Tom Kindt

Giselinde Kuipers

Humor Styles and Symbolic Boundaries


Full-length article in: JLT 3/2 (2009), 219-240.

Humor is strongly related to group boundaries. Jokes and other humorous utterances often draw on implicit references and inside knowledge; they tend to refer to sensitive topics which may offend people; and they ideally incite laughter, one of the strongest markers of social solidarity and emotional attunement. Hence, a shared sense of humor is generally a sine qua non for sustained relationships. Inversely, people who do not share one's humor are often shunned (Kuipers, Good Humor Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke, 2006). Laughing together, therefore, is a sign of belonging: those who join in the laughter, are part of the group; those who don't join expose themselves as outsiders.

This essay explores the mechanisms through which humor is related to social boundaries: how does humor differ between groups? What are the consequences of such differences? How do humor styles emerge and change, and what happens when different humor styles »meet«? Theoretically, the essay draws on insights from cultural sociology (Bourdieu, La Distinction: Critique Sociale du Jugement, 1979; Elias, Über den Prozess der Zivilisation: Sociogenetische und psychogenetische Untersuchungen, 1939; Lamont 1992; Lamont/Thevenot, Rethinking Comparative Cultural Sociology, 2000; Lahire 2004; Molnar/Lamont, Annual Review of Sociology 28: 167–195, 2002), the sociology of emotions (Collins 2005; Goffman 1959)., as well as humor scholarship (Davies, The Mirth of Nations, 2002; Oring, Engaging Humor, 2003; Raskin 2008). The discussion will be organized around empirical examples both from my own sociological research on humor in various European countries and the US, and from examples of humor in literature and popular culture. The essay will discuss the following mechanisms: Humor draws on implicit and culture- or group-specific knowledge. Moreover, it requires considerable linguistic aptitude. In other words: humor needs to be decoded. Humor touches on sensitive topics and taboo issues, which obviously differ strongly between groups. Hence, what is funny to some is offensive to others. Humor requires, and leads to specific emotional responses (laughter, mirth) that are strongly connected with emotional closeness, solidarity and trust. Hence, humor requires specific social bonds to flourish. On the other hand, humor may also generate such social bonds, if used wisely. Humor has generic conventions and markers that may differ between groups. As a result, people may not recognize attempts at humor as such, or they may object to a specific form. Also, a specific form may require specific skills (e. g. appreciating Shakespearean comedies requires considerable background and training, which is not related to humor appreciation as such but still may be an impediment. Alternatively, educated Europeans often distrust the joke form to the extent that they will not be open to it even though they might rather like the content of the joke). Finally, and most importantly: Different groups often have different notions of what good and bad humor is. In other words: they have different stylistic criteria and standards, and different ideas of what humor is, or should »do«. This may lead to different evaluations of the same humorous utterances and genres. Such stylistic factors are hardest to grasp, but probably account for most of the difference in appreciation of humor, especially within one culture or society (Kuipers, Good Humor Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke, 2006). These five mechanisms by and large account for the emergence of »humor styles«. Such humor styles are often related to social boundaries, and they often demarcate what sociologists refer to as »symbolic boundaries«: social boundaries that become salient, meaningful, and often imbued with status differences (Molnar/Lamont, Annual Review of Sociology 28: 167–195, 2002). Such stylistic differences are expressed in the use of humor in everyday life, but also in standardized and mediated forms of humor – such as literary humor. Literary humor reflects, but also contributes to, the humor style of a specific place, time, and group. Moreover, innovation in literary humor, as well as other forms of mediated humor, often implies adaptation or even transgression of the current humor styles.


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Abstract of: Giselinde Kuipers, Humor Styles and Symbolic Boundaries.

In: JLTonline (05.11.2010)


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