The Tipping Point of the ‘Tipping Point’ Metaphor

Posted on May 11, 2011 by


TP chart 1 PB paper

Dr Pojanath Bhatanacharoen presented an incredibly interesting paper at a conference hosted by the University of Hull in the UK, ‘Organisational Learning, Knowledge and Capabilities’.  Her research along with the rest of the WP4 team including Prof David Greatbatch, Prof Tim Clark and Dr Alex Bentley, analyse the use of the tipping point metaphor through time, including its origin.  They argue that ‘…the term tipping point possesses such embedded interpretative viability or pragmatic ambiguity which allows the metaphor to transcend its original meaning and gain a widespread usage.  Interestingly, recent use of tipping point in academic journals rose rapidly after publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  Scientists and other academics seem to have first picked up on the use of the term ‘tipping point’ from outside academia.  This also reflects its historical origin.

The metaphor itself was actually first coined in 1957 by the sociologist Martin Grodzins from the University of Chicago in an article in Scientific American:

This process of “tipping” proceeds more rapidly in some neighborhoods than in others. White residents who will tolerate a few Negroes as neighbors, either willingly or unwillingly, begin to move out when the proportion of Negroes in the neighborhood or apartment building passes a certain critical point. This “tip point” varies from city to city and from neighborhood to neighborhood. But for the vast majority of white Americans a tip point exists. Once it is exceeded, they will no longer stay among Negro neighbors. (Grodzins, M. (1957) ‘Metropolitan Segregation. Scientific American, 197/4: 33-41.)

From the paper:

It appears that the term and phenomenon initially derived from outside academia from the parlance of real estate agents/urban planners in relation to racial segregation. The concept of “tipping” appears to have been used in the first instance by urban planners/housing professionals. Meyerson and Banfield quote the Chairman of the Chicago Housing Association:

I knew what had happened in those projects that were supposed to be 50-50; the whites had never moved in and so they had become all-Negro projects. I saw that Cabrini was successful with 30 per cent Negroes. I figured that more than 30 per cent wouldn’t work but between 10 and 30 would work all right. More than 30 would tip it over. (reproduced in Wolf, E.P (1963) ,The Tipping Point in racially Changing Neighbourhoods’, Journal of American Planning Association V.29 (3):217-222)

Here are some charts from the paper that show some of the data that has been collected on the use of ‘tipping point’ in academia:

Use of 'tipping point' in academic disciplines 1957-2009: Physics (PHY), Social Sciences (SOC), Medical Sciences (MS) and the Humanities and Arts (HUM)

From the paper: In tracking the development of the tipping point concept within and across disciplines, we searched the ISI Web of Knowledge index between 1957 and 2009 for academic articles which contain the words ‘tipping point’ in titles and/or abstract. This search returned 368 articles. Figure 2 below shows the total number of tipping point articles. Approximately only 5 % of the articles using the term tipping point were before 2000 and the use of the term has increased exponentially in the last decade.

You’ll of course notice from this data that tipping point is really a fairly recent metaphor, although versions of it such as ‘tip point’ go back to the late 1950s.  It’s really during the early 2000s that it takes off and today of course it is found virtually everywhere, not just in academic journals, but on the radio, TV, web, newspapers, magazines, political speeches, hip hop albums and many other media.  How could such a peculiar metaphor catch on so quickly and seemingly without warning?  And will it continue to be as influential, if not more influential, than it is today?

Read the full paper online: ‘The Tipping Point of the ‘Tipping Point’ Metaphor: Agency and Process for Waves of Change’

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