Cultural differences regarding the “accordion family”

A new sociology book highlights the phenomenon of the accordion family by contrasting different cultural approaches to the issue:

The global economic recession is a big driver of this phenomenon but hardly the only one. Cultural attitudes about “boomerang kids’’ vary widely. In Japan, which has been in recession for two decades, both parents and their adult children are filled with shame, and turn inward. For the Japanese, writes Newman, “personal character takes center stage,’’ not abstract explanations about diminishing economic opportunity. The Japanese “retain a strong normative sense of what is appropriate and what is deviant in the evolution from youth to adult,’’ Newman writes, and boomerang kids represent deviance (the Japanese often refer to boomerangs as “parasites’’), bringing social stigma on the entire family.

Italy is a completely different story. Italians, especially Italian men, have for centuries remained in the family home until they get married, which may find them there into their 30s or beyond. Newman interviews various 30-something Italian men living at home who quite simply don’t see a problem. The parents Newman interviews also don’t consider it dysfunctional, generally enjoying the company of their adult children. There is no social stigma attached, writes Newman, since “37 percent of [Italian] men age thirty have never lived away from home.’’

In the United States, we are somewhere in between Japanese-level stigma and Italian-style acceptance. “American attitudes are more conditional than other cultures,’’ explains Newman. Parents will support a boomerang adult child who has a plan, a way forward to improve life (e.g., through additional education, training, or an internship), but will object if their adult child is using the family home as an escape from the world.

These are some interesting contrasts across these countries. The American case in the middle here has me thinking about moral symbolic boundaries. The idea here would be that young adults living at home are fine as long as they can justify this move and reassure their parents that this is a step toward their eventual success and moving out. If they can’t make this case, this is seen as mooching. This fits with a larger American idea that we are willing to help people who also seem willing to help themselves.

I wonder if Newman also tracks these attitudes over time as perhaps these are relatively recent developments to adjust to a changing industrialized, globalized world. What aspects of a society or culture directly lead to these rules about who can live at home?

Another note from this review. Here is a paragraph that sums up the work:

Newman interviewed hundreds of boomerang adults and their parents for this accessible book, which effectively, even entertainingly, combines rigorous, statistics-driven social science with personal accounts to provide a vivid portrait of what’s happening globally.

Here is my translation of this paragraph: “It is an academic book that doesn’t read like one, meaning that you will be convinced by the data (hundreds of interviews!) but it has plenty of personal accounts to keep you entertained.” Perhaps that is too cynical. But this does offer some insights into how the general public tends to read social science research. Data, numbers in particular, can’t be too overwhelming. The book still has to be entertaining in the end, even if it is making an important point. Stories, whether they are personal accounts or good examples, are very helpful. None of these things are necessarily bad things to do yet one wonders whether the larger point of the work is muted by having to meet these requirements.

Cultural differences in pedestrian behavior

How you act as a pedestrian is influenced by your culture:

Much of the piece focuses on the research of Mehdi Moussaid, a crowd scientist at the Max Planck Institut for Human Development in Berlin. A great deal of Moussaid’s work looks at how pedestrians respond to sidewalk traffic. When a person is walking straight toward another, for instance, a decision occurs whether to go right or left to avoid a collision. The decision has nothing to do with driving customs; in Britain, walkers avoid to the right despite driving on the left. Still people end up choosing the proper side through the some sort of implicit social understanding, Moussaid concluded in a 2009 study…

Not every society reacts to pedestrian congestion the same way. A recent comparison of Germans and Indians revealed that although people from both cultures walk “in a similar manner” when alone, their behavior varies greatly in the presence of others. As one might expect given the densities of their respective countries, Indians need less personal space than Germans do, according to the researchers. As a result, when Germans encountered traffic during a walking experiment, they decreased speed more rapidly than Indians did. “Surprisingly the more unordered behaviour of the Indians is more effective than the ordered behaviour of the Germans,” the study concludes.

Moussaid has found that it’s a natural tendency to clump together on the sidewalk. In a 2010 study published in PLoS One, Moussaid and colleagues reported that 70 percent of walkers travel in groups — a custom that slows down pedestrian flow by about 17 percent. That’s because when pedestrian groups encounter space problems on the sidewalk they flex into V-shaped clusters that “do not have optimal ‘aerodynamic’ features” just so they can continue to talk, according to the researchers.

