let’s put malcolm gladwell out of business; and, the creation, diffusion and evolution of concepts


Interesting essay in the Journal of Management Inquiry by Andrew Hoffman, University of Michigan: “Let’s put Malcolm Gladwell out of business.” Here’s the full set of essays (including a Gladwell interview), with various prominent organization theorists weighing in.

On roughly the same note, a recent post by Tyler Cowen at MarginalRevolution notes how a Gigerenzer book is too late given Gladwell’s work. Too late?! The imputation or assignment of ideas and concepts to particular persons of course is an interesting exercise, but, Gigerenzer is only late in popularizing, certainly not in theorizing. (Undoubtedly Cowen meant that Gigerenzer was late in popularizing.)

There are separate worlds for scholarly theorizing versus popularizing, though some folks bridge the divide and live in both worlds. And, to perhaps make the worlds more fine-grained – we might find separate worlds between core disciplines, applied disciplines, and practice. The origins, diffusion and evolution of various concepts could perhaps be traced this way – with the creation of the same concept potentially imputed to a different person in each world – take, for example, a concept like “attention.”

Concepts of course may morph as they move from one world to the other (probably from core to applied to practice, though other configurations naturally exist), and, there are pesky problems related to aggregation etc that need to be considered in the new world (for example, take individual ‘identity’ and move it to the org level); and, with additional theorizing and contextual consideration the original concept may morph into something completely different. Does that difference then influence the world from which the concept was borrowed? Probably not, the concept may be something new now, imputed to and owned by someone else.

Well, I don’t believe all that, just thinking out loud.

Written by teppo

July 18, 2007 at 5:21 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I think the emergence of science journalism dealing with social science topics is an incredibly positive development. It is the way that it should be. That is, if (like anything else) we aim to be like the “higher” sciences. In the physical sciences, popularizers are disdained (or are given a prestige deduction) and scientific journalists are in charge of spreading the ideas. I think this model works well, since it keeps the science from being diluted directly by the producers of knowledge as happens in sociology. This matters, since a big part of the “low prestige” of a lot of social science disciplines, is precisely the inability to distinguish was is written by the scientist from what is written by the journalist. Besides, the fact that there is a market niche for a person like Gladwell means that there is enough high-quality knowledge being produced in the social sciences today, knowledge that cannot be simply dismissed as common sense, as to require a literate translator for the general public. As both Smith, and Durkheim noted, a division of labor is always a good arrangement, so I don’t see exactly why we (as scientists) should try to put journalists “out of business”, when in fact what they are doing is probably a collective benefit for all social science disciplines in the long run.



    July 20, 2007 at 3:40 pm

  2. Amen, Omar.

    Gladwell is as popular as he is, not just because he is a great storyteller, but because he is one of perhaps three people on earth writing sociology books of interest to the layman. (The only other one I can think of is the somewhat long shots of Steven Levitt.) And to peg him as a journalist is grossly unfair. He may, technically, be a journalist, but the writing of most journalists is boring beyond belief. They consider their brief to be to ask questions and report the answers, not to actually consider whether the answers they were given are, you know, true or not. This lack of concern with what is true as opposed to what is stated is what makes most books (and newspaper articles) by journalists such a waste of time.

    There seems to be something severely dysfunctional with academic sociology. Almost every other science, whether it’s physics, chemistry, geology, biology, psychology, economics, even political science, has plenty of popularisers. Sure some of the resultant books are dross, but there are many that are gold.
    But in sociology, IMHO, nothing. Sure there are plenty of books in the sociology section of Barnes and Noble but they tend to take the form of either political screeds on the plight of some group or other, or Studs Turkel like collections of interviews with random people, the actual, albeit unintended, message of which is that our countrymen are incoherent idiots incapable of thinking through the most trivial consequences of their beliefs.

    Gladwell seems to be the one person on earth capable of discovering actual interesting facts in sociology (rather than one more dreary set of ephemeral poll results). Rather than complaining about him, how about the discipline try to create ten more writers like him?


    Maynard Handley

    July 24, 2007 at 8:12 pm

  3. […] Klinenberg is a sociologist who also happens to be a very good writer. Who needs a Malcolm Gladwell to popularize sociology when we already have good writers, like Klinenberg, in the discipline? His […]


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