In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rumor

  • Introduction
  • Sociological and Anthropological Treatments
  • Rumor and Slave Societies

Atlantic History Rumor
Christopher Vernon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0238


Rumor and the ways that people pass information to one another are an important mechanism behind how human societies function. These subjects are increasingly becoming important within historical scholarship. At its simplest, rumor is the passing of information between individuals or groups without confirmation or certainty of its veracity. However, rumor also expands to encompass much of the communication between different peoples and groups, including the passing of news and information. Rumor and gossip are inherently difficult subjects to pin down in a historical context; the terms are loaded with assumptions and can be defined in a number of different ways. At the same time, however, rumor laces through much of the Atlantic world. The Atlantic covers vast distances and comprises cultures from four continents. The ways that these different cultures interacted with one another are important in any discussion about the Atlantic and the people who inhabited it. Rumor and gossip play an important part in these interactions. Rumor as an important factor within human interaction has long been the subject of inquiry among sociologists and psychologists. In recent decades historians have begun to focus on rumor as an important social and political factor in historical events. Rumor has also been used to understand the hidden worlds of nonelite groups in early modern Europe. The emerging scholarship on rumor in the Atlantic has drawn on much of this earlier work for inspiration and experimental frameworks through which to examine rumor. Much of the current scholarship dealing with rumor in the Atlantic world has focused on local or regional areas and in particular on the interactions between the different cultural and racial groups in the Atlantic. Despite this, the study of rumor offers a useful insight into areas of study that might otherwise remain obscure.

Sociological and Anthropological Treatments

Much of the historiographical discussion of rumor draws on concepts originally formulated by sociologists and anthropologists. The modern sociological study of rumor began to emerge in the years after the Second World War with studies carried out by sociologists looking into questions relating to wartime morale. Allport and Postman 1965, first published in the years after the war, formulated the first attempt to create a scientific understanding of the ways that rumor spread. In the years since, scholars have attempted to treat rumor within a variety of sociological frameworks. Shibutani 1966 views rumor as “improvised news,” a collaborative process intended to find a socially and psychologically satisfying explanation for unexplained events. Rosnow and Fine 1976 treat rumor as a form of social transaction, a form of influence or power. Kapferer 1990 argues that rumors acted as an alternative to official narratives and that truth or falsehood was irrelevant to the success or failure of rumors. Scott 1985 places rumor as a “weapon of the weak,” a method for poor and relatively powerless groups and individuals to resist more powerful groups. Rumor has also been used by sociologists to address particular facets of society, particularly questions about race. Knopf 1974 draws out the way that rumor could spread into wider media. Perice 1997 explores the role of rumor in Haitian society, discussing the importance of rumor in a atmosphere of violence and repression. Turner 1993 traces the role of rumor in African and African American society from the 1600s to the modern era, and White 2000 draws out the importance of rumor in colonial and postcolonial Africa.

  • Allport, Gordon, and Leo Postman. The Psychology of Rumor. New York: Russell and Russell 1965.

    This study provides the first attempt at formulating a scientific and indeed mathematical understanding of rumor. It argues that rumors became shorter, less detailed, and more concise the further they are spread.

  • Kapferer, Jean-Noel. Rumors: Uses, Interpretations, Images. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1990.

    Kapferer’s treatise gives a good overview of the existing modern scholarship on rumor. Kapferer argues that the notion that rumors are by nature more fanciful or misleading than other forms of communication is incorrect and that in fact the truth or falsity of a rumor has no bearing on its spread.

  • Knopf, Terry Ann. “Race, Riots and Reporting.” Journal of Black Studies 4.3 (March 1974): 303–327.

    DOI: 10.1177/002193477400400306

    This article provides a useful discussion of the ways that rumors can spread into newspaper reporting. The article addresses some of the possible underlying reasons behind this process. Furthermore, the article succeeds in linking these mechanisms with wider issues related to race within the United States.

  • Perice, Glen A. “Rumors and Politics in Haiti.” Anthropological Quarterly 70.1 (January 1997): 1–10.

    DOI: 10.2307/3317797

    This short article explores the impact that rumors had in Haiti, a country that had long been used to violence and repression as a fact of everyday life. Perice emphasizes that rumors acted to spread terror of repression amongst the population while at the same time they allowed a shared space for discourse and communication within that population.

  • Rosnow, Ralph L., and Gary A. Fine. Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay. New York: Elsevier, 1976.

    This work explores rumor from the perspective of a social exchange. It posits the idea that individuals use rumor as a mechanism for exchanges, whether of information, prestige, money, or other resources.

  • Scott, James C. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

    Places rumor within a context of tactics of resistance practiced by poor peasants in Malaysia. It conceptualizes these “weapons of the weak” as a way for individuals who are otherwise lacking in power to resist ostensibly unassailable foes.

  • Shibutani, Tomotsu. Improvised News: A Sociological Study of Rumor. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

    Shibutani’s influential treatise formulated the idea of rumor as an alternative form of news. Rumor in this sense is seen as a way for groups or individuals to develop an understanding of events that fitted their worldview.

  • Turner, Patricia A. I Heard It through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993.

    Turner explores the ways that rumor developed among African Americans through a long historical perspective. In particular the book draws out the ways that rumor expressed African Americans’ experiences of life in America and American society.

  • White, Luise. Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

    White explores the prevalence of rumors in a number of colonial and postcolonial African societies. She argues that the content of these rumors offers valuable insight into the concerns affecting ordinary people in these societies.

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