By his own definition, Malcolm Gladwell is a "translator," one of a special class of people who "take ideas and information from a highly specialized world and translate them into a language the rest of us can understand." In his articles for The New Yorker, Gladwell has been a bloodhound for speci-ficity, sniffing around obscure corners in the realms of fashion, e-commerce, crime, and medicine, and turning up astounding results.
Gladwell introduced the idea of the "tipping point"--that, as with epidemics, only a slight push might send a trend soaring or plummeting--in a 1996 article about the decrease in Brooklyn's crime rate. The premise for the tipping-point theory is the counterintuitive, nonlinear relationship between effort and results. To illustrate nonlinearity, he recalls his childhood frustration with an unresponsive ketchup bottle, and he quotes the ditty his father recited: "Tomato ketchup in a bottle. None will come, and then a lot'll."
Just as the pressure on the ketchup bottle reaches a critical point and then begins a prodigious flow, social phenomena also "tip" with small amounts of pressure, applied just so. Gladwell's first book, The Tipping Point, is an "intellectual adventure story" devoted to a detailed explanation of how epidemics, social and otherwise, work. The first chapter lays out what the author terms "The Three Rules of Epidemics," which are: one, that a few critical people with certain kinds of personalities and ways of relating to information matter more than everyone else in spreading ideas or behaviors; two, that the phenomenon being spread must itself be sufficiently compelling or "sticky"; and three, that the context in which phenomena occur affect their spread. For each of these rules, Gladwell has invented names that hover between catchy and kitschy, terms he uses throughout the book. In the heart of the book, he gives illustrations of how the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context work. These are typical Gladwell fare, chock-full of data from medical and social science studies, case studies, and profiles of each of the subcategories that make up the critical Few. The final chapters comprise two expanded case studies, which further refine the ideas Gladwell has presented and make some practical suggestions about how to reduce teenage smoking.
The tone is resolutely hopeful, from the discussion of how Sesame Street and the newer show Blue's Clues have created a "literacy epidemic" among small children to the goal the author expresses on his Web site (www.gladwell.com): furnishing readers with a practical guide to starting their own positive epidemics. In Gladwell's conclusion, he reveals the amplitude of his own optimism, asserting, "What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus."
The right kind of impetus, argues Gladwell in a chapter about Bernard Goetz (the most explicitly political section of the book) is often a subtle stimulus that influences how people feel and so directs how they act. This chapter is the first of two meant to illustrate the Power of Context, and so Gladwell zeroes in on the minutiae of the day in 1984 when Goetz boarded the subway at 14th Street in Manhattan, was accosted by four youths demanding money, and proceeded to fire a Smith & Wesson .38 at each of the four in turn. The author describes the dark, dirty subway platform and the graffiti-covered car. He also notes that the train probably ran late because in 1984 there were daily fires on the transit system, and a train derailed every other week. Furthermore, the Transit Authority was losing $150 million a year to fare-beating, and there were about 15,000 felonies on the system annually. Aside from the violent criminals, the stations were plagued with panhandlers and petty criminals.
As Gladwell points out, though, the situation had reversed itself by the 1990s, with a dramatic drop in crime beginning in 1990. To account for this change, the author summons the "broken windows" theory (popularized by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982), the result of research indicating that crime is born of dis-order and that small details amiss-- like broken windows or graffiti--can invite would-be offenders to larger crimes. Gladwell agrees that environment exerts a powerful influence on human behavior. While Goetz was a disturbed individual with racist tendencies and a long-standing authority problem, these facts do not account solely or even principally for his actions on the subway:
@block quote:The Power of Context says that the showdown on the subway between Bernie Goetz and those four youths had very little to do, in the end, with the tangled psychological pathology of Goetz, and very little as well to do with the background and poverty of the four youths who accosted him, and everything to do with the message sent by the graffiti on the walls and the disorder at the turnstiles.
Of course the corollary of the broken-windows theory is that once the windows are fixed and the graffiti cleaned up, serious crime will decline, as will petty vandalism. This has been precisely the modus operandi of two of the theory's most enthusiastic adherents, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton.
