Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Institute of Gladwell Studies

The Guardian UK has a review of Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics sporting an excellent first paragraph:

Very soon, there will be an Institute of Gladwell Studies. The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, is the dean of a new school of social studies whose pedagogic method is the 'international bestseller'. Poised somewhere between hip journalism and mass observation, Gladwell Studies mixes business savvy with pop sociology and has now replaced cute monographs on north Atlantic seafood and the cocoa bean as formulaic routes to riches for author and publisher alike.
After that, it gets a little shrill, and a lot less sharp, but still, pretty pithy stuff.


Laura Portwood-Stacer said...

Have you read the book, Tim? It puts me in mind of a book by Canadian authors about brand culture that seems to have a similar blind faith in economics. I think the book (it's called Nation of Rebels, by Heath and Potter) is really useful and original, and I really admire their attempt to provide solutions to the problems they cite. But like the reviewer here, my gut feeling is that they make it all seem a little too easy. It just seems like, sure, given the right economic model, you can accomplish anything in society, but then, what would be the incentive to implement it? They just seem to miss a whole bunch of hidden cultural factors that aren't going to go away just by tweaking some economic regulations.

Anyway, this review sorta gets at my basic unease with people like Malcolm Gladwell and Naomi Klein among others. They're just a little too cute and not quite enough grounded in cultural theory. But that said, their writing is terribly fun to read, and does seem to manage to inspire a lot of people to think harder about issues of consumption. And getting people to think harder is categorically good I guess.

Tim said...

I did read Freakonomics this summer. I guess what I liked about the book's approach is its combination of eclecticism and simplicity. You examine an unusual phenomenon with questionable economic status, create a simple, incentive-oriented model, and see how far that gets you towards explaining or understanding the phenomenon. The goal isn't totality, a complete description of every facet of the problem -- it's explanatory power, trying to get leverage on a problem by doing a lot with a little. And the basic model of homo economicus -- that people alter their behavior in response to monetary and other kinds of incentives -- has a whole lotta buncha explanatory power.

The people why people like to read Dubner, I bet, is that for an economist, he really does do a lot of thick description, the way a journalist or anthropologist might. This is the same thing Gladwell does to an even greater degree. He starts with a concept -- the same way a "high concept" movie might get pitched -- then, just like in a good movie, finds the characters and stories and dialogue and structure that makes that concept interesting. And just like with the movies, sometimes the concept is a little thin (Gladwell resorts to repeating himself and flattening out difference a little too much for my taste, at least in his books) while other times the story and characters stink. When you can pull off both, then you've really achieved something.

Sometimes what a high-concept treatment or thesis can do, in a social-scientific or cultural-studies context, is to illuminate data and additional complexities that otherwise we might not have seen, even or especially when this data contradicts or complicates the original thesis. It's when we begin with admittedly distorting theses, like "Modernity begins during the Renaissance," that we start to notice 1) how modern the middle ages are, 2) how un-modern the Renaissance is, 3) the problematic nature of referring to "modernity" as a historical period and/or critical attitude, 4) the problematic nature of likewise for "the Renaissance" 5) problems associated with the word "begins" or "during" or "the," etc. But the broad stroke does seem to give you a starting point -- complexity comes later (if at all).