Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Joking relationship

core definition

Joking relationship is a term used in ethnographic research to indicate an interaction between two persons such that one is permitted and in some case required, by custom, to tease or make fun of the other while the other is required to take no offence.

explanatory context

The social interaction involves both friendliness and antagonism, a pretence of hostility is purported and expressions of disrespect are allowed although no disrespect is intended.


Joking relationships are symmetric, where both parties may tease, and asymmetric, where only one party does.


This definition is developed in the anthropological work of Radcliffe-Brown (1952) (although he alludes to an earlier use by Mauss (in 1927) as the likely original source).


The role of joking relationships in functionalist analyses is in the management of tricky and potentially conflict situations which cannot otherwise be avoided.


Ethnomethodological and other sociological studies of caring and health institutions (particularly hospitals) have shown a similar kind of interaction where laughter and joking function to make bearable what otherwise may be too horrendous to live with.

analytical review

Encyclopædia Britannica (2013) under the entry 'joking relationship' states:

relationship between two individuals or groups that allows or requires unusually free verbal or physical interaction. The relationship may be mutual (symmetrical) or formalized in such a way that one person or group does the teasing and the other is not allowed to retaliate (asymmetrical). The type of interaction varies and may include light teasing, chastisement, verbal abuse, sexual ribaldry, or horseplay.

Joking relationships generally occur in one of three forms, all of which are generally found in situations in which conflict or rivalry is possible but must be avoided. In one form, it is used as an instrument of social sanction, with the joker calling public attention to an individual or a group that has behaved in a socially unacceptable way. When such a relationship obtains between groups, the jocularity or critique, although disrespectful, expresses the separateness of the groups in a manner that averts actual conflict.

The second form of joking relationship is often found in association with the avoidance relationship, which limits direct personal contact and maintains an extreme degree of respect between categories of people. In such cases, joking relationships are typically prescribed between people of opposite sex who are potential partners in marriage or sexual relations, while avoidance relations are required between persons of opposite sex for whom marital or sexual relations are forbidden. Both of these customs—viewed as points along a continuum of respectful behaviour ranging from avoidance to license—act to stabilize relations that might be subject to conflict. For example, in many cultures a man must avoid his mother-in-law and joke with his sisters-in-law, while a woman must avoid her father-in-law and joke with her brothers-in-law.

The third common form of joking relationship occurs between people of alternating generations. In these cases, grandparents and grandchildren share an especially fond relationship that is characterized by interactions ranging from gentle teasing to explicit or ribald descriptions of one another’s body parts or bodily functions. In contrast, relationships between parents and children tend to be more formal and oriented toward discipline. As with the other forms, this kind of joking relationship separates people into those from whom one may expect social support and those from whom one may expect social sanction.

associated issues


related areas

See also



symbolic interactionism


Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013, 'Joking relationship', available at, last updated 15 July 2008, accessed 24 January 2013, still available 7 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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