Coding for Laughter

BMiz via Flickr
BMiz via Flickr

Many qualitative researchers have been there. Your research participant was in the middle of what you thought was a serious topic of conversation when he suddenly burst out laughing. You smile politely and guide the interview back on course, thinking, Maybe I’ll figure out what was so funny during transcription.

In a recent Social Forces article Mike Reay revisits past data to try to do just that. With data from interviews he conducted with economists in 2000, Reay applies philosophical and sociological theories of laughter to try to understand how his research participants got the giggles.

These seemingly random outbursts actually revealed a social pattern. During interviews, researchers asked their participants to talk about topics in unusual settings—in this case, to talk economics with a sociologist. Participants, then, were in a scenario that philosophers and sociologists have long found to have an especially high potential for humor: a moment of incongruity that mirrors how our minds have long understood jokes. Sometimes the absurdity of talking about a particularly specialized or private subject with an outsider makes the participant laugh. Other times, Reay thinks a participant might “laugh off” a statement that doesn’t match the way she wants the researcher to see her. In either case, spontaneous laughter is likely connected to self-presentation.

Reay’s research has the potential to help qualitative researchers peer further into the minds of their participants. Instead of hurrying to the next question on an interview protocol, it may be well worth the time to question those spontaneous bouts of laughter.