The Tipping Point

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The Tipping Point Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell was born in England and grew up in Canada. He studied history at the University of Toronto, and afterwards went to work for the conservative magazine The American Spectator in Indiana. By the late 1980s, Gladwell had risen to begin covering science and business news for the Washington Post, and gradually found that he excelled at simplifying complex information for a lay-audience. Gladwell began writing for the New Yorker in 1996, and has stayed there ever since. He rose to success after penning a New Yorker article called “The Tipping Point,” the basis for his first book. After publishing The Tipping Point in 2000, Gladwell became a popular guest speaker for businesses, think tanks, and universities. Since 2000, he’s published four successful books, including Outliers (2008) and, mostly recently, David and Goliath (2013). He continues to write for the New Yorker and appear as a guest speaker around the world.
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Historical Context of The Tipping Point

Gladwell’s book discusses many important historical events, including the American Revolution of the mid-1770s, the North American HIV epidemic of the 1980s, and the shooting epidemic of the late 90s (which has continued into the 2010s). During the HIV epidemic, the HIV virus spread to millions of people, primarily due to sexual intercourse and intravenous needle use. As Gladwell demonstrates in his book, the epidemic was caused largely by a small but disproportionately influential group of people who shared a large number of needles or had a large number of sexual partners. The shooting epidemic in the United States, Gladwell argues, truly began with the infamous Columbine shooting of 1999. Two students at Columbine High School used guns and bombs to murder 13 other people. The brutal shooting, Gladwell argues, has inspired other people to use guns and other deadly weapons to kill people in public settings—a horrific problem that continues to claim innocent lives 17 years later.

Other Books Related to The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point has been compared to several other works of “pop sociology” published between the 90s and the 2010s—and as with the authors of these other books, Gladwell has been alternately praised for making complex sociology and psychology accessible to a lay audience and criticized for oversimplifying science. Books in a similar vein include Freakanomics by Steven Levitt (2005), The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007), and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (2011).
Key Facts about The Tipping Point
  • Full Title: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
  • When Written: Originally a New Yorker article from 1996; expanded into a novel from 1997 to 2000
  • Where Written: New York City and Toronto
  • When Published: Fall 2000
  • Literary Period: “Pop sociology”
  • Genre: Sociology, psychology, non-fiction
  • Point of View: Third person, with frequent first-person asides.

Extra Credit for The Tipping Point

Polarizing figure. Malcolm Gladwell has published five bestselling books, and he’s become something of a “guru” for marketers, businessmen, and publicists. But there are some who’ve criticized Gladwell of “selling out”—using his reputation as a “hip” nonfiction author to repeat the same simplistic points and charge astronomically high speaking fees for doing so. Some figures, such as the Harvard professor Steven Pinker, have even argued that Gladwell has nothing original to say, and that his only talent is for oversimplifying other people’s ideas. On the other hand, Gladwell has also been dubbed the world’s “number-one public intellectual,” and continues to impress professors and students at universities all over the world. You can’t please everybody.