‘Tipping point’ usage over the years

Posted on January 18, 2011 by


TP Usage chart

Google is very useful for finding out how often terms are used and in what context.  As you can see from the chart above, a basic search for ‘tipping point’ reveals a large spike in usage after 1960.  This likely indicates when tipping point was first used in sociology.  In 2000 it went up again, which includes Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, and largely increased the term’s popularity in academia and the media.  Gladwell himself is interested in social tipping points amongst others.  But usage of the term ‘tipping point’ is by no means limited to the social sciences or even the sciences for that matter; although it seems that it may have served as the foundation for how it spread over time.  Here are some examples:

Gender in the Workplace, first published in 1987, continues to use the term within sociology, but in this case refers to the point when enough women take on a position previously held by men causing it to ‘become female.’  This chapter appears to look at women employed as bank tellers specifically and it seems that as more and more women were employed as bank tellers a ‘tipping point’ was reached and the job was no longer viewed as solely for men.  Interestingly, this caused men to ‘move rapidly out of the occupation’ thinking that bank tellers would have lower status and pay because the banks were employing more women as tellers.

This is an interesting parallel to The Metropolitan Area as a Racial Problem (1958) by Morton Grodzins, who first coined ‘tipping point’ (or ‘tip point’) in this study.  In sociology, tipping point often describes tensions between race and gender, maybe even a mechanism that leads to total changes within society.  An interesting question is if racism and sexism (both institutional and individual) did not play such a massive role in society would these ‘tipping points’ have occurred at all?

Excerpt from Gender in the Workplace (Googlebooks)

What about other ‘tipping points’?  There seem to be a wide range of books today and the recent past that use ‘tipping point’ frequently.  Here’s one:

The 80/20 Principle, published in 1999, is based on ‘Pareto’s Principle’ an equation by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto.  It argues that in anything: wealth, education, career etc. 20 percent of it is vital, while the rest is trivial.  This book seems to focus on management mostly, claiming that a manager should focus on the ’20 percent that matters’ in order to make a difference in business.  Gladwell also refers to this principle in his book: ‘…80 percent of the work will be done by 20 percent of the participants.’  So a few people get things done, while the rest have simply less effective or essentially meaningless roles.  Here is an excerpt from the The 80/20 Principle that mentions tipping point, although it is a little vague:

Excerpt from The 80/20 Principle (GoogleBooks)

The next one from 1971 gets us back to sociology, but is married to mathematics — ‘mathematical sociology.’  This field clearly combines two important avenues of research for tipping points.  Again, it references the pinnacle study that first coined the term in sociology, but provides an interesting conclusion that tipping points will occur at ‘different percentage figures.’  Could this also be true for the  ’80/20′ principle?  Some things could be ’60/40′ or ’90/10′ or even ’23/87′ if this doesn’t take the point made below too much out of context.  Although these fractions simply don’t have the same rhetorical appeal as ’80/20′ and maybe in most situations this is the magic number.  But could systems tip at different points?  Or is there something universal about all tipping points?

Excerpt from Mathematical Sociology (GoogleBooks)

That’s all for now, but there will be more short reviews of books, periodicals, journals, newspaper articles and maybe even comic books (if I can find them) posted on this blog that feature the fascinating yet elusive metaphor known as ‘tipping point.’