Sunday, January 04, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers

I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success, and despite some quibbles I definitely recommend it. I will start with the positive, which is that it challenges conventional wisdom and forces the reader to think about success a bit differently than before. Specifically, it requires you to look beyond common assertions about "self-made" men (as, it should be noted, there are remarkably few references to women in the entire book, a major omission). His examples are sometimes counterintuitive, such as how discrimination against Jewish lawyers gave them unique opportunities to become rich and successful. Plus, he has a knack for using fascinating examples that make his point very well.

However, the book has problems from a social science perspective. Fellow political scientist Laura McKenna at 11D has two separate posts about the book, focusing a lot on the fact that he has no footnotes (though it has a bibliography of sorts at the end, without specific citations).* I agree, though I didn't find it as annoying as she did. As I read, I kept thinking that the book's argument could be strengthened substantially by doing a more structured analysis that looked at a universe of cases, rather than a few cherry-picked ones. For example, he discusses the success of certain lawyers and law firms in New York City, but does not examine every firm (or at least every decent-sized firm) in a given time period.

Therein lies the rub: what makes the book interesting from a commercial standpoint is its breeziness and readability, and the insertion of more analysis--even quantitative--would quite possibly dry it out. But if this were someone's dissertation and they brought for their defense, it would be ripped pretty well. He even notes that there are plenty of exceptions to his rules (see p. 67) but he never takes a look at them.

Nonetheless, I had a good time reading it and will likely get his other two books at some point.


* She also makes the good point that the second half of the book is more about culture than about outliers per se.

2 comments:

boz 4:16 PM  

I got the book for xmas and Outliers is next on my reading list (once I'm done with Bottom Billion, which I recommend).

Based on your comments, you'll find Gladwell's other two books similar. They are smart, interesting, easy to read, challenge conventional wisdom (although, in some ways, "Tipping Point" has become conventional wisdom since he wrote it), but lack the academic thoroughness to stand up to anyone who wants to check his evidence or pick his arguments apart. He definitely cherry picks his examples to make his books more believable and accessible.

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