Monday 22 January 2018

Book review: David & Goliath - Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm in a muddle

Engaging – but not ground-breaking: Malcolm Gladwell
Engaging – but not ground-breaking: Malcolm Gladwell
David & Goliath - Malcolm Gladwell

Edel Coffey

Sociology David & Goliath Malcolm Gladwell Allen Lane, €14.99, pbk, 305 pages. Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Malcolm Gladwell may now be one of the most successful writers in the world as both an author and a staff writer with The New Yorker magazine, hailed as a sort of messiah of pop culture, but there was a time when that job description looked improbable. His grades in college were poor. He got into journalism by accident and worked his way up from regional magazines to writing for The Washington Post and eventually The New Yorker.

In his 2008 book, Outliers, he wrote that the secret to success was not talent, or luck, but an investment of time (specifically 10,000 hours) in your craft. It certainly worked for Gladwell, who is now one of the most popular sociological writers in the world.

While I enjoy Gladwell's writing, what mystifies me is his status as a sort of genius who interprets our complex world for those of us who can't quite get our heads around it. His work is very accessible. He takes already simple ideas and makes them even simpler. He converts straight-forward statistics into easily digestible stories.

Reading one of his books is a bit like being back in school with that favourite teacher who used fun examples to explain theories. It's enjoyable pop-culture but it's not life-changing research. He travels the world giving talks and recently gave a sold-out lecture to more than 1,000 people in the RDS in Dublin.

Gladwell's latest book, his fifth, David & Goliath, sticks with his winning formula of explaining our behaviour as a society through simple case studies. This book is the story of how, more often than we think, it's not the giant who wins the war. It's a sort of contradictory companion to Darwin's survival of the fittest theory. This is survival of the weakest, so to speak. It's about how underdogs succeed against all odds.

Gladwell writes about how those who have experienced trauma early on in life can develop the kind of resilience that later leads to great success. The book uses examples that range from the Palestinian struggle to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, to how a police chief managed to change the crime rate in the most underprivileged area of Brooklyn.

In the chapter dealing with Northern Ireland, Gladwell uses the story of Rosemary Lawlor (whose younger brother was shot) to illustrate his point that those in power need to have 'legitimacy' in order for those below them to respect them enough to obey them. This will not come as a revelation to anyone, even those who live outside of Ireland, but it does serve as an example of the 'legitimacy principle' he is trying to explain. A protestant-led police force was never going to have legitimacy with a minority Catholic community.

The British army general in charge of sorting out the insurgency in Northern Ireland at that time (at the start of the Troubles) was a man called Ian Freeland, charged with using a firm hand and showing that the army were not afraid to use force.

But what Freeland hadn't counted on, according to Gladwell, was the 'legitimacy principle'. If those in authority want their charges to behave, how those in authority are seen to behave matters too – and if they do not behave correctly the oppressed can gain power over the oppressor.

This may suit Gladwell's aim of extracting a theory from events but it completely oversimplifies the complexities of what was happening in the North at the time, as readers here will be aware. If this analysis is the basis for his theory, how believable can the theory be?

Are other examples he gives, drawn from situations with which we are less familiar, equally superficial?

Gladwell simplifies his argument even further for us with the example of an unruly classroom. The class wants to behave but if the class rules are seen to be unfair, the class has no motivation to behave.

The situation is comparable to another story in the book, that of a policing crisis in New York. An innovative female police chief worked with families living in the the most notorious housing projects in Brooklyn to try and give the police force legitimacy in that area.

Gladwell points out that 69pc of black male high-school drop-outs born in the late 1970s have served time in jail. The Brooklyn projects were highly populated by this demographic. With this rate of imprisonment, just as with the internment of Catholics in Northern Ireland, the law is going to feel unfair and arbitrary, which removes its legitimacy. The New York police chief showed that those in power need to worry about what people think of them. With a different approach, robberies in that area of Brooklyn fell dramatically.

Gladwell's stories are enjoyable and the way he links his stories is engaging. But at times they are fable-like in their simplicity and their conclusions are not new or ground-breaking, rather more like common sense.

Irish Independent

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