April 01, 2013

The Sociology of Pranks

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

For the last five years I’ve received many calls about pranks. I’m not a prank expert, but I did write an article about tricks tour guides use to tell historical stories. That perked up the ears of a New York Times journalist who quoted me in an article, “April Fool! The Purpose of Pranks.” Since then, I’ve been on the radio and in print every year saying something about the sociology of pranks.

This year, instead of just giving little quotes here and there to the media, I wanted to explain my thoughts about April Fool’s pranks more fully. Fellow Everyday Sociology blogger Sally Raskoff wrote about them last year, too. Yesterday, in a faculty meeting, one of my colleagues said that "sociologists don’t have much of a sense of humor," but Raskoff’s blog is indeed a funny April Fool’s themed post. I won’t spoil it too much, but she points to pranks as being about breaking norms and showing the importance of humor. I agree, and want to expand this idea a bit further.

First, there are tricks. Howard Becker wrote about ”tricks of the trade” for sociologists to do their job, and these are something like shortcuts for research. I studied the narrative tricks of tour guides because they were tools to tell stories that guides used to a) make their jobs easier, and b) to make a particular story surprise the listener. Magic and card tricks are similar, they are more lighthearted ways to enchant, although they include key facets of pranks: deception and illumination. (For card tricks, there’s no one better than the amazing Ricky Jay.)

I think about the privileged position of the court jester—able to tease the king and break through the hierarchy of the medieval court like no one else—or the trickster—any outsider who is able to make mischief and somehow illuminate a new way of thinking for the viewer. (Lewis Hyde wrote a wonderful book Trickster Makes this World.) Pranks are fun, and humorous, but they are also set out to break down the traditional barriers of high-low, inside-outside in similar ways.

Think about how pranks play out in today’s hierarchical systems: the police station, fraternities and sororities, perhaps boot camp. Pranks are nearly required as part of the group formation process. Those higher up on the ladder pull a prank on those at the lower tier for what ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel would call degradation ceremonies. These activities are designed to strip down a person’s identity to their most bare, in order to build them up again as a new member of the group. For examples, in boot camp new recruits lose their hair, are given the same clothes; in prison inmates are given the same but also a number, and new fraternity initiates are given new names. The better a new recruit saves face in these moments, or plays by the rules of the game, the stronger the group ties. (Forms of public shaming that involve being exiled from a group, like the military, are called “cashiering.”)

Now, where does April Fool’s come in? Well, April Fool’s is like Carnival or Mardi Gras: it’s a break, a ritualized pause on the normal order wherein pranks can be oriented up the ladder. In other words, everyone can be the court jester for a day. It’s a chance to break not just norms, but the norms of order. Up is down. The role of the prankster takes on a charismatic gloss.

Max Weber, high priest of our understandings of bureaucracy, noted that one of the only ways to break through bureaucracy was through the enchantment of charisma. There are other kinds of authority (e.g., scientific authority regarding knowledge, bureaucratic authority regarding position and power, traditional authority), but charisma works to undermine those more rationalized systems. Think of how you can cajole your way out of a speeding ticket. (Not you, of course, but someone else!) That’s charisma trumping other forms of authority. April Fool’s Day is the one designated day where the charisma of the trickster can break through and pull off a gag on a boss or a teacher or a police sergeant.

The curious thing about it is that these activities don’t change the order of the world. Like Mardi Gras, April Fool’s Day is like a pressure valve, a release, that then recalibrates things back into place. Mardi Gras is special because it’s not everyday. So too with April Fools. These pranks don’t work by design on April 2nd.

I’m not saying that we should spend our time going out and conducting pranks. Pranks, of course, go too far. Court jesters lost their heads. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reportedly sent notes to friends saying, “We are discovered! Flee!” only to never see one of them again. There’s a line between pranking and hazing. There’s a line between a prank and harassment. It’s an absolutely brutal reality that this can not be playful, but rather malicious and cruel.

However, Garfinkel’s lasting legacy is the process of finding the edges of our norms through breaching experiments: little studies of everyday life designed to break a simple norm and watch people bug out (e.g., standing backwards in the elevator, or singing on a bus without headphones). We cannot really do these sorts of experiments anymore (due to Human Subjects Review Boards that require us to notify people that we’re experimenting on them!), but Garfinkel, one of sociology’s tricksters, still showed how testing boundaries illuminates the social construction of reality.

If you observe any pranks this April Fool’s Day, consider how they serve to challenge the social order—at least for a day.


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Nice piece! According to some anthropologists (Chagnon for one) the prank has been around since the stone ages, and served the same purposes. Soft humiliation and simple amusement help to teach children and adults if they are open minded enough. Apparently we have evolved to laugh, and cry.

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There are a lot of social experiments that can be done through pranks and other comedy skits. It can also get a message across to others who aren't looking for it. It's a great way to tell people what you think.

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