University of Essex, UK
Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Conference:
Interrogating Hearsay: Rumours and Gossip in Historical Perspective,
1500 - 2003.
Rumours are a commonly occurring and prominent form of informal
communication, reflecting popular feelings and promoting social and
political action. They arise in various contexts and provide a
challenging but fruitful opportunity for the study of social and
political history and other social sciences. However, although an
important part of our daily communication, rumours have not been
addressed very often in recent research.
We are interested in what historians and researchers of other social
sciences can make of the world's "oldest mass medium" - as Jean-Noël
Kapferer has termed the phenomenon of rumour. What significance have
rumours had as a medium of communication in societies? How has the
official perception of rumours changed over time? What can rumours
reveal about communities and their networks of communication? What
can they show about otherwise hidden hopes, wishes, and fears?
With respect to the many functions rumours and gossip bear, we would
like to suggest some examples of potential subjects which papers might
Rumours in "closed societies"
Rumours occur in all societies but are especially widespread in
societies with a high demand for, but low supply of "official"
information. Their circulation is further increased in societies
where "official" is not believed to be "credible". This topic may be of
particularly interest to scholars who focus on groups and societies
with limited flow of information and restricted space for communication.
What effects do control and restriction of public communication have on its informal counterpart? To what extent are researchers able to
reconstruct the conditions of informal communication in such environments?
Rumours and violence
Around spontaneous outbursts of popular violence, or during more
organized violent social mobilizations, rumours are often to be found
circulating among crowds, sometimes even seemingly directing their
actions. What are historians to make of such phenomena? How can
rumours in such circumstances best be used or interpreted? What, if anything, can such rumours tell us about the cause of collective violence? Do rumours arise spontaneously, or as part of a deliberate strategy of (mis)communication?
Rumours and identity
Rumours construct or threaten identity by creating an "us" group and
a - mostly - negatively connoted group of "others". Research into this
aspect can contribute to a wider understanding not only of historical
but also contemporary forms of informal communication and their
consequences in societies. How can rumours undermine or strengthen
identities? Why do we believe in rumours, and why do we pass them on
to others? What sort of "power" is linked to the knowledge of certain
information, how do we decide whom to pass it on to, and what
consequences does this have?
Other possible approaches to this subject might include, for example,
gossip and gender, rumours in cultural history, or space and place.
We also invite papers on any other theme relating to the study of
The conference aims at a lively exchange of ideas. Papers should
therefore be limited to 20 minutes and will be chaired in sessions
allowing additional time for discussion.
The conference language will be English.
D. Borg-Muscat, M. McLaughlin, C. Schröder
History Postgraduate Forum
Department of History
University of Essex
Essex, CO4 3SQ
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