Ethnic Jokes

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<p>Ethnic Jokes, Moral Values and Social Boundaries Author(s): Christie Davies Source: The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Sep., 1982), pp. 383-403 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The London School of Economics and Political Science Stable URL: . Accessed: 20/04/2011 05:32Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . . Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p> <p>Blackwell Publishing and The London School of Economics and Political Science are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The British Journal of Sociology.</p> <p></p> <p>Christie Davies</p> <p>jokes,moralvaluesand social Ethnic boundariesA B ST RACT</p> <p>The universalpopularityof ethnic jokes and in particularthose about supposedly 'stupid' or 'crafty' ethnic minoritiesis to be of industrial explained in terms of the general characteristics of each separate circumstances societies ratherthan the particular society. The ethnic jokes of western industrialsocieties in both peacetime and wartime reflect the competing moral values, unof these powerstructures and impersonal certainsocial boundaries eastern Europeanjokes are in some societies. The corresponding respects similar but as one might expect highly politicized and reflect the deeper social and political divisionsthat characterize countries. the socialistindustrial Ethnic jokes delineate the social, geographicaland moral boundariesof a nation or ethnic group.By makingfun of peripheral and ambiguous groups they reduce ambiguity and clarify boundariesor at least make ambiguity appearless threatening. Ethnicjokes occurin opposedpairssuch as those mocking'st-upid' groups respectively and 'crafty', or 'cowardly' and 'militaristic' and expressthe problemsand anxieties causedby the conflicting norms and values inevitably found in large societies dominated by anomic impersonalinstitutions such as the marketplace and bureaucracy. Ethnic jokes of diverse kinds are rery popular in most societies. is the enormouspopularityin most western remarkable Particularly countries of jokes about 'stupid' and 'canny'minorities.The widespread popularityof ethnic jokes in generaland of these jokes in calls for a sociologicalexplanationin terms of the general particular of the many societies where they are enjoyed rather characteristics of each separatesociety. We need circumstances than the particular as moralvalues,socialboundcharacteristics general to look at such of modern societies in structures power aries and the impersonal of ethnicjokes. popularity the for explanation an find to orderThe BritishJournal of Sociology Volume33$1.50</p> <p>Number3</p> <p>September1982</p> <p>(C) R.K.P. 1982 0007 1315/82/3303-0383</p> <p>383</p> <p>384</p> <p>Christie Davies</p> <p>All ethnic groupshave two sets of boundariesthat are important boundaries to theirmembers. The firstarethe social and geographical of the group that define who is a memberand who is not. The second are the moralboundariesof the groupwhich define what is acceptableand characteristic behaviourof the members,and what is unacceptablebehaviourcharacteristic of outsiders.Ethnic jokes police these boundaries.They mock groups who are peripheralto the centralor dominantgroup or who are seen by them as ambiguous. They ascribeto these groupstraits which the grouptelling the jokes does not wish to recognizeamongits own members.It is not, however,a simple question of dividingthe worldup into virtuesand vices with the good qualitiesreservedfor one's own groupand the bad ones ascribed to the outsiders. In complex modern societies each individualwill experiencea conflict of goals and of valuesand will need to steer his way carefully between the competingclaims of legitimate alternatives,such as work and leisure. Under these circumstances,the stereotypes that underpin ethnic jokes tend to occur not singly but in pairsof opposites.Thus in most western industrialsocieties the most popularethnic jokes are those about groups supposed to be stupid and (in opposition to this) jokes about groups supposed to be canny (i.e. crafty and stingy). These two kinds of ethnic joke are far more numerous, widespread, durableand popular than any other type of ethnic joke. They are to be found in all the westernindustrialsocieties, societies characteriz.ed by an advancedcapitalisteconomy, political democracyand social pluralism.Table I indicatesthe existence of suchjokes in all the countrieslisted and it can almostcertainlybe extendedto many othersimilarsocieties. The jokes that in Britainare told about the stupidity of the Irish occur in a verysimilar formin all