The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell’s intention is to offer information on how and why epidemics of any kind occur.

Arrangement: “The Tipping Point” is the opening essay in Gladwell’s book of the same title. This piece is meant to introduce readers to Gladwell’s ideas and set the context for the remainder of the book.  It immediately begins with an anecdote of a syphilis epidemic in Baltimore, transitioning into theories as to what caused the epidemic, followed by Gladwell’s own assessment as to why epidemics occur. Now that the reader has context, Gladwell introduces his “three agents of change”–his own system of determining the causes of an epidemic. He uses the Baltimore syphilis epidemic as well as a few other minor examples to explain each of the three agents, concluding with a summary of each. As a foreword, this essay serves to give the reader the “basics” of what will be discussed in the rest of the book.

Audience: “The Tipping Point” is a nonfiction book written by a former writer of the Washington Post and New Yorker. Gladwell knew that most of his audience would recognize him from his work in the two respective news outlets and from his previous nonfiction books, thus can assume that most of his audience is educated and has an interest in non-fiction that focuses on modern events and issues. Gladwell uses sophisticated vocabulary and logical explanations to serve his educated audience of curious critical thinkers such as himself.

Speaker: Just as Gladwell is aware of his audience’s demographics, so too is he aware of his own and how he can use this to create a more compelling argument. Gladwell has a college degree and is an experienced, widely renowned journalist. He speaks as one who is thoroughly educated on all topics discussed in his essay, a knowledgable source that could defend his three agents of “tipping points”, creating a more convincing argument.

–Tay Sauer

Tone: Like most of Malcolm Gladwell’s writings, it bears the factual and confident air that only he can achieve. The excerpt is filled with statistics and numbers that bolster his point that, just like STDs, societal epidemics are filled with numerous little factors that can cause something that isn’t all that great to thrive. His factual tone allows the reader to listen to what he’s saying about how Hush Puppies and AIDS are basically the same when it comes to how wildly they spread, even though it may sound weird at first.

Ethos: The fact that Gladwell fills his paper with statistics makes the reader trust the deductions that he is about to make more credible. Not only that, but then he compares actual facts to his theories on why societal epidemics exist, hence allowing the audience to connect something hard and factual to something more abstract.

Logos: Going off the point above, the fact that he uses statistics and uses them to connect to something that’s difficult to explain, allows for Gladwell’s logic to flow and prevents the audience from getting lost. What he says makes sense to the reader and then they are less likely to argue against it.

–Skyler Houser

This excerpt taken from Malcolm Gladwell’s novel “The Tipping Point” is very effective in producing pathos through the examples and details used. Gladwell begins the piece by explaining an alarming epidemic of syphilis that occurred in the mid-1990s. Within the explanation of how this epidemic escalated, Gladwell includes specific statistics to show the severity of the epidemic. The data and facts that Gladwell provides could produce a panic in the reader because as the audience reads this excerpt, they may wonder whether or not they could be affected by these types of issues again in the current world. Since  medicine is constantly improving, we may think these things would never happen again, but through the specific studies and facts that Gladwell provides, the reader is informed that even the slightest change to normalcy could cause an epidemic to occur in an instant. This realization worries the reader and appeals to their emotions.

After reading both Outliers and “The Tipping Point”, I see many similarities between the information that Gladwell presents through his writing. In “The Tipping Point”, Gladwell presents the idea that when “an epidemic tips…it is jolted out of equilibrium…because something has happened.” Gladwell describes these jolts as being slight details that one would never think of causing a large epidemic, such as having a group of people move to a different part of town cause a syphilis epidemic. Similarly, in Outliers Gladwell describes how being born into a slightly smaller generation increases your chances of becoming successful because teachers are able to give you more attention and your needs were tended to faster when you were born in the hospital. This example resulted in a good outcome, but Gladwell also explains, in Outliers, that a plane crash is never caused by one slight error, but instead it is the result of several small errors that eventually add up. These examples show that any good or bad thing that happens to a large population is never caused by just one person or factor alone, but instead several people or factors.

When Gladwell wrote this excerpt he was especially mindful in the arrangement of thepiece. Throughout the essay he proves his theory of the three rules of the Tipping Point by using examples and statistics, but at the end of his piece, he provides a brief conclusion that summarizes and points out the important aspects of the excerpt. Although this paragraph tells the reader that he will explain his theory further in his novel, the paragraph shows that Gladwell wants his reader to remember his rules of the Tipping Point. He repeats these several times throughout the piece, and therefore, this applies to the Stickiness Factor he explained. He kept repeating these rules in order for his reader to remember them and understand that they are an important part of his novel.

–Sarah Biehl

Gladwell’s invention in “The Tipping Point” is very effective. He begins with an example of a epidemic, then moves to explore the different explanations for why the epidemic occurred. He then brings in his theories (the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context) to explain why epidemics in general spread so rapidly. The example draws the reader in, the explanation keeps them interested, and then Gladwell’s theories are the natural next step and provide a neat explanation for such puzzling phenomena.

Gladwell’s use of the murder of Kitty Genovese in his argument is a heavy blow to his ethos. He mentions that 38 people heard her scream; this is not true, as she was stabbed and her lung was punctured so there was no way she could have screamed loud enough for people inside their apartments to hear her. A few people did look outside and see her, but it was only a handful of people, and none of the witnesses saw the entire thing. Most believed it was just a domestic dispute and nothing as serious as a stabbing. A simple Google search could have prevented Gladwell from including factually incorrect material, but somehow neither him or his editor noticed or cared enough to correct this.

Gladwell’s style is heavily influenced by his use of hypothetical questions and 2nd person point of view. These two rhetorical devices draw the reader into his piece and encourage them to think about the material he is presenting, gently guiding them to the conclusions he has drawn. While relatively informal, the piece still maintains an academic tone and leads the reader to want to trust Gladwell.

—Maria Busken


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