The Rhetorical Pronoun Shift in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Harlan, Kentucky”

by | Academic, Rhetorical Analysis

This rhetorical analysis of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Harlan, Kentucky” was the first thing I wrote for grad school. I like how it combines pronouns and rhetoric, but what I like most is that it does not depend on any “theoretical lens,” which is something professors unfortunately require for many grad papers. While utilizing scholarship to inform an analysis can be useful and rewarding, it can also stifle original thought and discourage the type of paper published below. “Harlan, Kentucky” was published in Outliers, which you can buy from Amazon through my awesome affiliate link.

Malcolm Gladwell’s audience of affluent, well-educated travelers presents a unique opportunity for airport bookstores. So great has been his success among this demographic that, for the release of his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, his publisher invested heavily in airport advertising, including the American Airlines Admirals Clubs (Mayo). Despite Gladwell’s success among the well-educated business class, his methodology is frequently criticized by critics and scholars. Michiko Kakutani, for example, decries Gladwell’s work as “based not on persuasive, broadband research, but on a flimsy selection of colorful anecdotes and stories.” Steven Pinker, an academic, provides a more scathing criticism, accusing Gladwell of misusing statistics and definitions, saying Outliers “consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies.” Both of these criticisms were published before the release of David and Goliath, but they failed to dissuade Gladwell’s educated readership from propelling the book to the top of bestseller lists.

Malcolm Gladwell as a hillbilly. Image generated by
AI generated image from Midjourney. The prompt was “Malcolm Gladwell as a Hillbilly. I don’t think he’d last in Harlan, Kentucky.

These criticisms problematically approach Gladwell’s work with an academic lens despite the fact that it more closely resembles journalism than scholarly work. Though Gladwell uses scholarly research and writes to an educated audience, he doesn’t actually occupy the role of a scholar. Rather than adhere to the strictures of an academic discipline, Gladwell’s methodology is dictated by the need to provide his audience with interesting essays that, in Kakutani’s words, “[make] for lively water-cooler chatter about Big Intriguing Concepts.”Pinker’s criticism stems from conflating Gladwell’s white-collar, educated audience with academics such as himself. In “Harlan, Kentucky,” Gladwell strikes a balance between entertaining with an engaging narrative, demonstrating his intellectual credibility with exposition, and then merging these two elements into a persuasive argument. He accomplishes this by strategically using pronouns, using third-person to engross the reader in narrative and expository elements and then moving to second-person or a plural first-person to align the reader with his own position.

“Harlan, Kentucky”demonstrates this pattern from the start, beginning with a third-person exposition that closely resembles a long magazine article. This should come as no surprise. According to the author blurb provided in Outliers, Gladwell spent the better part of his career as a journalist writing for The Washington Post and The New Yorker. The extraneous information presented on the first page signals that Gladwell isn’t writing to a scholarly audience. He details the geography, flora, and fauna of Harlan County, Kentucky in vivid, imagistic detail. This level of detail is intentionally superfluous. Gladwell seeks to develop his audience’s interest with a hook before presenting his subject, let alone his thesis. The text seamlessly transitions to a narrative history of the Howard-Turner feud. Gladwell guides the reader through the most violent moments of the feud, climactically ending the section with the Turner matriarch telling her son to “[d]ie like a man!” (164).

The next section introduces second-person pronouns,signaling that Gladwell has transitioned to argumentation. In a significant turn from the previous section’s third-person point of view, the very first sentence here addresses the reader using the second-person “you” pronoun. No longer a detached narrative, an investigative thought experiment is posed: “Suppose you were sent to Harlan in the late nineteenth century to investigate the causes of the Howard-Turner feud” (164). Gladwell continues to elaborate on the ways one might attempt to investigate the feud, commenting on the futility of using traditional modes of inquiry such as reading court documents and taking depositions. Throughout this process he continues to utilize second-person pronouns. Then, as Gladwell discusses a pattern of feuds throughout Appalachia, he returns to a third-person voice. Rather than present a concise list of feuds, nonessential details are attached to each item. Although a particular research question has been addressed, Gladwell is mindful of the need to entertain his audience along the way, and returns to his expository voice.He doesn’t present the type of straightforward argument one finds in academic research. Gladwell ebbs and flows between exposition, narration, and persuasion, at times allowing these modes to overlap.

Returning to a persuasive mode, Gladwell provides an answer to the mystery of the Appalachian feuds: a “culture of honor” (166) existed among the Scotch-Irish who immigrated to the area, which resulted in clannish and violent behavior. This is his thesis, and it occurs over a third of the way through the paper. Notably, at this point the second-person pronouns resurface. Once again the “you” pronoun signifies Gladwell’s argumentation voice. Storytelling builds the foundation of the argument, and once Gladwell has the reader in the proper narrative situation, he directly asks his audience to consider what they would do or how they would feel. Given that the material is primarily sociological or anthropological, these types of thought experiments are extremely compelling because they imply that what we know about ourselves can be applied to others. For example, Gladwell begins his explanation of the Scotch-Irish “culture of honor” by writing: “If you live on some rocky mountainside, the explanation goes…” (166). He continues using second-person pronouns for the next couple of sentences, then abruptly drops them to elaborate upon the history of the Scotch-Irish shepherd. After throwing in two scholarly quotes to reinforce the credibility of his claims, Gladwell concludes with the second-person to claim that “[y]ou fought over your honor” (169). These transitions from third-person exposition/narration to second-person persuasion demonstrate a purposeful sort of empathetic turn, where Gladwell insists that the reader occupy the mindset of another to make sense of his claims. This use of empathy rather than pure empiricism not only engages the reader, but it also presents qualitative research in such a way that it can be easily digested by a layperson.

