by Jessica McIntyre (MAA student at Macquarie University)
Depictions of humorous and often exaggerated cultural stereotypes can be used either constructively or destructively to identify and explore the tensions at the boundary-lines of intercultural interactions. The skits of British comedy troupe Monty Python provide a fascinating illustration of this and they demonstrate how humorous stereotyping can be used to promote intercultural competence. Below I briefly explore why people may use humor and stereotype when depicting culture and what it accomplishes. There are positive ways that comedians can use humor to open dialogue about social and cultural issues and connect people from different backgrounds by overriding the negative uses of cultural stereotyping.
The Humor Impulse in Depictions of Culture
Why do human beings have an apparent need to use humor, and in particular stereotypes, when dealing with the boundaries between their culture and the culture of a perceived “other”? Various theorists have explored the reasons for this impulse (Bremmer & Roodenburg 1997; Carty & Musharbash 2008; Holmes & Hay 2010; Redmond 2008; Winkler Reid 2013). As Holmes and Hay point out, determining the purpose of the speaker when making a joke can be difficult and often requires a combination of context, verbal and non-verbal clues (2010:7). Holmes and Hay suggest various purposes for the use of humor aside from the explicit intention to cause laughter. These range from control, conflict and defensive coping strategy to sharing with others and creating solidarity (2010:7). However as Bremmer and Roodenburg point out (1997:3), the common assumption that humor is “transcultural and ahistorical” is false. In fact, humor in the modern sense of comical mischievousness was historically seen as a distinctly English trait as recently as 1765 (Bremmer & Roodenburg 1997:1-2).
One of the ways that humor and the use of stereotypes can appeal to people is that the use of distancing of even traumatic historical events between cultures can open dialogue about those events. This also allows the release of laughter around things that would perhaps have been impossible to laugh at by those directly experiencing the original events, such as the violent oppression of one culture by another (Redmond 2008:3). Monty Python employ just such a technique in their “Mr Hilter” sketch.
It is perhaps the presentation of these despotic authority figures as objects of ridicule that allows the laughter at something so otherwise uncomfortable (Redmond 2008:3).
Another reason that people use humor is to create a safe arena for the examination of controversial or dangerous social issues. Driessen raises the point that political humor, for example, is much more common and developed in contexts where there is political repression. He gives the example of the prevalence of political humor in Franco’s Spain compared to the dearth he has observed in democratic countries (1997:22-224). Monty Python also uses humor for such a purpose to some degree. Their Flying Circus sketches were written and performed during an era of economic unrest in Britain, resulting in this sketch where the paintings at the National Gallery go on strike (Free 2013:86).
Another example of this is the “Execution in Russia” sketch where an English tourist awaiting execution politely assists them resulting inevitably in his own execution.
Finally, people instinctively use humor to connect with others across boundaries, such as perceived cultural differences that might otherwise potentially divide them. This can be seen on school playgrounds when groups of classmates use such humor to create a close social group amongst their peers from various cultures (Winkler Reid 2013:2-3). In this way, people can be observed to use humor and cultural stereotypes to laugh at themselves and their differences from others, rather than to isolate themselves in mono-cultural groups. This use of humor can stray into a dangerous area when witnessed by outside observers and is always more comfortable when the speaker is mocking their own culture than when they turn the lens on their friends’ cultures. Despite this, I have witnessed groups of friends from a variety of backgrounds mercilessly lampoon each others’ cultures with apparently no bruised egos in the aftermath but on the contrary a great deal of bonding amidst the hilarity.
The Dark Side of Stereotypes
The darker side of social inclusion through humor is the part laughter can equally play in social exclusion. As Carty and Musharbash demonstrate (2008:214), laughter creates “social rupture”, separating those sharing the joke from those marked as “other” by their failure to understand or enjoy the joke. Laughter in an intercultural setting can be aggressive and provoke fear or result as a response to fear, anxiety or embarrassment (Carty & Musharbash 2008; Driessen 1997). Monty Python actually use the intercultural tension provoked by mockery and laughter to create this comical scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam & Jones 1975).
