Spinning Stories


An anthropology of gossip by ebutterworth
August 28, 2009, 9:36 am
Filed under: Storytelling, Uncategorized

In about the last fifty or sixty years, anthropology has turned its attention to gossip: an activity that was previously considered marginal and unworthy of serious consideration (perhaps because it was linked to unofficial talk, frivolity and women…) Anthropologists now take gossip very seriously, trying to figure out its function and place in social groups and struggles for power. Here are some rival interpretations of what gossip is about:

Gossip is a game, undertaken by members of a social group in order to maintain the coherence and unity of that group. When people gossip about each other, and about outsiders, they make ethical judgements about behaviour and maintain their group’s social values. At the same time, gossip is a means of social control: it polices acceptable behaviour and reinforces the values and demands of the dominant group. It’s like a ‘social weapon’ that members of the group can use against each other. So gossip is not idle: it is an important means by which conflicts are resolved or exacerbated, values are maintained and transmitted, and group unity is reinforced. It has social functions and rules, and the right to gossip about others is not automatic: you have to properly belong to a group before you’re allowed to gossip. (Max Gluckman, ‘Gossip and Scandal’, Current Anthropology 4:3 (1963), 307-16)

Some anthropologists have a problem with Gluckman’s idea of gossip as social glue: that is, that it’s the individual who gossips, and not the society. Perhaps, then, gossip is a type of communication – it transmits information that protects an individual’s self-interest. Gossip is a device that the individual can manipulate to increase his or her standing in the community. The gossiper tries to collect information that he or she can then use to forward their self-interest: he or she tries to make their version of a story prevail, but also makes sure they have access to the flow of information. So gossip is still about control, but it’s the individual’s control of information that increases or decreases their social status, rather than social control of the group. (Robert Paine, ‘What is Gossip About? An Alternative Hypothesis’, Man new series 2:2 (1967), 278-85)

There have been attempts to reconcile these two points of view, arguing that gossip was both social (like Gluckman) and psychological (like Paine): it is individual activity in a social setting. Gossip is fundamentally about reputation – about the good names of the gossipers. This poses a problem for the anthropologist, who is particularly interested in social status and reputation, but who perhaps doesn’t understand the stakes involved in trying to get a sample group to share this kind of information with an outsider: where the anthropologist thinks he or she is being scientific, neutral, their subjects see a gossip who is trying to steal their good names (and write the information down, setting it in stone for ever). Passing on gossip to an anthropologist is, then, a means of confusing the issues and trying to mislead the questioner: gossip is a means of misleading others, throwing sand in their eyes, so they don’t form prejudicial – or even just firm – views on someone’s standing or status. (Peter J. Wilson, ‘Filcher of Good Names: An Enquiry into Anthropology and Gossip’, Man new series 9:1 (1974), 93-102)

Or perhaps gossip is like an economic transaction, in which information is exchanged for profit and mutual benefit. It can be informative – trading news, providing a kind of map of the social environment; moralising (when used to manipulate others or to bargain for psychological or even economic environment); or entertaining (when it’s exchanged between people in an equal setting). (Ralph L. Rosnow and Gary Alan Fine, Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay. New York: Elsevier, 1976)

Gossip is good for you. Perhaps it is the development and equivalence of mutual grooming among other primate species, and that human language evolved precisely for this purpose: to soothe, reassure, and strengthen the bonds that exist in a community. Where chimpanzees will spend hours grooming each other’s fur, human beings will sit and chat for ages – in fact gossip makes up most of our everyday conversations – and the result is the same: a feeling of well-being and belonging. Rather than to make hunting in teams easier, or to allow us to express some metaphysical truths, language evolved to enable us to gossip. (Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. London: Faber and Faber, 1996)

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4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Sorry to say, but gossip as an anthropological study has basically petered out as a trend. One key person still working on gossip in anthropology is Nikos Beznier who recently came out with a book. But overall, gossip as a topic is no longer in trend in anthropology, not to say that it wouldn’t come back though.

Comment by Thib

Sorry to disagree with Trib. In anthropology, unlike in fashion or pop music, topics don’t go in or out and anthropologists are not or have ever been trend setters nor are they particularly interested in being fashionable or reaching the top ten. Gossip is, exactly like jokes are, and thus it may or may not be used as a subject of study or as part of a subject of study depending on what the anthropologist thinks, wants or considers important.

Comment by Monica

I graduated in anthro in 1959 and have been at it ever since. My life tells me that anthro is wholly a vehicle of fashions of analysis. Try and get a paper on structural anlaysis published in the presnt post-post- modernist climate!
Basil

Comment by Basil Sansom

Yes but wasn’t Monica’s point to show how gossip itself – not a theory of – is commonly studied. It is no longer seen as information to be filtered out from the analysis.Thib seems to be saying that the study of gossip has gone flaccid.

Comment by Alonzo Riley




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