I have been known to get frustrated with pedestrians on sidewalks, particularly those who suddenly stop in clumps, forcing other people to go around them. In high school, I remember thinking that the school could paint/put traffic lines on the floor to help remind students that they shouldn’t walk four across.

But I am very fascinated here by the idea that people of different cultures act in different ways as pedestrians. This must be part of the socialization process: children learn how to walk with other people around even though no one ever explicitly says do this or that. What happens in notable tourist spots – which sidewalk behavior “wins out”? Do some people have consistently quicker paces compared to others? Do different cultures have different goals in the average walk, say getting to their destination versus enjoying the stroll?

Sociologist discusses the problems of the publishing industry

A sociologist discusses the major issues facing the publishing industry:

One year ago I interviewed John B. Thompson in the Rail about the state of the publishing industry. Thompson is a Cambridge University sociology professor, and his 2010 book Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the 21st Century was the result of more than five years of talking to editors, publishers, writers, and agents in the U.S. and the U.K. about the rapid changes in the traditional structures of book publishing. Given that these transformations have only continued, I thought it worth checking in with Thompson a year on. An updated second edition of Merchants of Culture will be published in March by Penguin (U.S.) and Polity (U.K.)…

[Thompson:] There are two major developments that are having a profound effect on the publishing industry today and that are creating a situation of deep uncertainty about the future. The first is the continuing economic crisis that has metamorphosed since then into a deeper and more pervasive recession and that has created a tough economic climate for publishers and booksellers. Retailers are often operating on tight margins and reduce their liabilities by ordering less and stocking more cautiously. Booksellers will return more books to publishers in order to reduce the amount of capital tied up in unsold stock. But even these measures may be insufficient as many retailers have been and will be forced out of business. And when retailers close, publishers lose shop windows to display their books and are faced with substantial write-offs for bad debts. This further depresses profit margins that were already under pressure from static or declining sales. It’s an economic snowball effect…

Well, it’s the intensification of a surge in e-book sales, especially in the U.S. While physical book sales are static or declining for most publishers, e-book sales are surging ahead—it is one of the only areas today where trade publishers are seeing serious growth. And the growth is startling: For most U.S. trade publishers e-books accounted for 1 percent or less of overall revenue in 2008. In 2011 the figure is likely to be between 18 and 22 percent (possibly even higher for some houses). And, interestingly, the biggest shift from print to digital has been in commercial fiction, especially genre fiction like romance, science fiction, mystery, and thriller. For fiction as a whole, e-books accounted for around 40 percent of overall sales for some large trade houses by mid-2011. But in some categories of genre fiction and for some authors the percentages were even higher—60 percent for some categories like romance, and even up to 80 percent for some authors. Narrative non-fiction has also seen a significant but smaller shift to digital. Anything more complicated—such as books that use color, like art books or children’s books—has so far lagged far behind. This change is already forcing the key players in publishing to reconsider their positions. Practices that have become settled conventions in the field are suddenly opened up to scrutiny, and players who have interacted amicably for years suddenly find themselves locking horns in new conflicts where the rules are no longer clear (as happened, for example, when Random House and Andrew Wylie clashed over Wylie’s decision to launch Odyssey Editions). To what extent the game of trade publishing will actually be transformed by this development remains, at this stage, unclear. Much will depend on how quickly and effectively the key players are able to adapt to the new information environment that is emerging around them. We are living through a revolution of sorts, and one of the few things you can say for certain about a revolution is that when you’re in the middle of one, you have no idea where and when it will end.

New technology means that a lot of people need to adapt, producers and readers included. Two additional areas I wish Thompson had commented on here:

1. It would be interesting to hear more about publishers and other actors are trying out some new ideas in order to make money off e-publishing. Amazon now has a publishing wing. Are the major publishers really shifting major resources and people to this or are they trying to hold the line? Do the recent commercials on TV and radio for books (examples from James Patterson here and here) represent these publishers continuing to hold to the old model? How much overlap is there between the e-book and traditional publishing world?

2. Thompson talks a bit about the future role of books. I’d be interested in hearing more about whether how the “long tail” phenomenon and growing e-book sales in certain genres will change larger cultural meanings and understandings. Not so much whether books will matter (I think they still will) but how they matter. Will popular e-books really only matter if a movie gets made or the author makes it to a popular daytime talk show? What books will become “classics”? Fifty years from now, which books will form a “canon” for this era?

