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date: 20 September 2017

Intergroup Jokes and Humor

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

Intergroup humor, humor that disparages a social group or its representatives, is pervasive and readily available to us, perhaps more now, in the digital age, than ever before. Recent Google searches yielded 4,240,000 hits for “racist jokes” and 10,400,000 hits for “sexist jokes.” Such disparagement humor can shape interpersonal relations in positive and negative ways. As William Martineau noted, intergroup humor can function as a “lubricant” or an “abrasive” for social relationships. Disparagement humor directed at social out-groups functions simultaneously as a social lubricant for members of the in-group and as a social abrasive for intergroup relations. By enhancing social identity and in-group pride, disparagement humor enhances in-group cohesion. Accordingly, people initiate disparagement humor when they experience a threat to their social identity, that is, when they perceive that their in-group is at risk of being judged as inferior to a relevant out-group. Disparagement humor restores positive distinctiveness and thus a positive social identity.

However, by communicating that its message is to be taken as “just a joke,” disparagement humor can denigrate its target without challenge or criticism. As a result, it can function as a powerful “abrasive” for social relationships without recourse to the initiator. Specifically, disparagement humor appears to function as a situational event that allows people to express or “release” their prejudiced attitudes. Prejudiced norm theory proposes that when people approve of disparagement humor (e.g., laugh at it), they tacitly assent to a shared agreement (a social norm) that it is acceptable in this particular context to make light of discrimination. They essentially re-define the situation as one in which they need not suppress their prejudice out of fear of social reprisal. Also, people are likely to approve of disparagement humor, interpreting it as “just a joke,” to the extent they are prejudiced against the disparaged group. Finally, because prejudiced people are inclined to interpret disparagement humor as “just a joke,” they tend to perceive and assent to an emergent prejudiced norm in the immediate social context, and to use that norm to guide their own responses toward members of the targeted group. That is, upon exposure to disparagement humor, prejudiced people tend to perceive the immediate context as permissive of expressions of prejudice and thus feel comfortable expressing or “releasing” their own prejudice.