Like Belgian Chocolate for the Universal Mind. Interpersonal and Media Gossip from an Evolutionary Perspective. (Charlotte De Backer)


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CHAPTER 2. Effect-study of gossip


“I imagine that if we were to keep a record of how we use our waking-time, gossiping would come only after “work” - for some of us - in the score. Nevertheless, popular comments about gossip tend to treat it as something chance and haphazard and often as something to be disapproved of.” (Gluckman, 1963: 308)


1 Introduction


Tinbergen (1976) has explained that when studying behavior and looking at the outcome of behavior, two levels of explanation exist: proximate or ultimate. Proximate explanations deal with direct causal mechanisms and are complimentary to the evolutionary (ultimate) oriented causes of traits in a population. At the ultimate level, we search for the function of a behavior, which implies looking at selection pressures (Gaulin & McBurney, 2004; Nelissen, 2000). In this chapter I will focus on proximate explanations for gossip. In chapter 4 I focus on ultimate explanations.


These explanations do not oppose each other, but rather they complement each other. On a proximate level, answers to "how?" questions are offered, while on an ultimate level an underlying evolutionary explanation is added to these proximate explanations. How and why a human trait operates in daily life are two different questions that require different explanations:


“Proximate questions (explanations) have to do with mechanisms. They are ‘plumbing-and-wiring’ explanations, and generally answer ‘how?’ questions: How does the system work? Ultimate questions (explanations) concern the evolution of a trait. Generally, they answer the question ‘why?’: Why does this system exist, and why does in have the form it does?” (Gaulin & McBurney, 2004: 15)


Let me explain this a little more by applying the difference of proximate and ultimate levels of explanation to gossip. For instance, saying that gossip is used to control other people (see further) is a proximate explanation. It explains how gossip is used. But this still leaves the question “Why do we control others by gossiping about them?” To answer this question we need to focus on an ultimate level of explanation. The answer to this specific question will be given in chapter 4.


In this chapter I will discuss the proximate explanations that have been given for gossip. Important to keep in mind, as Gaulin and McBurney (2004: 14) have stressed, is that these proximate explanations are as important to discuss as the ultimate explanations are. Evolutionary psychologists, focusing on an ultimate level of explanation, in no way want to minimize the contributions of the so-called standard social sciences. Rather they want to offer an overarching theory that unifies all findings. They offer complementary explanations, enriching what the standard social sciences have accomplished thus far. In the next two chapters I will explain in more detail the basis of evolutionary psychology, and how it can be used to perform a functional analysis of gossip. This chapter's central focus is a proximate effect-study.

Explanations for gossip on the proximate level mainly come from within the discipline of social anthropology (Saunders, 1999), and standard social psychology. Social anthropologists and social psychologists differ in their general approach. Researchers of gossip either focus on the social uses of gossip which is central in the socio-anthropological view, or on the individual uses of gossip, as described in the psychological approach (Nevo & Nevo, 1993).


Looking at the effects of gossip, socio-anthropologists focus on gossip as a means to spread information, to maintain social control and to bond with others. The adepts from the psychological approach, concentrate on ‘individual uses’, such as social comparison, status regulation, achieving power, and entertainment. Before exploring both approaches in more detail, I will outline the differences between group- and individual-level approaches within the social sciences.



2 Group- vs. individual-level approaches to social science


A major disagreement among social scientists, resulting in a series of articles in the late 1960’s, argued whether gossip functions primarily at the group level (e.g., Gluckman 1963, 1968) or individual level (e.g., Cox 1970; Haviland, 1977; Paine 1967; Szwed 1966). Many animals are solitary, and social groupings play little or no role in their lives. For many other animals, including most primate species and especially humans, social relationships are extremely important. All social scientists agree that groups are central to the human way of life. Still, there has been a long-running dispute among social scientists on the proper way to study human groups.


According to one vision in the dispute, where Paine (1967) played a crucial role, groups are made up of individuals, and all the properties of a group can be reduced to properties of the individuals comprising the group. The unit of analysis, according to this approach, should be the individual, and how individuals relate to one another. Individual needs, wants, and desires drive the organization of social groupings. Once individuals are understood, the properties of groups of interacting individuals can then be deduced (Paine, 1967).


The opposite view, which is Gluckman’s (1963, 1968) and followers, believes that groups have properties that cannot be reduced to the properties of individuals. These researchers see groups as something like super-organisms. Just as our cells and organs do not have any ‘awareness’ of the role they play sustaining our bodies, individuals are not necessarily aware of the role they play in sustaining the group. It is the group’s needs, wants, and desires that are primary, not the individual’s. Groups have properties that are not reducible to individual properties, therefore groups, not individuals, should be the primary unit of analysis. The group-level approach has sometimes been referred to as ‘structural functionalism’, because these scholars usually study the functions of social institutions like laws and social norms in the overall survival and reproduction of society as a whole.


Scholars of both views on gossip have attempted to explain gossip as either serving the needs of individuals, or the needs of groups. If gossip can be seen to serve group needs, this would support the functionalist, group-level approach to human sociality. If, on the other hand, gossip seems to serve individual needs, this would support the individual-level approach.


I will now examine in more detail these two opposing approaches, starting with Gluckman and Paine’s pioneering contributions, followed by the contributions of researchers who have supported their ideas.



