Monday, June 18, 2012

Idle gossip?

A story in the New York Times yesterday reports that rather than merely malicious, gossip can have positive benefits.  The piece quotes from a paper published in the May Journal of Personality and Social Psychology describing experiments done by a group of sociologists that demonstrate that gossip serves good purposes such as reining in selfish behavior and alerting others to injustices done by members of the group, thereby reducing the likelihood that the gossip's recipients will be exploited.

It's interesting that this paper is getting so much notice since anyone who has taken an anthropology class in the last 50 or 100 years will know that cultural anthropologists have long recognized gossip's function in a group.  The study of gossip is the study of how people behave and this has been true at least since anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski lived and worked among the Trobriand Islanders in the early 1900's, but gossip probably came into its own as a subject of significant import in the field in the 1960's.

Naturally, however, anthropologists don't necessarily agree on the function of gossip.  There are the functionalists who see talking about other people and how they misbehave as something that maintains the cohesiveness of the group, keeps people in line, and makes it clear what's expected of group members.  This could be important in primitive bands with no official leaders, or as a way quietly to resist bossy chiefs, especially by women who were not in the hierarchy.  And there are the economic anthropologists who see gossip as an economic transaction, the exchange of information for everyone's benefit.

There are the transactionalists, who don't believe that a group is cohesive or shares common goals, but that gossip instead serves the purpose of the individual as s/he aims to get ahead.  Gossip is the way to get the group to go along with your own self-interest.  And then the symbolic-interactionists see culture as constantly changing and gossip as a way for members of the group to assess those changes and their own and others' roles in that change.  And that's just for starters.  Every school interprets gossip in its own way.

And these are all very different interpretations of the same phenomenon, the sharing of information about people in the group quietly, in a social kind of context, avoiding direct challenge to dominant individuals or constraining those who would get out of line.

Of course our own culture isn't immune.  Not only do we all gossip about people in our daily world, but we gossip about people we will never meet -- People magazine, celebrity gossip columns, stories all over the web serve the purpose of fulfilling an endless demand for gossip.  Why do we do it?  We do it because _________.  You fill in the blank.

And that's another interesting thing about this story getting such play.  Not only is the paper the reinventing of a rusty old wheel but it illustrates a problem that is true in all of the social sciences, yes, but also the humanities and even in the life sciences.  It might even define philosophy.  The same observation can be interpreted in a multitude of ways that are invented and continually reinvented over time, largely with updated jargon.  We've had anthropology's many takes on gossip, and now the sociologists are jumping in, reinventing and seemingly oblivious to the fact that these ideas have already had play and shown their likely relevance.

Will someone finally get it 'right'?  Nope.  'Right' is determined by one's ideological perspective, and functionalists and symbolic anthropologists will argue until they are blue in the face, none of them giving an inch.  And, if their arguments are logical, they'll all be equally right.

Every anthropologist who ever wrote about gossip was right, from Malinowski on up to the present day (if anthropologists are in fact still writing about it).  Well, forgive us, but perhaps excepting evolutionary anthropologists who will (do?) say that we're genetically programmed to speak ill of each other, for the same reason we cited above; _________.

Of course, this is one of countless instances where professional careerism requires doing research and that often means re-doing research, and of course claiming deep insights to a press hungry to report it (by reporters often oblivious to history).  And then the readership is gullible in thinking some new discovery has been made.

But, hell, maybe gossip is just fun!

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