Friday, January 22, 2016

Gossip: The Stuff Anthropologists Study

"Gossip is the stuff anthropologists study."

Yup, we study it, but we don’t do it. Or do we?

Well, I’m not so sure. I guess it depends on what one means by gossip. Most people consider gossip to be half truths or stories that are less than news but more than fabrications. A lot of people think gossip is motivated by meanness (think of the popular tv show Gossip Girl). Gossip is also a kind of social knowledge, independent of it’s content, that maps out social networks and connections. It’s an activity of group formation and exclusion.  Gossip is thus also a cover word for the sharing of social information that knits people together, builds alliances, firms up bonds and excludes others.  To be included in the gossip network is to be part of the group. Exclusion from the network is also a mechanism of social marginalization. Someone telling you a piece of gossip is as interested in establishing and maintaining a relationship as they are interested in the content of the gossip itself.  

In this sense anthropologists track through these social networks asking questions about people, beliefs, and things. This is what I mean when I say anthropologists study gossip. Gossip - social knowledge, perception, and believe- lie at the core of anthropological practice.

It is one thing, however, to study gossip. It is quite another thing to be the subject of gossip (especially malicious gossip).  Gossip seem to flourish in work place settings and small group politics. It seems that in these environments gossip acts as a form of coercive control, a type of peer pressure to constrain and manage the behaviour of group members. 

The academic work place, especially as it has evolved in the context of the university of excellence, is a star-system zero-sum game. Rewards are handed out to some and not others and the process often feels opaque. The academic workplace may at times require collaborative work but reward systems are all individualized. This of course mirrors the mainstream economic and cultural practices. However, in the academy we find an extreme example of individualism in practice. In this kind of work place stray thoughts and angry comments can have a lasting trace in the gossip network that are hard to eradicate.

Gossip spreads through the utterance of an intemperate remark, a poorly phrased fragment of speech, a feeling, or even a stray thought half expressed. These notions become the kernels of stories that take on their own lives, desires, and even a sense of presence. This is a problem, especially if one didn't pay much attention to the thought and its after life at the moment of utterance.

So the task is to find a way to disempower those wayward stories that live in the shadows of our formal, technical communications.

In much of my earlier work (and my more recent work) I delve directly into these types of narratives. In Stories from Home (AE 1994), for example, I pull out the shipboard racism of the men I grew up and worked with.  In that paper I try to understand, without justifying, their colonial folklore. We need to pull these narrative up and into the open in order to disempower them.  In my more recent work I examine the ways in which similar types of colonial folklore lurks within the quiet spaces of our ow academic practice (see REVISITING “DM SIBILHAA’NM DA LAXYUUBM GITXAAŁAand as an Indigenous person I feel I have no option but to speak back.

It is important to me that I also consider how the contradictions of my own social location also complicates they ways in which other people hear me; how they locate themselves in relation to me; how they imagine me as a holder of power or authority in some way. To simply say, that I have no real power is to fall prey to a classic trope of denial.  I do have some power: power to assign grades, power to evaluate students and, in certain cases, the power to evaluate colleagues (though all of these are mitigated by the power of others). So I must take seriously this power that adhers to my social location even as this same power is in fact undermined in this dominant society institution by my Indigenous identity.  

I want to return now to gossip as a focus of study. Many years ago I had a mini-epiphany. We were overhauling a salmon seine in the lead up to the fishing season.  It was getting on in the day so we were taking a break in the netloft lunch room.  My father, a couple other skippers, and our crew were gathered around the lunch table. They were telling stories of big catches, lost sets, and old skippers long departed when it hit me.  These men were linking each of these different fishing events with the marital foibles, breaches, elopements, and flirtations of other men in their social network. Each fishing moment was tied to when "Jake's wife ran off with so-and-so," or that big set happened the week after Bob had found his wife in bed with Joe. And on it went. Some of the stories involved the men in the room directly, others didn't. No one seemed to care.  They laughed, they yelled, they cursed, they argued.  They had fun. That's gossip worth studying.

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