3 Gossip and group-level social sciences


3.1 Max Gluckman: Gossip and Scandal


In 1963 Max Gluckman wrote an article titled “Papers in Honor of Melville J. Herskovits: Gossip and Scandal”, which influenced many gossip studies in the years and decades following this article. He does not report on his own ethnographical research, but overviews some of the field observation pioneers, who wrote about gossip such as Paul Radin (1927, cited in Gluckman, 1963), and Melville Herskovits (1937, 1947, cited in Gluckman, 1963). Both anthropologists reported that gossip is dominantly present in indigenous societies. Herskovits (1947, cited in Gluckman, 1963) touched on the idea that gossip is related to the group morals, but Gluckman refers to James West (1945, cited in Gluckman, 1963) who was the first to make the connection between gossip and the maintenance of the unity of groups. However, what West misinterpreted according to Gluckman was that “He did not bring out that gossip does not have isolated roles in community life, but is part of the very blood tissue of that life” (Gluckman, 1963: 308). To illustrate how important gossip is to the unity of groups, Gluckman refers in detail to the fieldwork of Elizabeth Colson (1953, cited in Gluckman, 1963).


Colson (1953, as cited in Gluckman, 1963) observed the Makah Indians on Cape Flattery, opposite Vancouver Island in 1942. The Makah Indians came under American protection and Colson analysed how they managed to keep their group identity as Indians. The Makah Indians constantly strive for status within their own group, and use gossip as a strategy to enhance their own status and diminish the status of others. Colson (as cited in Gluckman, 1963) also noticed how gossip and scandal within the Makah group secured the feelings of unity. The Makah Indians seem to live in harmony with the American culture at first glance, but Colson noticed that group conflicts were hidden from the public, by resolving them through in-group gossip and scandal strategies. Instead of using legal punishment systems, such as a courthouse, the Makah norms and values were constantly reassessed through gossip, therefore hiding conflict situations for outsiders.


“Colson’s penetrating study has lessons for us all as observers of life around us. We learn from it that gossip is not idle: it has social functions and it has rules which are rigidly controlled” (Gluckman, 1963: 312). Gluckman (1963) puts strong emphasis on the social bonding use of gossip when discussing the work of Colson. He regards gossip first as a tool to outline group boundaries, to let strangers feel they are not part of the group by excluding them from (understanding) gossip conversations. Second, gossip, as Gluckman (1963) says, is also a means to scandalize those who violate group norms. Gluckman’s vision on gossip is part of the school of structural functionalism, whose point of departure is the idea of society as a holistic, integrated system. Gossip benefits groups as a whole, according to Gluckman, and this part of his gossip theory was heavily criticized by Robert Paine, as I will discuss later.


3.2 Other group level social science approaches to gossip


Other researchers of gossip have followed Gluckman’s group-focused thinking. Within the group-level social science approach to gossip, three main uses are differentiated for: gossip as an information channel, gossip as a unifying strategy and gossip to exert control over group members. I discuss these three uses now in more detail, starting with the information use.


3.2.1 Gossip as an information channel


Gossip satisfies the basic need to acquire information. We are all curious to hear the latest news on what is going on in our social environment (Ben-Ze’ev, 1994). The first social use of gossip that socio-anthropologists distinguish for is the exchange of information; gossip is an information channel (Rosnow, 1977). Rosnow & Georgoudi (1985) also stress the information use of gossip. They report that this is already prevalent in children as young as three years of age, and that gossip as an information channel is present in the everyday life of every individual. Darnton (1997) says that gossip was used as a primary source of information before the emergence of free press at the end of the 18th century. Before people could read about events in the newspaper, the only way to find out what was going on around them, was through gossip. Everything that was not public knowledge was gathered and disseminated with gossip conversations. Gossip has maintained this use today. Even though we are able to get information through other channels than face-to-face communication, such as the media or internet, we still use gossip to gather and disseminate information. Groups of individuals share information, which in the end benefits the community.


Ayim (1994) suitably compared this information use with the role of detectives. Using gossip to get information makes every individual a detective; listening carefully to what is being told, taking notice of the truthfulness of the information, and learning about his or her social environment. As a result, sharing information through gossip enables group members to learn about their social surrounding: “[a]n essential point is that gossip as information, by its transition of culture and illumination of ambiguous areas of behavior, maps the social environment” (Fine & Rosnow, 1978: 162.)


Observing gossip in a Black American ghetto in Washington, D.C., Hannerz (1967) concluded that information exchange was the most important use of gossip in this observational setting. Most of the gossip occurring in this community did not have an evaluative overtone, but was purely focused on learning about everyday life:


“The general consequence of gossip seen in this light, then, is that the individual gets a map of his social environment including details which are inaccessible to him in his own everyday life. He learns, in the most efficient way possible, what persons are currently desirable or undesirable associates from this point of view, and he also learns something about how one might profitable deal with them, as inferred from their latest gossiped-about characteristics.” (Hannerz, 1967: 57)


Recently Baumeister, Zhang and Vohs (2004) attributed a similar use to gossip. These authors argued that gossip can be seen as a learning device. From the behaviors of others we learn about the values and norms that govern our groups. A unique feature, as they stress, is that familiarity with the gossipee is not required. We do not need to know the gossipee for the gossip to have value.


Learning what is desirable and undesirable in everyday life can take many aspects and will be differeny for individual group members. For instance, Saunders (1999), who analysed the gossip conversations of older women in a support group, noticed that gossip is used to learn about social problems occurring in their center, but also about desirable fashion, and the rules of dating. Men might be less interested in the latest desirable fashion rules, but when it comes to rules of dating, everyone is interested. Levin and Kimmel (1977), who analysed media gossip columns, noticed that love topics are the most favorable gossip topics. This is because we can all learn from this. In paper 4 of the empirical part of this dissertation I will also show that love topics are very common in Flemish (Belgian) gossip magazines.


