Book: The Tipping Point

Thanks to my commute, I finally have some time to catch up on reading. I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s The Tipping Point. The book is about how social phenomena – from diseases to crime, from popular shoes to popular books – spread across the population.

Gladwell is a great writer. He does a great job of explaining sociological concepts in an interesting and engaging manner. If sociologists could write like this, I think we’d have a better reputation. To be fair, he isn’t writing an academic piece here, on the other hand, he is conveying all sorts of interesting sociological concepts to a very wide audience through his writings. In this book, he covers in some detail all sorts of interesting sociological and psychological studies ranging from why Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues are such hits with children to the effects of little changes in how we visualize things on our opinion formation.

Overall, I don’t know if he really offers a clear argument for the spread of social phenomena as there seem to be so many things that may matter. But the book is nonetheless worth reading just to think about the various factors that may influence why the spread of some phenomena tips at a certain point while other phenomena never diffuse widely.

I also have some more minor points to offer.

  • In his discussion of the strength of weak ties (à la Granovetter), it would also be interesting to see a mention of Ron Burt’s work on structural holes. The Connectors he talks about – like Lois Weisberg – are so influential because they connect otherwise completely separated networks of people. There is a structural hole in between these networks of people that is filled by the Connectors who make the connections.
  • The list of random names he asks readers to go through to see the size of our networks ignores the fact that many people have networks in multiple countries. Although the name list includes some foreign names, it is by no way inclusive of all cultures. I suspect many people have additional large networks which would not be accounted for in this list.
  • The author talks about a company, Gore-Tex, which seems to have a very efficient way of spinning off into smaller units as soon as a unit grows beyond 150 members. Apparently this works extremely well because it is at that level that contacts can still be kept personal and knowing coworkers adds to productivity. This sounds like a plausible argument, but here’s my big question then: if this system is so efficient, how come other companies haven’t caught on and use it themselves?

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