One of the readings we took out for the third edition of Emerging was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change.” I liked the piece quite a bit and I’ve wanted something from Gladwell in the book since the first edition because I’ve always considered him an important public intellectual. The challenge with Gladwell is that while his ideas are always awesomely complex, those ideas tend to be diffused across his writing and illustrated more with anecdote than with the kinds of evidence we might want students to use.
“Small Change,” one of his standalone essays, was a good compromise. In the essay, Gladwell takes on the notion that “the revolution will be tweeted,” arguing that real change requires strong ties (illustrated by the close bonds of those who took part in the civil rights movement) rather than the weak ties promoted by social media tools like Twitter. That notion of strong versus weak ties formed the core argument of his essay, but as an argument it ended up feeling just a bit weak.
Fortunately, we were able to add an essay that works with the same ideas and offers a bit more depth, Charles Duhigg’s “From Civil Rights to Mega-Churches,” from his book The Power of Habit. Duhigg traces the same forces at work in the Civil Rights movement as Gladwell does, noting the role that strong ties played in the Montgomery bus boycott. Like Gladwell, too, Duhigg uses quite a bit of anecdote to make his point—which is great because those stories make the reading quite engaging. But unlike Gladwell, Duhigg also grounded his argument, looking at the origin of the notions of strong and weak ties. He goes on to connect these social forces to peer pressure, expanding that concept by looking at the explosive growth of the Saddleback Church. The end result is an essay that engages many of the same concepts as Gladwell’s work but with more depth.
Duhigg would be great for any sequence of assignments on social change. I can see using his essay in conjunction with Appiah or Epstein or Yoshino. I hope you will consider using it and I hope to walk through some of the other new readings we have in the posts to come!
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