Sociology class on Malcolm Gladwell suggests his books communicate sociology better than academic texts

The University of Houston is offering a new class on the sociological writings of Malcolm Gladwell:

Who and what is a sociologist? A new undergraduate course taught by Shayne Lee, associate professor of sociology at the University of Houston, will focus on the writings of journalist and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell in order to delve into the nature of the scientific study of human social relationships and institutions through the lens of popular culture consumption…

Lee says Gladwell’s ability to shape and redirect popular understanding of sociology concepts makes his work an excellent framework for exploring how human action and consciousness shape and are shaped by cultural and social structures.

“Students will assess how the ‘Gladwellian’ perspective confirms and challenges established social theories and offers intriguing new insights for the discipline of sociology,” said Lee. “It places the contributions of a pop cultural superstar like Gladwell in conversation with prominent sociologists of the past and present, posing new questions concerning who and what is a sociologist.”…

“Scholar texts don’t have nearly the same impact on teaching students to think more sociologically than ‘Outliers,'” said Lee. “Hence, it is my contention that Gladwell’s works make people more informed about the nuances and complexities of the human condition.”

Gladwell’s communication abilities are the reason he won an award from the American Sociological Association.

Two thoughts:

1. Gladwell communicates better than many sociologists in his books through: (1) the use of stories and narratives as opposed to data and (2) not too many references to academics and their work. In other words, it doesn’t read much like a typical academic text using lots of sociological terms and full of statistics.

2. Gladwell is indeed a good introduction to sociology. At the same time, I wonder how many college students would read his books and then dig into the academic work behind it. The same features noted in #1 that make his work interesting to the general public also mean that the academic work is buried behind the stories and he is not testing and refining theories rather than summarizing existing work.

Can Malcolm Gladwell’s writings lead to “the sociology of success”?

Sociologists might like Malcolm Gladwell but I wonder how many of them would go so far as to endorse a course titled “the sociology of success” based on his writings:

The Idea Lab has completed the first course of an ongoing educational offering called Krypton Community College, a free online/offline project based on a simple idea: We learn better when we do it together. Every four weeks, Krypton Community College presents a different course, based around the work of an acclaimed author / teacher / scholar / speaker – someone with something to say and a track record doing it. The first course, No. 001, was based on the works of acclaimed leadership expert Seth Godin.From noon to 1 p.m. on Nov. 5, The Idea Lab will present the first session of four-week course No. 002 of Krypton Community College. “We are happy to announce that the second course, The Sociology of Success, comes from the works of Malcolm Gladwell,” Ashby said. “This course draws from Malcolm’s writings about how the society we build influences who we become, the heroes that lead us, and the choices we make.”…
Ashby explained how Krypton Community College works. “With every course, we meet each Tuesday for lunch for four weeks,” he said. “Everyone who enrolls in the course gets a PDF document with links to articles and other resources. We come together to discuss and encourage each other to dive deeper into the work.”

On one hand, perhaps this takes advantage of what Gladwell does well: synthesize social science research and create interesting narratives. People who might typically not consider sociological ideas can attend this lunch course and learn something.

On the other hand, perhaps this is “pop sociology” at its worst: quickly scanning the works of Gladwell in a hour and hearing sociology through a journalistic lens. Even more problematic might be the title of the whole class – finding “success,” whatever that means, or talking about leadership. This course isn’t really about sociology but rather than American values of getting ahead with a veneer of academic respectability.

In the end, I would be suspicious that there is much sociology in this one lecture. Granted, this isn’t a full course but it seems like a very limited sociological approach.

Genius and creativity = “a probabilistic function of quantity”

I was recently reading a Malcolm Gladwell article about the invention of the computer mouse and came across this statistical definition of genius and creativity:

The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that this fecundity is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted. The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. “Quality,” Simonton writes, is “a probabilistic function of quantity.”

Simonton’s point is that there is nothing neat and efficient about creativity. “The more successes there are,” he says, “the more failures there are as well”—meaning that the person who had far more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too.

To put this in graph terms: as time increases, a creative person has an increasing number of ideas, a line with positive slope. Underneath this overall line of ideas is another positive line tracking the unsuccessful ideas and below that, increasing steadily but perhaps at a slower rate, is the line of successful ideas. In other words, the more overall ideas someone has, the more failures but also the more quality ideas.

The rest of the article is about creating the right structural environment to take advantage of ideas. Most groups and organizations won’t recognize all the best ideas but innovative organizations find ways to encourage and push the good ideas to the top. Indeed, the clincher at the end of the article is that Steve Jobs, supposedly one of the best innovators America has had in recent decades, missed some opportunities as well.

Aren’t the Olympics the domain of well-funded athletes from wealthier countries?

While watching some events from the Olympics, I was struck by how much training must go into this. But this endless training reminded me of what Malcolm Gladwell discusses in Outliers: only a small number of people get the advantages that allow them to have all of this training. In other words, you are more likely to experience the “Matthew effect” if your parents, social network, or country has the resources to allow you to do all of this training. This doesn’t mean that these competitors aren’t skilled but it is not like all of the world’s population has an equal opportunity to take the path toward the Olympics. (Of course, not everyone would want to, either.)