The conspiratorial sniggering of the French knights on the battlements is played overtly for laughs, but by the use of hyperbole it manages to expose the tensions at the edge of English/French intercultural relations as farcical. This holds the intercultural aggression up for ridicule.
One of the most common problems with cultural stereotypes and intercultural attempts at humor is the danger of trivialising or oversimplifying issues and essentialising other cultures. Indeed, essentialisation is a risk when any intercultural communication takes place and the container model of culture is always in some danger of stereotyping. Humor is just another aspect of these interactions between cultures that can be misused either deliberately or unintentionally. In the latter case, part of the problem is that most forms of humor that manage to transcend language and cultural barriers are inclined, by necessity, to be simplistic, visual and crude because higher-level humor requires a lot of contextual knowledge. Part of that context tends to be cultural (Reimann 2010:25). Monty Python’s humor, even though it does incorporate some visual “slapstick”, is mostly of this highly-contextualised form. Therefore the question of intercultural appeal remains a difficult one that may require further study.
Another problematic aspect of humor is when a stereotype contributes to a racist dialogue. Humor can be used to reinforce rather than to identify and explore difference. It can both depend upon and add to power relationships based around race. An example of this is a South African joke that portrays an elderly white woman threatening young black men in a car with a gun before realising the car is not actually hers. The humor only works in this joke if the audience assumes that carjacking is generally a crime committed by black people against white people (Schonfeldt & Aultman 2014:26-27). Monty Python’s “Communist Quiz” sketch veers in this direction. It portrays an arguably racist caricature of Mao Tse-Tung. Free argues (2013:88) that the Pythons held nothing as sacred thus excusing the racism of the portrayal. However, this is problematic as the other Communists in the sketch, a Russian, a German and an Argentinian are not portrayed in such racially caricatured impersonations.
Further to the risk of racism is the potential for humor in the form of cultural stereotyping to demean and hurt individual members of that culture. This is done by hiding behind the dismissive attitude encapsulated in the phrase, “It’s only a joke”. This is most often a problem when, as illustrated above, there is an asymmetrical relationship between the culture of the joke-teller and the culture of the group joked about. Davies demonstrates (1990:43-44) that one of the main elements of cultures that are the butt of jokes about stupidity is that they are geographically close to the culture the joke-teller comes from. This is most telling when the culture of the joke-teller is also dominant in some way over the culture they are joking about. Furthermore, the use of rhetoric in such humor reinforces the presentation of ambiguous facts as “truth” (Weaver 2014:417). Monty Python tend to avoid this pitfall by making their own culture the butt of jokes, too many to list here, about cultural idiosyncrasies.
The Power of Humor
On the other hand, comedians have used the tool of humor and even stereotype positively to identify, explore and overcome some of the boundaries between cultures and to open up intercultural communication. Monty Python use incongruity very effectively, revealing the absurdity of both “English ordinariness” and matters of historical import by juxtaposing them in their sketches (Free 2013:85-86). One of the most famous examples of this juxtaposition is the “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. It functions by exposing the ridiculous nature of the British phrase redolent of the English cultural protection of privacy and aversion to questioning, “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition”, with the quite literal intervention of a group of Spanish cardinals who leap into a series of middle-class English living rooms whenever someone utters the phrase (Free 2013:85). The slightly affronted but not alarmed response to these invasions adds to the stereotype of the English middle-classes as coldly unemotional and “proper”.
One of the most powerful ways humor opens up a dialogue about something uncomfortable or threatening is what Carty and Musharbash refer to as a “rhetorical Trojan horse”. This technique causes an audience to engage with a seemingly unthreatening joke and bond over their mutual laughter in order to sneak in a controversial topic for discussion (2008:215). Monty Python do not have a live audience, as with the example in Carty and Musharbash, but they do open up a dialogue about some uncomfortable topics. Examples include war, as in the “Funniest Joke in the World” sketch.
And religion, as in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Jones 1979) which tries to subversively address issues around Christianity by creating a parallel story next to the story of Christ without directly attacking Christianity itself. Blessed are the Cheesemakers!
