, witty story, or pun.

During the 1980s and 1990s humor research has expanded both in terms of disciplines involved and number of publications. In 1988 Humor: International Journal of Humor Research was founded. Psychologists and linguists dominate the inquiry into joking.

1.2 Anthropology

It is said that Bronislaw Kaspar Malinowski, a founding father of social anthropology, defined his discipline as the science of the sense of humor. Indeed, the anthropologist shares with the humorist a strategy of making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Common sense is disrupted, the unexpected evoked in order to enhance the awareness that reality is socially and culturally constituted. This relativist perspective may be essential for the cross-cultural study of humor (Driessen 1997).

Yet, despite Malinowski’s claim, until recently anthropologists have neglected joking as a topic. So have sociologists (Zijderveld 1983). Some early anthropologists studied humor from a folklorist and antiquarian perspective, but rarely as a resource for cultural analysis. In some fieldwork guides joking and laughter are not even mentioned. Radcliffe-Brown’s article (1940) was a breakthrough, although his interest was in the structural implications and functions of joking relationships rather than their symbolic content. Mary Douglas found the essence of the joke in its attack on control. In the 1970s and early 1980s anthropologists used semiotic and narrative approaches to study joking per se, not just its functions (Handelman and Kapferer 1972). The first comprehensive, comparative anthropological study of humor and laughter appeared in the mid-1980s (Apte 1985), and since then there have been numerous articles and books. Yet, joking remains to the most part a spin-off of other research topics, despite the knowledge that it provides clues to what really matters in groups and societies.

2. The Faces Of Jokes

2.1 Genres Of Joking

In most cultures there is a distinction between the diffuse joking of common people in everyday life and institutionalized joking by experts at specific times and places, such as the clown in wedding ceremonies in Polynesia, the television comedian on New Year’s Eve, or the trickster in a Javanese wajang play.

Humor ranges from mild jokes to biting satire. Benign joking is simple, informal, and harmless, intended for diversion and repose. It does not unsettle the course of daily life. In metropolitan Egypt, for instance, joking is considered the lubricant of social life. Persons who lack a sense of humor ‘have thick blood’ and are scorned. A second type of joking is wit, banter, persiflage, or punning. This is a game of intellect and language, using irony to tackle discrepancies between appearance and reality. A third type is black or gallows humor which challenges and mocks tragedy and misery, for instance the ‘Darwin Awards’ on the Internet. A fourth form is satire, militant or aggressive joking, meant to criticize authority, common sense, and conventions, as in Carnival. The trickster of the Winnebagoo, Pueblo, and other Native Americans is a satirist pur sang, as were the Eurasian court jokers. The political cartoonist is a modern example of a satirist.

2.2 Domains Of Joking

It is often hard to translate a joke from one language to another, especially in the case of puns and witticisms. Language is both a vehicle and topic of jokes. Linguistic play and rhetorical devices, such as incongruity, paradox and irony, are central to puns, tall tales, and riddles. Anthropologist Chagnon was the victim of verbal humor struggling to learn Yanomamo. Informants made a sport of inventing obscene and ridiculous names for people such as ‘dirty rectum’ or ‘feces of the harpy eagle’ which Chagnon wrote down and used without knowing their meaning (Driessen 1997). Apaches stage joking imitations of the ‘whiteman’ with exaggerated, loud, and fast speaking (Basso 1979). In many societies, for instance the Inuit, verbal virtuosity is expressed in duels in which humorous and obscene insults are recited to ridicule opponents. In Egypt these mock fights are ritualized in male coffee houses, for instance: ‘Your father puts on his underpants with a shoehorn’; ‘when your father sees a garbage truck coming he lies down like a heap.’

There is also a strong interdependence between gender and joking. Sexuality is a core subject of jokes everywhere and humor is an important element in attraction among the sexes. In most societies there is gender inequality in joking. While men tend to use more aggressive humor and laugh louder in public spaces, women remain more passive and restrained. Men play more prominent roles in ritual public joking. There are exceptions. Older women may publicly engage in humor and even compete with men. In Pacific island communities female clowns play important ceremonial roles. In many Mediterranean societies women perform for women mock imitations of men, their sexuality included. In Western society female comedians are gaining prominence.

