Theorising Humour

  • Barbara Plester


Most ancient philosophers discussed and theorized about humour. This chapter offers an overview of humour theories, research and literature starting with the ancient philosophers (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all theorized about humour) and moving through to psychoanalytical theories of joking and laughter from psychologists such as Sigmund Freud. Freud (Jokes and their relations to the unconscious (A. Richards, Trans. 1991). London: Penguin, 1905) devoted an entire book to the role of humour in society (Jokes and their relation to the unconscious). While Freudian theories propose that humour is a transgressive release in which people express their unconscious attitudes on taboo topics such as sex and aggression, alternative notions of humour also include the Hobbesian notion of humour as superiority; and the contention that most (or all) humour features incongruity and even nonsensical aspects. The discussion of traditional humour theories are followed by more modern approaches used in organizational research and comprise relational and group models relevant to workplace humour. The chapter concludes with a brief overview of fun and the introduction of a new tripartite model of fun developed from my organizational research.


Incongruity Relief Release Superiority Relational Theory Fun 


  1. Attardo, S. (1997). The semantic foundations of cognitive theories of humor. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 4(10), 293–347.Google Scholar
  2. Bakhtin, M. (1965). Rabelais and his world (H. Iswolsky, Trans.). Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bergson, H. (1911). Laughter. An essay on the meaning of the comic (C. Brereton & F. Rothwell, Trans. 1935 ed.). London: MacMillan & Co.Google Scholar
  4. Billig, M. (2005). Laughter and ridicule. Towards a social critique of humour. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  5. Bradney, P. (1957). The joking relationship in industry. Human Relations, 10, 179–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Burawoy, M. (1982). Manufacturing consent. Changes in the labour process under monopoly capitalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  7. Butler, N. (2015). Joking aside: Theorizing laughter in organizations. Culture and Organization, 21(1), 42–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Collinson, D. (1988). ‘Engineering humour’: Joking and conflict in shop-floor relations. Organization Studies, 9, 181–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Collinson, D. (2002). Managing humour. Journal of Management Studies, 39(3), 269–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cooper, C. (2008). Elucidating the bonds of workplace humor: A relational model. Human Relations, 61(8), 1087–1115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Coser, R. L. (1959). Some social functions of laughter. A study of humor in a hospital setting. Human Relations, 12, 171–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Douglas, M. (1999). Implicit meanings. Selected essays in anthropology (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. Duncan, J. W., Smeltzer, L. R., & Leap, T. L. (1990). Humor and work: Applications of joking behaviour to management. Journal of Management, 16(2), 255–279.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fleming, P. (2005). Worker’s playtime? Boundaries and cynicism in a ‘Culture of fun’ program. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 41(3), 285–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Freud, S. (1905). Jokes and their relations to the unconscious (A. Richards, Trans. 1991). London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  16. Freud, S. (1927). Humour. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 9, 1–6.Google Scholar
  17. Fry, W. F. J., & Allen, M. (1976). Humour as a creative experience: The development of a Hollywood humorist. In A. J. Chapman & H. C. Foot (Eds.), Humour and laughter: Theory, research and applications (pp. 245–258). London: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  18. Gervais, R., & Merchant, S. (2002). The office. Retrieved August 27, 2003, from
  19. Gournelos, T., & Green, V. (2011). A decade of dark humor: How comedy, irony and satire shaped post-9/11 America. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gruner, C. R. (1997). The game of humor. A comprehensive theory of why we laugh. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  21. Hay, J. (1994). Jocular abuse patterns in mixed-group interaction. Wellington Working Papers in Linguistics, 6, 26–55.Google Scholar
  22. Hay, J. (2000). Functions of humor in the conversations of men and women. Journal of Pragmatics, 32(6), 709–742.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hobbes, T. (1640). Hobbes tripos in three discourses: Human nature. In W. S. Molesworth (Ed.), The English works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. Vol. IV (pp. 183–945). London: John Bohn.Google Scholar
  24. Holmes, J., Marra, M., & Burns, L. (2001). Women’s humour in the workplace. A quantitative analysis. Australian Journal of Communication, 28(1), 83–108.Google Scholar
