par Pascal Froissart,
Université de Paris VIII
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Pascal Froissart, La rumeur, histoire et fantasmes. Paris: Belin, 2002.
Pascal Froissart’s book fills an important gap in a research field that is otherwise crowded. In fact this volume is not another study of rumour but a book on works about rumours: the author attempts to define the conditions for the possibility of the study of rumours, its assumptions, its instrumentalizing or ideological errors, in other words a veritable epistemology of rumour studies. Original and intelligent, Froissart’s book scratches ‘rumorologists’ where they itch!
The work unfolds following two complementary approaches: part 1, which is diachronic, is a ‘pre-Allport & Postman’ archaeology that digs up studies of rumour before 1945; part 2, which is synchronic, draws up a critical typology of research hypotheses related to rumour (rumour is false; rumour contains a hidden message; rumour has to be controlled).
Part 1 has the merit of presenting and analysing little-known work, though Allport and Postman, Rosnow and Shibutani cite these forerunners, and the historian of rumour Hans-Joachim Neubauer mentions them in his book Fama. Eine Geschichte des Gerüchts (Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 1998, Eng. trans.: The Rumour. A Cultural History, London: Free Association Books, 1999). Froissart reminds us of Louis William Stern’s (1902) work on the linear, degraded transmission of a message – already noting omission, addition and alteration mechanisms – of work by Rosa Oppenheim (1911) on a press rumour, by Frederick Bartlett (1920) experimenting with the ability to recall folktales and drawings, by Clifford Kirkpatrick (1932) modifying Stern’s methodology protocol by eliminating the intermediary role of the experimenter, who became just an observer of successive transmissions.
Froissart’s aim is to highlight the emergence of a concept, that of ‘rumour’, ‘a category created . . . recently which is a nonsense when applied in that way before a certain date’ (p. 51). If the old notions of ‘rumour in circulation’ or ‘reputation’ are ignored in favour of the exclusive idea of ‘distorted message’, Froissart goes further still by suggesting that rumour is a false concept, vague, often contradictorily defined (for instance, reduction and the ‘snowball’ effect) and covering a multiplicity of phenomena. A specialist in information and communication science, the author stresses the crucial role of the mass media in disseminating and even creating rumours, so contesting the traditional idea of ‘word-of-mouth’.
Froissart rightly criticizes an essentialist conception of rumour – which matches a word with an eternal reality – but in doing so he falls quite naturally into the opposite extreme, nominalism, which says a word corresponds only to a conventional reality, the mind’s view. To say it is impossible to talk of rumour before the word appeared (‘rumour became a reality’, p. 63) would mean, to caricature, that universal attraction, the electron and chromosomes did not exist before the words appeared! Rumour is no more nor less a false concept than all the ideas in the human sciences – for example, intelligence, the unconscious, social class – subjects of constant debate and constant re-evaluation.
In Part 2 the first theory discussed is ‘rumorography or the precision fantasy’. Froissart invites researchers to show modesty on the question of the truth of rumours, condemning ‘rumorologists’ abuse of their position of authority: they pretend to tell the truth regardless of the process that leads to truth and is far from simple to follow’ (p. 151). They often forget they are not the ones who hold the absolute truth, but experts putting forward a relative truth. The author catches Allport and Postman in their own trap, revealing that one of the ‘realistic’ illustrations used by the American psychologists in their experiments on transmitting information contains a crude error: two road signs side by side say ‘Cherbourg 50 km’ and ‘Paris 21.5 km’, a bizarre detail since the two cities are 332 km apart! But this anecdote is emblematic: in order to criticize the pseudo-real Froissart has to rely on another ‘real’ seen as truer than the first. The relativist position, which denies the possibility of establishing true and false (‘impossible veracity’, p. 137), is untenable and would end by giving up on distinguishing between correct and incorrect information.