the other countrieslisted as can be seen from the followingexamples: X mericanexamples 'There has been a temporaryslowdown in Poland'sspace program. Their astronautkeeps fallingoff the kite.'l 'Wykowskiwas arrestedfor rape. "Don't worry", said the cop, "We'lltreat you fair, we'll put you in a line-upwith un-uniformed policemen."' They did. Thet broughtthe victim in. Wykowskisaw the woman,pointed to her and said, "Yeah,that'sher."92 New Zealandexample 'Did you hear about the Maori whose libraryburneddown? Not only did the fire destroyboth books but, worsestill, he hadn'tfinishedcolouringin the second one.'3 Finnishexamples 'A gypsy in a sauna orderedcold water to be thrownon the stones so that it zouldn't be so hot.' 'A gypsy was given a 120-yearjail sentence.\hen askedhow he felt about it, he said, "I'm very relieved I didn't get life imprisonment."4</p> <p>Ethniciokes, moralvaluesand social boundariesTABLE I Country where the jokes are told England Wales Scotland Ireland USA Canada (east) Canada (west) Mexico Australia New Zealand France Germany Netherlands Belgium Italy Greece Sweden Denmark Finland</p> <p>385</p> <p>of .'stupid'group Identity * . sn]otesIrish Irish Irish Kertymen Poles Newfies (Newfoundlanders) Ukrainians, Icelanders Yucatecos, Germans Irish, Tasmanians Irish, Maoris Belgians Ostfrieslanders Belgians, Limburgers Flemings Southerners Pontians Norwegians, Finns Citizens of Arhus, Norwegians Karelians, Gypsieso</p> <p>Identity of stingycrafty group in jokesScots, Jews, Welsh Cardis Aberdonians Scots Jews, Scots, New England Yankees Nova Scotians, Scots Scots Regiomontanos, i.e. citizens of Monterrey Scots Scots Auvergnats, Scots, Jews Swabians Jews Dutch Levantinis, Scots Scots Scots, Jews Scots, Jews Laihians</p> <p>visiting Swabia have been forGerman example 'Ostfrieslanders (TV mast). They used to stay bidden to climb up the Fernsehturm up thereall day tryingto feed the helicopters.'5 Similarlythejokes aboutstingyand craftypeople that, in k;ngland, are told about the Scots and the Jews are to be found told about a number of other groups in all the countries listed. In essence, the jokes are on the sametheme thoughwith local variations. Welshexampleabout Cardis 'Haveyou heardabout the Scotsman He could neverraiseenoughmoney in the Aberystwythwork-house? to go home.'6 of Mexican example 'In the periodical Tribunay kl PonJeJnir Monterrey,appearsthe story of a millionaireof that city who died andpassedto a better world.At the gatesof heavenSaintPeterasked good deedshaveyou done?" him, "What "I gave a hundred pesos for the building of the church of the Virgendel Roble."</p> <p>386</p> <p>Christie Dauies</p> <p>Saint Peter, not knowing what to do, put the case before the Eternal Father who pronouncedthis sentence: "Givehim back his hundredpesos and then he won't botherus any more."7 Germanexample 'A Swabianclimbingin Switzerland fell down a crevassein a glacier.An hour later a rescue team atrivedat the edge of the crevasseand peered down at him. "It's the Red Cross",they shouted. "Goaway",he replied,"I alreadygaveat the office." 8 Americanexample 'A Mainefarmer with a reputationfor frugality which was more than local, droveup to the generalstore. He halted his team, dismountedfrom the wagon, enteredand passedthe time of day with those present.This formalityconcluded,he driftedover to the cooler and drank copiously of the ice-water. One of the residentloafers furnishedhim with tobacco for his pipe and another provideda match. Then he picked up a handy bucket and went out to water his horses. Returning,he beggeda daubof axle greasewith which to anoint one of his wheels. This seemed to remindhim that a tyre was slippingso he asked the proprietor to lend him a hammer for a few minutes.Whilethe obligingstore-keeper was searching his stock for a hammer,the visitor made a light but satisfyingluncheon of cheeseslicedfroma cube on the counter,a couple of soda crackers pluckedfrom a handybarreland a few segmentsof driedapple. After this, apparently,he could think of nothing else. He had mounted to his seat and was driving away when the storekeeper hailedhim: "Say, Bill," he called out, "if you should find, later in the day, that you've lost your purse,rememberyou didn't have it out whileyouwashere!"'9</p> <p>In all these jokes, the tellers are projectingtraits that they wish to remainon the moralperipheryof their culture onto groupswho inhabit the social or geographicalperiphery of their society. The butts of the joke may be foreigners,an ethnic minority at home, people living in a border area or town or an off-shoreisland.They may be hated, toleratedor liked. Their only common characteristic is that they are in