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Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics

Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics

Niko Besnier
Copyright Date: 2009
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    Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics
    Book Description:

    Although gossip is disapproved of across the world’s societies, it is a prominent feature of sociality, whose role in the construction of society and culture cannot be overestimated. In particular, gossip is central to the enactment of politics: through it people transform difference into inequality and enact or challenge power structures. Based on the author’s intimate ethnographic knowledge of Nukulaelae Atoll, Tuvalu, this work uses an analysis of gossip as political action to develop a holistic understanding of a number of disparate themes, including conflict, power, agency, morality, emotion, locality, belief, and gender. It brings together two methodological traditions—the microscopic analysis of unelicited interaction and the macroscopic interpretation of social practice—that are rarely wedded successfully. Drawing on a broad range of theoretical resources, Niko Besnier approaches gossip from several angles. A detailed analysis of how Nukulaelae’s people structure their gossip interactions demonstrates that this structure reflects and contributes to the atoll’s political ideology, which wavers between a staunch egalitarianism and a need for hierarchy. His discussion then turns to narratives of specific events in which gossip played an important role in either enacting egalitarianism or reinforcing inequality. Embedding gossip in a broad range of communicative practices enables Besnier to develop a nuanced analysis of how gossip operates, demonstrating how it allows some to gain power while others suffer because of it. Throughout, he is particularly attentive to the ways in which anthropologists themselves are the subject and object of gossip, making his work a notable contribution to reflexive social science. Written in an engaging and accessible style, Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics will appeal to students and scholars of political, legal, linguistic, and psychological anthropology; social science methodology; communication, conflict, gender, and globalization studies; and Pacific Islands studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6269-5
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Orthography and Transcription Conventions
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. 1 Gossip, Hegemony, Agency
    (pp. 1-28)

    To the casual observer, gossip appears to be a quintessentially anthropological focus of inquiry. Not only is gossiping central to what ethnographers actually do during fieldwork, but it also encapsulates what anthropologists have come to think of as the essence of the discipline: an interest in the mundane, the overlooked, and the trivial, out of which the anthropologist distills not-so-mundane insights into how humans organize life in groups. Yet while gossip makes a cameo appearance in many ethnographic works, few anthropologists have engaged with an analysis of how it operates and articulates with other social forms. Of course, like all...

  6. 2 The World from a Cooking Hut
    (pp. 29-63)

    I was dropped off on Nukulaelae one stormy January evening in 1980 by a motor yacht on its way from Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, back to Fiji. The captain-owner, a former high-ranking government official of Fiji, member of an elite Fijian-European family not accustomed to being inconvenienced, had gruffly informed me that if Nukulaelae Islanders did not pay heed to the signals from his high-intensity lights, I would have to sail on to Fiji, take a flight back to Funafuti, and wait for the government ship, the venerable but tiny and by then miserably rustyNivanga(figure 2.1), to...

  7. 3 Hierarchy and Egalitarianism
    (pp. 64-93)

    In light of the turmoil of the last century and a half of Nukulaelae’s history, it should come as no surprise that political life on the atoll is rife with tensions. Beneath the overelaborated veneer of harmony and peace that people try so hard to maintain are long-standing conflicts, contradictions, and complexities about how the island should be organized. In this chapter I turn to a basic ideological tension between what I call a “discourse of nostalgia” and a “discourse of egalitarianism.” Both are part and parcel of what Nukulaelae people articulate quite readily to one another and to the...

  8. 4 Morality and the Structure of Gossip
    (pp. 94-119)

    Nukulaelae Islanders produce prestige, reputation, morality, and political action across multiple contexts, not the least of which is gossip. As I mentioned at the beginning of this book, Nukulaelae has a reputation throughout Tuvalu as the “island of gossip.” The vanguard that nurtures this reputation is the handful of civil servants and other workers from other islands of Tuvalu posted on the atoll, who often complain bitterly about Nukulaelae people’s love of confabulation, exaggeration, and drama. This is particularly the case of workers who oversee potentially charged matters, like money, goods, and news: the island executive officer, who doubles as...

  9. 5 The Twenty-Dollar Piglets
    (pp. 120-142)

    Throughout the analysis of the structure of gossip that I developed in the previous chapter, I insistently returned to the contingent nature of gossip: whether it takes place or not, how abrasive or indirect it is, and the particular tools that gossipers employ all depend on a variety of contextual concerns. One of these contextual concerns is who is in charge of it: some people are good at it while others are less enthusiastic or skilled, some have a great deal to lose if caught spreading false rumors while others don’t, and some suffer from familialponathat imprison them...

  10. 6 The Two Widows
    (pp. 143-165)

    Despite its shortcomings, Gluckman’s (1963) early analysis of gossip as a cohesion-enhancing mechanism, which I discussed at length in the introductory chapter, did rest on the basically correct insight that gossip is always embedded in a larger social context and that people can use gossip to “do things” to that context. In the previous chapters, I focused primarily on the way in which this larger context (political, ideological, symbolic) was related to particular aspects of the structure of Nukulaelae gossip texts. In this chapter and the next, my attention shifts to the potentialities of gossip in reproducing or changing social...

  11. 7 Sorcery and Ambition
    (pp. 166-188)

    Gossip is a performative act, in both the literal sense of “performance” and the narrower sense of “performative” as ordinary language philosophers have theorized it. The starting point for discussions of performativity in the latter sense continues to be J. L. Austin’s (1962) proposal that performatives have the effect of altering aspects of the context in which they operate. For example, the speech act “I now pronounce you husband and wife” creates a particular kind of affinal relation between persons (so that bystanders react to hearing it in a proper context by clapping and cheering), and is thus a performative....

  12. 8 Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics
    (pp. 189-194)

    In the title of this book, which I recycle here as the title of the concluding chapter, I utilize the classic anthropological trope that juxtaposes seemingly incommensurable categories to announce that incommensurability is a fact of social life. Of the tensions between categories that I explored in this work, two merit additional attention in this conclusion: the micro–macro linkage between interaction and the larger social context, and the tension between emotion and politics.

    In its most simplified form, the argument I have developed in this book is that talk matters. In particular, talk matters in the conduct of politics,...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 195-212)
  14. References
    (pp. 213-240)
  15. Index
    (pp. 241-244)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 245-250)