Laughter isn’t something that usually springs to mind in relation to welfare. Welfare is a lot of things but funny isn’t one of them. That’s why as I re-listened to the recordings of the focus groups I ran for my Phd research I was really struck by the laughter that ran throughout them.
The problem with writing about laughter is you think that it’s going to be a lot funnier than it actually is. Spoiler alert: this post probably won’t make you laugh, although in places it’s a little more uplifting than usual. Instead of focusing on the painful stories of welfare recipient’s experiences with the welfare system, I’ve been thinking about the way that laughter introduces an air of light-heartedness into stories, and can offer a change of perspective in relation to these experiences.
A very common interpretation of humorous laughter is that it serves as a way of coping in difficult situations. We’re encouraged to “laugh off” our problems. Oscar Wilde’s last words, for example, were reportedly “either that wallpaper goes or I do”. Laughter it seems is a perfectly acceptable means of managing unpleasant circumstances – particularly as in Wilde’s case when there is no other alternative.
There was a lot of this “gallows humour” in the focus groups I ran. But as I analysed it, I realised that coping wasn’t the only purpose that it served. As the women laughed, the laughter seemed to work as a form of “affective solidarity” drawing them closer together:
Veronique: …the [caseworker] was asking about the fathers of my children and I said, ‘Oh there’s three different fathers’, and the look on her face, her mouth dropped wide open and I said, ‘They have the same parents, though.’ [Laughter] She looked at me again and I said, ‘All three children come from donors, I was in a same-sex relationship,’ and she was just like, ‘Oh, oh’ [Laughter].
In this example from my research, Veronique appears to deliberately challenge the stereotypical label of the promiscuous mother on a benefit having children to different men by not immediately disclosing that her three children were born to donor fathers while she was in a stable long term relationship. The way that she did this, and her account of the caseworker’s reaction, provoked a lot of laughter in the group.
This laughter functioned very effectively to distance the women from the object of their laughter (the Work and Income caseworker). Because there is an object to laughter it can work to create boundaries between that object and those who find the joke amusing. Laughter becomes a form of othering, fostering an in-group and an out-group. The laughter of the others in the group clearly signalled their resistance to the “other” – the Work and Income caseworker in the story – and in the process moved the focus group participants closer together.
The joking that occurred in the focus groups – away from Work and Income and its environment, practices and caseworkers – also seemed to offer the women who took part a way of reconsidering the practices they encountered there.
Ana: There was a question on the online application. It said: “Why did you break up? Why are you no longer with this person?” The next question was: “How do you feel about it?” So, it was “how do I feel about it?” I thought, “I don’t know why its relevant and how they’re gonna take my answer”. So I just put “the normal range of expected emotional responses”. [Laughter] “How do you think I feel you stupid fuck?” [Laughter].
In this account Ana described encountering a question in an online application that she felt to be overly intrusive. The fact that she answered an intrusive question without giving away any personal information made the other women in her focus group laugh. The laughter then appeared to encourage Ana to role play a response she would like to have made. “How do you think I feel you stupid fuck?”
Ana may have had little influence over the processes at Work and Income, but she could reconstruct responses to these that served to ridicule them. This is what Graefer (2014, p.112) refers to as the “transformative power of laughter”: in this case a way of re-imagining the authority of an institution over one’s life. Laughter appeared to change the way the women felt about Work and Income. They began to view events from a different perspective: situations, welfare practices, caseworkers began to appear ridiculous, and this made them laugh even more.
I can imagine that it is hard to find a reason to laugh when faced with humiliation and poverty, but in the humorous reframing of stories the women in my research seemed to gain some small measure of influence in them. No-one ever spoke about laughing at Work and Income. That is apparently a very joyless place. But laughing about their experiences after the fact appeared to offer the women a short respite from the predictability of their encounters with the welfare system, and a new way of feeling about these.
Ahmed, S. (2014). The cultural politics of emotion. New York: Routledge.
Graefer A (2014) ‘Charlotte makes me lafe (sic) sooo much’: Online laughter, affect and femininity in Geordie Shore. Journal of European Popular Culture, 5(2):105-120.