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Date: Tue, 4 May 2004 12:51:37 +0200 From: Christian F. Hempelmann Subject: Laughter in Interaction
AUTHOR: Glenn, Phillip TITLE: Laughter in Interaction SERIES: Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 18 PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2003
Christian F. Hempelmann, University of Memphis
SYNOPSIS LAUGHTER IN INTERACTION presents the results of a social interactional approach that studies laughter as part of everyday human communication. Typically for a study based on conversation analysis (CA) the particular focus lies on laughter's role in the sequential structure of the interaction, and what it tells us about the people involved in these interactions.
Chapter 1 provides a cursory review of the pertinent literature, with foci on the physiology of laughter, including a brief evolutionary excursus, the psychology of laughter, including a section that addresses in passing the research about the humorous stimuli that elicit laughter, as well as social factors. The chapter serves as a backdrop against which the author develops the rationale for his approach to "understanding laughter as communication by regarding what it is doing socially rather than how it may be linked to some stimulus or inner state" (28).
Chapter 2 is an introduction to CA as the methodology of Glenn's study. Previous results in CA research regarding the role of laughter in structuring turn-taking are highlighted. Selected details of this chapter will be addressed in more detail below, especially the concept of 'laughable' (48f), the stimulus for laughter that the author avoids to assign a definition beyond a structural one, namely anything in the (unspecified) vicinity, usually in the preceding turn, of the laughter that is elicited by it.
The body of the book starts with Chapter 3, where research results on laughter of CA in general and by Glenn in particular are presented. This chapter discusses the sequencing of shared laughter, most importantly its initiation and possible extension: Typically, an invitation- acceptance sequence starts laughter in conversation, if necessary including repair strategies, but an adjacency pair of a laughable and a volunteered laughter is also common. Extended laughter can show strong appreciation of a single laughable or produce additional laughables.
In addition to structure and sequence, Chapter 4 takes specific participant constellations into account in an attempt to answer the question, who laughs first. The main result shows that in two-party conversations, the current speaker is usually the one to initiate laughter, while in multi-party conversations this is done on by another participant. Glenn assumes that the reason lies in the avoidance of self-praise of the current speaker, who is typically the producer of the laughable. Exceptions to these common sequences occur in two-party conversations because of the necessity to share laughter, and when the laughable is not credited to the current speaker, is self-deprecating, or requires cueing as a laughable.
Even more than in the previous chapter, mutual participant orientation is the center of the discussion of the short Chapter 5, in which the difference between affiliative and disaffiliative laughter is analyzed. The author identifies four distinguishing keys, three of which are structural sequencing criteria, while the first in his list is the type of 'laughable.' More precisely, disaffiliative 'laughing at' is characterized by a co-present as the butt of the laughable, a first laugh by someone else than the butt, and-- in multi-party conversations--no second laugh or an additional one by someone else, and subsequent talk on topic. Two short analyses of transformations of kind of laughter into the other conclude the chapter.
The most detailed and final chapter of the body of the book, Chapter 6, starts with reviews of two CA articles on teasing and improprieties. Laughter is found to play a crucial role in accepting or rejecting the tease or impropriety, with reactions ranging from disaffiliation to uptake and escalation. A further topic is errors and ensuing continued shared laughter in a case, in which laughter also functions as a frame marker for playful interaction. Another set of analyses shows how laughing can be used to resist a topic. A final section with a literature review briefly addresses the relevance of gender as a parameter. The results are found to be open to interpretation and the author concludes that the relation of gender and laughter is a methodologically complex issue that requires further attention.
Chapter 7 provides a summary and concluding remarks on the relevance of the discussion for future research and practical applications. The book has a short combined index of names and subjects
EVALUATION The close attention that the CA methodology forces the researcher to pay to the sequencing structure of conversation leads to the very relevant results that Glenn presents with transcripts and careful analyses. This also holds for previous results of CA on laughter that are summarized throughout the discussion. The role that laughter plays in interaction is well described for several main types of situations. On this basis, the orientation of participants is analyzed and illustrated with transcripts to provide very insightful results. Thus, the book should benefit CA researchers by providing an overview and new results on the structuring role the one of the most frequent elements in human interaction.
