Three women laughing side by side
Photo by Marc Kjerland, Flickr CC
It may be April Fools Day, but the sociology of humor is no joke! Social science research demonstrates that humor reflects societal conditions and can be important for social cohesion. For example, “inside jokes” — shared references between members of a group — promote social cohesion and ensure the group continues to exist by reminding members of the group’s shared history and their social ties to each other.
Women tend to use cohesion-building humor — treating the audience as a cohesive unit — and women rarely make jokes when men are present. Men, on the other hand, tend to use differentiating humor — calling out specific members of their audience and building hierarchies. In other words, using differentiating humor challenges the sense that “we’re all in this together” and instead point out distinctions between group members. Thus, humor can be viewed as a wedge or glue depending on who is using it.
Humor can also reveal cultural tensions in particular times and places. For instance, in Malawi “AIDS humor” reflects the huge shadow cast by the disease over everyday life. For instance, many jokes play on the multiple meanings of “to give” — relationships are often a place of expected exchange, but have also become a key location for the spread of HIV. One cartoon includes the picture of a man kneeling beside a woman saying, “well, you asked me for a romantic present — I’ve just given you AIDs, girl.” While many outsiders would not view these jokes as funny, AIDS is sometimes funny to those in Malawi because it touches the lives of those reading and listening to the jokes.

The next time you tell a joke, consider how you’re responding to a particular social context or situation and whether your humor is pointing out distinctions or bringing people together.