The Genius versus Social Construction of Steve JobsPosted: October 14, 2011
For me Steve’s post raises the age-old question of whether the “greats” are geniuses or simply products of their time. As the wiki entry for “great man theory” highlights, this question has been around for some time (for Thomas Carlyle history was the “biography of great men,” while both Tolstoy and Herbert Spencer cited social complexity and ridiculed Carlyle).
There are many reincarnations of this debate. One of the more interesting ones focuses on the great ones of music, the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn. Sociologist Tia DeNora wrote a provocative book that said the greats were (essentially accidental) products of their context (see her book Beethoven and the ‘construction’ of genius). Others, like Rutgers Peter Kivvy, argue for the genius itself (see his book, the possessor and the possessed about Mozart).
This is a quite relevant debate in strategy, essentially, individual versus collective effects/heterogeneity. There’s a decomposition, variance-components type question here, similar to the firm versus industry debate. Of course, you can imagine that variance exists both at the individual and collective levels. But I think this is a question that continues to be worth tackling. (I’ve published some research related to this but I’ll spare the reader, for now.)
There’s a deeper discussion here about the social construction of hero-ness as well but I’ll leave that for another time.
What is problematic to me is the hand-waving that I see about how invention is, oh, all about context, social complexity, history, etc. That type of explanation is simply shorthand and an admission that we have no clue what actually happened. Don’t just say that it is complex. Rather, explain the complexity. Reminds me of this Jewkes et al quote from their 1969 book The Sources of Invention:
it is the practice of some writers to present a fuzzy picture of invention as a “social process”; to suggest that, if one inventor had not done what he did when he did, someone else would have done it. . . . this attitude—that nothing can be understood unless all is understood, that by piling one unresolved enigma upon another some all-comprehending solution is made the more likely—involves the error of “seeing depth in mere darkness”, as Sir Isaiah Berlin once put it (26–27).