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Analysed by British social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown in 1940, it describes a kind of ritualised banter that takes place, for example between a man and his maternal mother-in-law in some South African tribal societies. Two main variations are described: an asymmetrical relationship where one party is required to take no offence at constant teasing or mocking by the other, and a symmetrical relationship where each party makes fun at the other's expense.
The joking relationship is an interaction that mediates and stabilizes social relationships where there is tension, competition, or potential conflict, such as between in-laws and between clans and tribes.
While first encountered by Radcliffe-Brown in the 1920s, this type of relationship is now understood to be very widespread across societies in general. In West Africa, particularly in Mali, it is regarded as a centuries-old cultural institution known as sanankuya.
This type of relationship contrasts strongly with societies where so-called avoidance speech or "mother-in-law" language is imposed to minimise interaction between the two parties, as in many Australian Aboriginal languages. Donald F. Thomson's article "The Joking Relationship and Organized Obscenity in North Queensland" gives an in depth discussion of a number of societies where these two speech styles co-exist. The joking relationships which are most unconstrained and free are between classificatory Father's Father and Son's Son—which appears to be the same situation in the Plains cultures of North America.
- Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (July 1940). "On Joking Relationships". Journal of the International African Institute. 13 (3): 195–210. doi:10.2307/1156093.
- Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred (1952). Structure and Function in Primitive Society. London: Cohen & West. p. 95. ISBN 0710019866.
- American Anthropologist, 37:3(1) pp. 460–490, 1935
- ""Joking Relationships" Can End Serious Conflicts, DePauw Political Science Professor to Tell International Political Science Colloquium in France". College News. October 4, 2005. Archived from the original on 24 October 2011. Retrieved 21 August 2011.
- Drucker-Brown, Susan (December 1982). "Joking at Death: The Mamprusi Grandparent-Grandchild Joking Relationship". Man. 17 (4): 714–727. JSTOR 2802042.