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Social Fact and Collective Representation

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In "What is a Social Fact?" Durkheim says that social facts "consist of representations and of actions" and that "the function of a social fact ought always to be sought in its relation to some social end." Radcliffe-Brown provides a detailed analysis of "the joking relationship" as social fact. What is the function of the joking relationship? Suggest another examples of a social fact. What is its function? How are they embodied in collective representations?



RE: Julia's post

Allison Moss

Going along with Julia's discussion as the joking relationship as a social fact, I would say that joking functions as a mode of creating solidarity and establishing identity among parties in society. In another class I'm taking this semester, we read a book by Keith Basso about American Indian joking patterns. The population being studied made jokes at the "Whiteman's" expense by exaggerating characteristics of his culture. In this way, the American Indian community was able to define who they are as a people by joking about what they are specifically not.


Jill Coen

Radcliffe-Brown provides analysis of several interpersonal kin relationships to show the function of the joking relationship existent in each scenario. Joking is an example of Durkheim’s social facts, or the performance of contract or duty regulated by inherited, learned laws and customs (73). The function of the joking relationship, as Radcliffe-Brown illustrates, is a mode “of organizing a definite and stable system of social behavior in which conjunctive and disjunctive components…are maintained and combined” (200). In other words, there are interpersonal relationships that are at once challenged by a conjunctive (attached) and disjunctive (separated) element, such as the binding of families/clans through marriage. In one sense, Radcliffe-Brown says, the husband remains an outsider to his wife’s clan even after marriage. In another sense, the wife remains very much attached to her relatives who continue to take interest in her after her marriage. The attachment or conjunction creates a possibility for avoidance, and disjunction or separation creates a possibility for hostility and conflict. Radcliffe-Brown shows that “the alternative to this relation of extreme mutual respect and restraint is the joking relationship, one, that is, of mutual disrespect and licence. Any serious hostility is prevented by the playful antagonism,” and “a constant expression of teasing” (197). In other words, the joking relationship diffuses tension in interpersonal relationships where it exists and makes possible a relationship conflicted by conjunction and disjunction.


Another example of Durkheim’s social fact, “ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, external to the individual, and endowed with a power of coercion,” also referred to as “moral maxims” and social “laws,” include such acts as paying gratuities. Regarding gratuities, the fact of tipping is not a law in the legal sense of the word, but it is something we are taught to do, something we are ought to do, and something we can be criticized, ostracized and given bad service for in the future if it isn’t paid. The function of gratuities in its most altruistic form is to acknowledge hard work and attentiveness in the service industry. Another realty of tipping is to keep cost of labor down for restaurant and bar employers when business isn’t booming. Either way, collective representations of tipping stare up at us every time we charge a service bill and see the line for “ TIP: ____ .” At restaurants, serves whisper about there tips. Cafes continually quip cuter and savvier lines to attract attention to the shared tip jar. Bell hops and airport curbside aids linger with strong eye contact after unloading your bags. Although it is not legislative, gratuity is law, and resistance to it does not go unpunished.


Alexandra Gagne

I'd have to agree that these relationships function as a diffusion mechanism. While Radcliffe-Browne states that these joking relationships socialize and define certain relationships, the combination of disjunctive and conjunctive lead me to believe that its main purpose is help with avoiding great conflict. The contrast between respectful and some what disrespectful, teasing discourse shows that people are aware of the balance that is struck- it is easier to taunt someone if it is followed by a more respectful joke. This mockery allows people to express certain frustrations without it escalating to a full blown conflict.


Lauren Deal


Throughout this essay, Radcliffe-Brown analyzes the many specific relationships that are negotiated by the "joking relationship." These vary as widely as inter-clan relationships, marital relationships, and cross-generational relationships such as that of child and grandfather. In the end, he comes to the conclusion that the “joking relationship” is one of four mechanisms for the maintenance of alliances. As Julia has mentioned above, he states that joking relationships “are modes of organizing a definite and stable system of social behavior” (183). In addition, he states on page 184 that these relationships are “a method of organizing a relation which combines social conjunction and disjunction.” In other words, the joking relationship brings together relationships that are in other ways separated by some other type of social convention. In this way, it seems to me that the “joking relationship” is perhaps primarily a leveling mechanism that has the secondary application of facilitating alliances.

“Social Facts,” being reflections of the existence of a social reality, are pervasive in all societies. In the case of the “joking relationship” as a leveling mechanism, the social fact of the “joking relationship” stands upon another social fact, which is that in a given society there exists an asymmetrical relationship between the people involved. As much as the use of the “joking relationship” to level this asymmetry is a social fact, so is the asymmetry itself. For example, it is not the decision of an individual grandfather to be in a position warranting respect in relation to his grandchild but rather a manifestation of a societal emphasis on generational respect. These social positions can only be leveled because they exist in society.




