ATLANTA—Humor allows drug dealers to cope with threats posed by police, informants and other dangers of the field, according to research by Georgia State University Regents Professor Richard Wright and Timothy Dickinson of the University of Texas at El Paso.
The two explored the role humor plays in the self-narrated identities of drug dealers, in their negotiation of the threat of formal punishment and in how they assert themselves as dealers.
Wright, who chairs the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, has studied urban street criminals—residential burglars, armed robbers, carjackers and drug dealers—for more than 25 years.
“There has been very little research conducted on criminal talk, let alone humor,” he said. “I’m interested in how criminals make decisions. In my research, I seek to discover how they move from an unmotivated state to a motivated state in a given situation.”
In this research, The Funny Side of Drug Dealing: Risk, Humor, and Narrative Identity, Wright and Dickinson drew findings from interviews and observation data gathered from 33 current and former drug dealers.
“Humor is often used as a coping mechanism in dangerous situations,” Wright said. “Crime is inherently dangerous, and ‘talk’–particularly humorous talk–is a way for people to cope with the dangers of the world. People who work in a nuclear plant, for example, are likely to use humor to make light of their precarious situation.”
Wright and Dickinson also found dealers identified their current identities as “smart” in comparison to their former “stupid” selves.
“This method is used to distance themselves from risk,” Wright said. “If they talk about their former, ‘stupid’ selves in comparison to their new ‘wiser’ selves, it distances them from being an individual likely to make decisions that will get them caught by law enforcement.”
Another way of distancing themselves from risk is using humor to disparage law informant and other threats.
“I will always be fascinated with criminal behavior,” Wright said. “In the future, I would like to study humor in the context of other types of crimes, and perhaps even from the victim’s perspective.”
By Rashida Powell
Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology
Richard Wright is a Regents’ Professor and Chair of the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department and Editor-in-Chief of Oxford Bibliographies [Criminology]. He has been studying active urban street criminals, especially residential burglars, armed robbers, carjackers, and drug dealers for a quarter of a century. He is the author or co-author of six books and more than seventy scholarly articles and book chapters, including Armed Robbers in Actionand Burglars on the Job, which won the 1994-95 Outstanding Scholarship in Crime and Delinquency Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems.