The Epistemology of Socializing: A Review of Kathryn Waddington’s Gossip, Organization and Work, Karen Adkins

Academics are fond of the practice of gossip, as campus novels make plain. But the scholarship on gossip, while dispersed across many fields, often seems irrelevant to folks who work in social epistemology. Because it is so often defined in overly formal terms (confidential talk between at least two people about an absent third person), its impact what we know and how we come to know it can seem quite limited to the small groups from which it starts. Kathryn Waddington’s new book opens up methodological paths and research questions for scholars who want to take the social part of social epistemology at face value. … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Article Citation:

Adkins, Karen. 2023. “The Epistemology of Socializing: A Review of Kathryn Waddington’s Gossip, Organization and Work.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (6): 35–38.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Gossip, Organization and Work: A Research Overview
Kathryn Waddington
Routledge, 2021
120 pp.

Most basically, Waddington challenges the assumption that its subjects and insights are limited to truths about other people. She is interested in gossip that occurs at work, and focused on the ways in which workplace gossip responds to unjust structures or practices at work. It is “applied social epistemology,” she rightly describes it (following Bertolotti and Magnani), and in this book, she assesses the state of gossip scholarship, and lays out future lines of inquiry for effective and impactful scholarship of gossip. The book is stuffed to the brim with practical and practicable advice, and also includes creative possibilities for new research directions, such as gossip that is expressed visually or digitally.

The Resonances of Workplace Gossip

Waddington begins by contending that even though gossip is between people and thus often assumed to be trivial, its subjects and focus have wide-ranging resonance when it takes place in an institutional ecosystem. Workplace gossip, for Waddington, is often about problems at the workplace that are being ignored or facilitated through neglect, and its gossip networks often reveal the norms, practices and identity of work far more honestly than its gauzy mission statements or PR pages. Workplace gossip, for Waddington, as a means of communication, serves to constitute the organization, and thus it is important to be able to understand it well, especially if the goal is for a more just and effective workplace. She has written this book for scholars of gossip so that they can do this work effectively and impactfully.

Waddington wastes no time reminding us of the urgency of workplace gossip. One of Waddington’s central contentions about gossip at work, which is drawn from her earlier book on gossip (2012) is that it often functions as a kind of early distress signal (2021, 2–3). Workplace gossip conversations are often about bad behavior, corruption, or systemic challenges, but which people only feel comfortable talking about off-the-record, to trusted colleagues. The bad epistemic and moral reputation of gossip means that these conversations are too easily dismissed even when people in authority get wind of them, and this, for Waddington, is deeply damaging. Waddington cites a government inquiry into a scandal where female psychiatric patients were sexually abused for two decades, to no intervention, and observes that medical practitioners were aware of widespread gossip that “something was extremely wrong” with some psychiatrists’ practice (2021, 3). The report’s answer to the question of when rumors of bad behavior should be acted upon was to call for more research, a call that Waddington acerbically notes was never funded or implemented (ibid). This pattern is replicated in #MeToo scandals in the media, Hollywood, police forces, and the academy; it is clear that gossip both serves as an early warning system for vulnerable people, and is ignored by those with power to make change.

While gossip is specifically relevant for social epistemology, the literature that assesses it crosses many disciplines. Waddington herself is trained as an organizational psychologist, but her literature and theoretical review (chapter 2) is compendious, reflecting the disciplinary diversity of gossip scholarship, while foregrounding it as a problem of social knowledge. Waddington starts by acknowledging the vast array of scholarship definitions and approaches to gossip (2021, 21; table 2.1), and contends that this diversity itself contains possibilities for new lines of argument and research. She makes her own theoretical and definitional preferences plain; gossip, for Waddington, is fundamentally a kind of “mystery story,” (2021, 23), containing puzzles of meaning, authority, identity. Our gossip with one another is often how we make sense of the workplace (and our roles within it).  While scholarship of gossip so often focuses it on a linguistic phenomenon, Waddington reminds us that workplace gossip can take place through visual artifacts. Objects like sarcastic coffee mugs or posters “you don’t have to be crazy to work here, we’ll train you” [24]) can serve as visual markers and hints to backstories and counter-narratives of the organization; they are “clues” to be read in a mysterious worksite.

The mystery talk should not be confused for an overly literary or casual approach to gossip; Waddington’s third chapter, on research methods and practices, recommends methods and practices that will produce applicable and relevant research for scholars and practitioners. Her starting objectives are to recommend models of research that best fit with gossip’s slippery nature, and that have promise for producing research that has impact beyond academic or disciplinary silos. As her introduction makes plain, Waddington believes that gossip is an early warning signal of organizational failure, which often comes with significant and lasting human and community harms. Thus, good research into the means and impact of gossip can serve as an assist to improve organizational practices and cultures moving forward.

