Discussion Four Week Four Humor as Social Bond As you have already learned from
Discussion Four Week Four
Humor as Social Bond
As you have already learned from the textbook, humor has many important functions in social life, including working as a safety valve to allow the exploration of the status quo, or promoting bonding in those who “get” the joke. The latter function can, in fact, be taken a step further by applying Durkheim’s notions of social integration or differentiation. Humor is one way a group can include or exclude people, integrate or differentiate them. Often this dynamic is fueled by status inequality in a setting where all involved try to deal with this inequality in various ways, humor being one of them.
A good example of this is a recent observational study in a clinic housed in a Division of General Internal Medicine at a major university medical center, where physicians, medical students fulfilling their residency requirements, the clinic’s Nurse Coordinator, and, of course, patients interact. Obviously, physicians enjoy the highest status, with the residents next in the status hierarchy, the Nurse Coordinator next. Since residents have to work between 70-80 hours a week during their three-year stint and are often exhausted, scheduling is an issue of prime importance to them.
Here is one exchange between an attending physician and residents, who are worried about having to be on call more often:
The Attending laughs and asks somewhat lightheartedly if they ever imagined that things might actually get better. … Why do you always imagine the worst, he asks while jokingly suggesting at the same time that he somewhat agrees with their projection. One of the interns responds by joking that they do that because their projections are supported by huge reams of data. Everyone laughs.
Here humor is used to further integration in various ways. First of all, the residents bond since they all share the same concern and the physician also addresses them as one group, saying “why do you…” The residents’ reply using the medical metaphor of “hard data” also makes them members of the medical establishment, thereby bonding them with the physician.
The residents themselves bond by joking with each other about workloads or the patients, most of whom were nonwhite (80%) and of disproportionately lower income and education. One resident, for example, called his patients the “Two Hundred Club” because they all weighed over 200 pounds. Patients with psychiatric histories are referred to as “schizos.” While this helps residents and physicians to bond, patients are cast as outsiders, the butt of jokes.
The researchers explained it this way: “The combination of humor and viewing patients as ‘other,’ along with the time pressure of heavy workloads, contribute to the residents’ tendency to embrace ready-made societal labels when referring to patients… Such humor often reflects, we believe, a feeling of frustration, or perhaps thwarted idealism.”
When in direct contact with patients, however, both physicians and residents treat them with respect. Humor is often used to make the patient feel more at ease. “Just after we enter the room, she jokingly tells the patient, after he responds rather slowly to one of her questions, ‘That’s OK. I’m having the same kind of day you are’—meaning tiring, and exhausting. Everyone laughs.”
This instance blurs status lines and integrates the patient. On the other hand, patients occasionally ward off embarrassing or personal questions from residents or physicians by giving their answers jokingly.
The Nurse Coordinator serves as a liaison between patients and various medical staff. Though her position holds lower social prestige, she has the final say over scheduling the residents and thereby holds tremendous power, which perhaps explains why humor between the nurse and residents or attending physicians flows both ways. The nurse makes fun of their ability or commitment to medical care while the residents joke about her power and call her the “boss,” possibly indicating a certain uneasiness about power relations in the clinic. On the other hand, nurses also bond with residents by mentoring them through humor.
The researchers conclude: “We suggest that humor functions as an organizational, emotional thermostat of sorts. Persons are continually responding to situations in terms of their ease or disease with power and status, two critical dimensions of the organization’s emotional climate.”
Yoels, William C. and Jeffrey Michael Clair, “Laughter in the Clinic: Humor as Social Organization.” Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 18 No. 1: 39-58.
1. Use what you have learned about roles to analyze the interactions of the various groups above. What are the role sets? Is there role conflict or strain?
2. As you have seen above, as part of bonding, physicians and residents occasionally denigrate patients. Do you agree with the researchers’ conclusions regarding that issue? Why or why not?