Americans are coolest nationality according to Badoo.com poll

A new poll from Badoo.com finds that Americans are the coolest nationality:

Social networking site Badoo.com asked 30,000 people across 15 countries to name the coolest nationality and also found that the Spanish were considered the coolest Europeans, Brazilians the coolest Latin Americans and Belgians the globe’s least cool nationality.

“We hear a lot in the media about anti-Americanism,” says Lloyd Price, Badoo’s Director of Marketing. “But we sometimes forget how many people across the world consider Americans seriously cool.”…

“America,” says Price, “boasts the world’s coolest leader, Obama; the coolest rappers, Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg; and the coolest man in technology, Steve Jobs of Apple, the man who even made geeks cool.”

Brazilians are ranked the second coolest nationality in the Badoo poll and the coolest Latin Americans, ahead of Mexicans and Argentinians. The Spanish, in third place, are the coolest Europeans.

At least one marketer is happy.

Two thoughts:

1. I would be very hesitant about accepting the results of this poll. If this is a web survey of social network site users, it is probably not very representative of people within these countries. Serious news organizations should report on the methodology and discuss the downsides (and advantages) of this approach when reporting this information. But, if it is an accurate take on social network site users, generally younger, plugged-in populations, perhaps this is exactly what American companies would want to hear.

2. America has military, political, and economic power but this hints at another, less-recognized dimension: cultural power and influence. For better or worse, American values, celebrities, products, and ideas have spread throughout the world. Even if our economic and political power goes into a relative decline, this cultural influence will live on for some time. (A bonus: a Badoo poll from earlier this summer also said Americans are the funniest nationality!)

3. Is being “cool” really something to aspire to as a nation? In an America dominated by celebrity, media, and consumption, it may be hard to know that this is not the primary objective.

(Some background on Badoo.com.)

Quick Review (recent reads): The Social Animal, Love Wins, Connected, In the Garden of Beasts, Heat Wave, Travels with Charley

As the summer ended and school started, I was able to get through a backlog of intriguing books. Here are quick thoughts on this varied collection:

1. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. I thought I might not like the “story” that Brooks uses to convey research findings but I found it a helpful way to think about the growing body of research about how our brains and emotions affect our lives. Overall, I like Brook’s argument that we should pay more attention to the British Enlightenment than the French Enlightenment emphasis because of how much humans are truly influenced by their emotions and subconscious and not just reason and rationality. I’m not quite sure what Brooks wants us to do with this information in the end (and why use the term “the big shaggy” to describe our subconcious?) but I do enjoy Brooks skewering certain groups in hilarious paragraphs that mirror some of his commentary in earlier books like Bobos in Paradise. And perhaps I’m required to say this as a sociologist but I think Brooks gives short shrift to the role of culture plays in shaping the subconscious. (See a preview post about the book here.)

2. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell. This book created quite a stir in evangelical circles earlier this year as some, like John Piper, essentially kicked Bell out of their circles. On the whole, I would say the book is uneven: some chapters are quite orthodox in their understanding of God, love, and evangelism while other chapters stray and Bell is not as careful with his words as he pushes boundaries. Also, the book seems aimed less at the general population and more at disaffected evangelicals, an interesting group to address, who can’t come to grips about their beliefs about hell rather. Taking a broader view, the book and the debate around it illustrates several interesting sociological issues: subcultures and drawing symbolic boundaries about who is in and out as well as the how theology and culture influence each other. As a follow-up, I ran into these two videos: MSNBC’s Martin Bashir asks Bell some tough questions (considering the issue of media types asking people about religion, Bashir’s Wikipedia profile includes a quote saying he is a “committed Christian”) in contrast to a fluffier interview with George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America.

3. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler. This text could serve as a general audience introduction to the study of social networks. Many of the examples in the book are physiological as these researchers are known for their work on how things like obesity, emotions, and diseases are spread throughout social networks. The takeaway of the book: three degrees of separation is what connects us (those are your friends of friends of friends) and the actions and emotions of those people trickle down to us. I like the emphasis on how people seemingly beyond our immediate control have an influence on us.

4. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. This book provides a look at Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s through the eyes of American ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha. The story of Germany is of course fascinating: Hitler consolidates power while hardly anyone inside or outside the country challenges him. However, Dodd and his daughter figure it out but they are marginalized, Dodd because he won’t live the opulent lifestyle most US ambassadors were accustomed to and Martha because of her romantic forays and developing ties to the USSR. Even though you know the outcome of the larger story, the story is still interesting as an American academic tries to sound the alarm about the rising tide of Nazism.

5. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg. I’ve been meaning to read this for some time as it concerns the 500+ deaths that occurred as the result of a heat wave in Chicago in 1995. Klinenberg performs a “social autopsy,” looking at the various factors and institution involved in the situation. The elderly who were alone were susceptible, particularly in neighborhoods without much street life, the morgues were unprepared, the media was behind in covering the story, and the City of Chicago and Mayor Daley tried to pass the blame. A lot went wrong in this situation, leading to one of the most deadly natural disasters in American history. (Perhaps this book was ahead of its time in looking at the sociology of disasters.)

6. Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck. I like Steinbeck and regard The Winter of Our Discontent and East of Eden as two of the best books I have read. However, this travelogue seems the opposite of his best novels: Steinbeck rambles around the country and offers some disconnected commentary. It seemed like he was trying to not do what he does in his novel: offer sweeping stories with big points about American life and culture. The only part that really grabbed my attention: Steinbeck passed through New Orleans during protests against the integration of New Orleans’ schools in 1960 (immortalized in a Norman Rockwell painting President Obama recent selected to hang in the Oval Office) and talked with some of the residents.

Seeing sociology in the US men’s national soccer team coaching change

A number of articles have noted the new approach of the new coach of the US men’s national soccer team, Jurgen Klinsman. But this is the first one I’ve seen that suggests Klinsman’s outlook is sociological in nature:

What Klinsmann’s hiring is really about is the big picture, about where soccer is going in the United States, how it will be played and by whom?

It is a grand experiment that is as much about sociology and psychology as it is soccer, and one that promises to be — even to Klinsmann — at least as interesting as whatever happens on the field.

“I deeply believe that soccer, in a certain way, reflects the culture of a country,” Klinsmann, who since 1988 has lived in Huntington Beach, Calif., said at his introductory news conference. “You have such a melting pot in this country with so many different opinions and ideas floating around there. One of my challenges will be to find a way to define how a U.S. team should represent its country. What should be the style of play? It is important over the next three years, especially in the beginning, that I have a lot of conversations with people engulfed in the game here to find a way to define style. What suits us best?”

The question of style posed by Klinsmann — one of the few people with the gravitas and wherewithal to carry such a debate from his perch — isn’t simply about aesthetics. It is about empowerment.

Some Americans might think that having a “national soccer style” might seem odd (is there a “national football style”?) but other countries have such approaches. How exactly cultural values match up with soccer play would be interesting to look at in more depth. Are the explanations that the team fits the values simply post-hoc explanations? (A similar argument: the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers play a particular style of football – tough, good defense, hard running, etc. – because of the industrial cities in which they started.) I suspect a “national style” works because it is meaningful and traditional (and perhaps successful), rather than necessarily more true than other possible styles.

Part of the issue raised by Klinsman (and hinted at in this article) is the culture of US soccer that seems to privilege a particular path related to race and social class: going to expensive sports academies as teenagers and then going to college. Few, if any, other countries follow this route. This is a structural issue: how could the path to playing for the USMNT be altered to open it up to more players, particularly those who can’t afford or don’t want to pursue the “typical” route? As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers, these certain structural advantages help some and not others.

A lot is being asked of Klinsman and cultural changes are difficult to make. But it sounds like Klinsman has some ideas about what to do and US soccer seems to be at a point where people realize it needs to take “the next step.” It will be interesting to watch how the Klinsman sociological experiment goes.

Finding sociology in summer camp romances

One thing I thoroughly enjoy about sociology is that you can find topics to study anywhere people are. Witness this example of a sociologist tackling romances in the laboratory of summer camp:

Faith wasn’t ready to be exclusive with Colyn. There were lots of boys at summer camp, and the seventh-grader wanted the chance to date some of them before the session ended. The thing was, Faith wasn’t so keen on the idea of Colyn going out with any other girls but her, and she protested when her friends told her she was being jealous and unreasonable. As she made her case, those of Faith’s fellow campers who were within earshot stared at her and shook their heads, muttering, “It’s not fair.” Nearby, a sociologist named Sandi Nenga sat with a notebook and wrote down every detail.