But the author has to sell these results short because of the high fence that he erects, and repeatedly fortifies in his discussion, between his CA-based functionalist, empirical, 'qualitative' research on laughter and essentialist, theoretical, 'aprioristic' research on humor. A look over the self-erected fence or, even better, cooperation with those assumed to be 'on the other side' would mutually benefit CA research on laughter as well as (linguistic) research on laughter and humor.
This is, of course, not the place for a general evaluation of the premisses of CA (or ethnomethodology or phenomenology), nor is the reviewer the right person for such a task. But as far as these premisses lead to unnecessary shortcomings of Glenn's analysis, they are briefly addressed. This holds primarily for his underdefined notion of the 'laughable,' which is closely related to the other, more irritating than harmful, symptom, namely his repeated demotion of a strawman version of existing theory-based humor research. The latter illustrates the motivation that leads to the former.
The author correctly points out the important dissociation between humor and laughter (23). They are indeed inadequately described as stimulus (humor) and response (laughter), because either can occur without the other. In a typical statement, the author accordingly calls for "shifting from cause-effect terms that treat people as passive or involuntary creatures to a vocabulary that treats people as willful social actors" (33). This sounds empowering indeed. And at least, since Chomsky's (1959) review of Skinner, we know that oversimplified cause-effect accounts are inadequate to describe social behavior, and in particular, language. But humor and laughter very significantly correlate. And to deny a causal relationship makes one blind to the important role that humor plays for laughter.
The author's oversimplification of humor as 'anything goes' is shown by the following quote: "Virtually any utterance or action could draw laughter, under the right (or wrong) circumstances. This fact dooms any theory that attempts to account coherently for why people laugh" (49). This is an astonishing remark, because to try to account for this, albeit with a functionalistic bias, is exactly what Glenn attempts to do. His method aims to capture those "right (or wrong)" circumstances in detail in its descriptive, empirical approach.
But the analysis of laughables shows that it is not at all possible to use any utterance and transform it to a cause for laughter under the right circumstance. Only utterances (and actions) with a very specific semantic structure, crucially including parameters that are often relegated to pragmatics, are a laughable. Sadly, the author feels compelled to consciously ignore the theoretical linguistic research in the field of humor studies. Together with his results, this could have told us even more about laughter than his astute study already does.
That this ignorance is not just a shortcoming, but also a mistake lies in the fact that the author also distinguishes types of laughables according to their meaning for his results, most prominently in Chapter 5, where a laughable that has a co-present as the butt is a key indicator for 'laughing at.' That is, the laughable is no longer just defined sequentially, but, very loosely, according to its contents.
Sacks (1972, 1974, 1978), the founder of CA, focuses specifically-and to a large degree fruitfully-on differences of 'laughables,' too, namely the sequential structure of canned jokes and puns in contrast to other stimuli. Naturally, his definitions of puns and canned jokes are structural and functional, that is, where do/can they occur in the sequence of turns. But to make the distinction between these laughables and others is implying an essential, not just structural, difference that represents a transgression of the assumed boundaries between CA and theoretical linguistics.
Why not pursue this avenue further and combine CA and humor research? This will be a most productive undertaking in view of the insightful results that Glenn presents. For this LAUGHTER IN INTERACTION will a most valuable starting point.
REFERENCES Chomsky, Noam. 1959. "Review of Verbal Behavior." Language 35-1: 26-58.
Sacks, Harvey. 1972. "On some Puns: With some Intimations." In: Roger W. Shuy. Ed. Sociolinguistics: Current Trends and Prospects. Washington, DC: Georgetown U P. 135-144.
Sacks, Harvey. 1974. "An Analysis of the Course of a Joke's Telling in Conversation'. In: J. Sherzer, R. Bauman, Eds. Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking. London: Cambridge U P. 337-353.
Sacks, Harvey. 1978. "Some Technical Considerations of a Dirty Joke." In: Schenkein, Jim. Ed. Studies in the Organization of Conversational Interaction. New York: Academic. 249-70.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Christian F. Hempelmann graduated from Purdue University with a Ph.D. in linguistics in August 2003, specializing in humor studies and computational linguistics. He is about to join the University of Memphis as a postdoctoral researcher in computational linguistics. Apart from theoretical computational linguistics and linguistic humor studies, his research interests include historical linguistics and phonology.