I’m sure someone has already had this idea but what about some sort of “everyman Olympics”?

How to qualify as a pop sociologist

One Wired writer has a humorous take on what one has to do to be a pop sociologist:

I’ve been reading a lot of books by Malcolm Gladwell and books remarkably similar to books by Malcolm Gladwell. The pattern is pretty straightforward: You give your book a one-word title and then explain what the hell you’re talking about in the subtitle…

The two main qualifications for being a pop sociology author appear to be the ability to ask rhetorical questions, and the ability to share anecdotes that vaguely answer those questions. Is this something I could do? According to a tangentially related study of bar-hopping patterns among female youth in Prague, yes it is…

Learning about what made Darwin, Gershwin and to a lesser extent Paquin who they are is not going to do a damn thing for you, any more than the Babar books turned you into elephant royalty like you always secretly hoped they would. So my book is going to focus on the one thing that all successful, world-changing geniuses have in common: They’re not you.

What follows is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Nope: Success, Brilliance, Innovation and Why Those Words Never Come Up When People Talk About You.


I do have to give Gladwell some credit. He does seem to do his scientific homework as even sociologists like his work (as evidenced by the award he received from the American Sociological Association). Not everyone can do what he does: present scientific findings in an engaging way. I wonder if sociologists are sometimes jealous at the kind of writing he is able to do compared to the more scientific writing required in academic journals and monographs.

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to pick a topic that is ripe for translating from new scientific findings into the popular realm.

“The Steve Jobs Anti-Eulogy” raises some interesting points

Now that the media blitz following the death of Steve Jobs has slowed, there is more space to consider the coverage. Here are five interesting observations from one writer who also wins points for invoking “Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer” and Malcolm Gladwell:

1. People write about Steve to write about themselves…

2. Individuals do not make history. Populations do…

So the idea that Steve Jobs changed history is just plain bad analysis. Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer argued that attributing historical events to the decisions of individuals was a hopelessly primitive, childish, and unscientific position. After he published these views in The Study of Sociology, the case was closed. At least for professional historians.

3. You can tell a lot about a society by the people they honor…

4. Steve Jobs sheds more light on the nature vs. nurture debate than he does on the history debate…

5. Espousing the glories of genius gets us nowhere.

What I like the most about these is that they try to place Jobs within his context. They also raise larger questions including “what does it mean to be a genius,” “what values does society promote,” and “are societal or group trends more important than individual actions.”

Seeing sociology in the US men’s national soccer team coaching change

A number of articles have noted the new approach of the new coach of the US men’s national soccer team, Jurgen Klinsman. But this is the first one I’ve seen that suggests Klinsman’s outlook is sociological in nature:

What Klinsmann’s hiring is really about is the big picture, about where soccer is going in the United States, how it will be played and by whom?

It is a grand experiment that is as much about sociology and psychology as it is soccer, and one that promises to be — even to Klinsmann — at least as interesting as whatever happens on the field.

“I deeply believe that soccer, in a certain way, reflects the culture of a country,” Klinsmann, who since 1988 has lived in Huntington Beach, Calif., said at his introductory news conference. “You have such a melting pot in this country with so many different opinions and ideas floating around there. One of my challenges will be to find a way to define how a U.S. team should represent its country. What should be the style of play? It is important over the next three years, especially in the beginning, that I have a lot of conversations with people engulfed in the game here to find a way to define style. What suits us best?”

The question of style posed by Klinsmann — one of the few people with the gravitas and wherewithal to carry such a debate from his perch — isn’t simply about aesthetics. It is about empowerment.

Some Americans might think that having a “national soccer style” might seem odd (is there a “national football style”?) but other countries have such approaches. How exactly cultural values match up with soccer play would be interesting to look at in more depth. Are the explanations that the team fits the values simply post-hoc explanations? (A similar argument: the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers play a particular style of football – tough, good defense, hard running, etc. – because of the industrial cities in which they started.) I suspect a “national style” works because it is meaningful and traditional (and perhaps successful), rather than necessarily more true than other possible styles.

Part of the issue raised by Klinsman (and hinted at in this article) is the culture of US soccer that seems to privilege a particular path related to race and social class: going to expensive sports academies as teenagers and then going to college. Few, if any, other countries follow this route. This is a structural issue: how could the path to playing for the USMNT be altered to open it up to more players, particularly those who can’t afford or don’t want to pursue the “typical” route? As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers, these certain structural advantages help some and not others.

A lot is being asked of Klinsman and cultural changes are difficult to make. But it sounds like Klinsman has some ideas about what to do and US soccer seems to be at a point where people realize it needs to take “the next step.” It will be interesting to watch how the Klinsman sociological experiment goes.

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?

Gladwell on US News college rankings

In his latest New Yorker piece, Malcolm Gladwell takes aim at the US News & World Report college rankings (the full story requires a subscription). This is a familiar target and I have some thoughts about Gladwell’s analysis.

