Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Investigating Humor within a Context of Death and Tragedy: The Narratives of Contrasting Realities

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Investigating Humor within a Context of Death and Tragedy: The Narratives of Contrasting Realities

Article excerpt

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the United States during the 2011 calendar year 14,612 individuals were victims of murder and non-negligent manslaughter (FBI, 2013), while the Center for Disease Control (CDC, 2013) reported that 38,364 people committed suicide, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration advised that 4,693 fatal work related injuries occurred (United States Department of Labor, 2013). In each of these cases, a criminal and/or medical examiner/coroner investigation was completed. The work of the men and woman who perform these investigations, crime scene investigators (CSIs), exposes them to a variety of work experiences from the incongruent to the psychologically (and even physically) threatening. Henry (2004) described how law enforcement in general and the CSI specifically are frequently exposed to sights, smells, and human tragedy that most people rarely encounter in their lifetimes; he labeled these experiences as death work.

These investigators are human beings, subject to the emotions, stresses, and high and low points that we all collectively share during the human experience. As with other people, humor and shared laughter are basic and fundamental parts of their lives and humor often exists side by side with human tragedy. They encounter a variety of circumstances that provide a backdrop for joking behavior and laughter. "Sense of humour is a unique capacity of human beings that is highly valued in many, if not all cultures" (Carbalo & Jauregui, 2006, p.18). Martin (2007) contended that most people laugh at jokes and comedy many times in any given day and that humor is a form of communication that can occur in a multitude of contexts, including several situations that on the surface would not be considered appropriate forums.

A vital construct regarding the understanding of humor is its inextricable link to context. The phenomenon of joking in the workplace has been examined in settings as varied as a factory shop floor (Collinson, 1988), a Sardinian fish market, (Porcu, 2005), New Zealand information technology workers (Plester & Sayers, 2007), human service employees (Tracy & Scott, 2006), and kitchen workers (Lynch, 2010). These studies indicate that humor's functions vary widely and are context dependent. Because of this link to context and humor's importance in the workplace, further investigation is needed for a greater understanding of how humor functions in various workplace situations (Cooper, 2008).

Problem and research question

The juxtaposition of joking and laughter within a context that is clearly not funny fed my desire to understand why the phenomenon occurs. This study focused on the human experiences of CSIs and the functional uses of humor and joking behavior in a work context that can be described as psychologically threatening. The research question this study addressed is "How is humor used to negotiate work experiences and make meaning from working in a context that includes death, trauma and tragedy" Extensive literature searches have revealed a number of pieces of research on psychologically threatening work settings; however, most of these studies focus on the cognitive and emotional affects of such work settings. In many cases humor is discussed as part of the overall negotiation of the psychological effects of such work however it is not the primary research focus (for example see Alexander & Wells, 1991; McCarroll, Ursano, Wright, & Fullerton, 1993; Scott, 2007).

The importance of context to the construction, meaning, and understanding of individuals' life stories has been established in the literature (Zibler, Tuval-Mashiach & Lieblich, 2008); however, since the CSIs' work context is unique and relatively unexamined their life stories have yet to be heard. Circumstances that CSIs experience can challenge their abilities to make sense of what has happened. These unique workers face tragic situations on a routine basis, yet within these troubling circumstances they commonly find incongruity that causes laughter and mirth. …

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