What does Justice look like?

michael-dunn-jordan-davis

by Andrew Krebs

Just over two years ago, on February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, a 28-year-old mixed-race Latino man, did not deny killing Martin, a 17-year-old black teen, but claimed he had shot Martin in self-defense. Along with at least 20 other states, Florida has a “Stand Your Ground” law, which says that a person may use deadly force if they perceive they are at risk of great bodily harm in a confrontation. Although Zimmerman’s attorneys did not invoke “Stand Your Ground,” which would have given Zimmerman immunity from prosecution, the judge was required by law to read the “Stand Your Ground” provisions into the jury instructions. This was a key issue in the case because Zimmerman had  identified, pursued, and confronted Martin as a threat.

Ultimately, George Zimmerman was acquitted on charges of murder in the second degree and manslaughter. To many, the verdict was a great injustice, but not necessarily a surprise. Moreover, the verdict reinforced the historically violent and oppressive notion that the life of young black men in the United States is inconsequential at best.

What does justice for Trayvon look like? Does it come in the form of a second-degree murder conviction? Does it come in the form of a long prison sentence? Or is it something else altogether?

About nine months after the untimely death of Trayvon Martin, another black teen was shot and killed by a grown man in Florida. On November 23rd, 2012, Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old white man, murdered 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Davis was sitting in the front passenger seat of his friend’s car when Michael Dunn opened fire into the vehicle. For Dunn, Davis posed a threat. But Davis didn’t have a shotgun, he was merely “riding shotgun.” Regardless, what do grown men in Florida do when they feel threatened by black teenagers? Answer: they shoot and kill them.

Similar to Zimmerman’s case, the judge presiding over Dunn’s case read the “Stand Your Ground” provisions into the jury instructions. Dunn was tried and convicted on three counts of attempted second-degree murder for the three other people in the car who survived Dunn’s assault. However, the jury failed to convict Dunn of murder in the first degree for the killing of Jordan Davis. So even though Dunn will spend the rest of his life in prison for attempting to kill Davis’ friends, no one will be held criminally accountable for the loss of Davis’ life.

So I ask you again, what does justice for Jordan look like? Does justice come in the form of a first-degree murder conviction? Does justice come in the form of a long prison sentence? Or is it something else altogether?

Some people will look at these two cases and conclude that there is no justice for young black men in America. And they are right, but not for the obvious reason. George Zimmerman was not held criminally accountable for the death of Trayvon Martin, and Michael Dunn was not held criminally accountable for the death of Jordan Davis. But I wonder, had Zimmerman and Dunn been found guilty of murder would young black men be any safer as a result?

Is justice about prison sentences or is justice about bringing respect and closure? Those are two different questions, although navigating victim ideology is not easy and deference should always be given to self-determination. Still, we have to be open to the idea that prisons may not be able to solve the issue we have in this country with regards to the perceived value of a black man’s life. As Mariame Kaba suggests, “We must consider other models perhaps based on transformative justice instead of our current failed system of punitive and retributive justice.” These cases highlight the racist assumption that young black men in America need to be watched, told what to do, and surveilled.

We cannot seem to realize that violence is a result of hierarchical structures and institutions that pit people and groups against each other. We live in a country where justice is adversarial, and does nothing to promote actual understanding. In our everyday interactions, people assume disrespect. We live in a world where a black man’s innocence must be qualified (and contested).

Both Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis would be 19 years old by now. They would both be eligible to vote. They would both be eligible to serve on juries. They would both be rights-holding citizens of the United States of America. But, as young black men, they would still be subject to violence, assault, and discrimination. As a nation, we cannot seem to figure out the answer to the question: what does justice for black youth look like?

 

 

 

 

 

Latinos in an Aging World

by Ronald and Jacqueline Angel, July 31, 2014, Routledge.