Unfortunately, this tactic did not manage to evade the offence of Christian lobby groups who could still recognise the lampooning of their customs and culture.
Another way in which humor can be very powerful for intercultural communication is in exploring the tension between two cultures that may not be addressed by more formal or serious interactions. This is particularly true because formalised interactions tend to focus on similarities between cultures in order to achieve harmony. Asking individuals to notice and discuss strange or shocking elements of other cultures they interact with can open dialogue about these tensions in a constructive way. However this does need to be done in an atmosphere of mutual respect and genuine interest (Timmer, personal communication, May 20, 2014).
Humor can also be used by cultural groups, to signal identity and maintain “ethnic” boundaries (Holmes & Hay 2010:133). This can, create an atmosphere of cultural self-confidence that allows for more confident interaction with other cultures. This is particularly so when a power imbalance is again involved, such as between the Maori and Pakeha (white New Zealander) cultures described in Holmes and Hay’s article (2010).
Finally and arguably most importantly for intercultural communication and intercultural competence, humor and stereotyping can be used to create a form of bonding and connection across the differences between entire cultures and hierarchies within them (Winkler Reid 2013:11).
While humor identifies, explores and sometimes creates boundaries, it also crosses them very quickly when people recognise and laugh at a joke together. Monty Python use this tactic for many of their cruder visual “slapstick” routines but also by caricaturing authority figures. An example of this is in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Jones 1979) where the Roman soldiers are so very recognisably “British” in their Roman-ness that one assumes it is a deliberate ploy to mock the authority and entire concept of empire across cultures in general: “Throw him to the floor.”
As Kris points out (Redmond 2008:260), this is an exercise that invites the audience to join with each other and the comedians in a metaphorical act of aggression against the authority represented.
We can see, therefore, that humor and cultural stereotypes can be used in both destructive and constructive ways to communicate interculturally. There can certainly be problems with trivialising cultural issues, using laughter to demean and exclude, and the risk of racism is ever-present. Nevertheless, people have still often felt the need to express themselves through humor and to use cultural stereotypes to safely identify and discuss potentially uncomfortable or dangerous issues arising from current political situations or past acts of cultural oppression. This tactic is generally most successful when, as Monty Python tend to do, the joke-maker lampoons their own culture at least as often, if not more than the cultures of others.
Bremmer, Jan, and Herman Roodenburg, eds. 1997. A Cultural History of Humor: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Carty, John and Yasmine Musharbash. 2008 You’ve got to be Joking: Asserting the Analytical Value of Humor and Laughter in Contemporary Anthropology. Anthropological Forum 18 (3) 209-217. DOI: 10.1080/00664670802429347.
Chapman, Graham, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, dirs. 1969-1973 Monty Python’s Flying Circus. 25-30 min. BBC1. London.
Chapman, Graham, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. 1989. Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Just the Words, Volume One. London:Methuen.
Chapman, Graham, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. 1989. Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Just the Words, Volume Two. London:Methuen
Davies, Christie. 1990. Ethnic Humor Around the World: A Comparative Analysis. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Driessen, Henk. 1997 Humor, Laughter and the Field: Reflections from Anthropology. In A Cultural History of Humor: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Bremmer, Jan, and Herman Roodenburg, eds. Pp. 222 – 241. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Free, David. 2013 The Beatles of Comedy: Monty Python’s Genius was to Respect Nothing. The Atlantic (Jan/Feb) 82-89.
Gilliam, Terry, and Terry Jones, dirs. 1975. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Film, 88 min. Python Pictures. London.
Holmes, Janet, and Jennifer Hay. 1997. Humor as an ethnic boundary marker in New Zealand interaction. Journal of Intercultural Studies 18 (2) 127-151. DOI:10.1080/07256868.1997.9963447.
Jones, Terry, dir. 1979. Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Film, 93 min. HandMade Films. London.
Redmond, Anthony. 2008. Captain Cook Meets General MacArthur in the Northern Kimberley: Humor and Ritual in an Indigenous Australian Life-World. Anthropological Forum 18 (3) 255-270. DOI: 10.1080/00664670802429370.