Gladwell discusses the political implications of the broken-windows theory, drawing a distinction between environmental and dispositional arguments. Liberals, he explains, have traditionally favored environmental explanations for crime--viewing it as the result of injustice, racism, and economic inequality so that, as Gladwell says, "if you wanted to stop crime you had to undertake some fairly heroic steps." This form of determinism is contrasted with its traditionally conservative variant: dispositional explanations, which veer either toward the scientific and argue that criminals have abnormal genes, or toward the moral and argue that crime is the result of moral failure. Both of these philosophies--which credit deeply entrenched circumstances, whether environmental or dispositional, with controlling people's actions--run counter to the evidence of brokenwindows research.
There is something wonderfully seductive about Gladwell's theory of the tipping point, and the ease with which it promises improvement of human behavior. In fact, it seems so simple that it arouses the critical reader's suspicion, a reaction the author anticipates:
A critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. In their history, Band-Aids have probably allowed millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or cooking or walking when they would otherwise have had to stop. The Band-Aid is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost. We have, of course, an instinctive disdain for this kind of solution because there is something in all of us that feels that true answers to problems have to be comprehensive, that there is virtue in the dogged and indiscriminate application of effort, that slow and steady win the race.
I found this paean to Johnson & Johnson's admittedly useful adhesive strip unconvincing, and it was Gladwell's own analogy that showed me why. There are three kinds of injuries: those, negligible to begin with, that may be treated solely by the application of a Band-Aid, those requiring a Band-Aid in conjunction with other treatment, and those to which application of a Band-Aid is irrelevant or even laughable. The most serious problems Gladwell touches upon belong to the second category: Band-Aid solutions can do much to aid in their resolution, but more is required.
While the diminution of crime on the New York subways and in the city in general is a marvelous achievement, many of the social ills that fueled a general sense of unrest, if not specific muggings and homicides, remain. Gladwell discusses economic inequities, racism, unemployment, and institutional and social neglect as traditional root causes of crime in the liberal model. However, in his discussion, they serve as mere foils to the superficial environmental elements that are the more immediate causes of crime. Insofar as crime may be prevented while these deep-seated problems are ignored, the author seems content. However, he fails to deal with these "social factors" as enduring problems in and of themselves that deserve attention no matter what the felony rate on the transit system.
It is instructive to note Gladwell's bias in selecting issues for discussion. He focuses on the manifestations of material and physical problems such as crime and disease rather than on more fundamental social or moral ones such as racism or egotism or insufficient interest in philanthropy. It may be that different kinds of problems require wholly different kinds of solutions, and these more basic issues simply could not enter Gladwell's discourse because they lie outside the bounds of the tipping-point the-ory. Perhaps, however, Band-Aid solutions could be applied effectively to these underlying problems as well as to the problems that underlie them in turn. I wish Gladwell had addressed this possibility.
The Tipping Point makes two valuable contributions. First, it creates an awareness of method in thinking about and trying to shape social phenomena. If one wishes to make meaningful change, one must invest substantial forethought in how to go about it and leave oneself open to trial and error. One of the most vivid illustrations of this point is Gladwell's description of the breast cancer activist who sought to disseminate health care information to black women through church meetings. When these meetings failed to attract the crowds she was hoping for, the activist retooled her approach and successfully dissemi-nated the information through the novel and even apparently whimsical means of neighborhood beauty parlors. The second constructive aspect of the book is the vigorous activism it champions. For those overwhelmed by the insurmountability of certain social ills or the intractability of human behavior generally, Gladwell's approach offers succor.
On his Web site, Gladwell says he got the idea for The Tipping Point from working as a medical journalist covering the AIDS epidemic. "When I heard that phrase for the first time I remember thinking--wow. What if everything has a Tipping Point? Wouldn't it be cool to try and look for Tipping Points in business, or in social policy, or in advertising or in any umber of other nonmedical areas?" The sensibility that made this question a natural one for Gladwell is the one that makes him so good at navigating among different worlds, translating their content, and writing an eclectic and useful book.
You may also like:
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)