Academic journal article Western Folklore

Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics

Article excerpt

Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics. By Niko Besnier. (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009. Pp. xiv + 243, acknowledgments, orthography and transcription conventions, notes, references, index. $49.00 cloth, $25.00 paper.)

If we can admit to it, many of us indulge in the practice of gossip as a pleasurable social habit, while simultaneously viewing it at the best of times as morally ambiguous. Gossip has long been theorized by anthropologists who have seen it as alternately as a tool of social reinforcement (a la Gluckman) or one meant to further personal agendas and undermine rivals (e.g. Paine). In Gossip Niko Besnier examines the idea diat gossip is more than a "weapon of the weak," as James C. Scott has argued, but rather central to the enactment of everyday politics. Based on years of fieldwork on the small Nukulaelae Atoll, Tuvalu, the author presents a fine-grained analysis of the quotidian discourses that suffuse social networks on the atoll. Drawing materials from recordings he made no secret of making (39-40), Besnier candidly admits that by writing about gossip he risks producing a document that the Nukulaelae people, "or rather the small but growing number of Nukulaelae people who will be able to read this book," will not like (19).

In chapter 1, "Gossip, Hegemony, Agency," the author situates himself firmly within the literature of linguistic anthropology and gossip theory and begins to explore the ways in which gossip is mobilized towards political ends. Contrasting gossip with more formal modes of political speech used on the atoll, Besnier illuminates die strategies used to accrue social capital. He stresses die importance of "analyzing what people say, ramer than what they say they say or what I think they say" (4), and he is careful to note that language itself is a commodity, one diat is embedded in the daily creation of social processes. Texts, he argues, must be read within the larger dynamics determinative of linguistic strategies of agency.

Chapter 2, "The World from a Cooking Hut," describes life on die atoll with a particular emphasis on die contexts in which gossip occurs. The author discusses the ways in which the islanders represent themselves to each other and to outsiders. While gossip is recognized on the island as being morally questionable even in the best of circumstances, Nukulaelae has still garnered for itself a reputation for gossip. Chapter 3, "Hierarchy and Egalitarianism," contrasts two seemingly contradictory discourses used by the islanders in representations of themselves and of die atoll. The discourse of nostalgia portrays the island as a place where peace and harmony have been achieved through traditions of strong leadership and the observance of hierarchical social structures. The discourse of egalitarianism, on the other hand, is used to assert equal privilege and access to resources. The tensions implicit in balancing these discourses against one another becomes evident in an instance discussed by die author in which the Council of Elders used the discourse of nostalgia to enforce a prohibition on toddy - a fermented palm wine - by mobilizing it to legitimize a censure against several youths who violated the ban on drunkenness. …

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