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Humor has been used as a form of entertainment for as long as anyone can remember. Whether performed by a professional comedian during a routine or a witty quip in short conversation, humor is an ever-present element in everyday life. This past weekend, the Interdisciplinary Approaches to Humor Conference invited scholars from a variety of fields to present their findings from studies of humor. Dr. Tom Ford, a social psychologist from Western Carolina University, described how he investigates humor from a scientific perspective.

Dr. Ford’s presentation, “Just a Joke…The Social Consequences of Disparagement Humor,” explored how humor plays a role in interpersonal relationships and in broader social contexts. In today’s internet society, disparagement humor is widely available, with smaller categories (e.g. lawyer jokes, women/sexist jokes, and racist jokes) returning millions of hits on Google within seconds. Dr. Ford went on to explain the two largest hypotheses held by “scholars” and “society”: first, disparagement humor creates and reinforces stereotypes and prejudice and second, this type of humor doesn’t do anything because it is just a joke.

However, Dr. Ford believes the true role of disparagement humor is somewhere in between. He proposes that disparagement humor affects the social setting: expanding what is socially acceptable, increasing tolerance of prejudice, and/or increasing willingness to discriminate. Ford identified users of disparagement humor as holding some prejudice toward the targeted group and explained how they need social norms to allow expression of prejudices, therefore they use humor to do so. Interestingly, the effectiveness of disparagement humor varies with the position/popular opinion of the targeted group. Dr. Ford presented the shifting acceptability window to illustrate which groups deployed disparagement humor most effectively. He found that disparagement humor works best when directed towards groups whose acceptability in society is shifting from one end of the scale towards the other. Of course, disparagement humor is not acceptable towards those groups respected or valued by society. On the other end, making fun of those already disliked by society is accepted but not highly noted.

Outside of its use as a form of entertainment, disparagement humor, as proposed by Dr. Ford, has a much larger role within society. Through analysis of the targeted groups, one can trace the progress of society’s acceptance of them. Dr. Ford’s approach to the study of humor could be applied to historical research, “sliding” the frame of reference outside of the present.

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