As an information channel, gossip is a powerful tool, says de Sousa (1994). We should all favor a world in which all information is openly available for everyone as opposed to a world where secrets rule. As an example of the importance of openness of information de Sousa (1994) refers to the Kinsey reports about the sexual behavior of Americans, released in the 1950’s. All surveyed people thought their behavior was ‘abnormal’, while this was not true. People are insecure about their own habits, just because they know so little about the sexual habits of other people, since we don’t talk about these things. Gossip can reveal important information, creating openness and taking away insecurities.


Let me end this discussion by mentioning that cultural norms and rules are not the only things we learn through gossip. A lot of our gossip concerns health information. Elderly people use gossip as a learning device, an information channel to get information about health issues (Percival, 2000). Smith, Lucas and Latkin’s (1999) research found that health information was useful to all people, not just seniors. An intense focus on gossip as an information channel pops up when one’s health condition is at stake. Smith, Lucas and Latkin (1999) analysed the role of gossip within a community where some people were infected with HIV/ AIDS. They noticed that the information gossiped about had a major impact on the social interactions and relationships within a community. What people hear through gossip about HIV informs them and influences how they behave towards HIV-patients. Gossip is an important channel to transmit such important information and Smith et al (1999) advise health workers to use gossip to inform social networks instead of solely informing individuals.


3.2.2 Gossip and the social glue effect


“To be able to gossip together, people first must know one another so as to establish mutual interests. Gossiping about someone with others may be part of getting to know that person well enough to gossip with him.” (Fine & Rosnow, 1978: 164). Gossip teaches us information about new people we meet and become allied with. As Ben-Ze’ev (1994) said, gossip satisfies our tribal need: we all want to belong and be accepted by a unique group. Through the sharing of information between people who know each other, gossip acts as a kind of group bonding mechanism.


Many anthropologists (e.g. Abrahams, 1970; Almirol, 1981; Besnier, 1989; Goodwin, 1990; Hannerz, 1967; Saunders, 1999) who have studied gossip in different settings have mentioned how gossip has a bonding effect in the social settings they observed. For instance, in her study of gossip at work, Greengard (2001) not only concluded that gossip can be harmful by damaging reputations, but also concluded that gossip can have positive effects. Gossip personalises social interactions, creates a more familiar sphere, and can create a bond between people. Noon and Delbridge (1993) made similar conclusions in their analysis of the effects of gossip in organizations.


Gossip outlines the boundaries of a group, excludes non-members (Gelles, 1989; Gluckman, 1963, 1968), and defines the inclusion and exclusion of social networks (Smith et al, 1999). Themes of ‘us vs. them’ and ‘we against the others’ are often associated with gossip (Leaper & Holliday, 1995; Gottman & Mettetal, 1986). Referring to the work of Gluckman (1963), Smith et al comment on the bonding effect of gossip: “In addition, the right to gossip about particular individuals is afforded to group members, and outsiders are criticized or shunned for attempting to engage themselves” (Smith et al, 1999: 122).


Although standard social scientists focus primarily on proximate explanations of human behavior by describing the effects, some also try to give an answer to why these effects occur. With regard to the bonding effect of gossip, some (Ayim, 1994; Bergmann, 1993; Gelles, 1989; Morreall, 1994; 2003; Nevo & Nevo, 1993; Smith, et al, 1999; Young, 2001) say that this is due to the fact that gossip occurs between and about people who know each other. Gossip creates a sphere of intimacy, as people who gossip are connected in a way, because they know and trust each other.


Beyond this reason, Morreall (1994) suggests that the bonding is due to shared laughter. This relates of course to the -individual- entertainment use of gossip that I will discuss later in this chapter. People who gossip often giggle and their laughter has a socializing effect. Laughing for the same, shared reason, presumes that the gossipers share the same attitudes. And, what makes the gossipers feel closer to one another might make other people feel excluded from a group. Humor and, sometimes gossip, is based on intimacy; you have to understand what is being said, and those who are not familiar with what is being talked about, most often can’t follow the conversation (Morreall, 1994; Liang, 1993). Therefore, humor and gossip are a double-sided coin; they can bond people together to an extent, but can also exclude others.


A third suggestion, as Riegel (1996) proposes it, says that the feelings of unity between group members rest on shared norms and values. These shared values can be mutual acquaintances to gossip about (as I mentioned above), but also mutual behavioral interests, or even mutual interests such as watching the same soap operas. With her research about soap-opera gossip, Riegel (1996) finds that people who interpersonally gossip about soaps feel bonded. The gossip about the soap gives them a shared interest. I will discuss this in more detail in chapter 7, regarding media gossip.


A last suggestion to explain the boundary effect of gossip refers to the control use of gossip, which I will discuss further in the next section. Kuttler et al, (2002) pose that gossip increases cohesion in groups of adolescents by clarifying and enforcing behavioral norms. Hannerz (1967) also acknowledges that gossip’s boundary maintenance is due to conformity enforcement. By explaining what acceptable and unacceptable behavior is, gossip has a coherent effect and creates feelings of unity: “By describing the unacceptable actions of a non-group member towards a group member, this gossip activity creates cohesiveness and reaffirms friendships within a group.” (Saunders, 1999: 287).


As a last note on the bonding effect of gossip, let me point out the difference between gossip as an act and gossip as a noun. Post (1994) pleads that gossip as an act can contribute to feelings of community, as a kind of social glue. But looking at gossip as a noun, gossip is a double-edged sword, which can both reinforce or threaten a community, he says.