Lindsey Scott


The joking relationship can be seen as a way to keep peace among certain members of society, epspecially between the conjunction and disjunction relationships. Without the joking relationship tension between members of these two groups could escalate to the point where coexisting could become difficult, or even impossible. One specific example brought up by Radcliffe-Browne is "an alliance by exchange of goods and services may be associated with a joking relationship" (187). A joking relationship can often provide a topic of conversation for people who would normally have nothing to discuss.


Savannah Fetterolf

Lauren, Jill, and Julia did an excellent job of covering Radcliffe-Brown’s discussion of the “joking relationship” and how it pertains to both the individual and society. I think Jill’s discussion of the practice of tipping is quite applicable to the discussion of a social fact. In my own experience, a social fact that I commonly think about is metro etiquette. For example, on the escalators the common procedure for riders is to stand on the right and let those who want to walk up the escalator pass on the left. For frequent metro users, tourists who block the left side of the escalator are quite a nuisance and are often the recipients of a frustrated stare and a brusque “excuse me.” Like Radcliffe-Brown’s discussion of joking relationships, there are no means of enforcing metro etiquette and there is no written law, but it is a commonly accepted fact amongst members of the metro “culture.” In addition, going against the social norm of proper metro etiquette often ends in the deviant feeling uncomfortable with their inability to blend in with the experienced metro user.


Tyson Johnson

The joking relationship can be identified as a social fact because it has been fully absorbed into societal and interpersonal relations. Although people do learn how to use the joking relationship, they are not necessarily taught how it functions. It is simply assumed that people will discover how to interact with others appropriately through the course of their lives--in effect by trial and error. The influence of the joking relationship is so pervasive that it would almost impossible for a person not to gain a certain understanding of it over the course of their life. Social facts exist in every culture, although they may differ from one society to another. These social facts serve to maintain stability and order in a given society. For example, it is widely understood in American culture that private property must be respected, whether it is a person's home or simply a seat in a theater they placed a coat on to save. There are social taboos associated with violating that private property (as anyone who has stolen a seat in a theater would know). However, a respect for private property is fundamental to the functioning of our economy. Therefore the social facts that ensure private homes do not get broken into and seats do not get stolen also serve the greater purpose of protecting our economic system and way of life.


Different social fact in each culture



After reading Jill, Savannah and Sophie comments on Social fact, I realized how social fact differs in each culture. Opposite of England, people barely say hello to stranger in central Tokyo. If you said hello to a stranger on the street of Tokyo, people will become tense. (unless you look obviously like a foreigner.) They will think that you are suspicious. Living in another country means to face the social fact of that country. This might be a challenge as social facts aren’t officially written (except maybe on a guide book nowadays). One has to figure it out what the social fact is sometimes by violating it. And some of the social facts of one society might not make sense for foreigner. Even in the same culture, Social fact might be difference by region. In Tokyo (and the east), people stands on the left side but in Osaka (and the west) on the right. This demonstrates that there is a social fact that is in a larger scale and social facts that is constructed by smaller society in a smaller scale. To understand the social fact is definitely not easy.


Culturally specific

emma roberts

When I read Radcliffe-Brown’s article, what stood out to me the most was the idea that a joking relationship is essentially a way to avoid conflict between individuals who might not otherwise get along or have difficulty doing so. He writes that the joking relationship is “a peculiar combination of friendliness and antagonism” and that “it is not meant seriously and must not be taken seriously”. It made me think about (and this relates to what Savannah was talking about) how my experience with people of other cultures, and particularly those who speak other languages, has on occasion been awkward because of differences in what is considered appropriate to joke about and what is not. The United States has, for example, a very politically correct culture – more so than many other places in the world. I have often found myself taking offense to things that people from other cultures/countries have said to me about religion or race in particular, even though I know they meant it in a joking manner and I know that it is considered an appropriate topic to joke about in their cultures. It might be redundant to say, but a joking relationship as Radcliffe-Brown analyzes it applies solely within cultural boundaries, and I think it would be interesting to analyze how the joking relationship changes as things such as cross-cultural marriage come in to play.


Erin Neill

I agree with the comments regarding the necessity of the joking relationship to reconcile conflicts within the social structure.  Without the joking relationship to help clarify ones position and act as a barrier to conflict there would be many difficulties within a society.  Passed along through tradition, these relationships allow individuals to interact in a way that requires no more than good humor.  That joking relationships are so regulary reinforced, suggests that they are a necessary social fact that allows societies with confusing hierarchies to be peaceful by avoiding conflict and strife and reducing the possibility of those occuring by institutionalizing a relationship of mutual antagonism and respect.

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