Journalist discovers sociology

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is one of the Three Books being read by incoming Stanford students this year. I volunteered to lead one of the discussion groups, so I finally got around to reading it.
My snarky, one sentence review/summary would be: “Journalist discovers sociology; argues by anecdote anyway.”

I’m not the only one who isn’t overly impressed with Gladwell, as Stephen Kotkin of the NY Times describes Outliers as “like a sumptuous Chinese meal that an hour later leaves a diner feeling hungry.”

On the one hand, I guess I am pleased that incoming Stanford students will get exposed to a Sociological Imagination:

C. Wright Mills:
…the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances (p. 5).

Malcolm Gladwell:
It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine (p. 19).

On the other hand, I would hate for incoming Stanford students to think that Gladwell’s standards of evidence are the standards of evidence used by real social scientists. Or that sociological theory is no more sophisticated than Gladwell’s pithy, but simplistic thesis.

Perhaps the best discussion point I can bring to my group of students will be something like:
“If you liked Gladwell’s book, and are intrigued by the idea that individual choices and achievements are heavily influenced by our social settings; then you should definitely take some classes from Stanford’s world class Sociology department and find out how social science is done in the big leagues.”

The more I think about it, my real beef is less with the Gladwell book itself, and with the Stanford Three Books committee for selecting it. If you want to pick a book with a sociological focus, why not pick one written by a sociologist? How about the 2007 ASA Book Award winner, The Chosen, which “tells the story of admissions policies and practices in America’s elite colleges over the full length of the twentieth century”? Or Working-class white : the making and unmaking of race relations by Stanford’s own Monica McDermott?

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