In this guest post, Tobias Griffin, asks us to consider the role laughter plays in society by examining the game show Family Feud.
On the television game show Family Feud, two opposing families compete for money by trying to answer questions the same way an anonymous group of one hundred people did prior to the show. The only way to win on Family Feud is by responding with generally accepted answers. This reveals a fundamental assumption underlying the competition on “Family Feud”: namely, that those who do not conform to the social norms of American society should be economically disadvantaged.
A telling instance of conformity-based shaming took place in a 1977 Christmas episode of Family Feud. Richard Dawson, the show’s host, asked a family to “name a food that helps keep Americans fat.” After several successful answers, Dawson comes to a contestant named Steve Jones. Most of the “good” or survey-approved answers having been taken, Steve is forced to resort to original thought. Instead of coming up with another answer that most people would think, Steve says, “sour cream.” This is a reasonable answer: sour cream is fattening; there is, logically speaking, nothing wrong with this response. However, because the response is out of the mainstream, Dawson pouts, frowns, looks doubtful, and mocks Steve. All the members of his family and the audience groan in response to his non-conformist answer—Steve, it appears, has gone against the wishes of the collective. When Dawson calls out “a little sour cream!” it is not on the board. The disappointment and emotional deflation caused by his response is apparent. Steve, by giving an unusual answer, has stepped outside the narrow boundaries of the communal beliefs he was called upon to affirm. He pays the price both financially and socially.
On another episode, Dawson asks a female contestant, “during what month of pregnancy does a woman begin to look pregnant?” The woman answers “September.” Dawson laughs so hard that he is unable to ask the question again for over three minutes. No doubt the discrepancy between intended question and intended answer is that Dawson was looking for a month in which all women begin to look pregnant (i.e. any woman’s third month, fifth month, sixth month), whereas the contestant was probably thinking of a particular pregnancy, either hers or someone else’s, in which that pregnancy began to show.
“It feels like knives are stabbing me all over my entire body.” To live with Sickle Cell Disease is to live with immense chronic pain. This quote was taken from our ongoing research on the health care experiences of people living with Sickle Cell Disease (Lawrence et al. 2014). Beyond the pain, to live with Sickle Cell Disease is to live with a disease that many people don’t understand and many doctors don’t know how to properly treat. Sickle Cell Disease shows us how social constructions and social structure profoundly change the experience of living with a chronic disease.
The Social Construction of Sickle Cell Disease
If you’ve heard of Sickle Cell Disease, chances are you’ve also heard the myth that it is a, “black disease.” Sickle Cell Disease affects people of all races. According to the World Health Organization, the Sickle Cell Trait is more common among people whose ancestors came from areas of the globe where malaria is common, such as West and Central African, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. The Sickle Cell Trait provides some protection against malaria which partially explains why it is more common in these geographic regions (for more information about the controversies surrounding Sickle Cell Trait, see Lawrence and Shah 2014).
It is true that African Americans are affected at a higher rate than any other racial ethnic group. Nelson and Hackman (2013) report that 1 in 500 African Americans was affected by Sickle Cell Disease, but that rate dropped to 1 in 3000 for all other racial ethnic groups. All told, Sickle Cell Disease affects approximately 100,000 in the United States and millions more worldwide.
Despite the scientific evidence, many still believe that Sickle Cell Disease is a “black disease” and this misconception affects the quality of care individuals with Sickle Cell receive and the amount of money devoted to Sickle Cell research and advocacy (Smith et al. 2006). Or put in more sociological terms, the way we socially construct Sickle Cell Disease influences the social structures that surround it.