A stronger market for sociological themes, due in part to the rise of the “Gladwellian” genre

While considering David Brook’s new book The Social Animal (some earlier thoughts here), a reviewer provides some context by explaining why books invoking social science, including sociology, have been more popular recently:

The public appetite for books on social science was weak for decades. In the 1980s, particle physicists and cosmologists like Stephen Hawking learned to cut out the equations and reached a big audience. But in the 1990s, interest shifted to sociology and psychology. Steven Pinker wrote about the evolution of the mind, and Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” signaled a tipping point itself by scaling the best-seller lists and staying there for 10 years (and counting).

Mr. Gladwell’s ability to create page-turners out of material from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cast a long shadow over the genre. “Gladwellian” would not have been listed on the Word Exchange in 1986, but if you had invested at its IPO in the early 2000s you would have earned a tidy sum by now. Authors in this genre now labor to find Gladwellian stories and characters to vivify the theories and studies that support their counterintuitive insights. Sometimes they focus on the stories to the exclusion of the studies, a practice that makes it easy to reach pleasing but unsound conclusions.

Gladwell’s use of sociological ideas and themes earned him the first award for “Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues” in 2007 from the American Sociological Association.

While Gladwell certainly wasn’t the first to write such books, he certainly seems to have spawned a number of (often inferior) imitators. The “Gladwellian” genre goes something like this: take a common facet of life, explain why it matters, and then winsomely weave together both established bodies of scientific research with compelling stories. Since David Brooks seems to be taking a slightly different approach by developing two characters to carry his narrative, does this mean Brooks is trying to deliberately break out of this genre by returning to “the 18th-century didactic narrative”? Just how many “Gladwellian” books or articles can the market bear?

But someone could do a much deeper analysis of this. While Gladwell may have a good presentation, what changed in American society such that his books would find a receptive audience? If physics ruled the day in the 1980s, why the shift to the social sciences in the 1990s? Was this some response to a booming economy or the end of the Cold War or a number of new discoveries and exciting theories in the social sciences around this time?

0 thoughts on “A stronger market for sociological themes, due in part to the rise of the “Gladwellian” genre

  1. I think my working hypothesis as to why the social sciences have been on the ascendancy to the (relative) marginalization of hard sciences like physics turns on the rise of the Internet.

    The mass marketing of physics is well suited to television, with shows like Nova (premiered in 1974) and Cosmos (first run in 1980) sparking interest in books non-specialists could turn to for something more than footage of shuttle launches and made-for-TV animations.

    The mass marketing of social sciences was (and is) arguably less suited for the TV audience. (There are fewer obvious graphics.) But the rise of the Internet in the 1990s got lots of non-specialists curious about the ways that humans communicate and interact because they seemed to be changing. Books like Gladwell’s The Tipping Point filled a desire to understand what was going on.


    • So it was about the technology or the medium, not so much the content.

      I wonder how it might be related to what sociologists have called “the cultural turn” in our field, which dates to roughly the mid 1980s.


  2. Pingback: Can Malcolm Gladwell’s writings lead to “the sociology of success”? | Legally Sociable

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