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THE TIPPING POINT How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference By Malcolm Gladwell; Little, Brown: 288 pp., $24.95

March 19, 2000|BARRY GLASSNER

The difference between flowing water and solid ice is one degree of temperature. A two-ton truck perched on a cliff can be demolished with the push of a forefinger. Are there parallel situations in society? Can tiny changes turn a thriving neighborhood into a slum or a losing political campaign into a winner?

Over the last three decades, a few social scientists have been suggesting as much, and journalist Malcolm Gladwell brought the idea of "tipping points" to public attention in a 1996 article in the New Yorker, out of which this book grew. With passion and eloquence, he argues for the proposition that minor alterations, if carefully conceived and adeptly enacted, can produce major consequences for individuals, organizations and communities. Gladwell devotes most of the book to examples of enterprising people and projects that illustrate his thesis, which potentially has momentous implications. To make a big difference, policymakers need not create big, expensive programs. On the contrary, they should focus on little things that can have a huge impact.

But though tipping point theory is certainly tantalizing, it suffers from a not-so-tiny handicap. Only scant support for the theory can be found in actual studies by social scientists and, contrary to the impression that Gladwell gives, the evidence that does exist is far from conclusive.

Take a centerpiece of Gladwell's argument in both his magazine piece and his book--the so-called "broken windows" approach to crime reduction. Popularized initially by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in a 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly and embraced by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the doctrine holds that by cracking down on minor disturbances, police can transform a disorderly environment, in which crime thrives, into an orderly environment in which it does not.

Barry Glassner is the author of "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things." He is a professor of sociology at USC.

To hear Gladwell tell it, one of the basic hypotheses of "broken windows" theory has been borne out in New York City. He writes, "Clean up graffiti and all of a sudden people who would otherwise commit crimes suddenly don't." But the evidence to support this assumption is not so clear. A temporal connection certainly exists (after transit police rid the subways of graffiti, sure enough, crime went down), but a causal connection is much harder to nail down. Research by sociologists and criminologists has identified a legion of factors that contributed to the drop in crime in New York: an increase in the number of police officers, a decrease in the number of young males in their late teens and early 20s, an improving economy, longer jail sentences for hard-core criminals, declining sales of crack cocaine and the violence associated with drug trade and what some researchers dub the "little-brother syndrome." During the 1980s, a great deal of violent crime was concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods. Studies find that in some of those areas, significant numbers of young boys saw the consequences of older boys' actions and opted not to follow in their footsteps to prisons or graveyards. Crime rates came down when the younger boys reached the peak age for involvement in crimes.

Disciples of the broken windows doctrine, Gladwell among them, play down the significance not only of all these factors that complicate their tidy theory of what "tips" the crime rate but also the theory's adverse consequences when put into practice. Policies that crack down on people who commit minor crimes can be costly, to both taxpayers and to suspects. Between 1993 and 1996, the number of misdemeanor arrests in New York increased by 50%, and so did the number of complaints of police brutality. As a rule, the targets of the heightened surveillance and harassment were poor and minority youths.

In fact, the anti-graffiti campaign was a mixed blessing. Prior to the crackdown, young people had been doing more than merely tagging gang names on walls and subway trains. Some had produced huge murals that required many hours of work and considerable skill. Devotion to that activity deflected some young New Yorkers from gangs, according to Joe Austin of Bowling Green University, who interviewed more than 100 graffiti artists and studied the products of their labors. Austin's research suggests that the crackdown had little or no effect on crime rates and, by targeting muralists as well as taggers, banished an important underground art form.

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