AngelCover In 2010 during a speech in Potsdam, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the audience that the nation’s attempt to create a multicultural society had been an utter failure.  During his failed 2012 reelection campaign President Nicholas Sarkozy of France proclaimed that France had too many immigrants.  Recently, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain pledged to restrict the use of social services by immigrants.  These are only three examples of the growing rejection of foreigners and the threat to national cultures and identities that they represent that is a growing part of political discourse in Europe.  The nations of Europe are having to face the fact that they are increasingly multicultural and are heavily dependent on immigrants from the developing world, yet that reality is not easy for many to accept.  The fact that many of the newcomers are Muslim adds to the fear and rejection.

Unlike Europe, the United States has always thought of itself as a nation of immigrants, although new arrivals have not always been welcomed warmly by those who came earlier.  Immigration to the United States is not new, but its nature has changed.  Today immigrants come from Latin America and Asia rather than from Europe.  The result is a truly multicultural nation in which race and ethnicity intersect social class and other factors to influence various groups’ wealth and political power.

Although many Latinos have been in the United States for generations, much media coverage and political reporting focuses on immigrants, and many Latinos remain outside of the economic and social mainstream for generations.  As in Europe, many Americans fear the newcomer and like Political Scientist Samuel Huntington believe that Latinos are not assimilating as did previous immigrants, and that they reject the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream and are creating separate societies that threatens the nation’s cultural unity.

After thirty years of research on and writing about Latinos and other vulnerable populations we  have written our first textbook, which is scheduled for release on August 1, 2014 by Routledge.  The book consists of ten chapters that deal with all aspects the Latino experience in the United states.  It deals with demographics, education, employment, wealth, and income for the major Latino subgroups and compares them to Asians, African-Americans, and non-Hispanic whites.  The book also deals with social and psychological issues related to neighborhood quality, fear of crime, and the determinants of well-being.  It summarizes the most current and authoritative research on Latinos available and presents some of our more recent work.

The book takes a life course perspective on the welfare of the Latino population.  Low levels of education early in life lead to restricted employment opportunities, low income, little wealth accumulation, and inadequate retirement savings.  Since the Latino population is aging rapidly, the book deals with issues related to family structure and the sources of care for older parents.  Latinos depend heavily on their family for care and support in old age and tend not to enter nursing homes.  The book summarizes findings on the phenomenon of “caregiver burden,” a term that refers to the physical and psychological demands associated with caring for a seriously ill parent.

One might ask about the process of writing a book, especially a co-authored book.  This is the fourth book that we have written together, so we have some insights.  The fact of the matter is that it is not always smooth sailing.  Writing a book, or even an article with anyone requires a logical division of labor that capitalizes on everyone’s strengths, as well as a willingness not to have everything one’s own way.  Determining what those strengths are and how they complement others is a necessary first step.  Luckily, after four books and numerous articles we seem to have found the formula.  We would be happy to talk to anyone about the topic or the process of writing or finding a publisher.

Underlying Assumptions of Regnerus’s Claims

Our own Brandon Andrew Robinson has recently published a piece in the Huffington Post entitled ”Underlying Assumption of Regnerus’s Claims.” In it, Brandon challenges the recent public claims made by Dr. Mark Regnerus.

This is the introduction to his piece:

Dr. Mark Regnerus, a professor in the department where I am a graduate student, has recently returned to the media forefront with his claims about heterosexual anal sex at Franciscan University and with his testimony in Michigan at a federal court trial on gay marriage. At Franciscan University, Regnerus claimed that the rise of gay marriage would lead to the “normalization of gay men’s sexual behavior,” which will somehow then prompt a rise in heterosexual people practicing anal sex. In Michigan, Regnerus testified on Monday that historically and cross-culturally marriage has been between one man and one woman. He also said that there was “notable instability” in same-sex relationships, though the two children in his study who were raised from birth to 18 years of age by intact same-sex couples “looked pretty good.” Putting somewhat aside the veracity of these claims (which should ultimately be empirically investigated by scholars and researchers), I am somewhat perplexed as a sociologist-in-training by the fact that the underlying assumptions in these statements are left unquestioned.

Here is the link to the rest of his piece: Underlying Assumptions of Regnerus’s Claims.

