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Laughter during the pandemic


Josiane Boutonnet, Deputy Head of the School of Humanities blogs about the importance of humour during difficult times.

Whilst a pandemic such as the one we are experiencing now is no laughing matter, humour about the pandemic is everywhere. 

There is a widespread belief in the importance of humour, and it is said that without humour, life would be unbearable. It is a widely attested aspect of human social communication. Bakhtin (1984) described it as “an alternative conception of the world that exists alongside everyday modes of interpretation (and behaviour)”.

Humour is important to understand because it bestows many benefits. A recent journal article based on a study of memes during the pandemic in Kenya concludes that humour functions as an important coping mechanism and that “humour on the COVID-19 pandemic transcended the domestic, educational, political, professional, religious, sexual and social domains of human existence” (Atieno Oduor, J. & Kodak, B., 2020: 63).

Physical benefits of humour are the best documented. Clinicians have looked at how humour can help with physical pain, it may not be the best medicine for all ailments, but it can help those suffering with pain. Research in this area has led to targeted humour interventions as part of pain therapy.

Patch Adams is a not-so recent example of a movie based on real events, (1998), a biographical comedy drama starring Robin Williams, which portrays the story of a doctor who is taking humour into a clinical setting with great benefits.

Humour has also psychological benefits, it contributes to emotional health and wellbeing. It is important in learning and social relationships (Ruch, 2008). It helps people deal with embarrassing situations, it also helps them deal with grief, in social situations, it can ease criticism. On a social level, it also attracts attention and admiration - people generally like funny people.

When looking at the social functions of humour, we can see that some forms of humour serve the purpose of maintaining and supporting the social order. Whilst we may be joking about the different ways of wearing a mask, or not wearing a mask, we are reminded of what is expected of us during the pandemic. One social function of humour is that of social cohesion. Humour  can help build an identity within a group and establish common ground.

Of course, humour can be used to challenge the social order too, we can use humour to signal our resistance against the ruling elite and the government.

One debate which exists in humour research is that of the subversive or conservative nature of humour. Does it enable people to cope and therefore support the social order, or does it enable people to reflect critically on their situation and therefore lead to action? In any case, humour opens up a discursive space within which it becomes possible to speak about matters that would otherwise remain unquestioned or silenced.

So, understanding humour has implications for understanding who we are, but also what is happening at a specific moment in time, and it can help us deal with challenges.

Dr Helen Davies, Dr Nicola Allen and I, invite you to go and check out our exhibition of examples of memes produced in the UK context since the start of the pandemic.

The free exhibition continues until mid-December at the Lighthouse Media Centre in Wolverhampton and was produced as part of the Being Human Festival.

For more information please contact the Corporate Communications Team.

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