Reiman, Andrew. 2010. Intercultural Communication and the Essence of Humor. Journal of International Studies 29: 23-34.
Schonfeldt-Aultman, Scott M. 2014 Just kidding? Humor, rhetoric and racial inference in newsletters of a San Francisco Bay Area South African group. Critical Arts 28(1): 19-39. DOI:10.1080/02560046.2014.883694.
Weaver, Simon. 2011. Jokes, rhetoric and embodied racism: a rhetorical discourse analysis of the logics of racist jokes on the internet. Ethnicities 11(4): 413-435. DOI: 10.1177/1468796811407755.
Winkler Reid, Dr. Sarah. 2013. Making Fun out of Difference: Ethnicity-Race and Humor in a London School. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology. DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2013.801504.
If tuberculosis (TB) is so often described as the quintessential social disease, why aren’t more researchers in the social sciences and humanities studying this global problem? Anthropologists are able to add valuably to research design and public policy in diverse cultural settings. A volume on Anthropology of infectious disease by Peter Brown and Marcia Inhorn highlights some of anthropology’s key lessons when it comes to infection and disease–lessons that anthropologists should be applying more liberally to the problem of TB around the world. TB remains second only to AIDS as the biggest infectious killer in the world despite the availability of effective treatment. Almost a hundred years ago, Halilday Sutherland, a protegé of Sir Robert Philip, expressed in a 1917 speech that the largest obstacles to the elimination of tuberculosis were man-made. Cultural barriers, poverty, and the unequal distribution of resources remain the biggest hurdles that need to be overcome to combat the spread of this infectious airborne disease. Developing the cultural competency of healthworkers around the world, engaging constructively with local communities, and creating more highly targeted communication strategies is key to the effective delivery of antibiotic treatment for TB. More qualitative research is needed. Anthropologists with an active program of research studying TB include:
- Dr Nora Engel from Maastricht University,
- Dr Ian Harper from the University of Edinburgh,
- Dr Erin Koch from the University of Kentucky,
- Andrew McDowell at McGill University
- Dr Jessica Ogden from the International Centre for Research on Women and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,
- Drs Julie Roberts and Judith Littleton from the University of Auckland,
- Laura Winterton from the University of Edinburgh, Suripto from Latrobe Unviersity,
- Dr Thu Anh Nguyen from the Woolcock Institute, Hanoi.
Ethnomusicology Forum has just released a special edition on “Creative Intersubjectivity in Performance” with contributions from Elizabeth Betz, Monika Winarnita, Sean Martin-Iverson, Paul H. Mason, Sandra Bader and Max Richter. Each article uses an anthropological approach to performance research, with an emphasis on the ways in which the intersubjective interactions between performers, their audiences, and the wider social context directly shape creative processes.
Last year I wrote a blog post for the TB CRE covering a story about Ravindra Patil who died of tuberculosis after having spent time in Mumbai Central Prison. The piece inspired me to read more about the spread and control of tuberculosis in prisons. Though not comprehensive, the following is a list of links to articles about tuberculosis in prisons. This list does not necessarily represent the places where we find the highest rates of TB among inmates. However, the list does indicate places where it has been possible for researchers to gather data. Of the 22 countries identified by the World Health Organisation as having a high-burden of tuberculosis, intriguingly not all (such as Mozambique, Myanmar and mainland China) have accessible data on TB in prisons. Kudos to those countries who allow research into tuberculosis to be conducted in their prisons. Only through obtaining the proper data can we hope to improve the condition of people infected with a survivable and curable disease.
Culture Matters is pleased to announce that Assoc. Prof. Chris Lyttleton’s new book, Intimate Economies of Development: Mobility, Sexuality and Health in Asia, has been launched by Routledge Press. The book explores the intimate dimensions of migration and development in Southeast Asia, including their impact on individuals’ health: “Aspirations, desires, opportunism and exploitation are seldom considered as fundamental elements of donor-driven development as it impacts on the lives of people in poor countries. Yet, alongside structural interventions, emotional or affective engagements are central to processes of social change and the making of selves for those caught up in development’s slipstream.”
