So, this winter break, I packed up five books on my vacation and managed to finish (at least) two: Soccernomics and Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life. Both books are very rewarding at different levels.
Soccernomics, true to its title, is about soccer and economics. It also proves to be an engaging read, even for someone like me who pretty much knows very little about the former of the two topics. One of the blurbs from The Guardian calls it "a sort of Freakonomics for soccer". Well, not exactly. In many ways, it is superior than the book it's compared to.
For one, Soccernomics lacks the kind of attention-deficit disorder plaguing Freakonomics. The book is tightly organized around topics that (I'd imagine) soccer fans would be really interested in. An instance: It started with explaining what is going on with the English team which, as shown by their data, is the team with the most loyal fans worldwide (they also go on to show why).
But as the book's title is not "English Soccer", it only lingers a bit on the English before moving on to other topics that illustrate how the tools of economics can be used to understand what is happening in soccer worldwide. They use empirical approaches to show among others, why soccer clubs are probably the worst-managed business on earth, or why game theory can help (or not) goal keepers during penalty-shootouts (and that professional players are brilliant mixed-strategists!). Most of the insights are novel and well-supported by data.
Meanwhile, I picked up Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life because of a recent interest in social capital. Mario Luis Small, a sociologist, examines how the way childcare centers in poor neighborhoods are organized would affect the social ties formed by their members. One form of social capital is social networks that allow individuals access to resources -- such as information, informal support etc -- owned by members of the networks.
If social capitals are important especially for poor people, then understanding how (top-down) institutions may affect their formation might help facilitate policies that would be beneficial to them. Small shows the role of institutional rules (e.g., when parents can pick up their children), and resources (e.g., ties with other organizations) would differentially affect the formation of social ties. The book uses detailed interviews as well as large survey data.
I find the book thoroughly enjoyable, although I need time to process its implications for my own research, or whether some of the findings are "obvious". It presents how these institutions act as a broker of social ties, firstly between its clients (through its institutional rules) as well as with other organizations. The book is organized well, along with a methodological appendix that I definitely have to at least skim.
So, today, a week before the break's end, there are three more to go on my list: This Time is Different, Rational Decisions, and (at the recommendation of the Economist), The Crisis of Islamic Civilization. Oh, well, there's always Summer 2010.
Happy New Year everyone!