New Historian

Rumours Are A Useful Historical Source

Girl whispering into woman's ear

<![CDATA[Rumours are an important part of our everyday life. Curiosity drives us to seek out new information from a variety of sources. The media feeds off rumour, sometimes exploring and checking the facts to establish veracity, other times simply repeating the rumour for a titillating story. In the wider world, rumours have always been an urgent concern as they can be connected with the politics of governance, the underpinnings of communities or notions of stability. But what exactly is a rumour? Recent research has examined rumours, the position they have occupied in history and how rumours have been studied by historians. David Coast and Jo Fox, from Bath Spa University and Durham University respectively, have been examining the endlessly fascinating phenomenon of rumours. Importantly, Coast and Fox discuss what precisely a rumour is; in particular, what distinguishes a rumour from gossip. "While gossip is socially and culturally important, it generally concerns information about the personal lives of individuals and circulates in small communities," the pair write in their article, published in History Compass. "Rumours, on the other hand, might circulate on a national or international scale and often relate to collective hopes and fears that reach beyond the moral behaviour of individuals." Rumours, Coast and Fox explain, are typically - although not exclusively - unverified accounts which concern matters that are important to large numbers of people. Also, rumours reach beyond the personal behaviour of individuals. Rumours, therefore, can provide a wonderful prism through which to view past societies; if we know what a rumour concerns, historians can hope to understand what constituted a cause for concern amongst historical groups. Rumours can help us to recover the voices of ordinary people. Historians have turned to other disciplines in order to gain a more thorough understanding of rumours. The psychological underpinning of rumours is of great interest. An important study for understanding rumour-creation was conducted by Gordon Allport and Leo Postman in 1947. Allport and Postman attempted to recreate the process through which rumours emerge. By giving a test subject an ambiguous image and asking them to describe it to someone else from memory who then passed on the information to a third person, Allport and Postman revealed something striking. Descriptions given by each subject became shorter, more memorable and less ambiguous as they were passed on. Allport and Postman condensed this down to a mathematical formula for rumour creation. Coast and Fox state this was a landmark study, although it is insufficient for probing the psychology of rumour. "While... their argument [has] a specious air of mathematical rigour, complex human interactions such as the process of rumour formation cannot be reduced to simple generalizable laws," Coast and Fox explain. A second study into rumour that Coast and Fox highlight as important was conducted by Tamotsu Shibutani. Shibutani characterised the circulation of rumour as a process through which individuals formulate explanations for ambiguous situations. "While Allport and Postman tended to present rumours as dangerous and pathological," Coast and Fox note, "Shibutani argued that they were part of the normal and self-correcting process through which communities attempted to explain events... Shibutani argued that the spread of rumours was uncontrollable." The study of rumour allows us to glimpse popular mentalities and political ideas. Whilst they can be a wonderful resource for the historian, Coast and Fox have effectively drawn attention to the methodological problems associated with the study of rumour. Only by fully understanding what a rumour is and what it reveals - and just as importantly, what a rumour does not reveal - can we effectively utilise rumours as historical sources. For more information: Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: Flickr upload bot]]>

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