Age is important in joking. Psychologists have noted the crucial role of humor in personality development and language learning. It serves as a general educational device. Children and adolescents have a special sense of humor with which they mock adults. Adults often find amusement in encouraging children to imitate adult etiquette. There are striking gender differences in the nature, devices, and approval of children’s jocular behavior.

A widespread kin-related form of institutionalized humor is the joking relationship. Some categories of kin are licensed, sometimes even obliged, to tease, ridicule, and insult persons and groups belonging to another category, who must accept it without taking offence. In many societies kin of the opposite sex who are potential sexual partners are involved in joking relationships. In Western society mild joking is allowed with grandparents.

Where governments fear freedom of expression and rigidly demand conformity, political humor is repressed yet flourishes. ‘Joking up’ is a weapon of the subordinated whereas ‘joking down’ may act as a means of the powerful to express their superiority.

One of the main domains of joking in the globalizing world is ethnicity. Ethnic jokes make fun of supposed and farcically exaggerated defects in certain ethnic groups or nations. The deficiences appear in pairs, e.g., the stupid and canny, the stupid and cowardly, militarism and cowardice. Such dualities relate to commonly experienced ambiguous and contradictory situations (Davies 1990). The telling of ethnic jokes may be, but is not necessarily, an expression of racism and discrimination. Ethnic and many other jokes have a complex relationship with everyday experience.

Religion is replete with paradoxes and ironies. Consequently, joking, laughing Gods, and holy fools are to be found in the beliefs and rituals of many religions, global and local. There are counter-virtuosi who disturb and suspend the rigid ritual order by burlesque, inversion of roles, sexual, and scatalogical humor. Berger (1997) even argues for a ‘theology of the comic’ in which the experience of the comic is a promise of redemption.

Joking is not only a feature of face-to-face communication but also a major element in newspapers and magazines, movies, radio, television, and the Internet. Comic books have become a popular art form. There is musical humor and humor in novels and poetry. Humor is an effective device in advertising. In sum, joking permeates all domains of public and private life.

3. Meanings And Functions

Given the Protean nature of humor, it is not surprising that there is no universal structure of meaning to joking. The content of many jokes relates to commonly experienced ambiguities, dilemmas, and paradoxes that are part of the human condition. Joking is one of the ways to deal with such experiences, and this is a universal meaning of humor. Much joking involves entertainment. It produces pleasure and smoothes social interaction. One of the most widespread psychological and functionalist theories has it that joking plays an important role in conflict resolution by releasing tension. Related theories hold that joking is a tool of cultural critique and social control by highlighting taboos and key values. Another social function of jokes is that they mark group boundaries and help to promote a sense of belonging, sometimes by testing and challenging social cohesion. Jokes can also effect greater commitment, regulate embarrassing behavior, and sustain serious interaction. And jokes are relativizers, creating in a playful manner distance from turmoil and toil, misery and misfortune.

Trends in humor research show an increased interest in the healing power of joking and laughter in cross-cultural communication, psychotherapy, neurology, and physiology. Ethnic humor is a topic of growing relevance as are differences in joking styles and tastes.


  1. Apte M L 1985 Humor and Laughter: An Anthropological Approach. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
  2. Basso K H 1979 Portraits of ‘The Whiteman.’ Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols Among the Western Apache. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  3. Berger P L 1997 Redeeming Laughter. The Comic Dimension of Human Experience. Walter de Gruyter, New York
  4. Davies C 1990 Ethnic Humor Around the World. A Comparative Analysis. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN
  5. Douglas M 1968 The social control of cognition. Some factors in joke perception. Man 3: 361–76
  6. Driessen H 1997 Humor, laughter and the field: reflections from anthropology. In: Bremmer J, Roodenburg H (eds.) A Cultural History of Humor. Polity Press, Oxford, UK
  7. Handelman D, Kapferer B 1972 Forms of joking activity: A comparative approach. The American Anthropologist 74: 484–518
  8. Nilsen D L F 1993 Humor Scholarship. A Research Bibliography:. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT
  9. Radcliffe-Brown A R 1940 On joking relationships. Africa 13: 195–210
  10. Zijderveld A C 1983 The sociology of humor and laughter. Current Sociology 31: 1–103
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