Statement from the Chair regarding Professor Regnerus

Like all faculty, Dr. Regnerus has the right to pursue his areas of research and express his point of view. However, Dr. Regnerus’ opinions are his own. They do not reflect the views of the Sociology Department of The University of Texas at Austin. Nor do they reflect the views of the American Sociological Association, which takes the position that the conclusions he draws from his study of gay parenting are fundamentally flawed on conceptual and methodological grounds and that findings from Dr. Regnerus’ work have been cited inappropriately in efforts to diminish the civil rights and legitimacy of LBGTQ partners and their families. We encourage society as a whole to evaluate his claims.

The Sociology Department at The University of Texas at Austin aspires to achieve academic excellence in research, teaching, and public service at the highest level in our discipline. We strive to do so in a context that is based on the highest ethical standards of our discipline and in a context that actively promotes and supports diversity among our faculty and student populations.

The Sociology Department resides in the College of Liberal Arts, which has issued a statement regarding Dr. Regnerus.

The Sociology Department has no affiliation with the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture.

SOC 388K: Field Methods with Dr. Harel Shapira

Austin

This post is introduced by Dr. Harel Shapira, where he discusses the aims and motivations for his course SOC 388K: Field Methods. We will also hear from three Sociology graduate students who are currently taking the course. They will briefly describe the individual projects they are pursuing in the North Austin neighborhood of Rundberg.

Dr. Harel Shapira

The primary motivation for this course comes from a desire to provide hands on training for graduate students in ethnographic methods (participant observation and in-depth interviewing). In that sense, with the input and support of Dr. Christine Williams and Dr. Javier Auyero, we thought we would transform the ethnographic methods course into a year-long sequence, with one semester focusing on reading ethnography and the second on doing ethnography.

At the end of the day, its also my effort to mimic (in the best way as I can) training I received as a graduate student at Columbia University from Herb Gans. Gans (a student of  the great Chicago ethnographer Everett Hughes) embraced the “Chicago School” way of doing things: get your hands dirty. He modeled his own practice based seminar on a syllabus he still had from the class he took with Hughes back in 1947, and I myself have now modeled my class on that same syllabus. From day one, when students hit the field,  they are required to conduct at least five hours of fieldwork every week; and submit field notes weekly. On certain weeks they need to turn in reports which ask them to direct their research toward a particular task, such as conducting a life history or attending a public gathering.

The majority of class time is spent with students providing updates on their research and engaging in a collective conversation on issues and ideas that come up in the process of data collection. Beyond this, the course has a basic motivation to have students go out and learn about the communities in which they live. I think this is something all students should do, but has a particular importance when they are at a public institution such as ours, whose mission is and should be to learn about, learn from, and perhaps give something back to the larger public. Our class is focusing on the Rundberg neighborhood of North Austin, a choice inspired by our own Dr. David Kirk who has been working in the area as part of the Restore Rundberg initiative. Dave’s help in both setting up this class and also providing guidance to myself and the students, has been invaluable.

There is a second motivation here, which is that (unfortunately) very little sociological research has been carried out in Texas. Indeed, and especially when it comes to urban sociology, a couple of cities (Chicago and Los Angeles, most notably) dominate the field. Without wanting to criticize all the foundational work that has been produced out of those places, I do find it both morally unfortunate that our knowledge base is limited. But also, it raises scientific issues if our models of urbanization and urban poverty are drawn from a limited set of cases.

It would therefore be wonderful if we can begin to train a group of students who will begin to use Austin, and the wider scope of Texas (which currently has four of the fastest growing cities in the states) as a kind of laboratory in much the same way that Everett Hughes and his students used Chicago as a laboratory.

Luis Romero

Luis pic

I am spending most of my time at a cemetery in Rundberg that was founded in the 1850’s. The cemetery is currently maintained by a non-profit association that provides full-service burials (casket, tombstone, fees, etc.) for under $700. There is, however, one rule that must be followed should you want a family member buried there: that person must be related to someone already buried at the cemetery.  As part of my fieldwork, I have been helping members of the association by completing various tasks around the cemetery, such as the mapping of individual graves and placing flower holders on grave sites.

While I have not yet figured out my “puzzle,” I am interested in seeing how the cemetery and the association deal with gentrification – money was offered to buy the cemetery in order to build businesses in that location – and what residents of Rundberg think about the cemetery and its policies on who can be buried there.