  25. Koestler, A. (1964). The act of creation. London: Hutchinson & Co.Google Scholar
  26. Kuipers, G. (2011). “Where was King Kong when we needed him?” Public discourse, digital disaster jokes, and the functions of laughter after 9/11. In T. Gournelos & V. Green (Eds.), A decade of dark humor: How comedy, irony and satire shaped post-9/11 America. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.Google Scholar
  27. La Fave, L., Haddad, J., & Maesen, W. A. (1976). Superiority, enhanced self-esteem and perceived incongruity humour theory. In A. J. Chapman & H. C. Foot (Eds.), Humour and laughter: Theory, research and applications (pp. 63–92). London: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  28. Linstead, S. (1985). Jokers wild: The importance of humour in the maintenance of organizational culture. Sociological Review, 13(3), 741–767.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Martin, R. (2007). The psychology of humour. An integrative approach. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  30. Mc Graw, P. A., & Warren, C. (2010). Benign violations: Making immoral behaviour funny. Association for Psychological Science, 21(8), 1141–1149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. McGhee, P. E. (1979). Humor. Its origin and development. San Francisco: Freeman and Co.Google Scholar
  32. Morreall, J. (1983). Taking laughter seriously. Albany: State University of New York.Google Scholar
  33. Plester, B. A. (2007). Laugh out loud: How organizational culture influences workplace humour. Unpublished PhD thesis, Massey University, Auckland.Google Scholar
  34. Plester, B. (2013). When is a joke not a joke? The dark side of organizational humour. Paper presented at the 27th ANZAM Conference, December 4–6, Hobart.Google Scholar
  35. Plester, B. A., Cooper-Thomas, H., & Winquist, J. (2015). The fun paradox. Employee Relations, 37(1), 380–398.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Plester, B. A., & Sayers, J. G. (2007). Taking the piss: The functions of banter in three IT companies. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 20(2), 157–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Provine, R. (2000). Laughter: A scientific investigation. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  38. Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1940). On joking relationships. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 13(3), 195–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Raskin, V. (1985). Semantic mechanisms of humor. Dordrecht: D. Reidel.Google Scholar
  40. Ritchie, G. (1999). Developing the incongruity-resolution theory. Paper presented at the AISB symposium on Creative Language, Edinburgh.Google Scholar
  41. Rodrigues, S. B., & Collinson, D. L. (1995). ‘Having fun’? Humour as resistance in Brazil. Organization Studies, 16(5), 739–768.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Romero, E. J., & Pescosolido, A. (2008). Humor and group effectiveness. Human Relations, 61(3), 395–418.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Roy, D. (1959). ‘Banana Time’: Job satisfaction and informal interaction. Human Organization Studies, 18, 158–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Taylor, P., & Bain, P. (2003). ‘Subterranean worksick blues’: Humour as subversion in two call centres. Organization Studies, 24(9), 1487–1509.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Terrion, J. L., & Ashforth, B. E. (2002). From ‘I’ to ‘we’: The role of putdown humor and identity in the development of a temporary group. Human Relations, 55(1), 55–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Tracy, S. J., Myers, K. K., & Scott, W. (2006). Cracking jokes and crafting selves: Sensemaking and identity management among human service workers. Communication Monographs, 73(3), 283–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Warren, S., & Fineman, S. (2007). ‘Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun here, but…’ Ambivalence and paradox in a ‘fun’ work environment. In R. Westwood & C. Rhodes (Eds.), Humour, work and organization (pp. 92–112). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  48. Weick, K. E., & Westley, F. (1996). Organizational learning: Affirming an oxymoron. In S. R. Clegg, C. Hardy, & W. R. Nord (Eds.), Handbook of organization studies (pp. 440–458). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  49. Westwood, R. (2004). Comic relief: Subversion and catharsis in organizational comic theatre. Organization Studies, 25(5), 775–795.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Westwood, R. (2007). Theory as joke. A hysterical perturbation. In R. Westwood & C. Rhodes (Eds.), Humour, work and organization (pp. 45–73). London/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  51. Wilson, C. P. (1979). Jokes. Form, content, use and function. London: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  52. Wiseman, R. (2015). Accessed April 24, 2015.

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara Plester
    • 1
  1. 1.Management & International BusinessUniversity of Auckland Business SchoolAucklandNew Zealand

Personalised recommendations