3.2.3 Gossip as social control


What happens if one of the group members questions the common values or breaks the social norms? Chances are high that this person will become subject of gossip within the group. People are morally evaluated through gossip; do they act according to the rules that govern their social group? Gossip circulates information about those who neglect or break the social norms of a group (e.g. Arno, 1980; Cox, 1970; Dunbar, 1998a; Eder & Enke, 1991; Gelles, 1989; Gluckman, 1963; Levin & Kimmel, 1977; Morreall 1994; Nevo & Nevo, 1993; Post, 1994; Rosnow, 1977; Schoeman, 1994; Smith, et al, 1999; Thomas, 1994; Wilson et al, 2000; Young, 2001). Enforcing social control, people try to maintain the social norms and values of their group and this is how gossip results in a kind of group bonding use, as explained above. Gossip unites because of controlling group members (Dunbar, 1998a; Gluckman, 1963, 1968; Wilson, et al, 2000).


Gelles' (1989) description of the 18th century gossip case of two lovers in France and Great-Britain illustrates this use of gossip nicely. The man in the couple cheats on his fiancée, which is noticed by people from the fiancée’s community. His behavior is not tolerated, and soon the news spreads around, and reaches the fiancée who immediately breaks off the engagement. By spreading news about the violation of social norms, people punish those who broke the rules and try to hold order in their group. In Gelles' (1989) example the fiancé is punished for his cheating behavior; his fiancée breaks the engagement and the community she lives in disgraces him and does not welcome him anymore. Gossip is powerful and feared for this reason.

Merry (1984) comments that gossip and scandal indeed are methods of social control, but their power depends on the context wherein gossip is used:


“The role of gossip in achieving social control in stable, bounded, morally homogenous, and close-knit societies where escape and avoidance are difficult differs markedly from its function in large, fluid, open and morally heterogeneous communities where escape and avoidance are realistic possibilities.” (Merry, 1984: 272)


This, however, does not mean that gossip is not present as a social control means in our modern complex societies:


“Further, the role of gossip and scandal in social control does not differ sharply between small-scale and complex societies. Gossip and scandal flourish whenever there are close-knit social networks and normative homogeneity. In both urban and rural societies, it serves as a way of drawing a social map of reputations and as a means of political competition and conflict.” (Merry, 1984: 295)


For instance, Percival (2000) reports about the control gossip among elderly people. As soon as one of the elderly people whom he observed in a sheltered housing broke a rule, the others immediately reported gossip about the 'violator'. Noon and Delbridge (1993) report similar use of gossip in the context of organizations. Within the social support group of older women where Saunders (1999) collected data, gossip is also used to reinforce social norms.


On the contrary, as I noted earlier, Hannerz (1967) observed how the ghetto members of a Black community in Washington D.C. did not use gossip to exert control so much, but more to inform other group members. “As far as the boundary-maintaining quality of gossip is concerned, it seems to be of little importance in the case of the Negro Ghetto.” (Hannerz, 1967: 58). Reason for this might be that this ghetto is not very close-knit. Hannerz (1967) indeed describes that the people he observed had a stable family life, were sometimes active in church or community programs, but spent most of their time at home. Interactions with neighbors were limited and most of their friends lived outside the immediate neighborhood.



4 Gossip and individual-level social sciences


4.1 Paine: gossip, transactionalism and social anthropology


In 1967 Robert Paine wrote the article, What is gossip about? An Alternative Hypothesis, wherein he strongly criticizes the work of Max Gluckman. According to Paine the main focus of Elizabeth Colson’s research was how gossip was used as an information-management tool by each individual to strive for status. Gluckman’s interpretation of gossip acting as a bonding system, was only a latent function, remarks Paine (1967: 279).


Rather than focusing on the bonding effect of gossip and punishment of those who violate social norms, as Gluckman (1963, 1968) did, Paine (1967) stresses the manipulative use of gossip. Gossip effects individuals, and individuals use gossip to manipulate other individuals.


“My general conclusion is that the investigation of gossip is best kept on an instrumental plane even where we are interested in exploring the important connexion it has with morality. In other words, important data concerning the ‘moral order’ of a group are the manipulations it is possible for individuals to make concerning their interests, and gossip is a device used in these manipulations.” (Paine, 1967: 282)


Gossip is a powerful social instrument, Paine (1967) says, and research on gossip should focus more on the manipulative use of it. Similar to Gluckman, Paine (1967) also uses the study of Colson (1953, as cited in Paine, 1967) to proof his view on gossip. While Gluckman (1963) interpreted Colson’s analyses by attributing a bonding effect to gossip, Paine (1967) reads her work in his perspective. The Makah Indians strived for status and used gossip to slander each other, he says. We could ask who is correct, Gluckman or Paine? But as I will argue at the end of this chapter, it is not the one or the other, but both are correct. Gossip is bonding and manipulating. Before diving deeper into this statement, let me first give an overview of the researchers after Paine (1967) who have highlighted the individual uses of gossip.


4.2 Other individual-orientated uses of gossip


Other researchers followed Paine's individual-focused view on gossip as well. In line with Paine’s idea that gossip is a very manipulative tool, other individual-focused researchers have differentiated four individual uses of gossip: gossip is used to manipulate others, to exert power, as a form of social comparison and as entertainment. I will now review these four different individual uses more in detail.


4.2.1 Gossip to impress and manipulate others


“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players.” (William Shakespeare, As You Like It).