Even though I like Gladwell, I found this article underwhelming. It doesn’t give us much new information though it is an easy yet thought-provoking read about indexes (and could easily be used for a class discussion about research methods and rankings). And if his main conclusion is the ranking depends on who is doing the ranking…we already knew that.

Some things that would be beneficial to know (and some of these ideas are prompted by recently reading Mitchell Stevens’ Creating a Class where he spent 1.5 years working in an admissions department of a New England, DIII, liberal arts schools):

1. Gladwell seems to suggest that US News is just making arbitrary decisions. Not quite: they think they have a rationale for these decisions. As the head guy said, they have talked to a lot of experts and this is how they think it works. They could be wrong in their measures but they have reasons. Other publications use other factors (see a summary of those different factors here) but their lists are also not arbitrary – they have reasons for weighting factors differently or introducing new factors.

2. Stevens argues that the rankings work because they denote status. The reputational rankings are just that. And while they may be silly measures of “educational quality,” human beings are influenced by status and want to know relative rankings. Gladwell seems to suggest that the US News rankings have a huge impact – making it a circular status system dependent on their rankings – but there are other status systems that both agree and disagree with US News rankings.

2a. Additionally, it is not as if these sorts of rankings created a status system of colleges. Before US News, people already had ideas about this: US News simply codified it and opened it up to a lot more schools. There perhaps even could be an argument that their rankings opened up the college status system to more participants who wouldn’t have been part of the discussion before.

3. Stevens also suggests that parents and potential students often have to have a good “emotional fit” with a school before making the final decision. Much of the decision-making is made on status – Stevens says that most times when students have two schools (or more) to choose from, they will likely choose the one with a higher status. But the campus visits and interactions are important, even if they just confirm the existing status structure.

Ultimately, this discussion of US News rankings can get tiresome. Lots of academics (and others) don’t like the rankings. Schools claim not to like the rankings. Then why doesn’t somebody do something about it? Stevens suggests it is because if a school drops out of this game, their relative status will drop (and he makes the same argument for athletics: schools have to have some athletics to keep up, not necessarily to win). However, there are a lot of colleges that don’t need the extra applicants that a good US News ranking system would bring. Plus, there are alternative guides and rankings available – there are a number of others that examine different factors and develop different rankings.

Does social media, like Facebook and Twitter, lead to revolutions (like recent events in Tunisia)?

Early news reports about the recent uprising in Tunisia have suggested that social media played a role as participants used such technology and organize and coordinate activities. (See this AP story with the headline of “Jobless youths in Tunisia riot using Facebook.”) In the midst of a lively debate over whether social media actually can lead to revolution (see the earlier post on Malcolm Gladwell’s recent thoughts on this), a sociologist provides a short overview of how he thinks sociology has addressed (or has not addressed) this question:

When the debate does pick up again, though, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few new wrinkles added into the mix. What all of the above writers share, I would argue, is, first, a notion of collective action overly-indebted to definitions of action and coordination provided by economics, and (second) a somewhat a-historical focus in digital technology. One of the problems with the debate as it is currently structured is that other academic disciplines, particularly sociology, have largely stopped asking questions about the relationship between the media and social movements. Indeed, sociology has largely stopped asking questions about the media at all. (I’m generalizing wildly here, of course, but as evidence I would point you toward the cogently argued and well-titled article by Jefferson Pooley and Elihu Katz, “Why American Sociology Abandoned Mass Communication Research.”) A second problem with the current debate lies in the fact that more complex theorizing about the nature of technological artifacts has yet to penetrate the mainstream debates over the roles played by technology in political protest.

There are, of course, exceptions. When it comes to deep and important thinking about media and social movements from a sociological perspective I’d point you toward work by Francesca Polletta and Edwin Amenta at UC Irvine, W. Lance Bennett’s work on political communication and protest, and especially research by Andrew Chadwick, and John Downing. In his discussion of “organizational repertoires” and their relationship to media, just as one example, Chadwick draws on a lengthy tradition of thought in classic social movement research aimed at understanding the role “repertoires play in sustaining collective identity. They are not simply neutral tools to be adopted at will, but come to shape what it means to be a participant in a political organization. Values shape repertoires of collective action, which in turn shape the kind adoption of organizational forms.”

In short, a primary advantage provided by a core sociological perspective on social movements is that they bring values and culture back into our conversation, problematizing notions of what collective action even means in the first place.

I would be interested to hear how other sociologists would respond to this, particularly those who study and write about social movements. Just being part of a Facebook or Twitter conversation or group doesn’t not necessarily lead to collective action. So when does organizing through social media turn from just an online activity to rioting in the streets?

Here is a bit of the AP story talking about how Facebook was used in a country where some Internet uses, such as YouTube, are regulated, but Facebook is not:

Video-sharing sites like YouTube and Daily Motion are banned in Tunisia, where newspapers are tightly censured, but Facebook abounds and videos posted there are quickly spread around.

One in 10 Tunisians has a Facebook account, according to Ben Hassen, whose movement is also on Facebook.

“It’s a form of civil resistance,” he said.

How exactly did this happen? And with a limited number of people in the country on Facebook, how did this become something larger? Sounds like a start to a research paper…