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we should thank malcolm gladwell and send him flowers

What if I told you that a popular writer recently published a book that neatly summarizes modern inequality research for the masses and depicts sociology in a very positive light? You’d be happy, right? And you might want to know who that person is, right?

Well, I just spent some time rereading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, his summary of the social science research on high achievement. The public discussion of the book focused way too much on one chapter that discusses the “10,000 hour rule” (experts usually need about four years of full time immersion in a topic to get really good at it). But if you read the book, the message is much more expansive than that and it completely draws on a lot of standard sociology.

For example, Gladwell has a chapter dedicated to Lareau’s theory of class and culture as a factor in status attainment. He talks about how working class people often have an oppositional view of institutions and he directly talks about Lareau. In multiple chapters on family and achievement, he cites sociological studies that trace how families transmit specific knowledge and skills to their children, which allow for social mobility. He is also a fan of ecological theories of success (being in a city where business is booming – New York in the 1910s) and cohort theories of success (being part of the computer revolution in the 1980s). In discussing cultural differences, he offers a fairly conventional Swidler/Weber approach. He argues that work skills that are advantageous in Asian agriculture are also advantageous in Western industrial economies.

So why don’t we pay more attention to Outliers as a great “public sociology” book? The ASA did give Gladwell an outreach award, but the profession seems to have moved on. I think it may have to do with the 10,000 hours chapter. The chapter is a little bit sloppy and slides into exuberant rhetoric. A lot of people focused on it and tried to tear it down. For example, he does actually write that “10,000 hours is the magic number,” which mistakenly gives the impression that anyone can win an Olympic medal if they just practice enough.

This is a false impression if you actually read the entire chapter (and book) and approach the claim with a charitable mind. For example, at multiple points, he openly admits that people have “talent” and that you need that for the coaching and practice to get you to a world class level. The other chapters all suggest that contextual factors matter a great deal as well. Also, many of the critics committed their own errors. For example, they would often point to studies of elite athletes that show that extra practice doesn’t explain success. Yes, but by selecting only elite athletes, you are looking at a group where everyone has already done their “10,000” hours. That is selection bias!

In regards to sloppy writing, what I think Gladwell was trying to say was that yes, people have talent, but you also need to add in other structural factors, such as deep immersion in the field. No one is “born” a genius. High achievement is the result of social structure and individual gifts. If I were Gladwell, I would also add that deep practice would improve almost anyone in absolute terms and make you an “expert” but it wouldn’t erase relative differences between people who have invested the time in practice. For example, if I studied basketball for 10,000 with a pro-level coach, I bet my lay-ups would be amazing – if I did them by myself!! If I had to plow through other taller players on defense, I probably wouldn’t do as well. My innate traits don’t disappear completely and neither do relative difference. But I would still be massively better compared to a person with no training and I would still possess “expert level” knowledge and execution of skills. In my view, Gladwell should have focused a little more on the difference between absolute improvements and relative performance.

Is Outliers perfect? No, but it is a very fair summary of how sociologists think about status attainment and I think it would be a great way to teach undergrads. If you need a nice popular book for an intro course or stratification, this is a good one.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 3, 2017 at 4:39 am

One Response

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  1. The man is a brilliant writer. Of course, as with any theory, it must be approached with reticence. But, so far Gladwell’s stances (or, rather, the stances which he includes within his books) check out, and they’re wonderfully enlightening, if not food-for-thought.

    Great post (just finished Outliers yesterday morning and loved it)!

    Like

    Brian Geiger

    August 15, 2017 at 2:42 pm


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