In this presentation I will first discuss some of the semiotic properties of laughter and then present results from a study of laughter as it figures in the everyday lives of children (3–5 yrs) and adults at a Swedish preschool.
As for the semiotic properties I will argue that laughter is typically "directed to" things in two different ways; both in the sense of being directed to a referent (what one is laughing about — the laughable) and a recipient (to whom the laughter is directed). These two kinds of directedness correspond to the distinction between representational and communicative properties of expressions, that I wrote about in relation to gesture in my PhD thesis (Andrén 2010). I will also discuss various ways in which emotional expressions has been conceptualized as having social functions in the literature, and introduce my own concept of emotional coalition making, which helps pinpointing a further way in which emotional expressions can be understood as social.
As for the empirical study of laughter in the preschool, I will argue — and show — that children mainly laugh with children and adults mainly laugh with adults despite the fact that adults and children spend a lot of time together. I will also show that most of the time when adults' laughter is directed to a child recipient, this is not because the child intentionally produces a laughable. Instead the laughable is either produced by the adult him- or herself, even though the laughter itself is directed to a child recipient, or the laughable is produced by the child, but not intentionally. These patterns of laughter will then be discussed in terms of theories on why we laugh. I will also elaborate on some concepts from the literature on laughter such as the distinction between "laughing at" and "laughing with" and argue that it needs some rethinking in the context of the inherently asymmetrical character of social relations between adults and children.