Dispersed Collectivities: Rumor & Gossip
This article will focus on the role of rumor and gossip in dispersed collectivities. It will provide an overview of the main principles of rumor and gossip, the history of rumor and gossip, and the mechanisms of rumor and gossip transmission. A discussion of communication and behavior in dispersed collectivities will be included. The issues associated with measuring rumor and gossip will also be discussed. The article concludes with thoughts on the impacts of rumor and gossip on social life.
Keywords Collective Behavior; Collectivity; Dispersed Collectivities; Gossip; Localized Collectivities; Rumor; Social History; Social Life; Structural Functionalism
Dispersed Collectivities: Rumors
The following is an analysis of rumor and gossip in dispersed collectivities. Rumor and gossip are forms of mass behavior and social communication with specific functions in and impacts on society. Individuals in dispersed collectivities communicate, in part, through rumor and gossip. Rumor, in dispersed collectivities, refers to information that is both unsubstantiated, difficult to stop, and spread by informal means. For example, rumors are most often spread in informal conversation. Gossip, in dispersed collectivities, refers to a type of rumor concerning personal affairs. In some instances, rumor and gossip are employed as tools of social control and management. In addition to rumor and gossip, forms of dispersed collective communication and behavior include propaganda, panic, mass hysteria, fashions, and fads.
Sociologists study forms of dispersed collective communication and behavior to understand how individuals and groups build communication networks. Understanding the role and purpose of rumor and gossip in dispersed collectivities is vital for all those interested in the sociology of collective behaviors. This article explores the role of rumor and gossip in dispersed collectivities in four parts:
• An overview of the main principles of rumor and gossip, the history of rumor and gossip, and the mechanisms of rumor and gossip transmission
• A discussion of communication and behavior in dispersed collectivities
• An analysis of the issues associated with measuring rumor and gossip
• A description of the impacts of rumor and gossip on social life.
The Main Principles of Rumor
Rumor describes interpersonal communication infused with private belief and subjectivity. Social scientists distinguish between two types of rumors: wish rumors and dread rumors. Wish rumors spread stories or information of hoped-for consequences or outcomes. Dread rumors spread stories or information of feared or potentially disappointing consequences or outcomes. Researchers have found that people more often spread rumors that they perceive to be credible and reliable. Rumors may serve a psychological function by helping individuals and groups cope with uncertainty and anxiety. They also have the potential to damage an individual's reputation and social standing. Researchers study how rumors originate and how damaging rumors may be fought or controlled. Urban legends, a type of contemporary folklore featuring apocryphal stories of events that are believed to have happened to real people, are a popular form of rumor.
Gossip refers to a type of interpersonal communication of a personal or sensational nature. Gossip is a form of communication in which an individual actively participates in passing on information to others in a group. Social scientists have found that gossip, which is generally passed between people with shared characteristics or within a community, performs numerous functions in society. It is a vehicle or tool for cultural learning as well as social comparison (Rosnow & Foster, 2005).
The History of Rumor
The social sciences, particularly the fields of sociology and psychology, began to focus on the social importance and potential social impacts of rumor and gossip in the 1940s. The World War II years provided fertile ground for the study of rumor and gossip. Psychologists Gordon Allport and Leo Postman studied rumor and gossip with an eye toward learning how to stop civilian populations from spreading rumors that would damage morale and national safety or groundlessly raise hopes. Allport and Postman developed the basic law of rumor. The basic law of rumor (expressed as an equation R ˜ i × a ) refers to the notion that strength of rumor (expressed as R ) varies according to the importance of the subject to the individual concerned (expressed as i ) multiplied by the uncertainty of the evidence (expressed as a ). Critics of Allport and Postman's basic law of rumor argue that the theory is weakened by its lack of empirical support and validation. In addition, the basic law of rumor does not account for the emotional context and content of rumors.
In the 1960s and 1970s, sociologists and psychologists worked to connect rumor and gossip with civil disorders and collective behavior. In the 1990s and 2000s, research on rumor and gossip worked to clearly distinguish between the concepts and functions of rumor and gossip. Contemporary sociologists study the impacts of rumor and gossip on social life, as well as the character, quantity, topics, targets, and tone of rumor and gossip in everyday life (Rosnow & Foster, 2005).
Rumor and gossip are transmitted through face-to-face communication, electronic communication, telephone, and written communication. There are three types of orientations or stances that individuals take in relation to rumor and gossip. Individuals may respond to rumors by taking a critical set, uncritical set, or transmission set (Buckner, 2001).
Individuals take a critical set in relation to a rumor when they have knowledge about the rumor's domain. Individuals who take a critical set or stance are able to separate truth from falsehood. In some instances, the familiar situation surrounding the rumor, such as election-time rumors, allow informed individuals to evaluate the credibility of the rumor. Individuals who exercise critical judgment in evaluating a rumor may influence and potentially stop or correct the rumor. For example, informed and critical individuals may cut irrelevant information from the rumor or eliminate disinformation from the rumor (Buckner, 2001).
Individuals take an uncritical set in relation to a rumor when circumstances and emotions prevent them from taking a critical stance (characterized by critical judgment or ability). For example, individuals can take an uncritical set in relation to a rumor when the rumor satisfies and fills a need for the individual. When individuals take an uncritical set toward a rumor, they believe the rumor unquestioningly and tend to pass it on to friends, family, and acquaintances. Individuals often take an uncritical set in relation to a rumor when they have no prior warning or prior information about the rumor. In these instances, individuals have no resources to critically evaluate the rumor and tend to believe it without question. This most frequently happens in crisis situations. Individuals can also take an uncritical set in relation to a rumor in situations in which nothing is known about the rumor in question. When individuals cannot apply critical judgment or ability to a rumor, they tend to fit the rumor into their own predetermined frameworks of values and beliefs. In some instances, individuals modify the rumor to make it fit better into their frameworks. Individuals may also distort the rumor in significant ways to make it fit their needs (Buckner, 2001).
Individuals take a transmission set in relation to a rumor when the content of the rumor is irrelevant to them and their only interest is in spreading or passing the rumor on to others. Individuals in these situations are called neutral transmitters. Researchers have noted that the transmission stance toward a rumor may be rare outside of controlled laboratory research settings, for people are rarely neutral about information, gossip, and rumor. When individuals take a transmission set in relation to a rumor, they may change the language of the rumor to match their own linguistic styles and eliminate portions of the message until the message makes sense to them. However, they will not intentionally make any changes to the rumor (Buckner, 2001)....
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