A theoretical approach that most closely follows Paine’s idea is the Dramaturgical Theory, embedded within the more general theory of Symbolic Interactionism (Sandstrom, Martin & Fine, 2003). Symbolic Interactionists have very much influenced the individual-focused research in gossip within the standard social sciences. The influence of their general ideas will be discussed in the next section. Important to mention, however, is that as Sandstrom, Martin, and Fine (2003) explain, the difference between (symbolic) interactionists and followers of the dramaturgical theory is that where the general symbolic interactionists focus on how people make interpretations of their social surroundings, the dramaturgical theory focuses more on how people manipulate their social reality: “Unlike interactionism however, dramaturgical theory is not as concerned with people’s thoughts and interpretations as it is with how people manipulate their actions and appearances in their daily interactions.” (Sandstrom et al, 2003: 20).


Because of their focus on the manipulative behaviors of people, their ideas are related to Paine’s (1967) vision on gossip. The dramaturgical theory mainly developed out of the ideas of Erving Goffman (Sandstrom et al, 2003). What Goffman (1959) called ‘reputation management’ refers to the fact that every individual tries to impress and manipulate others, in order to make himself or herself feel good, and to make himself or herself appear better than others. Reputations are the images others have about us (Bromley, 1993: 71-74). They are crucial for every individual, since they lead to cooperation opportunities: “Thus a reputation for sexual availability, managerial efficiency, financial weakness, single-mindedness, legal acumen, or other special characteristics, advertises opportunities for social interaction that interested parties wish to pursue (or to avoid).” (Bromley, 1993: 62).


In chapter 4, where I discuss the evolutionary, ultimate functions of gossip, I will discuss this more in detail. Here it is sufficient to highlight the importance of reputations and to explain how gossip manipulates these reputations, explained on a proximate level.


Gossip effects our own and others’ reputations. One possibility is that one spreads negative gossip about the reputations of others, to increase their own relative status (e.g., Abrahams, 1970; Cox, 1970; Gelles, 1989; Paine, 1967; Rosnow, 1977; Smith, et al., 1999). In her analysis of an eighteenth century gossip case in France and Great-Britain Gelles (1989) describes how a man is gossiped about in a bad sense, which leads to his fiancé breaking their engagement. To take revenge and to try to save his own reputation, the gossiped man starts gossiping negatively about his ex-fiancée and her family. His attempts did not succeed, unfortunately for him, but Gelles description illustrates the manipulative use of gossip.


The other option is to spread positive gossip about others. Praising others’ reputations may generally be construed as ‘good gossip,’ though some regard even this as a selfish, negative act (Andersen, 1995; Fine & Rosnow, 1978; Greengard, 2001). These authors suggest that spreading good gossip enhances one’s own reputation because knowing information about a high-quality person demonstrates that one is affiliated with that person, conferring benefits to the gossiper. They regard it as negative behavior, because the one who spread the information profits from the successes of another person. Fine and Rosnow (1978) regard this as being pure selfish behavior:


“To engage in the flattering gossiping about another’s accomplishments might be interpreted along similar lines. The gossiper whose public image has been shaken may hope to enhance his diminished status by basking in the reflected glory of others” (Cialdini et al, 1976; cited in Fine & Rosnow, 1978: 163)


This impression management use of gossip is most common in conflict situations where individuals compete with each other to reach similar goals. In this view on gossip, gossip is a manipulative influential tool (Rosnow, 1977). It is about ‘pulling’ and ‘pushing’, but in a verbal sense: “A second major function of gossip is to influence a situation by “pulling” or “pushing” attitudes and actions in a given direction.” (Rosnow & Georgoudi, 1985: 65). Although Rosnow & Georgoudi stress the information function of gossip, they also claim that gossip is a powerful tool; it defines the power relationships within a community.


This form of gossip is very common on the work floor, where workers compete for promotion (Noon & Delbridge, 1993), or to exert power over other employees, which in a sense is a form of impression management as well (Kurland & Pelled, 2000). But also in other contexts, gossip is used in this manipulative sense. As Percival (2000) observed gossip among elderly people in sheltered housing he noticed how the status position of elderly people is very often the subject of gossip, effecting how one’s reputation is defined and changed.


4.2.2 The Gossip mirror: symbolic interactionism and gossip


“Only in man does man know himself, life alone teaches one what he is.” (Goethe, Tasso, act 2, scene 3)


‘The Sunday Mirror’ is a successful British tabloid, filled with juicy gossip stories. The tabloid probably choose its name to indicate that this tabloid is a mirror of what is happening in life, but the use of this particular name is very relevant for another reason, which is that gossip is a mirror to all of us. I will here outline how gossip is used as a means to compare ourselves to others. This view on gossip is very much influenced by the school of Symbolic Interactionism.


Herbert Blumer (1959) first used the term ‘Symbolic Interactionism’ for the sociological theoretical perspective that focuses on human individuals. Symbolic interactionists do not look at groups, like functionalists do, but at individuals. They say humans are very pragmatic. Individuals learn about their environment through social interactions with others. Reality is shaped and explored by these social interactions, which are central in the approach of Symbolic Interactionism. Individuals also shape and adjust their own behavior according to their social interactions with others (Sandstrom, Martin & Fine, 2003).


Cooley (1983) was one of the pioneers of the school of Symbolic Interactionism who concentrated on this thinking. What Cooley called our ‘social self’ is nothing less than the image we have of ourselves, based on how others perceive us. Individuals and the society they live in are flip sides of a same coin, since every individual’s identity is determined by society. Cooley’s (1983) process of what he labelled ‘Looking-glass Self’ involves three stages. First we gather information on how others evaluate us, second these evaluations are interpreted and third and last we generate a self-image from these interpretations.


