Mahadev L. Apte
Humor and Laughter. An Anthropological Approach.
(1985). Cornell University Press.

Introduction, p.13

Some definitions of humor

Humor is perhaps one of the most difficult subjects to study.

The extensive literature on humor repeatedly emphasizes the difficulties of defining the concept satisfactorily.
Goldstein and McGhee do not even attempt to define it "for the simple reason that there is no single definition of humor acceptable to all investigators in the area" (1972:xxi)

The problem of studying humor begins with its conceptualization. [...]

It appears that three elements need to be considered:
1) sources that act as potential stimuli;
2) the cognitive and intellectual activity responsible for the perception and evaluation of these sources leading to humor experience;
and 3) behavioral responses that are expressed as smiling or laughter or both.
These attributes of the conceptualization of humor generally occur sequentially as I have ordered them; however, it is the second phase, the mental activity experienced by an individual, that is most crucial.

p.15 The purpose and orientation of the work
I shall pursue two broad objectives:
1) the exploration by cross-cultural comparison of the interdependence of humor and socio-cultural factors in societies around the world, and the formulation of generalizations based on such an investigation;
2) the setting forth of theoretical propositions regarding the similar and different ways in which humor is linked to socio-cultural factors. Clearly this study is comparative rather than ethnographic; there is a need for such an approach.

questions asked:
Are there cross-culturally shared ways in which humor stimuli are generated and humor appreciated?
Are there categories and types of humor that occur in many societies?
Does humor serve similar purposes in many societies?
Do similar behaviors, objects, institutions, and so forth across cultures serve as stimuli of humor?
Do cultures share similar attitudes toward the need, desirability, occurrence, and use of humor in certain social events?

p.16 My discussion principally focuses on the external stimuli of humor and responses to it. Even if humor is a cognitive experience for an individual, it must have a cultural niche; it cannot occur in a vacuum. The stress on external humor stimuli is reflected in the consideration of their origin. I also explore the nature of sequential events of humor and its consequences at both the individual and societal level. I pursue both meta-theoretical and prospective approaches, critically examining the theories of other scholars regarding the causes, facets, and effects of humor phenomena. In addition I formulate new theories and explanations by way of propositions and hypotheses after analyzing the interconnections between humor and other socio-cultural dimensions to determine how they influence the nature and function of humor at the culture-specific and general levels.

Two axioms underlie my discussion, namely, that humor is by and large culture based and that humor can be a major conceptual and methodological tool for gaining insights into cultural systems.

Individuals are not conscious of this requirement, because they already possess the cultural knowledge to which they compare the humor-generating stimuli. An individual who is not a member of a specific culture and therefore has not internalized its behavioral patterns and value system may not experience humor, lacking the necessary standard for comparison.

Why and how are certain combinations of cultural elements viewed as incongruent, exaggerated, inappropriate, distorted, and so on?
What are the congruent, normal, standard, appropriate structures on which judgments of incongruity, exaggeration, and distortion are based?
Are the combinations of disparate culturally cognitive categories seen as appropriate incongruities?
Answers to such questions should make explicit the implicit patterned aspects of a cultural code so that they can be subjected to verification and confirmation.

Sociologist A.A. Berger: "Because humor is intimately connected to culture-codes, it is useful in providing insights into a society's values" (1976:115)
Anthropologist Hall: "...people laugh and tell jokes, and if you can learn the humor of a people and really control it, you know that you are also in control of nearly everything else" (1959/68: 56).

This introductory chapter outlines the general framework of the book and explains what an anthropological study of humor entails, describing criteria for selecting humor-related ethnographic data and the limitations of such a study.
Chapters 1 through 4 explore the interconnections between humor and social structure.
Part 2 examines humor in the context of such universal human attitudes as language, religion, and folklore.
The Postscript considers some broad implications expressed as propositions concerning the relationship between humor and culture.

©2002, Vicente Forés López
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Universitat de València Press
Creada: 22/02/2000 Última Actualización: 12/08/2002