... the gossip I’ve personally encountered in academia seems to often serve a different function. Namely, gossip is what allows the very different worlds of professors and graduate students to interact. [...] It is, for instance, quite difficult to put together a good thesis committee if you don’t know the intricate history of departmental politics from before you arrived in a program. It might be very relevant, for instance, that one faculty member crossed a picket line fifteen years back, while another was leading organizer of the faculty union. Similarly, the faculty are curious about the lives and interests of the students they will be working with. ... Graduate students can also become important allies in departmental battles.
As a result, a knowledge economy develops in which professors and graduate students trade gossip. It also serves as a way to bridge the gap created by unequal power relations. Giving graduate students the inside scoop on other professors at least creates the illusion of treating them as equals.
I was reminded of Kerim's observations when I was reading this article about how gossip serves as a great glue for social bonding. The following excerpts give you a feel for just a few of the uses (or, purposes) of gossip:
Our interest in celebrity gossip—as well as dirt on our family, friends and acquaintances—may be a byproduct of our evolutionary past, [Frank] McAndrew says. Natural selection, he theorizes, pressured people to learn as much as possible about the people in their social network -— be they an authority figure, potential romantic partner, teacher, political ally or enemy. Knowing about other group members helped people eschew risky alliances, by informing them, for instance, which group member might double-cross them. [...]
By nature, humans are chatterers, says psychologist Robin Dunbar, PhD, a University of Liverpool psychology professor and author of the book, "Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language" (Harvard University Press, 1998). He suggests that gossip is the human version of social grooming ... Like social grooming, ...gossip helps humans develop trusting relationships and foster social bonds. ... Without that instinct to share the latest on a friend, peer or family member, there would be no sophisticated society, Dunbar claims, suggesting that societies depend on the individual's ability to rely on others and understand something of the workings of another's mind. [...]
[Sarah] Wert notes that comparing oneself to less-skilled or lower-status people can help bolster self-esteem. Meanwhile, gossiping about higher-status people—whether that person is a boss or celebrity—can help us obtain information that will help us compete with those of higher status while also denigrating them. For instance, co-workers who view each other as rivals may use gossip to obtain information about the other's quality of work while also derogating the other in hopes of enhancing their own status.
The latest issue of Monitor on Psychology, the American Psychology Association's magazine, has a cover story on gossip, with four articles, all of which can be accessed from this launchpad. The quotes are from one of the four articles.