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Academic’s research proves the value of gossip in society

Academic’s research proves the value of gossip in society

Rumour, hearsay, tittle-tattle, scuttlebutt, scandal, dirt-whatever the term-gossip is usually considered a naughty indulgence, but what if it actually contributes to political and social processes?

University of Auckland academic Associate Professor Jennifer Frost has co-edited a book “When Private Talk Goes Public: Gossip in American History” that details the history of gossip, why gossip matters and how it can actually be useful in society.

“Our aim is to redeem and revalue gossip, pointing out the many positives. Yes, it can be damaging if false but it also can be beneficial and have many positive functions,” Associate Professor Frost says.

Although formerly overlooked or trivialised, gossip is increasingly recognised as an important and influential means of communication. Around two-thirds of our daily conversation focuses on personal and interpersonal matters. If we were to keep a record of our activities during our waking hours, according to anthropologist Max Gluckman, only our time spent in work would exceed our time spent in gossiping.

It has received negative press in the past as trivial, inaccurate, or damaging ‘women’s talk’. But historical studies tell us both men and women participate because gossip provides both guilty private pleasures and fulfills important public functions. In fact, gossip is a powerful discourse precisely because it blurs the imaginary yet influential boundary between what is considered “public” and “private.”

“It's not just women, but men too who gossip. In the end, we want to say gossip is important both for understanding the present and the past.”

It results in shared information and knowledge, allows for discussion and exchange, and contributes to relationships and a sense of community among participants. Gossip can be wielded as “a weapon of the weak” to assail the powerful in society but also by social and political elites to expand or defend their power.

Frost, an academic in the University’s History department in the Faculty of Arts, has in her earlier work examined the career and politics of movie gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, a powerhouse of golden age Hollywood.

The new book uses case studies in the history of American gossip to explore its role in society, culture, and politics, from the colonial Salem witch trials to the era of People magazine and flash-in-the-pan Internet celebrities, making a convincing case that we should reassess this often dismissed variety of social exchange.


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