- Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics
This book by Niko Besnier shows how gossip on the island of Nukulaelae, in Tuvalu, is not just the abstract function of social control of morality but has real consequences for people. Besnier argues that gossip entails the exercise of political power, which includes ramifications beyond [End Page 253] the original microsocial contexts of interaction in which the gossip was originally constituted. He discusses the properties of gossip that give it authority to shape more macrosocial processes.
Niko Besnier is a distinguished cultural anthropologist with intellectual roots in linguistics and interdisciplinary sociolinguistics. He carried out extensive ethnographic fieldwork on the island of Nukulaelae during the 1980s and 1990s and continues to maintain relationships with people from there. Nukulaelae comprises 1.82 square kilometers of land around a lagoon that measures three by eight kilometers, with a population of approximately 350 people concentrated on the largest islet.
Throughout the book, Besnier provides a good deal of information about how he carried out his research, which focused on language and language use and has already resulted in a series of papers, a grammar of Tuvaluan, and a monograph on literacy on Nukulaelae. Besnier lived in a mutually supportive relationship with a family who sponsored his presence in the local community. He recorded speech that took place on the island, particularly in the cooking hut related to the home of the family he lived with, and he hired a local research assistant to transcribe those recordings. He also later recorded interviews with some of the people who were either talking or talked about in the initial recordings. He made it known that he was recording, although he acknowledges that people may have sometimes forgotten about that. All of the instances of transcriptions and translations of gossip in the book come from the cooking hut, which is characterized as a sort of canonical or prototypical context for the occurrence of gossip—a place that is somewhat private, or at least marginal to the public life of the community.
The author addresses the fact that in writing about gossip he is touching on a subject some would view as negative in itself, or as one that shows people in a negative light, and therefore ought not to be written about. But he defends the focus on gossip as warranted in part by the consequences it can have. He also questions whether it is appropriate to write only about aspects of local social lives that are valued by the people being discussed. This is an important issue, one that anthropologists do not typically write about openly.
In any case it is very clear that for both Besnier and the people of Nukulaelae, gossip is by definition bad (a view I do not personally share) and not necessarily truthful. This contrasts with speeches made in the maneapa or meeting house which are considered beautiful in their orderliness, truthfulness, politeness, elegance, and deep thought.
Besnier shows how gossip is shaped by sociocultural processes that involve the community as a whole, or systematic subsections of it (eg, mainly women or mainly men). Nukulaelae gossip also can involve communities as diverse in encompassing scope or scale as other island communities in Tuvalu, the Gilbert Islands, Nauru, and Sāmoa, all in the Western Pacific. At the same time, the social processes and ideologies involved in gossip can be global, notably through the constant capitalist movement of labor. [End Page 254] Because economic anxiety is acute on Nukulaelae, since early Western European contact, young unmarried men have left the home community to support it by working as seamen, as plantation laborers, and, during the time of Besnier's research, as laborers in phosphate mines on Nauru.
The most dramatic example of the political reach of gossip centrally links Nukulaelae with the island nation of Nauru. Besnier describes how a...