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Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell

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How does Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers illustrate the sociological perspective?How does Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers illustrate the sociological perspective?

Gladwell's view is that one is successful not because of individual characteristics but because of social forces and conditions, such as the Beatles' time in Hamburg or Bill Joy's access to a well-equipped computer lab.

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Sociology deals with how society and social groups—as opposed to individual variations, which are explored by psychology—affect people. In Outliers, Gladwell challenges the concept many people hold that success is won by individual characteristics that one is born with, such as being born a genius.

For example, Gladwell credits many successful people's success to their fortunate circumstances in being able to practice or work for a much longer time, earlier on, than most other people could. For instance, The Beatles had a lucky break, being invited to play in Hamburg for eight hours a day, seven days a week, which is much more than the amount of time a normal musician would have to practice. Similarly, luck made it so that Bill Joy, a renowned programmer, randomly had access, by virtue of where he worked, to one of the only well-equipped computer labs in the U.S. at the time. The success of these two entities, according to Gladwell, is not because of individual variation, but random fortune.

Thus, an outlier is not necessarily individually responsible for his or her success, as psychology might predict. The sociological perspective is that other social forces and factors (many luck- or social-movement-based) contribute to that success.

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The sociological perspective examines the way in which an individual's behavior is affected by his or her interaction with the larger society. In Outliers, Gladwell examines the ways in which the society reinforces some individuals' behaviors or skills. For example, he looks at the ways in which people who are born with some kind of advantage have this advantage reinforced by the institutions around them. Children who are born in January, for example, tend to be larger and more developed than their peers who are born later in the same year. As youth hockey leagues often use calendar years to determine who enters which league, children born in January are often more successful in youth hockey leagues. As they are larger and more coordinated than their peers, children born early in the year are often chosen for leagues, and their skills are therefore reinforced, making them more likely to play on college and professional teams. Society reinforces their individual qualities, making their outcomes an outgrowth not only of individual qualities but also their interaction with the institutions that surround them. 

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Gladwell tries to explain events from a sociological perspective.  In other words, he tries to look at what causes people to do the things they do.  It's actually quite unique (or it was when he first did it) for popular nonfiction.  Gladwell brought sociology and economics to the common people.

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Gladwell is trying to explain success not by looking at some undefinable aspects of people's personalities, but rather by looking at more quantifiable things.  So, instead of simply trying to say that some people succeed because of their personal qualities, he is saying that some people succeed because they are put in positions (by their socioeconomic status, by their date of birth, or whatever) that allow them to have a better chance at success.

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The sociological perspective is a theory that attempts to understand and explain occurrences in human's social behavior.  In Outliers, Gladwell attempts to explain the reasons why people become successful so that his audience understands the complex web of factors--both controlled and uncontrolled--that contribute to a person's success.  In part, Gladwell's arguments challenge the American ethos of "if you work hard, you will succeed" by saying that some factors that determine success are out of an individual's control.  For example, in his first "case study," Gladwell says that successful hockey players are born early in the calendar year (a factor that is beyond a person's control) and that this makes them stand out physically among other boys who are several months younger than they are.  Gladwell says that over time, the opportunities that these players have build up to make them better players.  So, Gladwell uses a sociological perspective to try to explain the reasons for people's success.

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