The book has been well received by a wide variety of readers. Professor Pál Nyiri of Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, calls Intimate Economies of Development, a ‘highly original and sometimes heartrending book’ in which ‘Lyttleton reconsiders the ways development projects and the global market are changing people’s lives in remote corners of Southeast Asia through the lens of intimacy and desire.’ Instead of considering sex and affect as epiphenomenal to development, ‘Lyttleton places them at the centre, showing that intimate entanglements between strangers are crucial to understanding how contemporary globalisation actually works, not just in “global cities” but also along rural byways.’
Professor Peter Aggleton of the University of New South Wales writes that the book is ‘a real wakeup call demonstrating the energy, enthusiasm and creativity of poor people in Southeast Asia searching for a better life.’ Professor Peggy Levitt of Wellesley College and Harvard University argues that Lyttleton’s ‘intensive, long-term fieldwork in places as diverse as rubber plantations and massage parlors located throughout the Greater Mekong’ offers a view of an ‘emotional’ economy of development with ‘rich theoretical insights and innovative methodological models for understanding the production and consumption of “progress.”’
This innovative approach to the relationship between intimate lives and large-scale development doesn’t simply offer a new theoretical lens, according to Prof. Yos Santasombat of Chiang Mai University: ‘The path-breaking connections between material and affective aspects of development allow us to probe deeper than is customary to understand the “side effects” of development and clearly explain why many good projects failed miserably’.
For those of us who have been watching Chris’ work from the sidelines, the publication of Intimate Economies of Development is a great chance to see up close how anthropology helps us to understand macrosocial processes on a human scale. The publisher is offering a discount for those wishing to purchase the book for a limited time. Just download the flyer linked at the bottom of this news story if you’re interested. And congratulations to Chris on a landmark publication.
For more information: go to the Taylor and Francis Group website.
For book flyer, link here (pdf). Flyer Intimate Economies of Development
Science and Nature have just published research that supports a hypothesis about Neanderthal-human hybridisation that I published with Professor Roger Valentine Short in 2011. The recent popularity of the hybridisation theory was also reported in Nature news, Fox News, and National Public Radio.
I was first inspired to think deeply about patterns of interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans while teaching Human Evolution and Diversity at Macquarie University in 2010. I approached Roger Short from Melbourne University with some of my ideas and we ended up writing a paper together. Famous for his work on elephants, Roger has also worked on hybridising camels and lamas. His work on Haldane’s law was a crucial part to building our Neanderthal-human hybridisation hypothesis.
Africans do not have Neanderthal ancestry. Interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans occurred as some groups migrated outside Africa between 80,000 years and 50,000 years ago. Looking at experimental studies of nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA from both humans and Neanderthals, Roger Short and I have hypothesised that Neanderthal men mated successfully with female humans but not vice-versa. Turning to Haldane’s law, we conjectured that the offspring were predominantly female hybrids. Male hybrids were uncommon, absent or sterile. Beyond the evidence from nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, this hypothesis also gels well with data from the Y chromosome that indicates that the human Y chromosomes came entirely from Africa. The recent experimental work published in Science and Nature bolsters our excitement in the hybridisation hypothesis. Great-Great-Great Grandma, as it turns out, was likely the hybrid offspring of a Neanderthal male and a female human.
In science, the method of naming hybrid offspring usually follows the rule that the first half of the name comes from the male parent and the second half comes from the female parent. For example, a liger is the offspring of a male lion and a female tiger, a cama is the offspring of a male camel and a female llama, and a zorse is the offspring of a male zebra and a female horse. Given this conventional naming practice for hybrids, should humans living outside of Africa actually call themselves NEANDUMANS? What do you think?
Here’s an interesting list of allegedly predatory journals, but even more interesting is the troll of comments below the list. While I tend to agree with those who talk in favour of open-access forums, I would, when searching for a journal to publish my article, check this list and of course do some careful research on the journals that attract my attention.
Originally posted on Scholarly Open Access:
By Jeffrey Beall
Released January 2, 2014
The gold (author pays) open-access model has given rise to a great many new online publishers. Many of these publishers are corrupt and exist only to make money off the author processing charges that are billed to authors upon acceptance of their scientific manuscripts.