The second theory, ‘rumourancy’ – a purist would have preferred ‘rumouromancy’ on the terminological model of the ‘mancies’ or arts of divination such as cartomancy, chiromancy, necromancy – is the propensity of researchers to interpret rumours, to unveil their ‘hidden message’. We are happy to follow the author in his ‘criticism of the single meaning’ (p. 182) and his suspicion of symbolic systems ‘steamrollered’ onto rumour, as is often the case with psychoanalytical interpretations. The author himself does not avoid dodgy interpretations: what are we to think of the provocative hypothesis, on scarcely any foundation, that the rumour studied by Jung telling of intimate relations between a teenage girl and her teacher concealed a story of sexual abuse (p. 178)? We could not subscribe to the statement that ‘there are as many interpretations as speakers [and] rumorologists’ (p. 186). This is to forget that interpretation does not arise from individual whim but from a search for symbolic coherence, which is backed up not only by the rumour’s content but also by the paratext, the sociocultural context, the militant use of the rumour by the people transmitting it. As Jean-Michel Berthelot clearly demonstrated in his epistemological study of sociology, the hermeneutic paradigm is just as valid as a way of understanding society as causal or dialectical paradigms (L’intelligence du social, Paris: PUF, 1990).
The third theory, ‘rumorocracy or the fantasy of control’, criticizes the medical metaphor comparing rumour to an epidemic caused by a virus or microbe, and the illusion of measures for combating rumours. Froissart emphasizes the vanity of mathematical models for the spread of rumour, the error in thinking that undifferentiated subjects carry rumours or that they are spread mainly in popular and poorly educated circles, and finally the ineffectiveness of denial: all this has been clearly demonstrated but, pace the author, by studies of rumour themselves. It is easy to criticize the baroque herpetological metaphors (the typology of rumours corresponding to kinds of snakebite, depending on whether the prey is killed by a jet of poison, gradually paralysed or swallowed alive) or entomological ones (rumour like insects is said to go through three stages: larva, nymph and imago) presented by Françoise Reumaux as an ‘outline for a theory of rumours’, but Froissart ignores the theoretical and methodological contribution made by the modelling of rumour by Michel-Louis Rouquette in the 1990s, around the concepts of involvement, attribution, negativity and instability. All three concepts are absent from Froissart’s book. He mistakenly writes that experiments on the linear transmission of rumours only measure recall ability (p. 121). This is to neglect studies which show that memory is not the only factor operating in the process of message reduction: reproduction of details is better when subjects have a ‘neutral’ relationship with the message than when they feel involved (M.-L. Rouquette et al., ‘Influence de la pertinence et de la structure sous-jacente sur la mémorisation des énoncés’, Bulletin de Psychologie, vol. XXX, 1976, pp. 59–64).
For the requirements of his demonstration Froissart writes about ‘rumorology’, the (pseudo)science of rumours, but this amusing neologism is a rhetorical effect since there is no discipline or specialization with that name. As I have written elsewhere, it is lucky for the study of rumours that it is connected to many disciplines (sociology, psychology, folklore, communication, history and so on), so that none of them can claim a monopoly.
Froissart’s book, which will be enjoyed by all those specializing in rumour, is a salutary critique of the work being done in that research area. However, it would be ridiculous to conclude from it that no research can be carried out on the subject. Pascal Froissart himself has written a fine monograph on an African rumour that stands comparison with the most traditional research (‘La rumeur du chien’, in F. Reumaux, ed., Les oies du Capitole ou les raisons de la rumeur, Paris: CNRS Editions, 1999, pp. 105–20). Though he denies it, Froissart is certainly interested in the veracity of the rumour (he encourages his journalism students to investigate events and he cites the police report on the case) and he attempts an interpretation of it in terms of social symbolism (‘The rumour about the dog is the best illustration of these social tensions’, p. 115).
Finally it is not the smallest virtue of Froissart’s book that it offers innovative and illuminating approaches to the social representation of rumours: a bibliometry of works on rumour, a study of metaphors for rumour, analysis of the iconic figurations of rumour (for instance, Norman Rockwell’s famous drawing). Pascal Froissart’s excellent website, a true French-language ‘portal’ for the study of rumours, reflects this richness and intellectual curiosity: http://pascalfroissart.online.fr/.
Jean-Bruno Renard, Montpellier University
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