Keeping Up Appearances

(c) Dennis Amith

Anthropologists have the wonderful task of documenting social behaviour in various cultures and geographies, and travel to the far ends of the earth and the most exotic of locations to do so. One wonders though how necessary this travel is, when the peculiar habits and customs of people are ever present in their own cultures, staring them right in the face (literally, in some cases).  A good example of this is provided by Brian Farley in his brilliant study of a small rural community in the Tiaxcala state of Mexico. The focus of the study was on the nature of social anxiety and the role of gossip in maintaining group conformity. Farley deserves much praise for encouraging community members to openly discuss their fear of social criticism and their anxiety about their position and status within the hierarchy. But what strikes the lay reader is the close parallels between these fears and their own. The anxieties expressed by the group could easily be made anywhere, at any time. Take Toribia’s concerns over her own group position and the ever-present threat of hostile talk:

One feels lots of pressure. I believe with so much tension one ages quickly. It affects all the people here. My neighbour sponsored a [church] feast in May and she worried for months and months about how things would turn out. These worries affect us deeply and in the end for what? We just come to an early end with so much worrying. One feels bad for putting out so much effort, working so much and then being criticised so much. It makes me angry and sad. I was frustrated and disappointed. … All this anger and rancour accumulates and then one goes out and talks bad about others.      

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine comparable sentiments expressed in any middle-class enclave of the Surrey commuter belt, for example. Given ‘typical’ English reserve, however, such sentiments may be felt rather than publicised, or discussed behind closed doors after several glasses of sherry. Reputations and status are at stake in social interactions, and can be won and lost in the tension of communal encounters. While an argument can be made about gossip as a form of moral regulation, it can also too easily take on the characteristics of what the Irish call begrudgery – the desire to take people down a peg or two. There are cultural variations of course, but not enough to detract from the striking similarities. The drink imbibed might be different, but the principle’s the same.

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Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.