Theory and Society

, Volume 43, Issue 3–4, pp 275–289 | Cite as

The situations of culture: humor and the limits of measurability

  • Iddo TavoryEmail author


This article develops a theory of humor and uses it to assess the attempt to measure meaning-structures in cultural sociology. To understand how humor operates, researchers need to attend to two layers of cultural competencies: general typifications and situation-specific know-how. These cultural competencies are then invoked in ways that define humor as a specific form of experiential frame—the bi-sociation of meaning, its condensation, and resonance with experienced tensions in the social world. I show the usefulness of this theorization through the empirical case of AIDS humor in Malawi, a small country in South-East Africa. Using conversational diaries, everyday interactions, and newspaper cartoons, I argue both that such humor is widespread and that it reveals important facets of life in a country ravaged by the pandemic—what it means for the shadow of AIDS to be ever-present. Through this case, I then turn back to the question of measurement, arguing that although measuring tools may be able to identify large-scale semantic shifts, they necessarily miss forms of interaction such as humor, that are based on allusion, condensation, and what is left unsaid.


Culture Measurement Humor Malawi Situation AIDS 



I would like to thank Nahoko Kameo, Inna Leykin, and the participants of the measuring culture mini-conference—Chris Bail, Amin Ghaziani, Neil Gross, Jenn Lena, Omar Lizardo, Terry McDonnell, Ashley Mears, Ann Mische, John Mohr, Steve Vaisey, and Fred Wherry—for useful comments on earlier drafts. Ann Swidler, Tara McKay, and Susan Watkins talked me through the project in its early stages. I also thank Hrag Balian, Peter Bearman, and Harel Shapira for our attempt to think about humor together.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyThe New School for Social ResearchNew YorkUSA

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