This technique isn’t limited to the use of second and third-person pronouns. Toward the end of Gladwell’s description of the Howard-Turner feud, he writes, “I think you get the picture” (164). As a writer, Gladwell is willing to directly address the reader but he rarely does so. In this first instance, the shift serves two purposes. First, it establishes an anecdotal tone after a long block of exposition. Second, it helps to segue into the next section, where Gladwell liberally utilizes second-person pronouns. Unlike an academic paper where the first-person is used only to describe actions taken by the authors while conducting research, here the first-person is used rhetorically to establish a rapport with the reader.

When Gladwell employs the first-person a second time, it’s even more illuminating than the first, demonstrating that the pronoun shift can be used to elicit empathy with the author himself rather than just the subjects of a narrative. Directly after establishing his thesis—that Appalachian feuding is a result of Scotch-Irish heritage—Gladwell qualifies his argument by addressing the obvious criticism that it may be construed as racist:

I realize that we are often wary of making these kinds of broad generalizations about different cultural groups—and with good reason. This is the form that racial and ethnic stereotypes take. We want to believe that we are not prisoners of our ethnic histories. (170)

If one were to misinterpret the essay as either intentionally or unintentionally racist, Gladwell’s credibility would be irreparably impinged. Here Gladwell uses a first-person pronoun to emphasize that he doesn’t harbor any abhorrent ideologies, insisting that the essay is driven by objective research rather than any bigotry on his part. Notably, the disclaimer begins with the first-person singular, “I,” and then shifts to the first-person plural, “we.” By doing this, Gladwell places the reader in the same category as himself.Pinker refers to this as a “Straw-We” because Gladwell presents an assumed social consensus before knocking it down. The “we” represents a common belief, one the academically-minded Pinker feels he is exempt from, and therefore identifies a fallacy.But here the “we” is merely a transitory step back to “you.” To complete this strategic vindication of the author, Gladwell pivots to a second-person pronoun in the very next sentence, effectively equating his rhetorical purpose with the reader’s purpose, saying, “[b]ut the simple truth is that if you want to understand what happened…” (170). Just as his earlier transitions from third to second-person put the reader in the shoes of the essay’s subjects, the first to second-person transition puts the reader in Gladwell’s shoes.

Although Gladwell has provided all of the information necessary for his argument at this point, he continues with another section that applies his narrative technique to basic research. So far, to support his argument, Gladwell has quoted an ethnographer, a historian, and archived newspaper stories. Here he presents a psychological study at the University of Michigan.Unlike the expository citations provided earlier, this research is presented as a narrative. Psychologists gave test subjects a simple questionnaire and told them to turn it in at the end of a hallway. The test group was then forced to squeeze by a man who called them “assholes,” whereas the control group turned in their survey unmolested. Upon returning, the students were told a simple anecdote regarding Larry, who flirts with Steve’s date, and asked to provide a conclusion. Saliva samples were taken before an after the incident to measure testosterone and cortisol. Gladwell utilizes almost two pages to detail the previous four sentences, turning a research methodology into an amusing anecdote.

This leads to a conclusion with another key pronoun shift, which shows who Gladwell doesn’t consider to be his audience. Before revealing the study’s results, he says: “If you’ve been insulted, are you more likely to imagine Steve doing something violent to Larry” (72)? Soon after, he even includes the rare first-person singular pronoun, saying, “I think you can guess where this is headed” (72). Southerners in the study were more likely to imagine Steve becoming violent if they were insulted whereas non-southerners did not. They also demonstrated elevated levels of testosterone and cortisol whereas non-southerners did not. But when speaking of southerners, Gladwell strictly uses the third-person and in this section he doesn’t attempt to use a pronoun shift to elicit empathy like he did in previous sections.For example, he says, “[c]all a southerner an asshole and he’s itching for a fight” (73). Even when he utilizes the “you” pronoun above, rather than using it empathetically it’s clear that this “you” is a person who observes hot-headed southerners rather than one who is a hot-headed southerner.

This may be why Don McNay, in “Outliers and the Hillbilly Stereotype” finds the essay to be insulting to southerners such as himself. He even goes so far as to wish violence upon Gladwell, which ironically seems to reinforce Gladwell’s point rather than refute it. Clearly, just as Gladwell doesn’t write to academics such as Pinker, he also doesn’t write to the “hillbillies” analyzed “Harlan, Kentucky.” His pronoun usage declares that despite a reliance upon scholarship, this isn’t intended as scholarly work. His pronoun usage also declares that the subjects of this investigation aren’t the intended audience. Gladwell’s publisher knew to advertise to the business class in airports because that’s the “we.” People like Gladwell, who flyover the Appalachians but don’t reside in those lush hollows; people who once received formal training at universities but don’t become permanent fixtures in the ivory towers. They’re educated, affluent, and interested in scholarly ideas without the burden of formal scholarship. Gladwell’s writing manages to simultaneously entertain and inform this audience, striking a balance between various modes of discourse to keep his audience engaged throughout the entire flight.

Works Cited

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Harlan, Kentucky.” Outliers, Back Bay Books, 2008, pp. 161-176.

Kakutani, Michiko. “It’s True: Success Succeeds, and Advantages Can Help.” The New York Times, 17 November 2008. Accessed 1 October 2018.

Mayo, Keenan. “Malcolm Gladwell Dominates Airport Bookstores.”, 21 October 2013, Accessed 1 October 2018.

McNay, Don. “Outliers and the Hillbilly Stereotype.” Huffington Post, 25 May 2011, Accessed 1 October 2018.

Pinker, Steven. “Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective.” The New York Times, 7 November 2009, Accessed 1 October 2018.


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