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Stephen Billing

I am intrigued that you have posted about gossip. This is a topic I spoke about at EGOS in Amsterdam in July and I currently have a journal article in preparation for publication on the topic, in conjunction with my colleague Margaret Miller. The place of gossip is not generally very much discussed in the literature. In practice the injunction "don't gossip" is not very helpful in trying to understand the experience of gossip. So it is great that you have raised the topic in the context of organisational change.

I think there are some other functions of gossip that are not mentioned in the synopsis of the article - I don't know whether Professor McAndrew touched on these or not.

One important function of gossip is that it reinforces power relations amongst groups in organisations through its role in determining who is "in" and who is "out." Norbert Elias and John Scotson explained this process in their very interesting book "The Established and the Outsiders."

Gossip may help people learn about norms and values and deter and punish people who transgress norms and values as mentioned in the post, and it also helps form those norms and values in the first place. At the same time as gossip is a reflection of norms and values, it also helps form and reinforce those norms and values.

In relation to ambiguity, I would not agree with the view that gossip helps resolve ambiguity. I agree that gossip is a way of negotiating the ambiguities of life as a human being alongside interdependent others. But the ambiguities are, in my opinion not resolved, but rather are always needing to be negotiated as a conflict of norms and values in each specific situation with specific other people about specific issues they are facing at that moment.

I think that the topic of gossip is fascinating and I look forward to further discussion about it.

Chris Rodgers

Thanks, Stephen.

McAndrew does mention in-groups and out-groups, and the role of gossip in establishing and maintaining these, which I forgot to include. This is another fundamental, shadow-side dynamic of organizational life and an important aspect of identity formation at both the individual and collective levels. It is through gossip that those in the in-group seek to magnify the differences between themselves and the ‘outs’ (whilst, at the same time, ignoring their own ‘internal’ differences). This is therefore a further way in which gossip helps to shape the wider pattern of conversations and shifting power relations through which change happens.

You are right to pull me up on my failure to challenge McAndrew’s statement that gossip “resolves” ambiguities. As you say, establishing meaning is an ongoing process of in-the-moment negotiation, between specific people, at specific times and in relation to specific issues. At the same time, of course, as you imply in your comment about the reinforcement of norms through gossip, in-the-moment conversations take place within the context of past and ongoing sensemaking. As such, I would see the ‘imprint’ of this prior sensemaking tending to channel current conversations (in this case gossip) down familiar pathways. So whilst meaning always has to be negotiated ‘afresh’ - and novel ways of seeing and acting might emerge from this - it is most likely that similar meaning will be made to that which has been made previously. You could argue, therefore, that gossip reduces the ambiguities of life for people, even if these can never be entirely resolved.

I look forward to reading your journal article, if it ends up in the public domain.

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