some sense a peripheralgroup occupying an ambiguous position on the social or geographicalmargin of the society where the jokes are told.' Occasionallya group suffers twice because it is peripheralto two societies as in the case of the Belgians(who consist of Dutch and Frenchspeakingcommunities) who are an ambiguousgroup on the nationaland linguisticborder of both France and the Netherlands.The result is jokes like the following: 'Where is the biggestchip-shopin Europe? On the border of i ranceand Holland. "' This Dutch joke (with the inevitablegibe at the plebeianBelgian addiction to fritsss) eliminates the ambiFous peripheralBelgians</p> <p>Ethnicjokes, moralvaluesand social boundaries</p> <p>387</p> <p>altogether,leavinga clear boundarybetween the two nation-states andlanguages of the Dutch and the French. Jokes also seek to define moral boundaries,the boundariesof values that are in conflict. The vast popularity of jokes about stupidity and crafty-stinginess in westernsocieties reflects a central value conflict inherent in modern western capitalist societies, societies which stress the attainmentof individualutilitariangoals in the marketplace. In these peaceful,secular,capitalistdemocracies, the individual's main preoccupations are (in a broadsense) economic rather than political, ideological, religious or military ones. The central realitiesin most people's lives are (a) the need to succeed throughone's work, and in this way to earn money;and (b) the use of this money to buy legitimatepleasurein one's leisure time for oneself and one's family. The exact balance struck between these two will differ betweenindividuals and socialclassesbut the dilemma of how to strike this balancecorrectlyis present for all the groups and individualsin the society.l2 Each individualhas to resolve the problem of how to allocate his time, energy, commitment and material resources, between the competing claims of 'work' and 'pleasure'.There is also another contradiction between work and enjoyment-work demands that the individualdisplays qualities such as rationality, diligence, competence, thrift, sobriety, which arenot alwayscompatible with the rivalpursuitof carefree enjoyment. It is this tension between the values of work and the values of enjoyment,and the lack of clear social rules definingand demarcating the balance between them, that is at the heart of jokes about stupid and crafty-stingyminorities.The first point to note is that these traits indicate the two alternativeways in which an individual can lose out in the competition for successand for pleasure.To be stupid is to fail utterly in the face of the demandsof the modern economic world, that a person should be able, rational,calculating and competent,without gainingany compensating rewardfrom the world of pleasure.An intelligent but lazy man may be a failurein life but he misses the pains of work as well as its rewardsand may well gain leisure and a relativestress-free existence.Jokes about the lazy or about ethnic groups thought to be lazy-French jokes about Corsicans,Dutch jokes about Surinamers,Americanjokes about the Louisiana-French Cajuns,Britishjokes about Andy Capp the idle Geordie-contain more than a hint of envy. By contrast, stupidity is a despised and humiliatingpath to economic failure. We reassureourselvesthat it is a path we will not follow by telling jokes that reserve that fate for other people, people living on the periphery of our own group. Any anxieties that people have regarding their liability to failurethroughincompetenceare released and dissolvedby laughterat the crassstupidity of ethnic outsiders. The alternativeway in which an individualcan be defeated by the</p> <p>with two sugars. 17</p> <p>388</p> <p>ChrastieDavies</p> <p>linked but competing demandsof work and pleasureis if he subordinates himself so completely to the contest for money and economic successas to lose altogetherthe ability to deriveany real enjoyment from his life. The popular stereotype of the stingy, cautious, over-rational, humourless, cunningScot depictsthe alternative type of individualdefeat that call be sufferedby the citizensof a competitive and materialist society. The Scotsmall'slife is so rigidly controlled,so utterly devoted to the rationalpursuitof gain for its own sake that he has lost sight of one of the basicutilitarian reasonsfor seekingmaterialsuccess-the enjoymentof its rewards. The person who is so consumedby the protestantethic that he loses sight of the competing and equally legitimateutilitarianethic may accumulatethe resourceswith which to enjoy life but in the process he loses the ability to attain this enjoyment. This self-destructive aspect of the...</p>