“If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!”.
Those around me know very well my contempt for Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Ever since reading the book I’ve had a long time to mull over my dissatisfaction. I’ll be honest and say that before this past week, I never knew who Malcolm Gladwell was. I’m not really a viewer of TED Talks so that’s probably why. But now because that’s been taken away from me, I can no longer revel in my own ignorance.
For you brave souls who actually read this…getcha popcorn ready.
Now, it’s not so much that I perceived the concepts of The Broken Windows Theory and Band-Aid solutions as counter-intuitive or “radical” as Gladwell would say, far from it. What irked me was how shoddy Gladwell jammed concepts like Broken Window’s Theory and his particular notion of context to fit his narrative that small changes can make a big difference.
My criticisms aren’t new. A few Google searches and I quickly learned that Gladwell has long been scrutinized for his loosey-goosey extrapolations from behavioural studies in every single one of his books since The Tipping Point. Christopher Chabris’s breakdown of Gladwell’s latest book pretty much summarizes major criticisms with his work.
I’ve read enough academic journals to know that someone who says that “they know the know the best way” (Gladwell, 2000, p.60) to frame a concept raises a major red-flag. Take The Law of the Few for instance. Chabris best challenged The Law of the Few stating, “To say something is a law is to say that it applies with (near) universality and can be used to predict, in advance, with a fair degree of certainty, what will happen in a situation”. It gives a loaded impression that these concepts in behavioural sciences are enduring, the closest thing to an absolute (A wise Jedi once said “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”, which in it of itself is an absolute statement. I still love the quote however).
Absolutes bring me to Broken Windows Theory. I’ll be honest with the hindsight bias on the explanation for New York City’s crime drop. I’ve had prior knowledge of several analyses related to Broken Windows after The Tipping Point was written, and long before I’ve ever read the book concerning the conflicting evidence surrounding the New York City case study.
I remember reading Freakonomics back in 2008 that challenged Broken Windows Theory by suggesting that the policing strategy was a confounding variable in New York City’s crime drop in the 90’s. The authors (Levitt and Dubner) explain that: crime in New York City was already on its way down well before Giuliani and Bratton became involved; the NYPD police force grew by 45% between 1991-2001 (which is positively correlated with a decrease crime); the Roe v. Wade decision in the 1970’s where unwanted children susceptible to crime were not being born; and the fact crime decreased nationwide in the US during the 1990’s, not just in New York.
Did Broken Windows play a part in New York City’s dramatic crime drop? It’s perfectly plausible. Was it the silver bullet? We can’t say because nobody knows for sure. One study on Broken Windows in New York between 1989-1998 concluded that there was no support for a disorder-crime relationship or that this strategy was even the optimal use of scarce law enforcement resources. Another study, in the Netherlands, indicated that “Signs of inappropriate behavior like graffiti or broken windows lead to other inappropriate behaviour”. The take-away message from these heavily cited studies is that there can be more than one explanation.
And that’s part of my beef. To continue to push, as Gladwell has done, that policing Broken Windows was the clear cause in explaining New York City’s crime drop is a little much. It’s intriguing that Broken Window’s Theory may have contributed to crime reduction. The case in the Netherlands demonstrates that there is validity in principles of the Theory. But it’s certainly not causal. I see it as indicative of what Gladwell is willing to do to fit his narrative.
“The Power of Context says you don’t have to solve the big problems to solve crime” (Gladwell, 2000, p.151)
Now It’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider unorthodox variables or as Gladwell (2000, p.150) calls them, “the little things”. Framing problems as having non-linear dimensions helps broaden the scope of assessing epidemics and can very will lead to novel solutions; that’s the point of epidemiology. But why does that mean social determinants like race, poverty, unemployment and, institutional neglect ought to be overlooked in favour of counter-intuitive variables like graffiti and fare-beaters?
Gladwell says (2000, p.150), “…the Power of Context says what really matters is the little things…You can prevent crimes just by scrubbing of graffiti and arresting fare-beaters”. Here, it’s clear to me that his version of context is objective, that something like disorder and crime are elements that can be clearly defined and separated. He reduces a social problem in a way that makes his “little things” (disorder) an independent variable and crime a dependent variable. Gladwell is asking us to accept that socio-structural inequities really don’t matter.
