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Everything Is Obvious: "Once You Know the Answer"
April 7, 2011 - 12:45am

It's about time a sociologist wrote an amazing and accessible book for a non-specialist audience. Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts is that amazing book.

For too long, the economists, psychologists, historians and evolutionary psychologists have owned the popular non-fiction category. No longer. Sociology is back!

And what a sociologist. Check out the Wikipedia entry on the author:

"Duncan J. Watts (born 1971) is an Australian researcher and a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, where he directs the Human Social Dynamics group. He is also an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute and a former professor of sociology at Columbia University, where he headed the Collective Dynamics Group."

Or his list of publications from his Yahoo Research page - (which brings up 1,734 results). The dude is barely 40.

Now I'm biased to be psyched about a great popular non-fiction book written by a sociologist, as I am a (somewhat lapsed) member of this tribe. For a while now, it seems as if the evolutionary psychologists, the biologists, the behavioral economists, and economic historians have been debating, discussing and writing about the most interesting ideas, theories and trends.

Sure, we have Sudhir Venkatesh (Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets) but nobody like Dan Ariely, Richard Florida, Steven Levitt, Tyler Cowen, Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, Leonard Mlodinow, Sam Gosling, Steven Pinker, Ian Ayres, or Daniel Gilbert. (Wow…all males in this list - taken from my Audible list of academics who have written popular books that I really liked. Not sure if I like what this says about my own lack of diversity in what I read).

The big idea underpinning "Everything is Obvious" is that the massive amounts of data created by Web 2.0 search, networking and communications platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Facebook and Yahoo gives social scientists the tools to test the relationship between individual and group preferences, actions and beliefs. According to Watts, sociology is due for a renaissance, as the Web can be utilized as a tool to run social experiments that were previously not possible with traditional survey techniques.

Watts has run a number of these experiments, which have the common theme of calling into question commonly held beliefs about the origins and catalysts for a range of trends and outcomes. For instance, Watts takes on Malcolm Gladwell's conclusions in The Tipping Point that a small group of "influentials" can start and drive consumer trends.

Every Sociology 101 course (a class I've taught more times than I care to remember) should assign "Everything is Obvious". Watts provides a nice synthesis of the main tenets of sociology (from Durkheim to Parsons), moving fluently between the worlds of sociological theory, technology, and popular culture. We might find that the number of sociology majors will increase if we let this book lose in our courses.

What other companies have a resident sociologist? My respect for Yahoo has dramatically increased.

What are you reading?


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