As a result of many fine academic studies, folk-lorists and sociologists no longer categorize rumor, legend, and gossip as “minor genres” but rather recognize them as important forms of social discourse worthy of serious examination in and of themselves. These complex alternate forms of communication continue to circulate in a myriad of oral, print, and electronic incarnations. Less well understood, however, is how these genres are transmitted on local and national levels and how they figure into larger transnational circuits of global exchange.
Fortunately, a major contribution has now appeared that addresses these concerns. In their outstanding volume, The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter, sociologist Gary Alan Fine and folklorist Bill Ellis have ably collaborated to produce a wide-ranging examination of rumors and legends concerned with the risks of today’s interconnected world. Further, they demonstrate how rumors can contribute to political decisions with long-lasting social consequences. Finally, in asserting the need for confronting the effects of unsubstantiated supposition, the authors take us “beyond a culture of rumor” (p. 219) to propose five guidelines that help “to edge us into a surprising future” (p. 211).
In the Introduction, Fine and Ellis lay out the program of inquiry and explication for the ensuing eight chapters. This initial section defines rumor and legend as the “products of a distinctive type of speculative political discourse that contributes to a lively—and often healthy—civil society” (p. 5). Because these are not clearly distinguishable genres, the authors choose to use “rumor” to refer to either. However, they later expand the examination to include jokes, hoax, and satire that demonstrate “the politics of plausibility” and “the politics credibility.” Academic research, they contend, “need not begin and end with simple debunking of a widely circulating legend” (p. 5). Rather than dwelling on moot points, the authors’ goal is to understand rumor as a “social process” (p. 4) by revealing the degree to which rumors about contemporary global politics matter.
In chapter 1 (“Rumor and September 11: Understanding the Unthinkable”), the authors argue that analyzing the rumors that arose in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 helps us to understand how global threats subsequently shaped American reactions. Such analyses also allow us to discern those narrative themes that Americans consider plausible. With chapter 2 (“A Riot of Conspiracies”), they return to rumors about terrorist attacks and elucidate how speakers manipulate the assumptions of their audience. Here their examination is extended to include the related category of “conspiracy theory” to demonstrate that the power of conspiracy rumors lies in their persistence in spite of documented or official information to the contrary.
The first part of chapter 3 (“Migrants: Disease in the Body Politic”) provides a historical account from the colonial period to the present and proceeds to show that although Americans rhetorically contend that ours is a society open to immigrants, on the whole, Americans’ reactions to new immigrants has remained consistently ambivalent at best, thereby raising the persistent question of who really belongs.
Appropriately, in chapter 4 (“‘There Goes the Neighborhood’: Latino Migrants and Immigration Rumors”), Fine and Ellis bring the immigration debate up to the twenty-first century. This chapter looks at the 2002 case of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where the opening of a meat processing plant created such ethnic tension that rumors began to spread, ultimately resulting in the death of one Latino youth.
Although the subtitle of the book mentions only the three topics of terrorism, immigration, and trade, the Introduction suggests that tourism should be included as a major focus. For example, chapter 5 (“Tourist Troubles: The Travels of Global Rumor”) concentrates on how rumors reveal Americans’ mixed feelings about the “exotic” by demonstrating that rumors, jokes, and cautionary tales represent overlapping genres. Of all the volume’s chapters, the [End Page 97] examination of the theme of naïve American tourists is by far the most novel. Thus, some readers may find the inclusion of a pet-based joke/rumor complex such...