Rituals of fun and mischief: the case of the Swedish meatpackers

Publication Date02 Oct 2009
AuthorSusanne Strömberg,Jan Ch. Karlsson
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
Rituals of fun and mischief: the
case of the Swedish meatpackers
Susanne Stro
¨mberg and Jan Ch. Karlsson
Department of Working Life Science, Karlstad University, Karlstad, Sweden
Purpose – This article seeks to analyse rituals of humour and joking practices among two groups of
meatpacking workers, to better understand the organic dynamics of workplace fun.
Design/methodology/approach – This is an ethnographic study of two groups of meatpacking
workers within a Swedish food preparation company. Data were collected using multiple methods
including observations, field notes, and individual and group interviews.
Findings – This study uncovers ample evidence of joking practices among the workers studied.
These are presented on a continuum of pure to applied humour in five types: jokes, physical joking
practices, clowning, nicknaming and satire.
Originality/value – This article gives a rich description and analysis of organic workplace humour
in a contemporary food production setting and offers a typology of joking practices.
Keywords Workplace,Employee behaviour, Organizationalculture, Food products, Groupbehaviour,
Paper type Research paper
Underlying the much touted notion of “fun at work” is recognition of the capacity for
humour to infuse the working day with energy and motivation. Empirical observations
have indicated humour as a common feature of everyday workplace interaction, and
joking practices have previously been studied in a variety of diverse workplaces (cf.
Collinson, 1992; Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999). This gives evidence of humour as an
inevitable part of organisational life, and a feature that may take many forms.
Considering this multi-faceted character of humour, it can be assumed that people
exchange banter and jokes merely for the sake of having fun, notwithstanding its
relevance for many other aspects of working life.
This paper takes a fresh look at rituals of humour in the workplace, based on a
detailed observational study and dialogue with a group of women workers at a
Swedish food production company. It offers insight into the organic ways in which
humour is used by workers to enliven their work, but moreover, to assert their identity,
to parody their managers, and to register their resistance.
Humour within organisations
A great deal of contemporary literature on humour and fun within organisations
presents arguments for their association with “a range of presumed positive
managerial and organizational outcomes” (Westwood and Rhodes, 2007, p. 3). In
particular, Duncan has argued in a series of articles that humour and fun are important
tools for management to reach organisational goals (e.g. Duncan, 1982; Duncan and
Feisal, 1989; Duncan et al., 1990). In contrast, other studies emphasise the subversive
character of humour and its potential to undermine managerial power, rather than its
positive effects on organisational outcomes and that is what we will be dealing with
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 30 January 2009
Revised 24 June 2009
Accepted 28 June 2009
Employee Relations
Vol. 31 No. 6, 2009
pp. 632-647
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/01425450910991776
in this article. Humour has, according to Mulkay (1988), the potential to challenge the
dominating ideals, culture or regime that is the formal management discourse in an
organisational context. This may be compared to what Douglas (1999, p. 149) suggests
as the essence of jokes: “something formal is attacked by something informal,
something organised and controlled, by something vital, energetic”. Linstead (1985)
echoes this claim, arguing that jokes help to create an informal world outside the
strictures of managerial control. In doing this, jokes are regarded as manifestations of
resistance and sabotage. Ackroyd and Thompson (1999, pp. 105-6) argue, further, that
certain kinds of humour aim “to bolster or reassure one party, at the expense of
another”, and that humour may “express distinct identities and dissent from authority”
(cf. Mulkay, 1988; Fox, 1990). Additionally, they point out the importance of humour
regarding how workgroups create autonomy, and how they establish a counter-culture
to the company culture. The multi-faceted character of humour is also recognised by
Collinson (1992, chapter 4), who suggests humour as a form of resistance and
significant for reinforcing group norms and standards.
Evidently, humour in the social context of organisations entails a range of elements:
on the one hand itfacilitates group integrationand offers forms of group solidarity,while
on the other, it facilitates resistance and differentiation – from other groups, and from
aspects of management control. This dualistic, versatile character is the point of
departure for the discussion in this article. In his well-known book On Humour, Mulkay
(1988) makes a distinction between serious and humorous discourse. Serious discourse
presents the worldas it supposedly is – the normal, taken-for-granted everyday worldin
which contradictions and ambiguity, inconsistencies anddiversity in interpretations are
awkward. Humorousdiscourse, on the other hand, thriveson these things. Unlike serious
discourse, Mulkay (1988, p. 28), says “humour actively creates and fosters ambiguity,
and uses it to generate incongruity and interpretative contrast”. Within the realm of
humour he distinguishes between “pure” and “applied” humour. Pure humour has no
other purpose than to amuse and entertain – telling jokes, exchanging stories just to
have a laugh, to have fun. Applied humour makes points about the world, it can be
“barbed”, and it has a seriousmessage to those who understand it. Jokes ofthis type are,
in Ackroyd and Thompson’s(1999, p. 115) words, “subversive of established patterns of
linguistic and social order”. They go on to suggest that in the realm of applied humour
there are three (overlapping) types of joking:
(1) clowning;
(2) teasing; and
(3) satire.
In clowning the teller of the jokes makes fun of him- or herself in order to make others
laugh, but at the same time this is offered as a rejection of workplace discipline. It can,
however, also contribute to group cohesion and increased feelings of solidarity between
workers (Bolton, 2004). Teasing other workers can be done in a relentless way, but may
also take milder forms. Ackroyd and Thompson regard teases as part of establishing
and changing internal social hierarchies among workers. This is a sign of there being a
dissenting subculture within the workplace. Certain types of behaviour, such as the use
of nicknames, can be teasing but can also function as a means to express friendship
and solidarity (De Klerk and Bosch, 1997). Satire, finally, is an expression of systematic
cynicism about the thinking and doing of management, and it indicates the existence of
Rituals of fun
and mischief

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