Later Festinger (1954) would add upon this theory that we not only build our self-image upon how others perceive us, but that we constantly try to change ourselves according to the behaviors of others. In his theory on Social Comparison, Leon Festinger (1954) explained how we constantly compare ourselves to others and adjust our own behaviors according to these comparisons. But as Suls (1977) comments on Festinger’s theory: “One element not considered by Festinger was how comparison information is obtained.” (Suls, 1977: 166). Suls (1977) argues that individuals can observe others and get first-hand information to compare themselves, but that gossip, as second-hand information might also be a reasonable and easy way to obtain comparison information: “Gossiping may serve to satisfy our need for comparison information while allowing the individual to avoid the problems associated with its direct acquisition.” (Suls, 1977: 165).


Festinger’s theory focuses on self-evaluation, as a motive for individuals to compare themselves to others in order to obtain a judgement about their selves. However, social comparison theories also focus on two other motives, which are self-enhancement and self-improvement. The first, self-enhancement, refers to the comparison act in order to obtain a positive self-image. People often have unrealistically positive judgements about themselves. They often believe that they are better of than Average Joe. Therefore they will often compare themselves to people who are doing poor (Poehlmann & Atkin, 1994: 225-235). This explains, at a proximate level, why we gossip about lower status people. We compare ourselves to lower status people in order to obtain a more positive self-image.


A third motive to compare yourself to others, according to the social comparison theory, is self-improvement. By comparing yourself to others you can learn how to improve yourself. For this reason, people often compare themselves to superior others, who act as role models (Poehlmann & Atkin, 1994: 225-235). This motivation explains at a proximate level why we gossip about higher status individuals.


In summary, individuals use gossip to compare themselves to others. Are we any better or are we less lucky, less liked, less rich etc. when compared to others? Gossip enables social comparison (Levin & Arluke, 1987; Morreall, 1994; Nevo & Nevo, 1993, 1994; Wert & Salovey, 2004a,b).


Fine (1977) noticed that this comparison use of gossip already occurs at a young age. Kuttler et al (2002) confirmed this with their research on children’s gossip. They noted that children, at the age of nine, use gossip to learn from the behavior of other children and eventually learn about themselves. They compare themselves to their peer-group and adjust their behavior if it deviates too much from the average.


A context where this social comparison use is very much present is on the work floor. As mentioned in Noon & Delbridge’s (1993) study of how gossip operates on the work floor, it shows that workers eagerly acquired gossip information to compare themselves to other workers to see whether they performed as good as the others, or if they could still improve their production rates.


4.2.3 Gossip is fun: it is entertainment


As Fine and Rosnow say: “On occasions in which friendship relations already exist, and in which there are no pressing external needs or threats, entertainment is expected to be a major component of gossip.” (Fine & Rosnow, 1978: 164).


“Typical gossip is an idle, relaxing activity whose value lies in the activity itself and not the achievement of external ends. This definition does not imply that gossip has no consequences, but those are mostly by-products, not ends. Typical gossip is easygoing and enjoyable, with no significant intended practical results.” (Ben-Ze’ev, 1994: 13)


Gilmore (1978) did observation-participation fieldwork in Fuenmayor, a rural municipality in southwest Andalusia, with a population of about 8,000 people. He describes how the town lacks organized entertainment, and how “[t]he main source of entertainment in Fuenmayor is therefore of necessity the causal social meeting and just plain talk.” (Gilmore, 1978: 90). All Fuenmayoreños, both men and women, like to gossip.


Observing children, Kuttler et al (2002) noticed that children find gossip highly entertaining. Gossip is fun and also makes an adult’s dull day of work bright (Noon & Delbridge, 1993). “Gossip is usually relaxing and effortless and, like games, often relieves people of daily tensions.” (Ben-Ze’ev, 1994: 13). Many have stressed already that gossip entertains people; it is fun to do (e.g. Abrahams, 1970; Ben-Ze’ev, 1994; Derbyshire, 2001; Dunbar, 1998a; Gelles, 1989; Morreall, 1994; Nevo & Nevo, 1993; Rosnow, 1977; Rosnow & Fine, 1974; Rosnow & Georgoudi, 1985; Taylor, 1994; Young, 2001).


Proximate explanations for why gossip is so entertaining are the cathartic function of gossip, and the link between gossip and humor, as I already mentioned earlier. Morreall (1994), who compares gossip with humor, says that both are social entertaining activities. Besides mentioning the fact that both phenomena have been neglected in scientific research, Morreall (1994) sums up four more striking similarities between gossip and humor. First of all, they both involve taboo topics, eliciting feelings of surprise. Second, both are a source of information (see also above). Third, they both take a narrative form; they require skills of storytelling. Gelles (1989), who defines gossip as the telling of tales adds to this: “This telling of tales serves manifold functions, it is a universal form of entertainment, a story with a plot and a moral that engages in the mind and satisfies the emotions.” (Gelles, 1989: 667). Fourth and lastly, both gossip and humor please the imagination. Their entertainment value rather than their truth value delights us.


A second reason why gossip is so entertaining is because of the catharsis; gossip relieves. We can ventilate our (negative) feelings (Thomas, 1994). Spacks (1982) agrees on this and attributes a positive connotation to this healing use of gossip, that bonds people. She cites one of her friends who even comments on this:


“A Rumanian man told me that in his country men gossip a lot, they sit over coffee and discuss in minute detail the happening’s of other people’s lives. In America, he believes, men do not gossip in the true sense. They are too competitive, he says, they don’t understand the healing power of such talk.” (Spacks, 1982: 28)


Spacks (1982), citing one of her friends, indicates that the entertaining use of gossip is embedded in the action of gossip, and not as much in the content. I already mentioned earlier that Post (1994) said the same thing. Gossip as a noun, as he phrased it, is bonding, while gossip as an act is a double-edged sword that can unite and tear apart individuals.



