Winner of the BAAL (British Association for Applied Linguistics) Book Prize, 2010
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.