Playing pretend

Tara Brabazon argues that popularising serious ideas enlightens no one

December 18, 2008

I am not a sociologist. If I were, then Malcolm Gladwell would not be at the top of my Christmas card list.

In the late 1990s, a range of “experts” – sexperts – attempted to medicate feminism, post-feminism and the “crisis” of masculinity. Men were from Mars (obviously) and women were from (you’ve guessed it) Venus. They drank chicken soup for the soul as they walked along the road less travelled. This focus on self-improvement, love and sex provided a shape and narrative to understand why – nearly 40 years after the second wave of feminism – women were not equal or happy, different yet satisfied.

The sexperts’ books attempted to write the missing manual for relationships where women do not necessarily cook and clean and men do not always mow the lawn and open car doors for “lay-dees”.

But the cycles of Mars and Venus and Dr Phil’s tough love made way for Oprah’s “favourite things”. Shopping was much more satisfying than sex and the economic boom for some – which rested on the inflated property market and share trading – meant that “someone” could be paid to cook, wash up, mow the lawns and open doors. Concurrently, broadband started to permeate businesses and homes. The combination of hyper-consumerism and web-enabled shopping changed the speed of our societal clocks. We clicked, spent and entered the Google checkout path to salvation.

A new crop of “experts” started to appear. They built their arguments on a series of assumptions about the market economy, consumerism, technology and identity. They relished consumer capitalism and diagnosed change to create success for their readers. Suddenly, relationship experts morphed into management consultants. For some reason, they started to be believed.

Just as John Gray’s Mars and Venus gave a completely irrational metaphor an aura of truth through repetition, so have management consultants suddenly become the voice of rationality, logic and – most importantly – innovation. The names – and their clichéd titles – fill bookshelves. From Charles Leadbeater’s We-Think to Jeff Gomez’s Print is Dead, from Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail to Don Tapscott’s Wikinomics, small arguments puff out paperbacks.

The superstar of these supersellers is Malcolm Gladwell. With The Tipping Point, Blink and the new Outliers, he has captured extraordinary publishing success. The books themselves are simple to read and straightforward in their arguments. But I am more interested in understanding why they have been successful and their impact on academics and students.

Intriguingly, Gladwell often applies pseudo-science or, more accurately, the shadow of science, to propel his argument. For his recent work, he uses the term “outlier”, as popularised by Stewart Wolf’s study of Roseto, Pennsylvania, to capture the experiences and ideas that exist outside normal experience. Applying this term as a model of success, he probes the strange, the odd, the transformative, the defiant and the different. He looks for “patterns” of success through birth dates and family occupations. At its most basic – and it is an incredibly basic book – he asks how context can shape identity and create a platform for public success.

As my former Australian students would say, “like, derrr”. Translating from Ocker English into English English, they mean, “That truth is clearly self evident. Why are you wasting our time with this tripe?”

The clarity of the argument hits profound problems in the area of causality. Those of us who have battled ethics committees and taught research methods know that it is almost impossible to “prove” a causal relationship between two social variables. We cannot assume that eating chocolate cake will make us fat because we may also exercise, have a thyroid condition or be bulimic. The simplest of relationships is interrupted by too many variables to provide the proof required for the establishment of truth, validity and reliability.

Outliers ignores the complexity of these causalities. Gladwell explained his research method to The Independent: “there are a series of dots – can we possibly connect them in a way that is interesting?” With the focus on the dots and interest, rather than facts and relevance, his relationship with universities was always going to be complex. Indeed, he describes academics as working in the “Theory Industry”: “I think people are experience-rich and theory-poor. I am in the business of trying to help with the ‘theory-poor’ part. Intellectuals make sense of things. Intermediaries like me translate for a broader audience. We have a nice little intellectual food chain going on.”

The food chain breaks down when viewing his references. There are no in-text citations and the occasional footnotes are descriptive rather than verifiable. In the case of Outliers, there are nine pages at the end of the text that list – or more accurately, describe – the references that he has used. They include Wikipedia as well as popular biographies. Certainly academic articles are mentioned, but not in the context of intellectual debates or arguments. An isolated scholarly moment has been plucked out of the fabric of disciplinary debate and made to represent much more than it should.