As with earlier chapters, Waddington stays clear of an overly prescriptive approach in her discussion of research methods, but she has recommendations for research methods and practices that best cohere with an understanding of gossip as a way of sense- or meaning-making in the workplace. She favors mixed-methods approaches (incorporating qualitative and quantitative data), as they can avoid reductive or overly simplistic conclusions, and thinks there is good value in case-study research, particularly in its ability to reflect complexity in a moment in time. Waddington doesn’t discuss the work of Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) here, but readers of Social Epistemology will recognize a real resonance between what she describes and Flyvbjerg’s phronetic approach to producing academic scholarship of social institutions and problems that has meaningful impact on public policy and practice.

Ethical Challenges

Chapter four focuses squarely on the ethical challenges of studying gossip. Because the scholarly literature on the ethics of gossip so often starts from a defensive crouch (demonstrating its worthiness despite its overwhelmingly negative popular, epistemic, and moral reputation), Waddington begins by reminding us that in fact, in some cases it might be unethical not to attend to gossip (2021, 66). The government report with which she opens the book is a stark example of this ethical danger; to ignore or refuse to recognize workplace gossip on questions of ‘principle’ may make it more likely that damaging structures and practices can continue unabated. But Waddington is still attentive to the very real ethical challenges of research in gossip as a contemporary phenomenon, that largely draw from its ubiquity. Put plainly, because gossip occurs in every industry, workplace and community, as she reminds us (2021, 69), the scholar of gossip can find oneself in the midst of potential fieldwork at any point.

Waddington’s ethical recommendations share a common theme of attending to the conversational nature of gossip, and draw from Waddington’s orientation in reflexive research. In addition to obvious recommendations of confidentiality and protecting informants’ identity and privacy, Waddington recommends that gossip scholars attend to the intellectual and social value of the gossip, and to consider the needs and perspectives of the community of study when conducting the research (2021, 77–78). Given the particular reality that the most urgent workplace gossip about organizational failure likely comes from people who are more vulnerably placed in the workplace, or from marginalized populations, her reminders about attending to community needs and identity are particularly resonant.

Waddington closes the book by marking out future terrain and paths for research into gossip, and continues with her counterintuitive and productive recommendations. Because Waddington views workplace gossip as primarily evaluative talk that constructs and reveals the workplace in its strengths and challenges, she maps out a set of themes and questions for researchers to use as a way of thinking about possible meaning or significance in workplace gossip (2021: 88, table 5.1). Because the work environment is shifting for so many professions or industries, Waddington suggests that this opens up new pathways and importance for gossip scholarship. “Corridor conversations” may be more important for managers when the corridors in question are Slack channels, and employee morale needs to be assessed. Workplace social capital is present in virtual and hybrid workplaces. In this era of increased electronic and passive surveillance of employees, Waddington’s recommendations for research that attends to employees’ ability to speak freely in the workplace is bracing (2021, 97).

Approaches and Methods

The book is engagingly written throughout; Waddington has spent thirty years studying gossip in the workplace, and as an academic, much of her study has been of her home turf. She peppers her analysis with humorous anecdotes that remind us of the appeal and entertainment power of gossip. Some parts of this book will be more helpful than others for those working in social epistemology. Because the case study approach is so well represented in social epistemology, her regular attention to ethnography and auto-ethnography, and her attention to research methods about cases, will be particularly useful for scholars who are less conversant in the norms and standards from the social sciences. By contrast, while I appreciated and respect her interest in opening up lines of new research methods, the section on research poetry (2021, 44–50) seemed less useful for social epistemology.

But this book has much to offer for those who think that side conversations at work may be epistemically revealing. The conditions of work, particularly for previously secure white-collar professions, have changed significantly in the last fifty years, between globalization, the gig economy, the decline of labor unions in the United States, the emergence of remote and digital work, and omnipresent digital surveillance of workers. As the economic security and dignity of work has become more precarious for too many workers, their voice and influence have also suffered. The kinds of gossip conversations that Waddington has studied for her entire career are actually more, not less, important, as a counterweight to these developments. Waddington says several times in this book, including in the closing chapter, that she’s interested in research that promotes a “speak-up” culture at work (2021, 97). Workplace gossip matters, and it can be good business, not bad business, to listen and learn from it. Taking side conversations seriously, and producing good scholarship about them, can play a role in improving work for the next generation of workers.

Author Information:

Karen Adkins,, Regis University.


Bertolotti, Tommaso and Lorenzo Magnani. 2019. “Gossip.” In The Routledge Handbook of Applied Epistemology edited by David Coady and James Chase, 272–283. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bertolotti, Tommaso and Lorenzo Magnani. 2014. “An Epistemological Analysis of Gossip and Gossip-Based Knowledge.” Synthese 191: 4037–4067.

Bergmann, Jörg. 1993. Discreet Indiscretions: The Social Organization of Gossip. Berlin: Aldine de Gruyter.

Flyvbjerg, Bent. 2001. Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Waddington, Kathryn. 2021. Gossip, Organization and Work: A Research Overview. Abingdon: Routledge.

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