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World STI & HIV Congress day 2

14 September, 2015
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A summary of the second day of the World STI and HIV congress in Brisbane, Australia. Read on…

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Joint World STI & HIV & ASHM Congress

13 September, 2015

The World STI and HIV congress and Australasian HIV and AIDS conference are happening back to back this week. Delegates have come from all around the world to attend the event. Please read on for a summary of the first day’s events…

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STI, HIV, AIDS, TB, conferences of this month

7 August, 2015

WORLD STI & AIDS CongressThe Joint World STI & HIV & ASHM Congress starts on Sunday 13 September 2015 at the Brisbance Convention Centre! That’s today (in local time)!!! It is the first time the International Society for STD Research (ISSTDR) will be holding their biennial meeting downunder, so it’s an exciting time for researchers working below the equator. HIV and AIDSThe World STI & HIV Congress will be held from the 13th to 16th of September and the Australasian HIV & AIDS Conference, hosted by the Australasian Society for HIV Medicine (AHSM), will be held from the 16th to 18th of September. I will be blogging about the event throughout the week.

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A stubborn conundrum

3 August, 2015

Professor Margaret Lock has published an exhaustive ethnography of Alzheimer disease research in her latest book, The Alzheimer Conundrum. I recently reviewed this book for The Australian Journal of Anthropology. The book interested me both for personal and academic reasons. For the last few years, I have been working with Danielle Corrie, an aged-care service provider, to put together a series of accounts of ageing in the suburbs. The Alzheimer Conundrum was interesting for both of us given its engagement with ageing research. A number of themes that Lock has to play with in discussing the culture of Alzheimer disease research include conceptualisations of risk, debates over normality, constructions of pathology, the politicisation of aetiology, the rise of uncertainty, scientific reductionism, medicalisation and standardisation. Even though not all the key terms are identified in the index, I urge readers interested in these themes to peruse the whole text rather than restricting themselves to just specific sections of the book. In fact, the contents of the index hint at an ethnographic tome simultaneously targeted at a scientifically literate audience. In this regard, I believe The Alzheimer Conundrum has something for both anthropologists and brain scientists.

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Fiji Fieldschool press release

9 July, 2015
Photo by Suhad Hussain. 2015

Photo by Suhad Hussain. 2015

Macquarie University students in the unit, Anth 225 ‘Field school in anthropology: Fiji,’ are currently on Beqa Island in Fiji where they are working with artists from the Pacific to prepare a new exhibition (and the online exhibition that will accompany it). The following is the press release that USP is going to put out.

Weaving climate awareness through art.

The Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies of the University of the South Pacific is pleased to announce the launch of a new exhibition: Cli-mat: Weaving climate awareness through art. Cli-mat is a collaboration of Pacific artists, USP staff, primary school students, and a group from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

The exhibition of original works includes sculptures, assemblages, and woven mat-based art that uses recycled rubbish, and other found materials, as well as photography and multimedia. The works explore the effects of climate change and environmental challenges faced by Fiji and other Pacific nations. The students, staff and artists, including master carver Paula Ligairua, travelled to Beqa Island for the project.

Visual Arts Coordinator Johanna Beasley explained:

The island environment on Beqa gives artists a unique opportunity to find inspiration. Leaving the urban environment produces a positive atmosphere that encourages, not just new work, but innovative techniques. With the students from Macquarie documenting the creative process, the artists can focus on their work – the students will take care of the online exhibition. Our artists can also learn from our visitors, especially IT and video production.

The exhibition includes art projects with school children on Beqa Island, who participated in an outreach program. These projects are a model curriculum that uses art to raise awareness of environmental issues, including rubbish disposal and sea level change.

The exhibition presents visual art and multi-media by students of Macquarie University, who are participating in the class, ‘Field school in anthropology: Fiji.’ The course is new to Macquarie’s ‘Professionalisation and Community Engagement’ (MQ-PACE) program. MQ-PACE encourages students to apply what they learn at university while working with diverse partners.

The ‘field school’ class is made possible by a grant from the Australian government under the New Colombo scheme. Macquarie and the Australian government want students to gain experience in Asia and the Pacific, so that Australia can better cooperate with the region in the future.

The ‘field school’ coordinator, Associate Professor Greg Downey, together with colleague Dr. Frank Siciliano, sought the collaboration with USP, the first of its kind for MQ-PACE. As Downey describes the ‘field school’:

Bringing together art with anthropology is a wonderful opportunity. Anthropologists study other cultures, trying to share insights into the way people live. Artists do the same — they communicate how they see the world and the concerns of their communities. This is true in both traditional and contemporary art. Producing videos and an online exhibition allows my students to use their anthropological skills to help the artists communicate broadly, even to a global audience. And these media make sure that the exhibition lives on, even after all the works are taken down from the gallery and replaced with something new.

