Using Humour in Social Work – Social Work Journal Club Chat 17/11/13 8pm GMT

16 11 2013

The article I’ve unilaterally chosen to discuss this week can be found here. Its  “Use of Humour in Case Management with High Risk Children and Families” by Gilgun and Sharma and published in the British Journal of Social Work 2011 (vol 42 issue 3). I chose it because I thought the topic was interesting and also because I haven’t looked yet at any articles which consider social work with children and families so thought it might be a bit of a different slant on some of the other discussions. This isn’t ‘my’ area but it’s an interesting concept and paper that hopefully will lead to more extensive discussions – and I hope those who do have more experience in this area join in – but if not, I’ll still plough through as best I can with the proviso that I’m no expert!

Some initial thoughts on the article

The article looks at some of the situations where ‘humour’ has been used in practice and why it might be used. Social Work doesn’t initially present as something ‘humorous’  particularly in the face of some of the cruellest situations but there are circumstances where different approaches can be more relevant, meaningful and useful and that’s why I thought it would be interesting to see where the article went.  The article starts with looking at some of the research that has been undertaken about the use of humour generally and what ‘humour’ means.

The article states

“Morrell (2010) concluded that there are three main theories of humour: as an expression of superiority, as release of tension, and as enjoyment of incongruity.”

They go on to explain these different strands of humour at the start of the article. Humour can also involve some shared understanding of particular situations and possibly some shared language and approach. It can be used to break barriers within a particular context.  The authors then go on to look specifically at humour within social work.

They mention that

“A few studies address how humour helps social workers cope. In a survey of thirty-two social work students in Australia, Moran and Hughes (2006)used standardised measures of humour, stress and coping. They found that the use of humour helped the students obtain social support, thereby helping them to cope with stress. They also discovered that participants who enjoyed humour without contributing to its production tended to score higher on stress measures that those who produced it.”

I think most of us who have worked in the field can attest to that but the authors are looking for use of humour directly in work with people who use the services of social work agencies.

I don’t want to lift the article per se because the backgrounds to the case studies presented are really interesting and are best read in their entirety. The researchers observed interactions between children, families and social workers and documented the conversations. They drew on a couple of these conversations which had been transcribed in the paper to illustrate the use of humour in case situations but they used the data on all the interactions observed to feed into the conclusions.

They found that humour was used to relieve stress and reduce anxieties both in practitioners and people who were using the services. They also found that staff used humour to indicate “liking and admiration for child service users” which I thought was interesting and potentially really useful.

The case examples given are interesting in that they weren’t what I was necessarily expecting. One explores how social workers have used humour relating to a parent of a child they have worked with to release some of the anxieties about their behaviours but it feels that it is ‘at her expense’. Another case study demonstrates some of the ‘black humour’ that may abound in social work offices where humour is used in relation to an adolescent and some of the ways he uses the language around his sexualised behaviours. I think, while the context was different in my work situation, I could understand and reflect on the way conversations flowed sometimes in offices I worked in. There can be a fine line though sometimes between ‘laughing at someone’ and ‘laughing about a situation’. Another case study, shows how humour can be used to ‘break ice’ or just face a difficult situation straight on and allow the conversations to start again and to move the situation on. A final example is given of the case where humour is used to demonstrate appreciation, understanding or just fondness for the children involved. This feels a lot more comfortable for obvious reasons.

It’s worth looking through the article and the case studies. I haven’t really done it justice in my summary but in discussing it, I’m suggesting some of the questions below to think about. Please do feel free to suggest others.


Do you recognise the use of humour at work?

Do we need humour at work?

How do we make sure we don’t cross the line between mocking and laughing about situations?

Do you have any situations (anonymised) that would help explain how humour works?

Does humour release stress?

How can we involve service users (children) in humour to engage them better?

Is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?

I’m sure I’ll think of others. Please do join me if you can on 17/11/13 at 8pm GMT