The Elephant in the Room

Silence and Denial in Everyday Life


The fable of the Emperor's New Clothes is a classic example of a conspiracy of silence, a situation where everyone refuses to acknowledge an obvious truth. But the denial of social realities--whether incest, alcoholism, corruption, or even genocide-is no fairy tale.In The Elephant in the Room, Eviatar Zerubavel sheds new light on the social and political underpinnings of silence and denial-the keeping of "open secrets." The author shows that conspiracies of silence exist at every level of society, ranging from small groups to large corporations, from personal friendships to politics. Zerubavel shows how such conspiracies evolve, illuminating the social pressures that cause people to deny what is right before their eyes. We see how each conspirator's denial is symbiotically complemented by the others', and we learn that silence is usually more intense when there are more people conspiring-and especially when there are significant power differences among them. He concludes by showing that the longer we ignore "elephants," the larger they loom in our minds, as each avoidance triggers an even greater spiral of denial.Drawing on examples from newspapers and comedy shows to novels, children's stories, and film, the book travels back and forth across different levels of social life, and from everyday moments to large-scale historical events. At its core, The Elephant in the Room helps us understand why we ignore truths that are known to all of us.
  • Oxford University Press; April 2006
  • ISBN 9780198040521
  • Read online, or download in secure PDF format
  • Title: The Elephant in the Room
  • Author: Eviatar Zerubavel
  • Imprint: Oxford University Press

In The Press

"Among academic intellectuals, Eviatar Zerubavel--please make that a household name in your household--gleams as a star.... He gathers intriguing ideas for books the way ace foreign correspondents acquire great stories: by reflecting on the obvious, then probing as well as reporting."--Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Eviatar Zerubavel has always had a remarkable facility for examining everyday human life through a different and richer lens than the rest of us. He notes in this compelling essay that when people block something out of their line of vision or rearrange their memories in such a way as to forget something, they are involved in a personal act. But his main point is that those acts of blocking and forgetting and remaining silent are really collective behavior, a form of collusion, a product of the social world. This is a rare mind at work."--Kai Erikson, author of A New Species of Trouble: Explorations in Disaster, Trauma, and Community
"With characteristic zest and insight, Eviatar Zerubavel talks about all those things we are generally reluctant to talk about. The Elephant in the Room represents the sociological imagination in full flower."--Alan Wolfe, author of Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It
"The Elephant in the Room is another eye-opening book from Eviatar Zerubavel. Here he gives us a guide to all the many ways in which we fail to see all the elephants in our own living rooms. Brilliant, lucid, and certainly timely."--Arlie Hochschild, author of The Time Bind and The Commercialization of Intimate Life
"Eviatar Zerubavel possesses one of the most interesting minds in American sociology. In The Elephant in the Room, he connects insights into how the mind works with a ruthless realism about the functioning of society. The results are not pretty, but they are important, and make for compulsive reading. Zerubavel shows how the sociological imagination can cast a penetrating light on the most important questions of the day."--Jeffrey C. Alexander, author of The Civil Sphere
"This is an interesting, thought-provoking, and delightful book. Reading it is easy and rewarding. The writing style is straightforward, with hardly any jargon, and Zerubavel makes rich and wise use of countless illustratons, connections, and associations....I have absolutely no hesitation to recommend highly and warmly this intelligent book--reading it is both an intellectual adventure and a genuine pleasure."--American Journal of Sociology
"In a brilliantly ironic tour de force, Eviatar Zerubavel has finally talked about a topic that nobody has talked about so well: those topics that people refuse to talk about despite common knowledge. Once again, Zerubavel displays his extraordinary talent for seeing scintillation where others see only clouds."--Viviana Zelizer, author of The Purchase of Intimacy
"Eviatar Zerubavel's masterful work, The Elephant in the Room, offers a profound education for everyone who has ever held their tongue on matters large and small. His insightful--and riveting--analysis of silence and denial echoes in the mind long after we close the book."-- Neil Gilbert, author of Transformation of the Welfare State: The Silent Surrender of Public Responsibility

About The Author

Eviatar Zerubavel is a Board of Governors Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. His books include The Seven-Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week, The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life, and Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past.