Sunday, November 08, 2009

Gladwellian "Insult"

Maureen Tkacik does a great job of dissecting Malcolm Gladwell's brand of pop sociology (with an emphasis on 'pop') in Gladwell for Dummies. Here's a pretty blunt and devastating summary (buried somewhere in the middle of the piece):

In searching for an anecdote or image with which to convey the ultra-absorbency of Gladwell's book as compared with that of his soggier-sentenced peers, I found myself remembering a story Gladwell wrote in 2001 about the technology of diapers. In this story, Gladwell reported that "those in the trade" refer to the waste that diapers are engineered to retain as "the insult," and this image seems to me as useful as any for thinking about Gladwell's success. His masterful maneuver was to engineer a style that artfully conceals "the insult," honing it in his articles before finally unleashing it in book form with The Tipping Point.

If that was about the style, this, from near the end, is about the substance -- more precisely, about the absence of certain crucial kinds of it:

... I wonder if Gladwell sees himself as an office-park missionary dispatched by the church of academe to tour the lecture circuit and convert the leaders of corporate America with "good news" from the ivory tower, its gospel made easy and ecumenical by all those helpful exercises and sticky new terms.

In that case, perhaps Gladwell's intellectual compromises are neither commercial nor unintentional but rather a necessary outgrowth of his higher calling: to explore the secret workings of the world and impart the resulting data to its self-appointed stewards, the titans of industry. This conclusion, if true, may resolve many of the most puzzling incongruities riddling Gladwell's articles: his continued defense of the pharmaceutical industry even as he advocates for single-payer healthcare; his refusal to indict the financial sector's rigged "star system" as the engine of corruption that it is; the meticulous bleaching of his own prose so that he's whitewashed out any real context, any framework in which wars and economic collapses can actually be understood as wars and economic collapses rather than simulations or malfunctions; his near total avoidance of academic thought that does not base its findings on things observed in labs (with the exception of Carl Jung, whose legacy he reduces to the popularization of personality tests); his coyness about politics; and most memorably, his irritating, unrelenting readability.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Gladwell is an idiot. I came to that conclusion after seeing him argue that Asians do well in math because they come from a rice-farming culture. Apparently, rice farming is a very tedious and meticulous business, and very similar to math.sario