Katherine Jensen

A bridge is currently under construction that will connect Heritage Hills to

A bridge is currently under construction that will connect Heritage Hills to its neighbors to the north.

Heritage Hills is a residential neighborhood just east of I-35, that sits between Anderson and Rundberg Lanes. I have gotten the sense it is unusually racially diverse in the extent to which white and black Austinites share a small residential neighborhood. Yet, in spite of the racial heterogeneity among the community, its demographic makeup and economic situation varies drastically from the area neighboring Heritage Hills to the north, on the other side of Little Walnut Creek. In comparison, that area is over 80% Hispanic (by some sources), the medium household income is only $27,746 ($50,000 less than in Heritage Hills), and 15% of residents live below the poverty line (compared to 5.9% in Heritage Hills).

Age also contrasts greatly; in Heritage Hills, the median age varies from 32-62 (with most residential tracts in the 40s), while across the creek it is 27. Thus, while Heritage Hills is diverse in some senses, how it differs from its neighboring community to the north seems to be much more marked then any differences internal to the neighborhood.

During Field Methods, I’ve been working on getting a sense of Heritage Hills, how it’s changed over time, what people care about, and how they see their community. In particular, I’m interested in how Heritage Hills residents imagine their community, how they imagine their neighbors across the creek, and the dialectic between the two. In other words, how do Heritage Hills actually make sense of these statistical realities on the ground?

Corey McZeal

ARG

I’m studying the North Austin Rock Gym in Rundberg. As a beginner to rock climbing, I would like to explore the process of becoming a climber, learning about the subculture and how the climbers see themselves as opposed to other types of athletes. I am also interested in the particular demographic that participates in this activity; there are already definite gender, racial, and age patterns that I’ve been able to observe in my short time at the gym. What makes climbing appealing to this particular type of person, and what keeps them coming?

We will revisit these projects at the end of the spring semester to see how they have evolved and where they might be headed.

#StillRacist: Richard Sherman, Social Media and the Backstage of “Colorblind” America

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks

Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Super Bowl Champions Seattle Seahawks.

by Corey McZeal

Thanks to the false sense of privacy social media affords, the world has the opportunity to peek into the private thoughts of individuals. Many people tweet, or post on Facebook, without realizing their announcements – whether positive or negative – have become public knowledge. While it is disheartening to know that many people still harbor racist, sexist, and other bigoted sentiments, social media helps us to see the areas where our society still needs to make progress.

The question of what constitutes “real racism” is, unfortunately, prevalent in American society. Since we no longer publicly hang blacks from trees or operate Japanese internment camps, some sincerely believe that America has become a colorblind society. While it is true that great advances have been made in that direction in recent decades, the social constraints associated with race still exist in our culture. Events in pop culture can sometimes bring these issues to the forefront, allowing us to analyze how racialized stereotypes are still very prevalent in our society.

Three weeks ago, anyone who is a sports fan or who uses social media was bombarded with images of NFL star Richard Sherman’s loud, passionate, adrenaline-fueled postgame interview with Erin Andrews following his Seattle Seahawks’ victory over the rival San Francisco 49ers (for the “interview,” see the video above). After declaring himself the best cornerback in the NFL, Sherman called out opponent Michael Crabtree, with whom he’d had an ongoing dispute.

sherman-crabtree-960

Michael Crabtree and Richard Sherman’s “ongoing dispute.”

Following the interview, social media exploded with anti-Sherman reactions. While Sherman’s words were indeed boisterous, the social media reaction was heavily skewed toward negative representations of Sherman with the main themes typically including references such as “nigger,” “thug,” or “classless.”

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 7.08.23 PM

 

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 7.08.42 PM

 

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 7.09.02 PM

For more racist tweets see this link.

For a reaction to the racist tweets see this link.

Racial slurs are inherently dehumanizing and strengthen socially constructed power hierarchies, and many people quickly jumped to stinging racial epithets of Sherman because they could not distinguish his comments from his status as a black man. The negative representations had nothing to do with his postgame comments, and said nothing about his intellect or personality. Their comments demonstrated that even in “colorblind” America, Richard Sherman’s actions are seen not in the context of an individual, but of an entire race. In other words, his “negative” actions became generalizable to the race as a whole.

