Gladwell and the use of rhetoric

March 4, 2007

Lauchlan Mackinnon who I first encountered as Clint, but whose views I have since come to respect, has an interesting dissection of The Tipping Point, in three parts here, here and here. This quote illustrates his argument:

Gladwell uses scholarly source material in an essentially rhetorical fashion, to tell a story from a single point of view in order to motivate assent from the reader to a wider proposition.

I have been concerned for some time about a style of writing that (i) ignores or over simplifies the literature and (ii) argues by selective use of anecdote rather than reason. Lauchlan makes this point well with a disciplined and well argued piece. The one thing he does not bring out, is Gladwell’s assumption of causality; he just cannot break away from a 19th Century model, despite his use of modern science. Lauchlan also indirectly mentions, but does not to my mind emphasise enough the danger of simple categories: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. We can see the same thing happening in the narrative space, with trivialising recipe based books popping up on an annual basis (no hot links here to protect myself from the guilty).

Now I actually think Tipping Point is not a bad book with a lot of useful material. However I treat it as a collection of newspaper stories rather than as an original piece of work, sharing most of Lauchlan’s criticism. Blink on the other hand takes some theory, mangles it, tags it with some popularising stories and then seeks to claim supremacy for one aspect of human nature. Lauchlan would do the world a favour if he would now proceed to deal with Blink as he dealt with The Tipping Point.

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