I was listening to an old This American Life podcast from 2011 the other day & heard a great piece about the work of sociologist Susan Watkins. Watkins runs the Malawi Journals Project, thru which she has been studying gossip re HIV in Kenya & Malawi. Briefly, in studying HIV in Africa using standard questionnaire methods of sociology, researchers were learning very little. Consequently, public health policy was directed toward educating Africans regarding the existence of HIV & advocating condom use. However, when they began collecting gossip narratives by asking informants to record what, when, & where they overheard people discussing HIV (archived here), they learned that Africans were already well aware of the HIV epidemic, how it was contracted, & of the utility of condoms (even women say using condoms is like eating candy with the wrapper on).
This is a case where the differences between what people say they’re supposed to do, what they say they do, & what they really do are critical. As explained by Hazel Namandingo, Malawians do not approve of gossip so will tell you that it shouldn’t be done & are unlikely to admit the extent to which they do it. However, in light of the AIDS prevalence in Africa, listening to gossip about who might have it can save one’s life. While slandering someone a carrying HIV is punishable by a fine, gossip about people who are having too much sex or whose skin is smooth & bottoms a little fat (if one is poor, this is associated with the outcomes of one of the HIV medications) can provide clues for those preferring to proceed cautiously (& people who contract HIV are blamed for not asking around before engaging in sex with someone who is a carrier). Thus, bulletin boards (which people rush out every morning to read) & newspapers that publish who is having sex with who may seem like base forms of gossip (even to the Malawians), they are also exceedingly adaptive.
Robin Dunbar’s gossip hypothesis (aka, social bonding hypothesis) is one of the most fascinating models for the evolution of language I encountered as an undergraduate, & I’ve remained intrigued by the evidence for & against ever since. Dunbar suggests that as hominid group sizes got too large for individuals to maintain all their various alliances through grooming, they exapted vocal sounds for exchanging the information exchanged through these social network matrices. There is a great clip (I think it’s in The Life of Mammals Pt. 9: Social Climbers but can’t find it online) in which a large group of baboons (Olive baboons, I believe–I think this is also the topic of Cheney & Seyfarth’s Baboon Metaphysics, which I’m dying to read) seem to be yelling back & forth to each other, perhaps sharing similar forms of gossip.