what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Monday, March 2, 2020

Does being an outsider improve the quality of someone’s writing?

A rather rambling post a couple of weeks ago tried to explore the insights which can come from straddling worlds which are normally kept separate. This drew on material from 3 years earlier about Ways of Seeing and about Role Conflict.   

I’m now shifting the focus to try to identify the qualities of a non-fiction book that make it “terrific” rather than merely “good”. I last tried that with Yanis Varoufakis whose books zing with zest….and only, I think, once before with detailed comments on a great book called Defending Politics
Perhaps this will allow me to add a further test to those I suggested in the famous post Why we need to ration non-fiction books.  

Like the good social scientist I am, I already have a hypothesis – namely that the feeling of being an outsider is a catalyst to identify and challenge “groupthink” and that writing is an effective way of exploring the multiple perspectives which subsequently open up…..
Clearly one can be a great writer without being (or feeling) an outsider - although I suspect that people who lack empathy won’t be great writers. But the weak point in my argument is the connection between creativity and writing. There’s no obvious reason why those with creative insights should be able to express them clearly in writing,,,,……
Or is there?    

I have already identified some of the people whose (non-fiction) writing I admire and the first column of the table below simply lists them – in the order in which they came to  mind. 
The second column is my own feeble attempt to label them….
The third will try to explain their “outsider” status which can relate to country, discipline, ethnicity or even gender…Significant that all but one are men? Adding Susan George, Polly Toynbee, Oriana Fallaci or Simone de Beauvoir at this stage is artificial….the point is that their names didn’t come to mind….

What do these great writers have in common?

Outsider in what sense?
Globetrotting political economist
Spent first 20 or so years in Greece; European perspective
Writer, maverick Oxford academic
Came to UK as a child (Russian parents); strong French connection
Central European journalist who made UK his home
Was a communist in Germany. Jailed in Franco Spain. Strong interest in science
Prolific Canadian/American economist and writer
23 when he left Canada – American civil servant handling rationing; Ambassador to India for JFK; attracted envy from academic colleagues
US economic historian
author of the famous “The Worldly Philosophers”; very much a generalist;
Irish management writer and guru
Said that the pressure of preparing 500 words for BBC “Thought for the Day” a great discipline for him
German academic and politician; EC Commissioner, Director of LSE; and Lord
Straddled German and British academic and political worlds - for 25 years apiece

Policy analyst, writer
had been a young journalist, Came to UK when 27

Maverick academic,

Often complained that his traditional brand of conservatism marginalised him

Anthropologist, activist, anarchist
Author of “Bullshit Jobs”
Failed to have his academic position renewed by Harvard. Anthropology, almost by definition, means being an outsider

Change of sex certainly gives one a new perspective!
And (s)he’s half English and half-Welsh – with this article explicitly referring to her felt “outsider”status
Journalist and film maker – culture and buildings
His autobiography “An Encyclopaedia of Myself” makes it fairly clear he felt he was an outsider

Academic (Prof of Journalism), writer
He graduated in English; Generalist; jewish
Author of “Cooked”, “In Defence of Food” etc
Pop philosopher
Early years in Switzerland
British political scientist; writer
Author of “How Democracy Ends”
Son of a famous father, his case simply doesn’t fit!
Development Economist
Graduated from South Korea; came to Cambridge for further studies and remained, Author of “23 things they don’t tell uoi about capitalism”
Israeli historian
Graduated Israel and now writes bestsellers like “Homo Sapiens”
Dutch historian/journalist
Author of “Utopia for Realists”


  1. I am very grateful for this post, which I have pointed to in a number of my own blog posts, and comments, as well as to the blog and videos by Wobag.

    We are told that there have been over 91,000 people admitted to hospital with flu like symptoms who have been tested for COVID19. Of these, only just over 8,000 have tested positive for Coronavirus. That means that the vast majority of people admitted to hospital with severe respiratory problems due to flu-like symptoms do not have COVID19, but either flu, or some other flu like virus. So, the real reason that hospitals are being over run is a bad year for the flu.

    So, the question that needs to be asked is, how many people admitted to hospital are actually suffering from flu or some other flu like virus rather than COVID19, and also, given that the number of deaths attributable to COVID19 is still only just over 400, how many deaths currently are attributable to flu, or other flu like viruses.

    When provided with this information, we might have a better understanding of what is actually going on. Because as I wrote earlier today, given that the number of confirmed COVID19 cases in Stoke amounts to just 4, its hard to see why this should be causing the NHS to be overwhelmed, or if it is it is an indication of just how unfit for purpose it has become following ten years of Tory austerity.

  2. Sorry made this comment to h wrong post. I was intending to put it in response to you post about Dr. Wobag.