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A Social Scientist's Plea for Humor

A new paper provides an epic theoretical defense of humor in sociological research.
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(Photo: Public Domain)

(Photo: Public Domain)

For academics, scaling mountains of social research papers can be an exhausting, dry undertaking. The sober jargon and conceptual leaps often fall flat, and there's rarely an entertaining or revelatory moment in the long trajectory from thesis to conclusion.

And while humor is often seen as a useful variable for analysis, academics generally shy away from employing it in their own research. According to a new paper (aptly titled "A Sociologist Walks Into a Bar...") in Sociology that puts up an epic argument for comedy's important role in social science by University of Stirling education researcher Cate Watson, the sociologists that do wade into more amusing territory "may find themselves dismissed as lightweight and trivial."

Reviews of Erving Goffman, known for his playful ethnographic style, were harsh. Watson notes, "Goffman is still regarded by many within his discipline as  an entertaining writer but a second-rate sociologist." In criticism that is perhaps best read in the lilting British accent of a professor at a prestigious New England university, and in a tone of equal parts derision and self-aggrandizement, Goffman has been called "the sociological jester, whose jokes always contain a shrewd observation on social life—but also a caricature and a denial of the real substance of that life." Another reviewer wrote, "In neither its style nor its content does it fit the disciplinary norm, and many of the problems in its reception may be traced to its academic oddity."

Social scientists' humor allergy is not just anecdotal. A study of academic papers by research at Technion - Israel Institute of Technology back in 2008 found that studies with droll titles were cited around 30 percent less than their austere counterparts.

Fearing that her own advocacy for humor would be dismissed if completed in a wholly humorous fashion, Watson settles on meta self-parody in her thesis:

If humour is such a fundamental aspect of human experience and our understanding of what it is to be human, then to ignore the humorous as an analytical attitude, or the comic as a mode of representation, is at the very least to reject a potentially insightful methodological approach. ... The purpose of this article then is to make a serious case for the place of humour as a methodology for the social sciences. But the task presents a paradox: if I attempt to do this humorously I may be dismissed as trivial. If, on the other hand, I do this without humour I negate my thesis. Either way I risk alienating my audience. My strategy will therefore be to present the article as seriously as possible in the hope that some readers will take it to be deeply ironic.

While empirical research on whether humor helps students learn has been mixed, Watson's main theoretical point seems to be that laughter and humor can allow researchers to have "mental jolts" that precipitate paradigm-shifting epiphanies.

While the "superiority" brand of humor (in which you laugh at "the misfortunes of others") doesn't seem an ethical candidate for social science papers, the "incongruity" type can be illuminating. Under the incongruity theory, a person laughs because a concept in discussion doesn't seem to fit with the things being presented. That laughter can help push thinking forward, Watson argues:

Laughter frees us, however briefly, from the grip of the discourses within which we are immersed and enables us to glimpse something else; when hegemonic discourse renders critical argument ‘unavailable’ then ‘a laughter of non-discursive dismissal can liberate us from the sense of feeling obliged to argue against the System on its own terms’ (Lippitt, 1999: 461; emphases added). Laughter therefore has the capacity to bring about an ironic epiphany, which Nealon defines as ‘the postmodern rescue of the ontological moment of wonder from its subordination to knowledge.’

As Watson makes clear, there are limits to using humor in social science research, especially when it comes to dealing with disenfranchised or powerless subjects. It is instead most wise when a sociologist aims it at institutions of power, perhaps clarifying the absurdity of what look like normal machinations. In other words, humor can allow a researcher the opportunity to embrace one of the core elements of the sociological imagination: making the familiar look strange. And that kind of playful creativity can often be forgotten and buried by the other constraints of academic life.

"[The] playful attitude we need to cultivate in order to re-see the world eludes us," Watson concludes. "What genuinely delights and sparks the sociological imagination is rare. Meanwhile, the clock ticks, the life blood drains out of us and we form the great academic army of the not quite dead yet, but looking more and more that way."