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Gossip: Idle talk or weapon of the weak?

Deviant or criminal acts are not only regarded as violations of a law or norm in society. Some of these even serve as measures in exercising social control over others. One of these acts is gossip. The “idle talk” which has been largely ignored by society and considered “nonsensical” has, in fact, been part of our society and ingrained in our culture for quite some time.

Gossip is indeed idle talk. According to Sally Merry, it is an “informal, private communication between an individual and a small, select audience concerning the conduct of absent persons or events”. This type of communication occurs mainly in closely-knit societies where gossipmongers have established an intimate bond and share the same beliefs and ideas. They talk about a third party who is absent from the group. The gossipmongers may hold a certain dislike or grievance against this third party (the victim) so in such cases, gossip can also help promote group solidarity.

Gossip is in itself a deviant act and is sometimes considered a crime because it is a form of retaliation and a means of redistributive justice against others. Lower class individuals who are powerless to use the law against the powerful upper class commonly employ this approach. However, the part gossip plays in maintaining social order is often taken for granted because it is considered idle and nonsensical. In most cases, people who gossip are hardly sanctioned.

“Weapon of the Weak”

In every society, inequality among social classes is clearly manifest. The upper class, because of their influence, status, and wealth, are able to exercise power over the lower classes, those considered “weak” in society. People who belong to the “weaker” class are often the victims of the social control imposed by the upper class. The laws of society work mainly for the powerful and not the powerless. Nevertheless, the “weak” can also exercise a form of control over the upper class. This is called upward social control, or “social control from below”.

Acts regarded as upward social control are not laws, as opposed to the kind of social control exercised by the powerful. Some forms of upward social control are even seen as deviant or criminal. These “weapons of the weak,” according to Baumgartner, include rebellion, non-cooperation, flight, gossip, and ridicule, among many.

Although social control can be imposed by the powerless over the powerful, it seems to have little deterrent effect over the latter. As mentioned earlier, this form of social control tends to be overlooked by society and therefore its effects are likewise overlooked. However, to the “weaker” person, the acts he/she committed against his/her oppressor are enough to give him/her due justice, although they do not prevent the powerful from doing their oppressive work against their lesser counterparts.

Gossip as Social Control

Crimes that serve the purpose of social control are often moralistic; they express a grievance. In these crimes, the pursuit of justice is often involved. Gossip, in this case, always expresses a grievance. By talking about a third party, those offended are able to “attack” their oppressor and gain justice in the process.

The threat involved in gossip gives it a criminal aspect. The victim becomes secretly “hounded with words” and is in danger of losing credibility. So, although gossip may oftentimes be dismissed, the fear of “nagging tongues” maintains behavior and societal norms, for it may discourage an individual from deviating from the norms of the group (Hollnsteiner 1963). Thus, people in society avoid being the victim of gossip and submit to the norms, morals, and rules their particular society has.

Gossip is also a “device individuals use to put forward and protect their own interests and to attack their opponents in situations where open confrontation is too risky” (Merry 1984). This scenario is common between upper and lower classes.

Between an employer and an employee for example, we would see that the employee, fearing to openly confront his/her employer (who is supposedly the oppressor), would attack the latter secretly through means such as gossip. Through gossip, critical acts about the employer are disseminated, giving the employee a sense of attaining justice for oneself despite the covertness of the act.

Gossip as social control, would be more effective when it occurs in closely-knit societies. Such act could produce a community consensus capable of bringing about collective actions, such as shaming or executing, which could lead to the implementation of formal social control. If social laws are used by the upper class to exercise control and power over society, then we may consider the “weapons” being used by the “weak” as an exercise of power in their own right.

Power is bilateral (Pfhul 1980). That is, power is not exclusive to one class, but can be exercised both by the superordinate and the subordinate, the upper or the middle class. In most cases, a superordinate exercises control over the subordinate, however, the latter is also capable of and would eventually exercise power over his/her superior. Power serves as an important element in social class conflict. Thus, power struggle is present within social groups. Inequality has brought about these conflicts among social groups. The upper class, considered as powerful over others in society, have money and influence which gave them power over the lower class. Owing to this is the fact that laws of society are made by these individuals and are mostly directed towards the deviant lower class. The latter, having less privilege than the upper class, resort to their own forms of social control, which are considered as deviant and, in some cases, even illegal, by the majority. Instead of treating them as mechanisms of social control by the “weak,” they become sanctioned by the State since it is a threat to the interests of the powerful. Thus, legal means of sanctioning would be implemented.

Summing up, we see that gossip is important in every society to maintain its norms and foster a sense of social control, though informal. Although the weak are mostly the ones exercising this form of control over others, it serves a dual purpose – it gives the weak a chance to attain justice from oppressors and, especially if the gossip threatens the powerful, instills fear in them because the powerful, as well as the majority of society, are being made of aware of their flaws.

Hollnsteiner, M. 1963. The dynamics of power in a Philippine municipality. Quezon City: Community     Development Research Council, University of the Philippines,

Merry, S. 1984. “Rethinking Gossip and Scandal”. In Towards a General Theory of Social Control,     edited by D. Black : 271 – 302. New York: Academic Press

Pfuhl, E. 1980. The deviance process. New York: van Nostrand.

Editor’s note: This piece was first published by Verstehen in 1999 (print issue), when the author was an undergraduate student at the Ateneo de Manila University. 

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