The situations of culture: Humor and the limits of measurability

Iddo Tavory

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This article develops a theory of humor and uses it to assess the attempt to measure meaning-structures in cultural sociology. To understand how humor operates, researchers need to attend to two layers of cultural competencies: general typifications and situation-specific know-how. These cultural competencies are then invoked in ways that define humor as a specific form of experiential frame—the bi-sociation of meaning, its condensation, and resonance with experienced tensions in the social world. I show the usefulness of this theorization through the empirical case of AIDS humor in Malawi, a small country in South-East Africa. Using conversational diaries, everyday interactions, and newspaper cartoons, I argue both that such humor is widespread and that it reveals important facets of life in a country ravaged by the pandemic— what it means for the shadow of AIDS to be ever-present. Through this case, I then turn back to the question of measurement, arguing that although measuring tools may be able to identify large-scale semantic shifts, they necessarily miss forms of interaction such as humor, that are based on allusion, condensation, and what is left unsaid.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)275-289
    Number of pages15
    JournalTheory and Society
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - May 7 2014


    • AIDS
    • Culture
    • Humor
    • Malawi
    • Measurement
    • Situation

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • History
    • Sociology and Political Science


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