Humor and the Healing Arts: A Multimethod Analysis of Humor Use in Health Care

Humor and the Healing Arts: A Multimethod Analysis of Humor Use in Health Care

Humor and the Healing Arts: A Multimethod Analysis of Humor Use in Health Care

Humor and the Healing Arts: A Multimethod Analysis of Humor Use in Health Care


Offering a social scientific look at humor's role in medical transactions, this volume is based on extensive field study in seven medical settings. It includes excerpts from dozens of actual conversations between patients and caregivers. Analysis of these episodes reveals that humor is a practical tool used to meet many medical objectives. It is used by patients to good-naturedly complain and to campaign for more personal attention, and by caregivers to get attention, make amends, insist on unpleasant routines, and establish rapport.

Examining humor from many angles, the book begins with a phenomenological analysis of the essence of funny. This section describes what makes some things funny but not others, and how to distinguish between potentially funny and unfunny episodes in medical situations. From an ethnographic perspective, joking around is shown to be a persuasive element of medical culture. Examples illustrate how patients and caregivers use humor to negotiate the dialectics between helping and hurting, and individuality and compliance. Additionally, a close-up look at three medical transactions shows how humor is used to help a physical therapy patient overcome fear and queasiness, reduce the embarrassment of a mammography, and defuse a potential conflict between a student aide and a young patient. A final section examines techniques for initiating conversational humor.

In sum, this volume provides an intimate and realistic look at medical conversations as they are conducted every day. It serves as a valuable complement to health communication texts and offers information of interest to health communication scholars, healthcare practitioners, and anyone interested in the effects and techniques of conversational humor. Richly grounded in naturally occurring data, the book can be understood and used effectively by both scholars and practitioners.


Humor and the Healing Arts offers an unprecedented look at health and humor. With dozens of actual examples collected in seven health care settings, this volume shows the ways that humor is used in times of embarrassment, camaraderie, anxiety, pain, and uncertainty. Humor is shown to be a powerful and versatile communication technique. But humor is not an end in itself. In understanding humor better, we also come to better understand the people and situations it involves.

A series of field studies I conducted in the early 1990s provide the primary data of this book. The focus is threefold, centering on the techniques of humor, its effects, and its appropriateness in health care settings. This focus yields insights about the expectations of patients and caregivers, the essential nature of humor, cultural rules for humor use, and the effective management of common health care dilemmas such as helping-by-hurting, complaining-but-cooperating, and chastisingwhile-befriending.

The book is designed to be thorough and easy to understand. It employs a range of research perspectives (phenomenology, ethnography, ethnomethodology, and conversation analysis) and I do not assume readers are familiar with them all. A chapter at the beginning of each section describes the method used in that section, including its strengths and limitations. Although it is not always necessary to understand the method to appreciate the analysis, I think it is important to acknowledge up front that there are no magic conclusions or mystical insights. At least I don't ask you to trust me on that basis. Better, I think, to follow Moerman's (1988) advice and invite you "into the kitchen so that you can see how the work gets done" (p. 17).

I have been told this is a more conversational book than most. In places, my naivete as an observer is unabashedly evident. I was at times fasci-

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