Social Function of Storytelling

Did you know that the single most common social activity across tribal societies is storytelling? Anthropologist, Professor Polly Wiessner, has been studying the !Kung (Ju/’hoansi Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert of northeast Namibia and Botswana) since the 1970s. Her research finds that storytelling differs at different times of the day: around one third of stories told during the day are complaints, criticisms and gossip, another third is about economic issues, 16% is jokes and the rest are other topics like politics. The reason for the focus on complaints and gossip is that these stories regulate behaviour. Gossip in particular ensures people are reminded about social norms and values.

At night, things are different! The majority of storytelling happens around a campfire, focused on family, dance, singing and celebration (81% of discussions). There is less complaints and economic talk. This is because there’s not much light, so people need to stay close, and good stories help them bond.

In her team’s recently published study, Wiessner finds this pattern is common amongst other hunger-gatherer societies: 38 societies tended to gossip during the day, and 60 societies focused on celebrations at night. Wiessner argues that campfire stories – or gathering together to talk at the end of the day, is important to strong social ties.


The study and story.

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