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Humor: The elephant in the ethnographic room

By Merel Driessen*, Susan Peschier & Mick Spaas

This book review was written by a handful of our core team members, after the Walburg Pers reached out to us to ask if we would be interested in doing so. We find it important to emphasize that we were gifted the book by the publisher. Though, of course, the opinions expressed below are our own.

Humor: Een antropologische blik. Henk Driessen. Nijmegen: Walburg Pers. 2022. 104 pp.

You’ve just arrived in Algeria to conduct fieldwork and you’ve tried your very best to learn the local language. On the streets you approach a group of locals to ask them a question in your best Arabic, but their only response is to burst out in laughter. Most people would describe this situation as embarrassing, while this interaction would, for an anthropologist, mark the start of their research. Anthropology should pay more attention to humor. This is the starting point of Henk Driessen in his new book “Humor: Een antropologische blik” (Humor: An anthropological perspective), which was released in Dutch at the start of 2022. Driessen describes how anthropologists often encounter humor during their fieldwork, yet this is rarely mentioned in their articles or publications.

By using numerous anecdotes from his own work and that of others, Driessen convinces the reader that humor ought to be seen as a tool and potentially a passport for the anthropologist. Humor is something intrinsically human and because of that it can function as an entrypoint for contact with informants in the field. Humor is essential for creating social connections, which can lead to improved relations between informants and the researcher. Furthermore, humor provides insight for the anthropologist into the community they are researching. This book describes how the topic of humor can reflect cultural themes present in that community.

Driessen posits that humor is not taken seriously in academia because of the subjective and indirect nature of the phenomenon. Humor can be interpreted differently, depending on the situation and person. In the academic world, in which ‘objective’ science is highly regarded, it is challenging to give humor a dignified place. This is why it is refreshing that the subject is given an accessible spotlight. We realized that, indeed, humor has never been explicitly explored or even mentioned in any of our courses. We recognize and subscribe to Driessen’s argument that humor deserves a better place within anthropology. Humor deserves, as Driessen argues, a place within the anthropological curriculum. Reading this book has incited some personal reflection for us.

Each chapter is built around different interesting examples and case studies involving humor. However, due to the pace with which the author presents them, most examples lack some anthropological depth. When interests are sparked they are often followed up by another example. Driessen describes humor as a point of contact between culture and social relations, yet he doesn’t consistently place them into the social context, temporalities or power dynamics of a community. Beside the fact that this diminishes the potential scientific nuance and anecdotal enrichment, some could find this slightly problematic with certain subjects. Driessen, for example, explains how ‘ethnic humor’, defined as humor regarding a specific ethnic group, can function within a society. However, an explanation on how this type of humor can be used with contemporary processes of discrimination and exclusion is lacking. When he makes an intriguing plea for taking humor seriously in an academic context, here he drops the ball. Jokes about nationalities are a promising point of departure to critically reflect on humor as a reproduction of power dynamics. Driessen, however, never goes beyond the point where jokes are just an "outlet for social tensions and prejudices" (p59). Regardless of whether this is intentional, while making a case for more attention to humor within anthropology, the darker side of it cannot be unaddressed.

Driessen identifies himself with the cover image, in which he is looking out over the ‘unknown’ research field. The absurdity of the elephant in the tree touches upon the humorous discomfort the ethnographer experiences when working in the field. On the other hand, this symbolism shows that Driessen stems from the time when anthropological research was conducted in far away, ‘exotic’ countries. Although the discipline itself has recently moved on from this paradigm. At times, this book makes clear that there is a distance between the anthropology of Driessen and the contemporary anthropology taught to us.

The fact that taking humor seriously feels somewhat paradoxical, does not take away from the fact that it is both a worthy theoretical field of research and a tool during ethnographic research. The role of humor and the ‘small talk’ that coincides with it are paid little attention to during the study of anthropology, despite them both being of great value when one is ‘in the field’. Regardless of the undeniable subjectivity of it, Driessen successfully argues for humor. He succeeds in presenting both practical examples and abstractions in an accessible way.

These occasionally lack nuance, or a deeper dive into the encompassing power structures that play a significant role within them. Driessen does not elaborate on them, which causes the anecdotes to remain rather superficial. It is clear that taboos play a role in why something is humorous, but why something is taboo remains unclear. This is the kind of depth that we, as enthusiastic anthropology students, noticeably missed. It has to be said that we are used to significantly more complex texts and that it is clear that this is beyond the aim of the book. It would become less accessible for people less versed in the discipline, while humor (and anthropology) are a great enrichment for everyone.

Despite these reservations, our view of Driessen’s work is positive. He combines theory and practice in a light way, while making a convincing plea for more attention to humor within anthropology. Everything that contributes to humor is strongly connected to the unique societal and cultural context of a given community. One could very well state that understanding and using humor could function as a passport to that community. The book fills gaps within our own education of which we were barely aware. With that in mind we certainly recommend that students give this book a chance, for the insights it provides and as preparation for their own fieldwork. Driessen’s proposal for humor as this ‘cultural passport’ is very appropriate and beneficial for the ethnographic development of both inexperienced and veteran anthropologists.

*It ought to be noted that there is no relation between the author and the reviewers.


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