For a quick recap, humor has IMHO two fundamental aspects: incongruity, a contrast that causes the brain to try to resolve a puzzle of interpretation, and disparagement, a non-violent way to adjust the dynamics of a group status hierarchy, an adjustment which can be either gentle or aggressive. I will try to refrain from calling it MY theory of humor, as the theory is largely pieced together from various strands of the long tradition of trying to define humor.
In part 4, I described a theory of humor in which humor is set within the context of a small human group, where a status hierarchy exists among the members of the group, who all know each other. Humor can act as a method of playfully challenging or reasserting the status of members without threatening to tear the group apart or commit violence against group members. I made the point that social psychology shows us that status orders arise naturally within human groups and are unavoidable.
In part 5, I emphasized that, while all groups have status orderings and humor can act as a gentle way to adjust the group status structure, sometimes the ordering within a group is oppressive to some members. Humor in those situations can be used as a mechanism of oppression. In part 8, I talked about stereotype humor as a pathology of humor within large groups, an easy way to get a laugh without a detailed knowledge of the target of the humor.
I was recently reading a sociological study. That book demonstrated for me that some sociologists (perhaps all) have viewed status hierarchies strictly through the lens of large groups in a mass society, rather than through the lens of personal interactions in small groups. This particular sociologist defined "social classes" as groups within the society united by economic interests, whereas "prestige groups" were defined by a common social status afforded members of those groups.
From the perspective of prestige groups within large societies, I would have to say that stereotype humor is the norm, not the exception. Stereotype humor is a mechanism that one prestige group can use to adjust the status level of another group, specifically downward. When leaders of a group want to challenge the position of their group within the prestige hierarchy, they reject the stereotype humor as unacceptable. Such jokes become politically incorrect.
I would like to argue, nonetheless, that such use of humor between prestige groups does not have to be oppressive. Just as gentle teasing can be inclusive in small groups (see part 6 of the series), not everyone within a target group of stereotype humor might take offense. What comes to mind is the example of the Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor would joke about the Bachelor Norwegian Farmer. Knowing many Norwegian-Americans, I am unaware that they in general took offense, and my sense was that many Minnesotans of Norwegian ancestry were flattered by the attention. The teasing indicated that Norwegian Americans were part of the in-group, though perhaps not at the peak of the status hierarchy. It also acted as a mechanism for putting forth a Midwestern cultural identity and celebrating it.
One could even argue that Keillor was offering a rural American cultural identity which was an alternative to Southern cultural identity. Many rural Americans have been attracted to the humor of Jeff Foxworthy and others and identify themselves as Southern, even when they do not live in an area that was part of the former Confederacy. Keillor's Norwegians offer a rural identity that is decidedly not Southern. My own family is from Appalachia, and could choose to identify with a hillbilly cultural identity, as celebrated in such shows as Hee Haw. Sometimes Appalachian identity is lumped into Southern identity, but in the American Civil War, Appalachia generally fought for the North against the Confederacy (Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, West Virginia, which was the only region to secede from the Confederacy, and Western North Carolina and Maryland, etc.). I found it interesting that my own father passionately embraced Keillor's Midwestern vision rather than a cultural identity with the South, though he did enjoy watching Hee Haw just to annoy my mother (perhaps challenging her pretension that we were not culturally part of Appalachia).
In putting forth a theory of humor as a status adjustment mechanism, I focused on small group status dynamics. I believe that the small group is the origin of the status instinct within humans, and the dynamics of the small group long predates humans, being part of the behavioral repertoire of all social animals. Hominids have lived in small groups millions of years before we humans formed mass societies. So when trying to define humor as a characteristically human behavior, small group dynamics and personal interaction should be used as the base context within which to understand it as a social behavior.
Nevertheless, in hindsight, I should have acknowledged that stereotype humor fits neatly into the sociology of status within mass societies.