Nenga’s notes would eventually form the basis of an academic paper entitled “The Age of Love: Dating and the Developmental Discourse in a Middle School Summer Camp.” In the paper, the Southwestern University sociology professor describes infiltrating the children’s ranks and watching closely as they developed dating rituals and norms. “Simply keeping track of the beginning and ending of relationships constituted a significant portion of each day in the camp,” she found.

Nenga’s study might be a little jarring to those of us who remember going to summer camp as kids, and it’s not because we can’t vouch for her findings from personal experience. Rather, it’s because using summer camp as a place to study children has likely never occurred to most of us. But where we see boys and girls swimming in lakes and singing songs around the campfire, social scientists like Nenga see a research opportunity: an organized group of humans-in-training who have been made to grapple with one another in a strange new place. Where we see kids trying to make friends and getting crushes on each other, they see a controlled environment in which the inhabitants feel very much free—but can be observed and studied the entire time.

Like hot-rod mechanics eyeing an exceptional motor vehicle, in other words, social scientists look at summer camp and see a truly remarkable lab.

The rest of the article contains a fascinating overview of summer camp research which dates back decades. This reminds me of Ann Swidler’s idea of “unsettled times” where humans have to interpret new situations which involve following old strategies of action or developing new solutions.

I tell my students that sociology is valuable wherever people are doing things. I just hope Nenga was able to avoid “jargonized wishful thinking” in this intriguing research setting.

Why we need “duh science”

There are a lot of studies that are completed every year. The results of some seem quite obvious than others, what this article calls “duh research.” Here is why experts say these studies are still necessary:

But there’s more to duh research than meets the eye. Experts say they have to prove the obvious — and prove it again and again — to influence perceptions and policy.

“Think about the number of studies that had to be published for people to realize smoking is bad for you,” said Ronald J. Iannotti, a psychologist at the National Institutes of Health. “There are some subjects where it seems you can never publish enough.”…

There’s another reason why studies tend to confirm notions that are already widely held, said Daniele Fanelli, an expert on bias at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Instead of trying to find something new, “people want to draw attention to problems,” especially when policy decisions hang in the balance, he said.

Kyle Stanford, a professor of the philosophy of science at UC Irvine, thinks the professionalization of science has led researchers — who must win grants to pay their bills — to ask timid questions. Research that hews to established theories is more likely to be funded, even if it contributes little to knowledge.

Here we get three possible answers as to why “duh research” takes place:

1. It takes time for studies to draw attention and become part of cultural “common sense.” One example cited in this article is cigarette smoking. One study wasn’t enough to show a relationship between smoking and negative health outcomes. Rather, it took a number of studies until there was a critical mass that the public accepted. While the suggestion here is that this is mainly about convincing the public, this also makes me think of the general process of science where numerous studies find the same thing and knowledge becomes accepted.

2. These studies could be about social problems. There are many social ills that could be deserving of attention and funding and one way to get attention is to publish more studies. The findings might already be widely accepted but the studies help keep the issue in the public view.

3. It is about the structure of science/the academy where researchers are rewarded for publications and perhaps not so much for advancing particular fields of study. “Easy” findings help scientists and researchers keep their careers moving forward. These structures could be altered to promote more innovative research.

All three of these explanations make some sense to me. I wonder how much the media plays a role in this; why do media sources cite so much “duh research” where there are other kinds of research going on as well? Could these be “easy” journalistic stories that fit particular established narratives or causes? Do universities/research labs tend to promote these studies more?

Of course, the article also notes that some of these studies can also turn out unexpected results. I would guess that there are quite a few important findings that came out of research that someone at the beginning could have easily predicted a well-established answer.

(It would be interesting to think more about the relationship between sociology and “duh research.” One frequent knock against sociology is that it is all “common sense.” Aren’t we aware of our interactions with others as well as how our culture operates? But we often don’t have time for analysis and understanding in our everyday activities and we often simply go along with prevailing norms and behaviors. It all may seem obvious until we are put in situations that challenge our understandings, like stepping into new situations or different cultures.

