Gossip (Anthropology)

In any social milieu, people may be occupied in gossip for a substantial part of their every day lives. Recognizing, since Malinowski, that studying the world of the everyday is the key to an understanding of how people behave, anthropologists have long appreciated gossip to be a key sociocultural phenomenon.

Nevertheless, sustained analysis of gossip per se remained intermittent (P. Radin, M. Herskovits, fE. Colson) until the 1960s, when three broadly distinct approaches emerged: the fUnctionalist, the transactionalist, and the symbolic-interactionist. The functionalist approach is exemplified by Max Gluckman (1963). Gossip, Gluckman begins, is a culturally determined and sanctioned process, a social fact, with customary rules, and with important functions. Notably, gossip helps maintain group unity, morality and history; for the essence of gossip is a constant (if informal and indirect) communal evaluation and reaffirmation of behaviour by assessment against common, traditional expectations. Furthermore, gossip enables groups to control the competing cliques and aspiring individuals of which they are composed; for through gossip, differences of opinion are fought out behind the scenes (through customary innuendo, ambiguity and conceit) so that outwardly a show of harmony and friendship can be maintained. Finally, gossip is a hallmark and a privilege, even a duty, of group membership. A group gossips, gossip is group property, and to be a member is to gossip – about other members.

The transactionalist approach, spearheaded by Robert Paine (1967), eschews the presumptions of seeing groups as united and equilibrated, and social-structural convention as being always geared towards this end. Paine argues that it is more apposite to see gossip as a means by which individuals manipulate cultural rules, and to see individual gossipers as having rival interests (in power, friendships, networks, material) which they seek to forward and protect. Individuals not groups gossip, and they gossip primarily not about group values but individual aspirations, others’ and their own. Indeed, any appeal to group unity should rather be seen as a managing of self-interest: an attempt to have a particular definition of a social situation prevail. In short, gossip allows the moral order to be bent to individual purpose. It is instrumental behaviour which uses a genre of informal communication for the partial effecting of competition between individuals through the selective imparting and withholding, the manipulating, of information.

To an extent, the above dichotomy between group- and individual-oriented analyses is collapsed in the symbolic-interactionist approach. Here (Haviland 1977; Heilman 1978) the emphasis is on how, through everyday talk, cultural reality and social relations are continually being represented and debated; in gossip, individuals can be seen actively speculating together on the nature of their lives and world. Hence, gossip provides individuals with a map of their social environment and with current information about happenings, inhabitants and their dispositions. This then provides the resource by which they can devise a programme of action. Also, gossip is the means by which individuals align their actions: negotiate between themselves the scope and import of cultural rules and the social behaviours to which they apply. Gossip is essentially a meta-cultural process: an activity through which individuals examine and discuss together the rules and conventions by which they commonly live. Moreover, since rules are relative and ambiguous in their application, such interpretation is never final or consensual. Hence, gossip continually disassembles, evaluates and reconstitutes the everyday world.

In anthropological analysis — and contrary to common designation — gossip is never idle.

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