So why does that mean social determinants ought to be overlooked in favour of Gladwell’s counter-intuitive variables? The answer, as I see it, is that it’s the only way that Broken Windows Theory and by extent, Band-Aid solutions as advocated by Gladwell, make sense as policy tools. Since Broken Windows is contingent on tackling disorder, it would be reasonable to focus on decreasing disorder. If the reader accepts Gladwell’s distinction of variables, then OF COURSE (some might say Claro Que Si) a Band-Aid solution like Broken Windows “is…the best kind of solution” (Gladwell, 2000, p.258).
But here’s the thing about disorder: it’s been shown to carry an implicit bias. Disorder might be less about how we perceive our environment but rather, the subject matter Gladwell deflected attention from. When we speak of disorder, race and economic circumstances have been shown to matter more. A study of 500 block groups in Chicago showed that when the concentration of minority groups and poverty increases, residents of all races perceive heightened disorder, regardless of observed disorder (i.e broken windows).
For the case of New York, here’s a primer. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the policing of Broken Windows in New York City has been a person-centered activity, not an environment-centered one. Davies and Fagan (2000) demonstrate with empirical evidence that “[Broken Windows] policing is not about disorderly places…but about policing poor people in poor places”. This is because they found that that the racial and economic composition of neighbourhoods could predict race and crime specific stops.
Gladwell completely ignored this stark incongruence of the application of Broken Windows from theory to practice in The Tipping Point and really establishes just how selective his narrative is. It’s one thing to ask us to reframe the way we think about the world, but it’s also another thing to do so in a way that blocks out the things that appear to have such a gripping influence in how we already look at the world to begin with. Treating disorder as an independent variable relies on how much you’re willing to bend you’re definition of context.
Step 1. Tinker
Step 2. ???
Step 3. Profit
Everything in this book boils down to the Band-Aid solution, the Deus ex Machina of big problem-solving as advocated by Gladwell. It has everything that you could ever want: inexpensiveness, convenience, versatility, efficiency, a short-cut. It’s perfect in every single way, just look at all the confirming examples. There are no bounds to its applicability. It’s a technocrat’s wet dream.
I think it’s here where most of my problem with The Tipping Point sort of pools together. The whole crux of the book is to advocate that social change can be achieved by simply tinkering. We are told that by tinkering, “people can radically transform their behaviours or beliefs” (Gladwell, p. 258). But this message alone isn’t enough. Gladwell provides us with such a high degree of personal agency because according to him (2000, p.167) “Environmental Tipping Points are things that we can change”. So not only does he tell us the exact parameters on how to look at the world, we are also given his permission to think that way.
So I mean, what sort of change can you actually expect if you frame social problems as Gladwell does?
His idea of change is superficial if his deliberation of Broken Windows Theory is any indication. If “Broken Windows theory and the Power of Context are one and the same” (Gladwell 2000, p.146) , then change is literally superficial because we’re only looking for solutions that change the surface of the problem, not the root.
It’s so easy to have Band-Aid solutions if we remove socio-structural inequities environmental determinants from the conversation and pretend that they don’t exist. Unequal power dynamics, history, spatial segregation, perceptional biases? No. That stuff is too hard. But what about graffiti?
It reminds me a lot about my grievance with how Sustainable Development has often been conceptualized for social change. It’s treated a lot like a Band-Aid solution. Like the Tipping Point, sustainable development creates the impression that only tweaks need to be made for significant change, yet it does nothing to challenge the status quo that has brought upon the problems that require change in the first place.
In my opinion, Gladwell’s way of framing is most appropriate to keep things business-as-usual. I can’t see anything radical or transformative about his ideas.
I’m not trying to be malicious. Gladwell should be commended for bringing behvioural sciences into mainstream discussion where his academic opposites have failed. I can’t imagine how anyone could make these studies palatable to the masses.
But how the hell am I supposed to take someone like him seriously when he speaks well beyond empirical data? Why should I take his word that Band-Aid solutions have merit?
I understand that he posits himself as story-teller and not an academic. However, that’s a poor excuse to give him any sort of pardon on how he goes about presenting empirical evidence considering how large an audience he has. What he’s presenting are intriguing reflections but some might take it as causal evidence of how the world actually works and fool-proof prescriptions to solve its problems. I seriously hope that’s not the case.