See link for Richard Sherman’s piece at the MMQB.

After the game, Sherman was remorseful and admitted that the tone of his interview was immature. But, if he wasn’t aware of it before, he is now surely cognizant of the fact that his actions are intimately tied to race. If Peyton Manning had gone on a strongly worded tirade after his victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, he may have faced criticism from fans and the media, he may have been called “classless” as Richard Sherman was, but his actions would be understood as the feelings of an individual, while Sherman was cast under the umbrella of “nigger.” For some, Sherman spoke not for himself but for everyone who shares his skin color, which is something Peyton Manning doesn’t have to consider.

This saga showed us that at least a fraction of America is not able to accept that Sherman’s actions can be understood in a framework other than his blackness. Racism is still present in different forms than it existed in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. It hasn’t been eliminated, and I personally don’t think it’s anywhere close to being eradicated. But, when all of us can look at another “Richard Sherman situation” and see it not only in the context of a “black athlete,” we may be getting close.

When Women Succeed, America Succeeds #OurLunchWithTheFLOTUS

DCCC event at Fairmont

Pictured from left to right: Jane Ebot, The First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, and Letisha Brown

by Letisha Brown and Jane Ebot

On January 27th I received a phone call that set the stage for the rest of my year. It took four calls from the random District of Columbia phone number before I answered and learned that my name had been pulled for a chance to attend a lunch and have my photo taken with the FLOTUS herself, Michelle Obama. The lunch as a part of the DCCC Women’s Luncheon to be held in San Francisco January 31st. Not only would they pay for the hotel and a flight for me, but a guest as well! Immediately I thought about one of my mentors—whose office I had been in not twenty minutes before, the person who suggested I answer the call—Jane Ebot.

Still not quite believing it myself, I left my collaboratorium in search of Jane. Heart pounding, still in disbelief, I walked into Jane’s office and asked if she had plans for the weekend. She replied that she’d be working on her dissertation, to which my excitement increased, “How would you like to go to San Francisco this weekend and meet Michelle Obama?” Excitement and disbelief engulfed her as well, and after giving her a moment I called back the contact in DC so that we could begin the vetting process for a trip scheduled to take place only days later.

Fast forward to Thursday January 30th, in the airport awaiting our flight to San Francisco, for the three days and two nights stay, it finally began to sink in that next morning we’d have the opportunity to meet the First Lady of the United States, take a picture with her and hear her speak. The event itself took place in one of the ballrooms of the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, where Jane and I had the luxury of staying. We heard speeches from Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Lee on the importance of women in Congress over light refreshments before being escorted to a private area to have our picture taken with the FLOTUS. In line with Jane and me stood another sociology graduate student, a campaign worker, other U.S. Representatives and a host of other characters all waiting patiently for their thirty seconds with the woman of the hour.

Finally our time came, and we were escorted over to Michelle herself, who smiled and exuded a warmth and confidence that was staggering. Jane and I both had time to speak with her briefly, get a hug and two photos before our time was up. I told her about my research interest in eating behavior and body weight (to which she responded enthusiastically), and she and Jane bonded about being birthday twins (Capricorn power!). Then, she hugged us goodbye and we were ushered back to our seats where our lunch of quinoa, vegetables and chicken sat waiting for us to enjoy while the First Lady took the stage. Her speech was powerful, and hammered home the point of the entire DCCC luncheon event—when women succeed, America succeeds!

Jane and I spent the rest of the afternoon on cloud nine as we discussed the luncheon and enjoyed the gorgeous San Francisco afternoon. We rode a trolley to the Wharf, photographed Sea Lions and ate a leisurely lunch then took pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge and watched as people swam in the frigid waters. The next day, our last in San Francisco, we enjoyed a nice brunch and prepared for the return flight from our whirlwind adventure!

2014 is shaping up to be a great year!

