On the website of the UK higher education magazine, Times High Education, Professor Tara Brabazon of the University Brighton has some very critical things to say about the journalist (and pop-sociologist, as Wikipedia labels him) Malcolm Gladwell. For the purposes of what I am about to argue you don’t need to know more about this, but the links are there should you wish to follow her concerns. But in a nutshell, Professor Brabazon is saying that Gladwell is over-simplifying the sociological issues he is purporting to address, that the reader of his books will learn little of scientific use, and that the recognition that Gladwell has received is misplaced.
It doesn’t for the moment matter whether Professor Brabazon is right or wrong. But there are two things she says that caught my attention, and not necessarily favourably. First, she uses the occasion to take a swipe at Freddie Mercury (late lead singer of the rock band Queen), apparently arguing that his cover of the Platters song The Great Pretender was of lesser artistic quality than the original, and suggesting that Gladwell is ‘the academic equivalent of Mercury’ – i.e. not the real thing. She was always going to lose me on this one, as for my money Mercury was an amazing artist, and if Gladwell is his academic equivalent, then frankly he rocks. But I haven’t read Gladwell, so I must put aside my irritation on this one – beyond wondering whether the misplaced analogy might suggest a weak spot in her argument in its real core. At the very least the argument she has employed is trivial, which may not do a lot to enhance her case against trivialising scholarship.
The more significant passage however was this. Talking about Gladwell’s published output, she says:
My worry is not these books in themselves. Every generation produces a pseudo-sage or author as fortune teller. My concern is for readers. The arguments are so simple, the evidence so superficial and the point so pointless that I worry about how readers move from books such as these and on to some of the remarkable sociology books being produced at the moment. Currently, I am rereading everything Sarah Pink has written, and it is an invigorating process.
Sarah Pink is Professor of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, and I believe she is a highly respected academic in her field. I have not met her, but as it happens have read one or two things she has written. And without this being intended in any way as a criticism, it would have to be said that the people who may buy Malcolm Gladwell’s books are unlikely to trouble themselves with Sarah Pink’s, or if they did they would be unlikely to read very far.
So if I can make any sense of this, what Tara Brabazon seems to be saying is that sociology is for the academy. If you want to follow some of its debates and arguments, go to the academic oeuvre. If you cannot do that, then please don’t read about it at all, and mind your own business. And if you are an academic, then for the love of everything sacred don’t try to address the masses in terms that are accessible (and by definition over-simplified). And if you’re not an academic, then stop pretending that you know what all this is about.
I’m probably being desperately unfair to Professor Brabazon here, and if so I will readily apologise. But there is a serious question in all this. To what extent do we in the academy belong to a masonic craft that pursues a language and ritual that must be protected from the great unwashed? The academic community, at its best, is a developer and disseminator of ideas and inventions, and for these to achieve their full benefit they must have an impact outside the academy. We are not in a private conversation. It is of course in the nature of intellectual thinking that it cannot always be accessible; but there is also a need to connect these intellectual insights with a wider public, and there is not just a market but a need for some popularising work. And some of the greatest academics in history have done it.
It is of course possible that Tara Brabazon’s real complaint is not that Gladwell is accessible, but that what he writes is wrong. And of course I would readily agree that popular writing isn’t good when it misleads or distorts. But I think that the academic world is sometimes tempted to believe, or persuade itself, that a good theory cannot ever be explained to a popular audience without falling into those traps.
I have seen some of the leading academics of my time presenting their work to people without any expert knowledge in terms that were understandable to them, and more to the point I have also seen non-academics - including journalists – successfully master the academic state of the art and translate it for a wider audience. And all of that is good. So what disturbs me about Tara Brabazon’s piece is that a reader might take from it the idea that the academy should keep its analysis to itself, and others should keep out. That may not be the message she was intending to send, but that is how it could be read. And that would be bad for the academy, and bad for society.