Gladwell Hunting


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“The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the introduction to the number-one best-selling 2000 book that vaulted him to rock star status in a profession that has, well, none.


What a line—a brilliant, shorthand statement of purpose that defined his objective and his subject in nine simple words. That gift of glib simplicity had distinguished Gladwell as a journalist from his early career as a Washington Post reporter to his dispatches in The New Yorker for the last dozen years. He’d always found a way to distill complex ideas into compelling, easily comprehended prose, and here he’d defined his objective with typically engaging directness.


But a few months ago, after finally catching up with The Tipping Point and then following up his fascinating book with some Googling to satisfy my deepened curiosity, I was surprised to stumble on the names of Morton Grodzins, Mark Granovetter and Thomas Schelling, three prominent American social scientists—and to discover that they, not Gladwell, were the originators of the Tipping Point. Had I missed something? I’d read his book voraciously and been mesmerized by its theories and ideas. Wasn’t the Tipping Point concept a product of Gladwell’s inventive, idiosyncratic mind? Who were Grodzins and Co., and why didn’t I remember them?


I returned to the Gladwell “biography” and flipped furiously through its pages, endnotes and index, looking for any explanation of the birth of the Tipping Point idea. Surely, I thought, a biography would have devoted some space to the origins of the concept at the very root of its title!


And sure enough, it did. An entire sentence.


On page 12 of the introduction, Gladwell had written: “The expression first came into popular use in the 1970s to describe the flight to the suburbs of whites living in the older cities of the American Northeast.” After giving a brief example of how that works, Gladwell concluded, “The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”


But where were Grodzins and Schelling? I’d forgotten that Granovetter turned up a bit later in the narrative on the subject of connectors—another Gladwell obsession—but none of the landmark contributions of these three academics managed to make it into Gladwell’s text. The research of Schelling and Granovetter do earn a mention in the fine-print “endnotes” as “classic works of sociology” in which “the Tipping Point model has been described,” but that’s it. There’s no indication of the path followed by the term that took flight only upon publication of Gladwell’s best-selling book.


And there was no mention at all of Grodzins, the University of Chicago political scientist who, in 1957, conceived the idea that Gladwell’s biography purported to chronicle.


Where was Grodzins? Why had he not been credited with the launch of this groundbreaking concept? There began a journey into the mind and methods of Malcolm Gladwell, the brilliant author and journalist who turned that remote academic notion—among dozens of others in his illustrious career—into a national obsession.


***

Like all others who study the work of Malcolm Gladwell, I quickly discovered just how intimidating his intellect can be. In catching up with his considerable collection of books, magazine articles and essays, I recognized in Gladwell a writer who had a powerful capacity to persuade readers to his world view without ever resorting to cynicism or harsh language. Indeed, he specializes in the journalism of inclusion; he makes readers comfortable with his theories, and finds ways for them to apply principles of social behavior to their own lives, thus making them better.

The 44-year-old Gladwell was born in Great Britain and raised in Canada, and he often cites his Canadian upbringing as an essential component of his agenda. “We think the world is basically a good place,” he told The New York Times in 2006. “We’re pretty optimistic. We think we ought to take care of each other.” That sort of positive thinking has helped Gladwell become the foremost counterintuitive journalist of his generation—a reporter/writer who can take ideas like white flight (in The Tipping Point) and impulsive decision-making (in his 2005 megahit followup, Blink) and flip them into frameworks for a happier life. Both books remain on the paperback best-seller list, and it’s no surprise in a culture starved for solutions, answers, recipes for revitalizing our lives. Buy a Gladwell book and you will learn that epidemics can work in our favor, that connections can guide us to success, and that trusting our instincts can enrich our existence.


It’s that gleefully benign approach to life—coupled with a keen intelligence and offhand wit—that has protected Gladwell from the kind of critical scrutiny you might expect of someone so successful. It has functioned as a force-field around him; negative reviews or polemical potshots have not been able to knock Gladwell off his pedestal. He continues to be adored by even a critical establishment set up to debunk; Gawker, the media establishment’s unofficial attack dog, has actually defended him in recent weeks against charges elsewhere that he may have made up stories about his life on NPR. (The website conducted a mock poll on the accusations, in which readers aligned with Gladwell by an almost two-to-one margin.)


Two weeks ago, an editor at The New York Times Book Review went on its “Paper Cuts” blog to attack Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, for a glancing reference to Gladwell as an “idiot.”
“I think he stepped over the line,” fumed the editor, Barry Gewen, going on to say that “the rest of us should care, not about the attack itself, but about its drive-by, bomb-tossing quality.”

