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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

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Christie Davies

jokes,moralvaluesand social Ethnic boundariesA B ST RACT

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



(C) R.K.P. 1982 0007 1315/82/3303-0383



Christie Davies

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

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


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

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

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."


Christie Dauies

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 whileyo