The social meaning and function of humour in physiotherapy practice: an ethnography

Thomson, Di (2010) The social meaning and function of humour in physiotherapy practice: an ethnography. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, 26(1), pp. 1-11. ISSN (print) 0959-3985


An ethnographic study was undertaken over a period of 8 months to explore the social meaning and function of humour in the practice of a team of physiotherapists in a UK National Health Service hospital. Interviews were carried out following the observations to gain the therapists' perspectives in an open critical exploration of assumptions and ideas. The analysis was iterative and followed a systematic recognised ethnographic approach. The findings revealed explicit and implicit meanings of the team's humorous interactions. Explicitly, they appeared light-hearted and enhanced camaraderie but implicitly they demonstrated the team leadership and management skills of the most senior member of the team who had an authoritative influence on the other members, and facilitated this explicit marker of membership. By hiding their concerns in humour, the team members were able to avoid a real confrontation with issues of authority and hierarchy that underscored these activities. Humour, in this instance, was used as a stabilising force to give the team a sense of certainty juxtaposed by the prevailing unpredictability of their daily activities; it was part of their professional culture to allow them to handle stressful situations and to build up a socialisation process. By creating a collective identity, the individual members came to understand the team's underlying philosophy of practice. As a resource, humour was seen to be used as a vehicle of negotiation and a catalyst for change.

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