Gee, which of us doesn’t fantasize that a New York Times Book Review editor would rush to our defense whenever someone calls us an idiot? But that’s just another facet to Gladwell’s charmed existence. His glib, upbeat, friendly voice and his sharp, incisive mind disarms almost all who come under its spell. While many may quibble with aspects of a Gladwell position here and there—and many have—he has proven himself a hard man to argue with, perhaps one of the hardest of our time.


As I would soon learn firsthand.


***


But first back to Grodzins, who was teaching political science at the University of Chicago when he coined the phrase “tipping point” in 1957.

The 38-year-old department chairman had been studying the phenomenon of whites who left neighborhoods as the black population increased; he’d observed a pattern of behavior in which, after a threshold number had been crossed, white families chose to move elsewhere. Later, that process would become known as “white flight.” But to explain the phenomenon in an article for Scientific American—under the slightly less provocative title, “Metropolitan Segregation”—Grodzins wrote: “But for the vast majority of white Americans a ‘tip point’ exists. Once it is exceeded, they will no longer stay among Negro neighbors.”


Too bad Grodzins couldn’t toss in the type of rhetorical flourishes that Gladwell seemed to have at the ready. It was true that Grodzins had already achieved some notoriety with an earlier piece of writing; in 1949 he’d published Americans Betrayed, a powerful attack on the United States’ infamous relocation of Japanese-Americans in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. But this piece—despite its long-term significance—didn’t catch fire, to say the least. When he died in 1964 at the age of 46, his four-paragraph New York Times obituary didn’t even mention the notion.


So there it sat, relatively unnoticed, until 1971, when Thomas Schelling—a University of Maryland economist who went on to win the 2005 Nobel Prize—expanded on Grodzins’ theories in an academic treatise called “Dynamic Models of Segregation.” (In an unrelated achievement, Schelling also worked with the director Stanley Kubrick on the making of Dr. Strangelove.) In 1978, Mark Granovetter, a Stanford University sociologist, followed up with “Threshhold Models of Collective Behavior,” a paper that took Schelling’s Tipping Point theory in a new direction.


Suddenly, Grodzins’ Tipping Point idea had pushed a new generation of gurus to understanding its meaning and implications. Among those academics, there was no doubt that Grodzins deserved credit for the term. But Grodzins was long dead; I would never know how the man who invented the Tipping Point felt about Gladwell’s uncredited borrowing of the phrase.


So how did Thomas Schelling, still on the faculty of the University of Maryland, feel about the fact that Malcolm Gladwell had achieved global success with his Tipping Point theories? After some friendly emailing we finally connected on the phone one Friday morning in January.


***


“I have a sort of vested interest in the Tipping Point,” the 86-year-old Schelling said, laughing, to start things off.

But the Nobel Laureate didn’t sound bitter—at least not at first. He’d read Gladwell’s book as soon as it came out in 2000, of course, even though the writer had never interviewed him or contacted him. And he liked it, too. That was my impression, anyway, from his description of Gladwell’s version of the tipping point as “original, different from the original notion of the Tipping Point”—a notion, Schelling hastened to remind me, that had originated with Grodzins, not him.


But after several minutes of explaining the differences between his use of Tipping Point and the new dimension added by Gladwell, the subject of credit emerged in the conversation before I’d even asked about it.


“I thought he missed an opportunity to say he was adding a new dimension to this,” Schelling was saying. “And what I couldn’t tell was whether he was avoiding that in order to get full credit for the whole concept of the Tipping Point, rather than giving credit to people who had already worked on the project.”


Was Schelling actually accusing Gladwell of purposely withholding credit from Grodzins and him so he could take it all for himself? Searching for a benign view of the potentially sticky situation—a Nobel Prize winner taking on a New Yorker writer—I pointed out to Schelling that Gladwell had included a reference to one of his articles in the book’s endnotes, following the text.


“Well, I tell you, I’ve read some books in which the procedure was endnotes, not footnotes,” Schelling said.


“Mmm hmmm,” I replied.


“And I don’t like it. And for two reasons. One is, people don’t read endnotes.”


“Uh hunh,” I said.


The second reason took a lot longer to explain. Schelling went into some detail about the benefits of having a footnote that appears on the same page as a reference—sometimes for commentary on the text, sometimes for comic effect, and sometimes for purposes of giving pertinent credit. “You miss that,” Schelling concluded, “if you put it all at the end of a chapter, or the end of the book, for that matter.”