5 Unifying the social science approaches to gossip


I mentioned above, gossip is not about either bonding or manipulating. All the effects of gossip, as described above, very often occur at the same time. Gossip is a multidimensional phenomenon, resulting in many different effects. Therefore the different contributions of different researchers should be united. Although I will try to unite them by using a unifying approach of evolutionary psychology in the next chapters, it will become clear that this is not completely possible. Gossip embodies a broad spectrum of things, and as I will suggest here and later, I think a taxonomy of gossip is required to get a better understanding of all the effects.


Still, some already tried to unify Gluckman and Paine’s different visions on gossip. It is worthwhile mentioning these contributions here. To end this chapter I will use this unifying approach to suggest how we can classify gossip based on the effect-study I presented in this chapter.


5.1 Wilson: uniting Gluckman and Paine


Wilson (1974) compared Gluckman's and Paine’s perspectives on gossip and concluded that both should be united in one theory. Judging Gluckman’s functionalist approach of gossip, Wilson (1974) mainly criticises Colson’s fieldwork among the Makah Indians. Gluckman (1963, 1968) uses Colson’s study to explain how gossip acts as a social bonding system. However, Wilson (1974) discusses that the gossip Colson is talking about does not concern gossip among Makah Indians, but gossip addressed to the anthropologist observing them:


“Incidentally the fact that Makah gossiped to Colson rather upsets Gluckman’s first rule of the game of gossip – that outsiders cannot join in. […] On the other hand, the fact that Makah were gossiping to the outsiders tends to confirm gossip as a technique for keeping outsiders out, and re-affirming the common bonds of the group, just as Gluckman says.” (Wilson, 1974: 98)


According to Wilson (1974) gossip among the Makah is all about reputations. Makahs gossip in order to manipulate their own and others’ reputations. Since “What is gossip about? What is it about the person who is the ‘victim’ of gossip that is singled out? It is his name, literally and, figuratively, his reputation.” (Wilson, 1974: 100). Wilson argues that Gluckman’s view on gossip is not wrong, but should not be opposed to Paine’s view on gossip. He advises to unite both. Gossip is not merely a means for group solidarity, and not merely a communication technique used by individuals to manipulate others, gossip is both.

I agree with Wilson that Gluckman’s and Paine’s ideas on the effect of gossip should not be opposites, or separated from each other. There is no one single effect of gossip on our daily lives; gossip is a tool with multiple uses. The fact that researchers who followed the ideas of both Gluckman and Paine have even differentiated for other group-level and individual-level uses supports this. Though, still in line with Wilson’s argument, these different approaches should not battle each other, they can easily be united. Before I outline how group-level and individual-level approaches to gossip can be unified in an overall theory, I first of all want to support Wilson’s idea with some ethnographical data.


5.2 Social control and manipulation co-appear in ethnographic studies


That gossip is used both to exert control over other group members and as a powerful tool to manipulate others, is confirmed by most ethnographic studies. I already mentioned some ethnographical data in the above overview of the uses of gossip. Here I will briefly overview some ethnographical data that support the idea that gossip is used both to manipulate (Paine) and exert control (Gluckman).


Abrahams (1970) conducted fieldwork on the island of Sint Vincent, in the British West Indies during the summer of 1968. Abrahams focuses his analyses on a performance approach, to have a better understanding of the individual uses of gossip. He agrees that gossip from a functionalist perspective acts as a form of social control, but according to Abrahams this does not explain the individual use of gossip. The latter can be better understood from a performance approach. Vincentians see the act of gossip as a form of art. You better take an active part in gossiping, since not spreading gossip and not being the subject of gossip not only excludes you from community life, but also damages your status. Gossip leads to status, since you signal that you have a large social network under your control. Saying this Abrahams indicates how both the control and manipulation use of gossip are much interwoven. Gossip is the tool to be part of community life and to increase your status.


Both Arno (1980) and Brenneis (1984, 1987) did fieldwork on the islands of Fiji. Arno observed the Yanuyanu society, while Brenneis was located in Bhatgaon, a different indigenous community. Still the results of both are very similar. They both report how men gather to drink Kava (Arno, 1980) or Yaqona (Brenneis, 1984) and gossip, which the Yanuyanu call Kakase, and the Bhatgaon Talanoa. In these male-only gossip sessions, they discuss the everyday life, and so exert control over the members of their community. Both Arno (1980) and Brenneis (1984, 1987) frame this bonding utility of gossip in a manipulative view of gossip: “[g]ossip not only maintains group boundaries but also serves as a weapon used by individuals in intra-group competition and conflict.” (Arno, 1980: 343). As Brenneis says, engaging in daily gossip sessions, the talk about the behavior of others is not solely a sanctioning system for misbehaving individuals, but “[g]ossip is also an event in itself, one in which relationships of solidarity and artful complicity are each time reproduced anew.” (Brenneis, 1984: 496.)