The exhibition will open the 22nd of July and remain on display until September. The online exhibition will be launched at the same time (we’ll post information on the website as soon as it’s available).

Part of the Macquarie-USP fieldwork team visiting the local church on Beqa Island, Fiji.

Part of the Macquarie-USP fieldwork team visiting the local church on Beqa Island, Fiji.


Biologically Constructed

22 May, 2015

By Eliot van Brummelen who posted this interesting essay on his own blog here. We are delighted that he is keen to have it reposted on Culture Matters. Also check out Eliot’s blog for more reflections on the world!

Contemporary understandings of sex and gender have changed considerably in recent decades. From the 1960s, feminist theorists problematised meanings of femininity and masculinity and helped distinguish culturally-constructed ‘gender’ from physical ‘sex.’ ‘Gender,’ now understood as an embodied and socially performed aspect of one’s own identity, has enjoyed a total absorption into the domain of the social sciences where it is regularly debated, analysed and taught. ‘Sex,’ on the other hand, remains deeply guarded from further scrutiny because of the perceived neutrality and authority of ‘naturally occurring’ biological categories.

A handful of researchers have taken up the task of critically analysing ‘sex’ as a cultural-biological construct and drawing it out from its biological fortress. For example, Anne Fausto-Sterling has written extensively on the implications a strictly male/female binary sex system has for people who identify as neither male nor female (1993, 2000, 2003). Fausto-Sterling argues that the two-sex, or dimorphic system of sex classification found in many medicalised societies does not accurately account for the full range of human sexual variation and she proposes the recognition of five sexes instead of two. Other notable mentions include Prof. Dr. Anelis Kaiser, who asks the question, “Where does ‘sex’ end and ‘gender’ begin in the brain?” The answer? It’s ambiguous. “It’s impossible to accurately conceptualise ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ either into a solely biological or a solely social component,” says Kaiser (2012, p. 130). Following on from debate in the 1990s, which led to the deconstruction of the sex-gender dichotomy in gender studies, Kaiser (2012, p. 134) argues from a neuropsychological perspective that sex and gender should be seen as an inseparable unity and referred to using the double term ‘sex/gender’ to express the impossibility of separating one term from the other. Also on brains, Daphna Joel (2011) has demonstrated the multi-morphic nature of human brains. What we observe neuro-biologically is a permanently changing, diverse mosaic of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ characteristics on a continuum. This revelation of the multi-morphic nature of human brains dispels the common misconception that there is such a thing as a ‘female brain’ and a ‘male brain.’ Similarly, feminist theorist Judith Lorber (1993) argues that, “bodies differ in ways physiologically, but they are completely transformed by social practices to fit into the salient categories of a society, the most pervasive of which are ‘female’ and ‘male’.”

‘Sex’ or biology does not exist in a vacuum. In their study on hormones, van Anders and Dunn (2009) argue that biological data can reflect innate as well as culturally-related influences (Kaiser, 2012, p. 134). Biology, or rather, knowledge about biology, is always informed by broader cultural understandings and researchers investigating ‘sex’ always have knowledge about ‘gender’ leaving traces on what is supposed to be a genderless and neutral biology (Kaiser, 2012, p. 131). If biology is neutral, its sex categories must account for the full range of human sexuality. This is not the case for societies dominated by a two-sex, or dimorphic, system of categorisation. For a small number of people, the binaries of ‘male’ and ‘female’ do not accurately reflect the physiological or chromosomal make up of their bodies. For ‘intersex’ people, their identity often comes to symbolise a disjunction between the ‘neutral’ sex categories found in most medicalised societies, and the reality of their own biology.


The Intersex Society of North America defines ‘intersex’ as, “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” An accurate accounting of the frequency of intersex births has been difficult to establish. A number of exceptions to the two-sex system remain undetectable without specialised testing or until the person hits puberty, and given the internal or chromosomal nature of some sex variations it’s not entirely implausible that many people go through life never knowing that they could be considered ‘intersex.’ Despite these difficulties, Hull et. al. calculated that 0.3% of all births can be classified as ‘intersex’ (Fausto-Sterling, 2003). This figure accounts for all chromosomal, anatomical and hormonal exceptions to the dimorphic system of classification present in many medicalised societies.

The incidence of intersex births also varies significantly around the world. Some populations possess the relevant genes for intersex births at higher frequencies than others. Take the CAH gene (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia) for example. When inherited from both parents, the CAH gene leads to a child with male genitalia, two X chromosomes (as in a female) and the internal reproductive organs of a potentially fertile female. In New Zealand the CAH gene occurs in 43:1,000,000 births, while among the Yupik Eskimo of south-western Alaska, its frequency is 3,500:1,000,000 (Fausto-Sterling, 2000, p. 20). Conversely, other populations have lower frequencies of non-dimorphism. Research suggests that Chinese, Japanese and African populations are at lower risk for classic CAH compared to other populations (Hull, 2003, p. 114).

