“What’s the ‘craic’?” Contingent humour, community relations and management of sectarian workplace conflict in Northern Ireland

G Brown, F Worthington

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The paper examines employees use of humour to manage ethno-national identity differences in six case study District Councils in Northern Ireland (NI). It draws from empirical data from sixty-five loosely structure interviews with a cross section of employees from each council. Following Dickson, Hargie, O’Donnell, and McMullen’s (2009) Social Identity Theory (SIT) account of the role of humour in workplace ‘community relations’ in NI, we offer a further critical insight into how humour is deployed by Protestant and Catholic employees to ‘manage’ the inherently inharmonious nature of their relationship at work. We show in detail how humour helps temper the ever-present tensions that exist at work between these groups, rooted in their respective historical religious, political, economic and social and community differences and related identity concerns, to prevent the likelihood of these tensions over-spilling into overt hostility and open conflict. Contra postmodern and poststructuralist analyses of workplace identity, we illustrate how the nature and effect of the politico-religious identity differences among these employees is a phenomenon they are highly cognisant of. What we demonstrate is how interpersonal relationships at work in NI is a delicately balanced ‘negotiated order’, reliant for its success on the suspension of historical prejudices, and mutual accommodation of their respective ethno-national identity differences. The theoretical analysis of our fieldwork differs from Dickson et al’s in that we examine our finding from the standpoint of social identification theory (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000. Jenkins, 1994), In our view, this usefully extends Dickson et al’s use and critique of SIT for understanding workplace identity in NI. It reveals in greater critical detail the level of employees’ attachment to their identity, but also the depth of their understanding and awareness of its effects on day-to-day inter-group social relations, and, moreover, notwithstanding a genuine desire for peace and reconciliation, how its day-to-day manifestations confound both institutional and inter-group efforts to reconcile community differences at work.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2011
EventInternational Labour Process Conference - Leeds, United Kingdom
Duration: 5 Apr 20117 Apr 2011


ConferenceInternational Labour Process Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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