Tuesday, August 25, 2009

More Humor Research: Aggression and Joking

Photo by JoF

German scholars have published a study in the Journal of Pragmatics stating that humor plays a significant role in establishing social hierarchy.

This study basically reiterates what feminist humor scholars have been saying all along: The power dynamics of gender dictate and guide the use of humor. From Ben Leach's great piece in the Telegraph:

The theory explains why until recently it has been extremely rare for women to tell jokes in front of men, according to Helga Kotthoff of the Frieburg University of Education.

She said: "Those 'on top' are freer to make others laugh. They are also freer to be more aggressive and a lot of what is funny is making jokes at someone else's expense.

"Displaying humour means taking control of the situation from those higher up the hierarchy and this is risky for people of lower status, which before the 1960s meant women rarely made other people laugh - they couldn't afford to.

"Comedy and satire are based on aggressiveness and not being nice," she said. "Until the 1960s it was seen as unladylike to be funny. But even now women tend to prefer telling jokes at their own expense and men tend to prefer telling jokes at other people's expense."
Throw other factors such as age and race into the mix, and you've got yourself a recipe for who and how humor is used among different groups to define social identity politics. These relationships aren't static- they shift and evolve. Just as joking can assert dominance and oppress others, it can renegotiate dynamics and empower marginalized groups.

What I like about this study is that it brings attention to the importance of power in comedy. Too often "joking" is quickly dismissed as trivial and irrelevant to real world issues. Studies like these help people take comedy's impact more seriously.

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