There are two lists below. The first includes questionable, scholarly open-access publishers. Each of these publishers has a portfolio that ranges from just a few to hundreds of individual journal titles.
The second list includes individual journals that do not publish under the platform of any publisher — they are essentially standalone, questionable journals.
In both cases, we recommend that researchers, scientists, and academics avoid doing business with these publishers and journals. Scholars should avoid sending article submissions to them, serving on their editorial boards, reviewing papers for them, or advertising in them. Also, tenure and promotion committees should…
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The Islamic New Year has already begun. Around the globe, Shiites are observing ceremonies to commemorate the martyrdom of the prophet’s grandson Hussein in the battle of Karbala. These ceremonies are central to Shiite identity globally. The rich variety of these traditions worldwide provides a window into the diversity of Islamic religious expression.
Last year, I travelled to Hyderabad, India, to observe local ceremonies during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. I had previously documented Muharram ceremonies in Indonesia in 2009 and I was inspired to see what present-day Muharram ceremonies looked like in India. The ceremonies in Indonesia originated in India. Sepoy Indians under the command of the British in the nineteenth century transported the ceremonies throughout Southeast Asia. The ceremonies proved popular throughout the Indo-Malayan archipelago, but believing that the ceremonies had connections to Mohammadean secret societies and Chinese Triads, British colonial powers sought to extinguish the event. Muharram public rituals survived only in two locations, Pariaman and Bengkulu along the Western coast of Sumatra, but only because Sumatra was handed over to the Dutch in 1824. In other locations Muharram ceremonies might have continued but they changed to become unrecognisable from their Indian origins. In Pariaman and Bengkulu, Sunnis and Shiite Indian descendants have continued contemporary interpretations of Muharram ceremonies that have come to include diverse performing arts and symbolic processions.
Breaking news: Women can now drive in Saudi Arabia without going to jail! (But they risk getting a ticket.)
Saudi artist Saffaa just alerted me to a critical news item that the English-language media is not covering at all: women in Saudi Arabia can now drive without going to jail. The only penalty the Saudi government will now impose on women caught driving is to issue them a ticket for not having a license.
As Saffaa put it,
So women can now drive in Saudi without going to jail. Why isn’t Western media all over this news? Are they sleeping or this news isn’t as sensational as women going to jail for driving? Ah and yes no one had to burn a bra. Not a single one …
The news item in Arabic is here, reporting that the Kingdom’s Traffic Authority Director (I’m not exactly sure how to translate “mudeer `aam al-muroor“) General Abdulrahman Muqabbel has clarified to Sabq (the news agency reporting this) that women caught driving will only be ticketed for a traffic infraction (mukhalifa murooriyya faqat). Previously women caught driving were taken to the local police station where they were held until their male guardians came to pick them up.
Here’s a YouTube video taken by a woman in Jeddah driving and encouraging other Saudi women to get in their cars and drive. She says, “Right now, I’m on Malak Street, and I’m driving, and there’s nothing, nobody is stopping me, nobody is cursing me, nobody is photographing me, I’m just taking this video to say to girls, Let’s go, darlings, out to drive… but you must have a [male] guardian in the car with you! Ours is behind me [the camera shifts to the back seat and a male voice says, "yeah"]…”
There are multiple similar videos now going up on YouTube of women driving and urging their compatriots to do the same, and many more Saudi women who are not taking videos but who are out driving, exploring the new boundaries around Saudi women’s use of public space.
Tricycle has a preview of a new documentary film on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America. Looks like it will be a very interesting film.
In 1898, a group of young Japanese immigrants founded the religious association “Soko Bukkyo Seinen-kai” (Trans. “San Francisco Buddhist Youth Association”). Responding to their request, the Nishi Hongwanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, headquarters of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha school of Buddhism, began to dispatch Japanese priests known as Kaikyoshi to the USA the next year. In the years that followed, a national organization called the Buddhist Mission of North America (BMNA) would take shape, eventually growing to become one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the United States with over 60 temples nationwide.