Additionally, sociology goes beyond the individual, anecdotal level at which many of us operate. We can often create a whole understanding of the world based on our personal experiences and what we have heard from others. Sociology looks at the structural level and works with data, looking to draw broad conclusions about human interaction.)

Popular music has become more narcissistic in recent decades

Several psychologists argue that pop music has become increasingly narcissistic over recent decades:

Now, after a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs, Dr. DeWall and other psychologists report finding what they were looking for: a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. As they hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” and the expression of positive emotions…

His study covered song lyrics from 1980 to 2007 and controlled for genre to prevent the results from being skewed by the growing popularity of, say, rap and hip-hop…

Today’s songs, according to the researchers’ linguistic analysis, are more likely be about one very special person: the singer. “I’m bringing sexy back,” Justin Timberlake proclaimed in 2006. The year before, Beyoncé exulted in how hot she looked while dancing — “It’s blazin’, you watch me in amazement.” And Fergie, who boasted about her “humps” while singing with the Black Eyed Peas, subsequently released a solo album in which she told her lover that she needed quality time alone: “It’s personal, myself and I.”

The majority of this article is about how narcissism is measured and how it shows up in younger generations.

But I would prefer to see more thinking about why music has changed in this way. A broad question could be asked: does or should pop music reflect culture or change culture? I would suggest that it does both but it would be interesting to see data on this: is music more narcissistic because people are more narcissistic or are people more narcissistic because music is more narcissistic? Answering this broad question also requires figuring out what music really means to people. For younger people, listening to music is an important activity and is an integral part of adolescence and emerging adulthood.

This recent study also tries to get at this question and can’t say much about the direction of causality:

With each level increase in music use, teens had an 80% higher risk of depression, the study found.

The study didn’t measure total listening times, but based on previous data, the study authors estimated that teens in the highest-use group were likely listening to music for at least four or five hours a day…

“At this point, it is not clear whether depressed people begin to listen to more music to escape, or whether listening to large amounts of music can lead to depression, or both,” said Primack in a statement.

By contrast, researchers found that reading books had the opposite association: with each level increase in time spent reading, teens’ risk of depression dropped 50%. “This is worth emphasizing because overall in the U.S., reading books is decreasing, while nearly all other forms of media use are increasing,” Primack said.

This contrast to reading is interesting. Does this suggest that listening to music is more self-indulgent while reading is not?

Overall, it sounds like we need more research to sort out this issue. Music is more narcissistic, the culture may be more narcissistic, this has an effect on people, but it is a bit unclear which direction the causal arrows go. If only we could design some sort of controlled experiment that could isolate the effect of more narcissistic music…

A “grand, unifying theory of humor”?

A marketing and psychology professor argues that he can explain all humor:

There may be many types of humor, maybe as many kinds as there are variations in laughter, guffaws, hoots, and chortles. But McGraw doesn’t think so. He has devised a simple, Grand Unified Theory of humor—in his words, “a parsimonious account of what makes things funny.” McGraw calls it the benign violation theory, and he insists that it can explain the function of every imaginable type of humor. And not just what makes things funny, but why certain things aren’t funny. “My theory also explains nervous laughter, racist or sexist jokes, and toilet humor,” he told his fellow humor researchers…

The theory they lay out: “Laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign.” That is, they perceive a violation—”of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bedpan, strange behaviors), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviors)”—while simultaneously recognizing that the violation doesn’t pose a threat to them or their worldview. The theory is ludicrously, vaporously simple. But extensive field tests revealed nuances, variables that determined exactly how funny a joke was perceived to be.

I’ll attempt a quick and dirty translation into sociological terms: each society or culture has particular norms about right and wrong behavior. Violating these norms often leads to negative sanctions. But according to this academic,  humor works because the recipient of humor sees that violating the norms isn’t an attempt to overthrow the norms. The key appears to be the ability to show that the intended humor is “benign,” that the person sharing the humor has good intentions or still operates within the culture’s larger norms. Humor ceases to be humor when hearers think that the teller has “hit too close to home” or is mean-spirited.

After reading about this attempt at theory, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t read more from sociologists about humor. I know there is some work out there on this but in my reading and training, I remember hearing little about this basic feature of everyday life.