“One of the goals of gossip is to have a good time. People enjoy talanoa; the combination of lively interaction and pleasure at someone else’s expenses is quite satisfying, even if it is publicly decried as worthless.” (Brenneis, 1996: 46)


I found further support in the research of Haviland (1977), who observed gossip in a closed community, living among the Zinacatan in Mexico. These Mexicans both love and fear gossip. Everyone spies on others and reports deviant behaviors, in line with Gluckman’s idea. But, gossip is also used as a powerful tool in conflicts, as Paine outlined. Also Almirol (1981) reported how gossip is both used as information management and a controlling tool that reinforces the feelings of unity among the Filipinos living in Central California. Handelman (1973) who observed sixteen elderly people who followed a workshop in Jerusalem, as well concluded gossip is present both in Gluckman’s functionalist and Paine’s transactionalist perspective of respectively bonding and manipulating. Last, Gilmore (1978) who analysed gossip in Spanish Andalusia, and differentiated for eleven different forms of gossip, also supported both Gluckman and Paine.


5.3 Uniting all individual and group-level uses of gossip


Gossip clearly has multiple effects on our daily lives. We gossip for multiple reasons, Gluckman and Paine each discovered one use of gossip, and researchers after them classified six general uses in total. To review, the individual uses of gossip that have been differentiated for in the standard social sciences approach are ‘social comparison’, ‘manipulation’, and ‘entertainment’. The group-level uses are ‘social bonding’, ‘social control’, and ‘informational exchange’. I think these six different uses can be reduced to four, where no differentiation between individual-level and group-level is made.


5.3.1 Social control and manipulation co-appear but are different


The group-level approach to how gossip effects our daily lives mainly stresses the control use of gossip, whereas the individual-level approach pays most attention to the manipulative force of gossip. Both are very different uses of gossip, which I will keep separate. Trying to unify the two different level approaches, however, I suggest regarding both the control and manipulation use as effecting individuals. When we control other group members, this effects individual members of the group, not groups as a whole. Replacing the term ‘social control’ to simply ‘control’ is more appropriate therefore.


5.3.2 Information exchange and social comparison


From the group-level perspective on the uses of gossip, gossip is an information channel. Health information is diffused in groups through gossip, as well as information about group norms and rules. Group members learn what appropriate behavior is and what is not. If I compare this to the social comparison use, which is stressed in the individual-level approach, I notice parallels. Both concern a learning process; learning about the environment and social context. Information is exchanged to learn something, according to the group-level adepts, and the individual-level faction adds that the individual, who receives the information, uses this learning to change his or her own behavior. The latter go one step further, but both approaches actually attribute a learning effect to gossip. I therefore choose to combine those two effects, and rename it to ‘learning effect’.


5.3.3 Entertainment and social bonding


Lastly, the group-level adepts say that gossip bonds group members and gossip is social glue. When saying this, they very much rely on gossip as an act; it is the act of gossip that unites people, not the very content of the conversation (Post, 1994). The same is true for the entertainment effect, which the individual-level adepts focus on. Gossip is entertaining as an act; we love to gossip. Again, I think both effects are strongly related to each other. They both concentrate on the act of gossip, and the bonding effect is actually due to the entertainment value of gossip. The ethnographic data from Arno (1980) and Brenneis (1984, 1987) nicely illustrates this. They both report how the act of gossip among the people they observed, occurred while men gathered to drink Kava, or Yaqona, which both have a hallucinating effect. They enjoy the act of gossip, and it is bonding because these men gather each night to discuss what is going on.

The act of gossip unites people and is a catharsis, making us feel good. Gossip relaxes, keeps up our social contacts, and can therefore be seen as benefiting our general well being. The unifying effect, central in the group-level approach, might seem to benefit groups as whole, but I also attribute this effect to individual members of a group. Gossip unites individuals to form groups, therefore the effect focuses on individuals. Combining the entertainment and bonding effect, I call this the ‘socializing’ effect of gossip.


5.3.4 Four effects of gossip


Summarizing the reclassification of effects, I come to four main effects of gossip, central within the standard social sciences approach: gossip effects individuals by controlling and manipulating them, third, gossip is learning and, last, it leads to socializing. An overview can be found in table II.1.


Table II.1. Effects of gossip in our daily life, from different perspectives within the social sciences approach


  Individual-level theories Group-level theories
Manipulation Manipulation x
Control x Social control
Learning Social comparison Information
Socializing Entertainment Social bonding


An extra note to this reclassification concerns the focus on the content of what is being exchanged. Gossip can be either judgmental or purely about the sharing of information (Hannerz, 1967; Merry, 1985). Sometimes you just catch up on information with friends (informational) and at other times you make judgments about this information (judgmental) (Merry, 1984). The controlling and manipulating effect of gossip concerns judgmental gossip, whereas the learning effect of gossip is more about the pure informational use, where judgments about the gossipee can be absent. The difference between both, in my opinion, is that judgmental gossip will focus on a specific gossipee, whereas the informational, learning gossip relies more on the behavioral information transmitted, than on the gossipee whose actions are gossiped about. As I outlined in the previous chapter, gossip is information about the traits and behaviors of other individuals. The focus can be directed on the gossipee or on what is said about that gossipee, or both. And this focus will define the effect of gossip. When the behavior is central, gossip will have a learning effect. When the gossipee is central, the gossip will have a more judgmental, controlling or manipulating effect. Most of the times however the focus will be on both. In either case, when engaging in gossip as an act with another gossiper, it will have a socializing, bonding, and entertaining effect as well.

In the next chapter I will outline the basis of evolutionary psychology, before applying it to gossip in chapter 4. Many of the things I outlined here are of great importance for the functional analysis I present in chapter 4 and will be referred to again. As will become clear the functional analysis will offer a complementary level of explanation, rather than contradict what standard social scientist say about gossip.


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