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Humour and the Plurality of Everyday Life

Comical Accounts from an Interface Area in Belfast

Tomoko Sakai


This article examines self-referential humour in narrative accounts about experiences of conflict and community division, based on fieldwork undertaken in an interface area in Belfast in the late 2000s and in the 2010s. It has been a classic approach within anthropological studies of humour and jokes to focus on their socially or politically subversive nature. Some anthropologists, however, have viewed this approach sceptically, pointing out the Janus-faced nature of laughter that can turn against the weak, or the ambiguity that humour carries. Sharing the understanding that ambivalence and ambiguity are humour's intrinsic features, this article argues that these very features make humour crucial to people's everyday recollections and interactions in a post-conflict, still-much divided, society. Self-comicalisation helps people produce distance, either from themselves or the social group to which they belong, and direct attention to the absurdity of daily life under a long-term conflict in which mundane, day-to-day concerns and intense violence and suffering all flow in parallel. Jokes and comical storytelling capture this plurality of everyday life, which can be shared across the community division. Through attempting to sound out what could and could not be joked about, moreover, people seek out possible interactions in unfamiliar and uncertain relationships.