How Gossip Affects Groups

Gossip is usually seen as problematic and wrong, but everyone does it. Why? It’s true it can be very damaging, but does it also serve a productive function? If so, is there a good way for groups to handle it – play with fire, but using tongs?

With no further ado, here are a couple of sociological and anthropological articles to see about the role of gossip as it affects groups.

Gossip and Group Unity

The topic “gossip” in the Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology talks about these positive and negative functions of gossip in groups:

  • Helps maintain group unity, morality and history
  • Lets members debate group norms
  • Gives individual members a map of their social environment
  • Enables groups to control cliques
  • Keeps fights within the group to project harmony to the outside world
  • Helps individuals gain power through selective distribution of power

I can see how any of these bullet points could be good or bad, depending on circumstances. But overall, it looks like gossip has an important role in group definition and unity – which is a fundamental need of groups.

Gossip and Power

This article talks about the way gossip, both positive and negative, affects the gossiper’s power over the gossip recipient in a workplace: “Passing the Word”. (Full citation: Passing the word: Toward a model of gossip and power in the workplace by Nancy B Kurlandand Lisa Hope Pelled. Academy of Management. The Academy of Management Review. Apr 2000; 25, 2; ABI/INFORM Global pg. 428)

The main takeaway is that gossip can confer power in an organizational setting.

Positive gossip can make the gossiper seem like an expert, draw others into their social circles, and make the recipient feel like the gossiper might spread positive news about themselves. Negative gossip can also coerce the gossip recipient, by making the recipient think that the gossiper might spread negative news about themselves. And gossip, of course, can backfire and reflect badly on the gossiper.

Gossip and Social Networks

The chapter “Gossip and Network Relationships” talks about how the strength of bonds within a social network can intensify or weaken the power of gossip. (Citation: “Gossip and Network Relationships” by E.K. Foster, R.L. Rosnow in the book Relating Difficulty: The Processes of Constructing and Managing Difficult Interaction.)

Some key concepts:

  • A social network may be dense or sparse in its connections
  • In a dense social network, people have equal access to a map of their social environment
  • The advantage of a dense social network is a) that individuals who are more in line with the group have more influence; and b) people will be more aware of the group’s norms
  • If people can exchange gossip freely, the social network is denser
  • Groups can have gatekeepers, who limit the exchange of information between people and have more power as a result
  • The information provided by gatekeepers can be difficult for group members to verify
  • Dense gossip networks limit the ability of gatekeepers to control information
  • A strategy for limiting the power of gatekeepers is to form social ties around them.
  • The structure of the gossip network can benefit or harm the group. Groups can fracture along gossip lines.

This is also about gossip and power. I was most interested in the information about gatekeeping – how gossip can be used to restrict information by causing mistrust, and also how gossip can be used to get around gatekeepers.

This is what I’m thinking about: Gossip confers power. Gossip affects groups and the individuals within groups in both positive and negative ways. So what happens if a group actually gets together and talks about its gossip – laying out a map of its social networks and gossip networks, and setting ground rules for gossip that reflect the way people actually do it?

Other Gossip Citations

Here are some other articles that might be of interest:

Foster, E.K. and Rosnow, R.L. “Gossip and Network Relationships.” Relating Difficulty: The Processes of Constructing and Managing Difficult Interaction. Kirkpatric, Duc, and Foley. 2006. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gluckman, M. (1963) ‘Gossip and Scandal’, Current Anthropology 4 (3): 307–15

Haviland, J. (1977) Gossip, Reputation and Knowledge in Zinacantan, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Heilman, S. (1978) Synagogue Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Paine, R. (1967) ‘What is Gossip About? An Alternative Hypothesis’, Man 2 (2): 272–85

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One response to “How Gossip Affects Groups

  1. I couldn’t resist commenting. Very well written!

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