The problem dogging books in this genre is the gap between “academic” and “translator”. The Times described Gladwell as “the Tories’ favourite sociologist”. This seems quite an appropriate description, particularly considering that he is not a sociologist. Steven Swinford in the Times article anointed Gladwell as “the sociologist whose books have become required reading within the Conservative Party.” What is it that the Conservatives find so appealing?

On his website, Gladwell explained the rationale for his current book: “our understanding of success was really crude – and there was an opportunity to dig down and come up with a better set of explanations.” But he is not offering explanations. He is providing stories. Tales of success may be inspirational or heart warming, but they are not scholarly or intrinsically representative or instructive of a pattern, structure or reality.

The argument of Gladwell’s books is like a souped-up soundbite. The Tipping Point was “about” change. Blink investigated intuition. Outliers explores success. Three books investigate three words: change, intuition and success. Yet during the same period that he has written this trilogy, war, famine, the tsunami and terrorism have scarred the planet. For the citizens of Mumbai or Madrid, London or New York, a fascination with change, intuition and success will not help to understand history, politics and resistance.

My worry is not these books in themselves. Every generation produces a pseudo-sage or author as fortune teller. My concern is for readers. The arguments are so simple, the evidence so superficial and the point so pointless that I worry about how readers move from books such as these and on to some of the remarkable sociology books being produced at the moment. Currently, I am rereading everything Sarah Pink has written, and it is an invigorating process.

Her work is challenging, applicable and brilliant. But how do we shift from Gladwell to Pink? In terms of information literacy, what is the tissue of connectiveness that can move readers from the vacuous and supposedly profound, to the important and rigorous?

Perhaps – just perhaps – through Outliers – the Gladwell spell may be broken. At its most fundamental, the book argues that ordinary people become successful through hard work. Like, derrr. Gladwell offers the meritocratic mantra.

(1) Work in an occupation that is important and inspirational.

(2) Work hard. Ten thousand hours is the target for sustained effort.

(3) There is a direct relationship between reward and effort.

And yes, Dorothy had the power to return home from Oz all the time. Gladwell adds one more self-evident but still damaging variable: “The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.”

So, even if “we” work hard, our grandparents are also to blame for our failures. Gladwell has “shown” (rather than proven) how familial choices have “enabled” the success or failure of their descendants. Focusing on what successful people “do”, he remains equally interested in where they are “from”. Or, to use his mode of language, “people don’t rise from nothing”.

Yet – and here is the remarkable part of this story for my colleagues in sociology – in 2007, Gladwell received the American Sociological Association’s inaugural Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues. Reading the citation, it is clear that a startling error has been perpetuated. The first line of the award statement reads, “Malcolm Gladwell has been actively reporting on social issues in The New Yorker since 1966.” That level of commitment may have been difficult, considering he was born in 1963. However the ASA argues that he has “popularised” the work of sociologists, concluding the citation with: “Gladwell here and elsewhere displays in public that rare sociological imagination that illuminates social processes by seeing what social principle they share, that is by discovering unexpected links between disparate situations, links that render deep insights into human interaction. The committee is delighted that such an able exponent of sociology as Malcolm Gladwell should be the first winner of the Award for the Excellence in Reporting of Social Issues.”

This is the equivalent of Trinny and Susannah being commended for their contribution to women’s mental health because they encourage “acceptance” of body dimorphic by “dressing for your shape”. The gap between “the Theory Industry” and “entertainment” cannot be drawn so easily.

There is a gap between “the original” and “the translator”. The Platters, in November 1955, released their best-known song, The Great Pretender. Significantly, the version recorded in 1987 by Freddie Mercury and Queen has outsold the original. They are the great pretenders of The Great Pretender.

Malcolm Gladwell is the academic equivalent of Freddie Mercury: sucking a phrase, melody and trill from scholarly work about consumerism, popular culture, and subculture and deviance theory.

The difference is that tunes still list the original for downloading. When reading Gladwell’s Outliers and the shelf of books of which it is a part, such a movement to the original is not possible. Phrases, knowledge and ideas are plucked out of time and context. When theory becomes an industry to be data-mined by journalists, universities become fast-food restaurants. Malcolm Gladwell is running the drive-through service.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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