Vicissitudes of laughter
Managing interlocutor affiliation in talk about humanitarian aid
This paper is concerned with the way that laughter is employed to manage threats to interlocutor affiliation in talk among humanitarian aid workers as they describe their professional activities in settings of armed conflict. I first set out to situate my analysis within the tradition of work in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (EM), exploring how that approach differs in significant ways from work in pragmatics and related traditions of discourse analytic research. Unlike the latter approaches, EM examines laughter for the intelligibility it is deployed by speakers to furnish, so that the presumption of laughter’s revelatory nature which characterizes a pragmatically-oriented analysis is seen as a participant resource for rendering the situated significance of actions visible by and for the involved parties of a given episode of interaction. Following this, I examine talk from open-ended interviews with aid agency operatives who work in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, exploring how laughter is employed to manage threats to interlocutor affiliation where the potential accusation of opportunism arises in accounts of personal job satisfaction as against the legitimacy otherwise afforded with an appeal to altruism and self-sacrifice. Where speakers attend to the criticism of humanitarian activity for its significance in affecting outcomes of warfare, the management of these different demands is accomplished in reflexive work to ironize their own and others’ formulations of motivation for pursuing humanitarian work.
Keywords: accountability, armed conflict, ethnomethodology, Palestine/Israel, NGOs, humanitarian aid, laughter-in-interaction
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Published online: 13 July 2017
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