Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers: Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

1. Gladwell tells the story of a small town in Kentucky in the 1800s. Somehow, a feud started between two families in this small town. Fights broke out, and confrontation between these two families repeatedly ended in violence and death. It came to be expected—people here did not live in harmony; this was simply the way things were.
Whereas the previous several chapters opened with success stories, this chapter begins with a story about cultural norms, and about our tendency not to question them.
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2. Feuds were not only the norm in this small town: there are records of similar feuds all over the state of Kentucky. “When one family fights with another, it’s a feud. When lots of families fight with one another in identical little towns up the same mountain range, it’s a pattern.” And the cause of this pattern is what sociologists call a “culture of honor.” The original inhabitants of these tows were descended from Scots-Irish herdsman, whose livelihood depended on their being feared and respected enough that no one would dare steal their livestock. The point is that the cultural tendencies of our ancestors have an effect on us (and likely our descendants).
Though the inhabitants of this small town never perceived themselves as part of a larger pattern, their heritage did have a huge effect on the way they lived their lives. It turns out that a tendency for feuding was traceable back to the very early ancestors of this town, who depended on a culture of honor to survive. Gladwell is very clear about the relevant point here: cultural legacies are real, and they have a lasting effect on our lives.
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2-4. In fact, this helps to explain why patterns of crime in the South are so distinctive. Murder rates are higher in the South, but “stranger” crimes (crimes committed by one stranger against another) are lower. Violence in the back-country has always been distinctly personal. Gladwell acknowledges that he is making broad generalizations, and notes that we are right to be skeptical of him—“we want to believe we are not prisoners of our ethnic histories.” But he then clarifies what he means to say: that we cannot understand culture in the present without understanding where we came from. “Cultural legacies are powerful forces.” Gladwell wants to make the point, in his remaining chapters, that traditions and attitudes of our forbearers also have an impact on our success. He notes that if we begin to take cultural legacies more seriously, we can use them to understand success better.
Gladwell acknowledges that he is treading on difficult ground to an extent. His observations about southerners bear a resemblance to stereotyping—and certainly he does not mean to say that we cannot escape our “ethnic histories.” He simply means to suggest that in order to understand the present, and to make necessary changes in the future, we cannot ignore the past and the strong influence of our cultural heritage.
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