Dr. Ben Carrington’s essay in gratitude to Stuart Hall

stuart hall young

On February 10, 2014, Stuart Hall passed away at the age of 82. In honor of Stuart Hall, Dr. Ben Carrington wrote an essay for the blog Africa is A Country. The essay is entitled, “In gratitude to Stuart Hall, a socialist intellectual who taught us to confront the political with a smile.”

Below is an excerpt of Dr. Carrington’s essay:

Stuart Hall was the most important public intellectual of the past 50 years. In an age where having a TV show allegedly makes someone a public intellectual and where the status of the university you work at counts for more than what you have to say, Hall’s work seems even more urgent and his passing, somehow, even sadder. 

But for Hall I wouldn’t have become an academic. There was no space for someone like me before Hall. Discovering the field of Cultural Studies as an undergraduate, I found validation and recognition. Suddenly, my background and way of life as a working-class black kid mattered and was important beyond the confines of south London. It’s taken for granted now that culture matters, that popular culture is a site of politics, that politics saturates everyday life, and that these things can and should be studied in a serious manner. But despite their claims, it was not Sociology, or History, or Economics, or even Anthropology that created this space. It was Cultural Studies. Most intellectuals are known for contributing to our knowledge on a particular topic or specific theme. Hall was different. He created an entire new academic discipline, and then mentored just about every significant scholar that came through Cultural Studies in the 1970s and 80s.

To read the essay in its entirety, follow this link.

For more be sure to read – Remembering Stuart Hall: Socialist and Sociologist by Dr. Ben Carrington on the blog Racism Review.

Food for Thought

Food conference posterby Tom Rosen

On Saturday, February 8th The University of Texas’ Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies hosted a Symposium entitled “Food for Thought: Culture and Cusine in Russia and Eastern Europe, 1800-present.” And, like a dessert of chocolate cake with chocolate icing, served alongside a scoop of chocolate ice cream and a mocha latte, the subject matter was hyper-specific and singularly oriented, but rich and filling in its handling of food and cultural development.

Read full post

The Social Construction of Laughter

Stand-Up Comedy

by Jamie Carroll

Comedians need to be sociological about their stand-up sets to have a successful performance.  They have to perceive how the crowd will react to their jokes and how the crowd will perceive them.  After performing ethnographic research at a New York City comedy club, I developed the following tips for comedians.  These tips are based on my observations of audience reactions and informal conversations with comedians and staff members at the comedy club.  They depict sociological tools comedians can use to support the social construction of laughter during a stand-up routine.

Tip #1: Begin with a self-deprecating joke about your personal appearance.

 

Most comedians begin their act with self-deprecating humor that deals with the comedian’s heritage or appearance.  One comedian, who is pale and lanky with glasses, always starts his set with, “I know what you’re thinking, ‘Can this guy fix my computer?’ ”  Another big, Italian comedian starts with, “Hey tourists, this is what New Yorkers look like.”  One bald comedian tells a joke about looking creepy when he takes his daughter to the playground, then points to any bald guy in the audience and says, “See you next Monday at the meeting.”

This self-deprecating humor sets the tone for the show.  First, it connects with the audience’s awkwardness.  Instead of ignoring the fact that they look like they belong on the Sopranos or they look like a computer geek, they put it out there themselves.  They let the audience know it’s okay to laugh at them.  Since many stand-up acts are about the comedian’s personal life, starting out by making fun of themselves shows the audience that  yes, you can laugh at me and with me.  Also, the comedian expresses to the audience that he (the majority of comedians I observed during my research were men) thinks like them.  He understands how he looks to the crowd and wants them to know he is similar to them. “A performer often engenders in his audience the belief that he is related to them in a more ideal way than is always the case,” according to Goffman (1959: 48).  By making any physical differences explicitly clear, a comedian shows the audience that they observe the world in a similar way.

Tip #2: Know your audience.

Knowing your Crowd

At some point during a comedy show, the audience is required to respond to a comedian’s crowd work (speaking directly with the audience).  The MC, or person who opens the show and introduces the comedians, warms up the crowd by asking questions, such as “Where are you from?” or “Who’s married?”  He is a kind of sociologist, trying to decipher the age of the crowd and what kinds of jokes they might like.  Although most comedians do not tailor their sets to specific audiences, they will change the order and emphasis of jokes if they are getting very little response. They can quickly change their minds about jokes by pulling in cues from the audience.  By asking questions, comedians get a feeling for the crowd and whom they are performing for.