We chatted for a while longer, and Schelling made it clear he wasn’t angry at Gladwell, jealous of his success, or fearful that other scholars wouldn’t know of his contributions to Tipping Point literature. “Malcolm Gladwell came along when I was far enough along in age and career and all of that,” Schelling said, “that the fact that he didn’t give me any significant credit didn’t bother me. It just made me wonder why.”


It made me wonder why, too. So I figured this would be a good time to email Malcolm Gladwell a few questions.


***


“Hey matt,” Gladwell emailed me the following Wednesday, after I’d asked if we could meet for an interview. “I’m afraid I’ve come down to the wire and really crazed [sic]. So email is best. You’re likely to get much more thoughtful responses, too, if I can write them. Cheers, m.”

Two days later, on Friday, I emailed Gladwell a long list of questions. I asked him why he’d used endnotes instead of footnotes, why he’d included a biography, why he hadn’t mentioned Grodzins anywhere in his book and why he’d relegated Schelling to the endnotes. I quoted at length from my Schelling interview—including his speculation as to whether Gladwell had left him out on purpose, to take full credit for the term—and asked him to comment.


On Sunday afternoon, I got a [lengthy email from Gladwell].


It began without salutation this time.


“The ‘tipping point’ phrase was part of the vernacular of academic and policy circles long before I ever decided to use it as the title of my book,” Gladwell wrote. “When I was [sic] reporter at The Washington Post, covering the AIDS epidemic, I used to hear epidemiologists use it all the time.”


He went on: “Your questions about Schelling and Grodzins are based on a significant misunderstanding. There are two very different academic traditions associated with the idea of tipping points. Schelling and Grodzins represent the economic tradition. As I understand it (and I might be over-simplifying things here) the way economists think about tipping points goes something like this.”


What followed was a 500-word restatement, in classic Gladwellian prose, of the Schelling-Grodzins Tipping Point model, that brilliantly contrasted the economist’s view with that of the epidemiologist. He summarized the notion of white flight with a well-wrought hypothetical about the shifting racial composition of a neighborhood, and he gracefully juxtaposed it to the depiction of a syphilis epidemic—an example he used to articulate his own Tipping Point approach.


“Economists and epidemiologists both use the term ‘tipping point,’” Gladwell wrote. “But they’re using that term in profoundly different intellectual contexts. My book is about the epidemiological model. In fact, although it’s called the ‘Tipping Point’ is really a book about epidemics, and how the epidemic model can be applied to social phenemona. The three principles—the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context—are all simple restatements of the principles that epidemiologists use in analyzing epidemics. The researchers who are quoted in the book, as a result, are overwhelmingly epidemiologists, psychologists and sociologists. The intellectual bones of the book lie with diffusion theory and Granovetter’s pioneering work on networks.”
I especially liked that phrase “intellectual bones.” Yet again, Gladwell had impressed me with his gift at eloquent shorthand—so much so that at this point in reading his email, I was embarrassed that I’d ever thought to challenge him on anything. This dude is so much smarter than me.

But what about Schelling and Grodzins? Well, it turned out Gladwell had just been clearing his throat, preparing to take on the core of Schelling’s point with his usual, self-effacing literary flair.


***


“So when Schelling says I didn’t ground my work in the ‘tradition’ of tipping points, what he means is that I didn’t write my book from the perspective of his academic tradition,” Gladwell continued. “And he’s absolutely right. But I didn’t intend to, because I don’t think the economic model is at all useful in understanding the kinds of contagious social processes (smoking, suicide, crime, bestsellers, social power, fashion etc) that The Tipping Point is focused on. I think the economic model is fascinating—and that’s why I credit Schelling in the endnotes and describe his work as an academic ‘classic.’ But since I’m not building my argument based on the economic model, I’m not sure I need to do more than that.

“If you are in any way uncertain about this distinction between economic and epidemiological models, please let me know. It’s a pretty critical point.”


As I sat at home staring at my computer screen that Sunday afternoon in January, I wondered if I would ever be able to write an email as effective as the one I’d just finished reading. I realized, for the first time, that part of his genius lay in his ability to deflect any criticism with his intellectually rigorous yet disarmingly friendly voice. Suddenly I felt guilty for ever doubting Gladwell’s intentions and put aside this piece to pursue more feasible projects, like cleaning out the Augean stables in a single day.


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