Regardless of the exact frequency of intersex births, the existence of people for whom the dimorphic system of ‘male’ and ‘female’ sexes does not apply reveals the culturally-constructed basis of biological sexual categories. This inability of our biological sexual categories to account for actual biological diversity challenges the assumption that biology is completely neutral and its categories ‘naturally-occurring.’

Intersex across cultures

Attitudes towards ‘intersex’ vary across cultures. In 1934, Anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote an essay for the Journal of General Psychology titled, ‘Anthropology and the Abnormal.’ In it she made a strong case for ethical relativism by showing that human beings tend to refer to their ‘habits-compressed-over-time’ by using a simpler and more convenient term, ‘morality’ (Benedict, 1934, p. 4). Benedict argued that no one society could possibly utilise in its practices or beliefs the whole potential range of human behaviour, and that categories of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ are culturally defined against each particular subset of the full range of human behaviour a culture just so happens to utilise. Benedict noted that the most spectacular illustrations of the extent to which normality may be culturally defined come from those examples from other cultures where an abnormality in ours constitutes a normal part of life for their society (1934, p. 1). An example of this, which relates to differing attitudes to ‘intersex,’ is that of the Navaho of North America.

While medicalised societies have typically approached ‘intersex’ as a problem that needs fixing through ongoing psychological therapy or surgery, the Navaho of North America provide for increased variation in human biology through the category of ‘nadle.’ Nadle are hermaphrodites, people with ambiguous genitalia and other ‘intersex’ people (Hill, 1935, p. 273). Nadle play an important part in Navaho emergence mythology. In the mythology, a quarrel between male and female ensued and when differences were deemed irreconcilable, the nadle sided with men. Because nadle can perform both male and female functions and duties, due to their unique bodies, their siding with men explains why male can overcome female (Hill, 1935, p. 274). Consequently nadle have a defined place in Navaho culture through Navaho emergence mythology. Nadle are looked upon favourably by all people in Navaho society, with a great respect that at times verges on reverence. For a nadle to be born into a family is a great cause for celebration and the future wealth and success of the family is almost guaranteed. Nadle children are shown favouritism not afforded to other children in the family. The very existence of the Navaho is contingent upon the nadle, with one of Hill’s informants saying, “They know everything. They can do both the work of a man and a woman. I think when all the nadle are gone, that it will be the end of the Navaho” (Hill, 1935, p. 274).

Contrast this to the sombre air of the typically Western hospital meeting room where the doctor relays to expectant parents the difficult news that their baby will be born with both testicular and ovarian tissue, or ambiguous genitalia. The lack of a social space in which the ‘intersex’ child can exist leads to a very different conversation between medical professionals and families, than would unfold between Navaho family and friends. As the Navaho have shown, acceptance, and indeed reverence for the same people many medicalised societies perceive as a kind of social emergency depends on the structures present in a society, and their ability to provide a social space in which intersex people can be accepted. Culture is dynamic and constantly changing. By purposefully muddying the waters, we can begin to understand the changing nature, content and complexity of what a society deems ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal.’


Closer to home, Redfern, Sydney resident Norrie has recently been involved in a high profile case to do with sex/gender identity. New South Wales Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages v Norrie highlighted the disjuncture between non-dimorphic sexes and state institutions that deal with people of all sexes on a daily basis. Norrie was born in Scotland with male reproductive organs and underwent a “sex affirmation procedure” in 1989. Interestingly, the term ‘sex affirmation procedure’ implies a process of seeking to become ‘male’ or ‘female;’ the two culturally accepted sexes in most medicalised societies. Norrie considered that the surgery did not resolve any sexual ambiguity. ‘Ambiguity,’ in this sense, is defined in relation to the cultural categories of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal,’ or ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ sexes.

Because Norrie identified as neither male or female, hen applied in 2009 for hen sex to be registered as “non-specific.” NSW BDM approved Norrie’s application but later revoked the decision and reissued Norrie’s Birth Certificate recording Norrie’s sex as ‘not stated.’ Norrie appealed and the case eventually went to the High Court. Norrie argued that a sex affirmation procedure, which is required under s32DC of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 (“the Act”) for a change in sex to be recorded, was carried out, but Norrie’s sex remained ambiguous so that to classify Norrie as male or female would be to record misinformation in the Registrar. The court found that there is nothing in the Act that suggests that the Registrar is entitled, or duty-bound, to register the classification of a person’s sex inaccurately as male or female, when they identify as neither.