Tip #3: Define the fourth wall.

This is how close comedians are to the audience at most clubs, and how close audience members are to each other.

This is how close comedians are to the audience at most clubs, and how close audience members are to each other.

In theater, “breaking the fourth wall” is when an actor speaks directly to the audience.  The actor is usually on a raised stage, peering down at the audience sitting in rows a few yards away from the stage.  In a comedy club, the comedian is alone on a tiny platform, standing in the center of tables less than a foot away.  While theater audiences are not supposed to respond directly, the comedy club audience is an integral character within a standup routine.  As one comedian put it during a slow, late Saturday show, “I think I’m feeding off your energy, which sucks.  The other crowds tonight have been awesome, so you’re going to have to laugh a lot harder if you want me to tell jokes.”  Comedians need audience members to play their role in a comedy club: a subordinate actor who is essential to the outcome of the show.

Goffman speaks of the subordinate role comedy club audience members must take: “Subordinate involvements are sustained and muted, modulated and intermittent in fashion, expressing in their style a continuous regard and deference for the dominating activity at hand”(1959: 44).  Audience members need to give themselves up to the performance and defer to the comedian as the dominant actor, responding when the comedian offers cues and remaining quiet at other times.  By using crowd work, comedians can define the fourth wall of the comedy club and control the audience responses.

An example of how a comedian uses crowd work is when they ask the crowd where they are from or what they do, and quickly turn their response into a joke.  The audience’s job is to respond when asked, but be quiet when the comedian moves on.  For example, one comedian asked audience members if they are from out of town and where they are from.  Then she makes a joke about how tourists always walk too slowly in New York.  Although she asked an audience member to participate earlier, she does not want a response after her joke, other than laughter.  By starting an act with these kinds of jokes, comedians train the audience to respond to cues and uphold the norms of stand-up routine.

Tip #4: The comedy style determines the style of laughter.

 

Comedians develop different styles of stand-up that affect the amount and timing of laughter.  According to Goffman, “The performer can rely upon his audience to accept minor cues as a sign of something important about his performance” (1959: 51).  Some comedians have well-defined “punchlines” to end each joke, and generally pause for a sip of their drink, to glance at their notes, or wait for the audience to stop laughing or clapping.  For comics, these cues tell the audience that it is a socially acceptable time to laugh.  This is when you are supposed to respond.  The laughter is thus unified in these acts.  While “punchline” comedians are not guaranteed to have a positive response during these pauses, the laughter they do receive is clumped together, making it seem loud.

Another style of stand-up comedy does not have these triggers imbedded within the sets, so the audience response is more spread out.  This kind of comedian is extremely high energy and says a splatter of jokes at once, speaking very quickly.  (Think Robin Williams.)  The comic will pause for a sip of a drink or to look at notes, but these pauses are not at the end of defined jokes.  One such comedian relies on very selective audience participation.  He starts a conversation with someone, makes fun of that person, refers to a past joke, and makes a new joke in almost one breath.  Throughout the entire exchange, members of the audience laugh and nod along, looking at each other to say, “this dude is crazy!”  The reactions are positive, but there is no specific cue for everyone to laugh at once, so the laughter seems lighter because it is more spread out.

The last style of comedy is story telling.  These comedians tell long stories with small sarcastic jokes in between and a punchline at the very end, using a mix of high energy and punchline styles.  Most of the comedians I observed followed this style.  The laughter was scattered during the story and ended with the punchline.

Throughout my research, I could not ascertain whether one style of comedy was better than another, only that the style of laughter during the show changes according to the placement (or lack of placement) of punchlines.

Following these four steps will ensure that a comedian has trained the audience into the proper behavior in a comedy club.  The content of jokes, people in the crowd, and organization of the club also influence audience reactions, but these four steps are under the control of the comedian and can easily be adapted into any routine.

Graduate Sociology Blog