While the case was indeed ground-breaking and set precedent for people in similar situations in the future, Norrie’s application, “did not give rise to an occasion to consider whether the Act comtemplates the existence of specific categories of sex other than male and female, such as ‘intersex’, ‘transgender’ or ‘androgynous.’” The court deemed that it was unnecessary to do so, “given that the Act recognises that a person’s sex may be neither male nor female.” A healthy step in the right direction, nonetheless.

Ruth Benedict once said, “The role of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” We should continue to work towards opening up understandings of people who are not us. By muddying the waters of our own culture and reflecting on the ways others approach things we consider ‘abnormal,’ we can help make the world a safer place for human differences. And not just cultural differences, but biological differences too.


  • Benedict, R. 1934. Anthropology and the Abnormal (abridged essay). 1-4.
  • Fausto-Sterling, A. 1993. The Five Sexes. The Sciences, 33, 20-25.
  • Fausto-Sterling, A. 2000. The five sexes, revisited – The emerging recognition that people come in bewildering sexual varieties is testing medical values and social norms. Sciences-New York, 40, 18-23.
  • Fausto-Sterling, A. 2003. How sexually dimorphic are we? Review and synthesis – Response. American Journal of Human Biology, 15, 115-116.
  • Hill, W. W. 1935. The Status of the Hermaphrodite and Transvestite in Navaho Culture. American Anthropologist, 37, 273-279.
  • Hull, C. 2003. Letter to the Editor: How Sexually Dimorphic Are We? Review and Synthesis. American Journal of Human Biology 15 p112-116
  • Joel, D. 2011. Male or Female? Brains are Intersex. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience,
  • Kaiser, A. 2012. Re-Conceptualizing “Sex” and “Gender” in the Human Brain. Zeitschrift Fur Psychologie-Journal of Psychology, 220, 130-136.
  • Lorber, J. 1993. “Believing is Seeing: Biology as Ideology.”
  • van Anders, S., & Dunn, E. 2009. Are gonadal steroids linked with orgasm perceptions and sexual assertiveness in women and men? Hormones and Behavior, 56, 206–213.
  • Norrie’s case:
  • Norrie’s facebook blog:

Thanks to Avril for feedback and proof-reading.

World TB Day 2015

24 March, 2015
WORLD TB DAY YELLOW CAMELLIA_CAMELLIA NITIDISSIMAWorld TB Day is here again and across the globe small scale efforts, such as the adoption of a floral emblem for this special occasion, are taking place to raise awareness about tuberculosis disease. This year the theme is “Reach, Treat, Cure Everyone” with 2SER and The Wire spreading the message. In Australia, the Centenary Institute, the Woolcock Institute, and the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Tuberculosis Control are working together to take a leading role in TB research throughout Southeast Asia, Oceania and the Pacific.
As the quintessential social disease, anthropologists are encouraged to take a proactive approach in the battle against this infectious disease. A number of recent books including Free Market Tuberculosis by Erin Koch, Spitting Blood by Helen Bynum, The Ailing City by Diego Armus, and Circe’s Island by Isabel Gillard offer a fantastic entry point into understanding the social history and cultural dimensions of the disease. Two Special Virtual Issues on the history of tuberculosis are also available online in the journals, Social History of Medicine (2013) and Medical History (2015). Last year, the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry invited responses about the issue of privacy and treatment in a case study about latent tuberculosis infection. Keep an eye out, because this year the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry have another TB case study that readers can respond to.

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Neuroanthropology of ethics

10 November, 2014

Handbook of Neuroethics edited by Jens Clausen and Neil Levy, published by Springer.

Springer has just published the Handbook of Neuroethics that features a section dedicated to Neuroanthropology edited by Juan F. Domínguez D. who is an anthropologist who has been working in neuroimaging at Monash University. Domínguez completed his PhD at Melbourne University under the supervision of Dr Douglas Lewis. In his introduction, “Toward a neuroanthropology of ethics” (pp. 289-298), Domínguez identifies “a pressing need for a neuroanthropology of ethics because the neural bases of moral agency are to be found beyond the confines of a single brain: in the coming together and interacting of a community of brains, in the shaping of the moral brain by the social field and culture, and in the workings of a neurocognitive system that evolved to absorb, reproduce, and contribute to shared worlds of meaning” (p. 289). He writes lucidly about Anthropology and Ethics (p. 290) and Neuroanthropology and Ethics (p. 291-292). Speaking to both anthropologists and neuroscientists, Domínguez has previously written about neuroanthropology in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience as well as Anthropological Theory.


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Figures of Fun: Humor and Stereotype in Monty Python’s Depictions of Intercultural Communication

22 August, 2014

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.

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Tuberculosis: more anthropologists wanted

26 July, 2014
Nhat preparing a sample to be tested in the GeneXpert system

Nhat preparing a sample to be tested in the GeneXpert system

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. Here is a list of a selection of social scientists with an active program of research studying TB include:

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