Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Genius of Howard Becker

Great time for this article to appear in the latest issue of The New Yorker, right at the beginning of the semester. For students in Intro or Punishment, new students, or even former students who remember the name, Howard Becker is one of the giants of contemporary sociology. And as this article points out, even at 86 years old, Becker remains as much a force in the discipline and in society as he's ever been.

He has been a major figure in American sociology for more than sixty years. Now a brisk eighty-six, he remains most famous for the studies collected in his book “Outsiders,” of 1963, which transformed sociologists’ ideas of what it means to be a “deviant.” In America’s academic precincts, he is often seen as a sort of Richard Feynman of the social sciences, notable for his street smarts, his informal manner, and his breezy, pungent prose style—a Northwestern professor who was just as at home playing piano in saloons. (Indeed, the observations that put him on the path to academic fame, on the subculture of marijuana smokers, began while he was playing jazz piano in Chicago strip joints. “Not burlesque houses,” he says. “These were strip joints.”)

Yet it is his position in France that is truly astonishing. Two critical biographies of Becker have been published in French in the past decade, and “Beckerisme” has become an ideology to conjure with. YouTube videos capture him speaking heavily accented Chicago French to student audiences, and he now spends a good part of every year in Paris, giving seminars and holding court. His work is required reading in many French universities, even though it seems to be a model of American pragmatism, preferring narrow-seeming “How?” and “Who, exactly?” questions to the deeper “Why?” and “What?” supposedly favored by French theory. That may be exactly its appeal, though: for the French, Becker seems to combine three highly American elements—jazz, Chicago, and the exotic beauties of empiricism.

This summer, Becker published a summing up of his life’s method and beliefs, called “What About Mozart? What About Murder?” (The title refers to the two caveats or complaints most often directed against his kind of sociology’s equable “relativism”: how can you study music as a mere social artifact—what about Mozart? How can you consider criminal justice a mutable convention—what about Murder?) The book is both a jocular personal testament of faith and a window into Becker’s beliefs. His accomplishment is hard to summarize in a sentence or catchphrase, since he’s resolutely anti-theoretical and suspicious of “models” that are too neat. He wants a sociology that observes the way people act around each other as they really do, without expectations about how they ought to. Over the decades, this has led him to do close, almost novelistic studies of jazz musicians, medical students, painters, and photographers.
We do, admittedly, tend to peg him in the area of symbolic-interaction/learning theory or theories of deviance and crime generally, without acknowledging his contributions outside those areas.
The “field notes” gathered at the strip clubs and night spots helped inspire a seminal paper of 1953, “Becoming a Marihuana User,” in the American Journal of Sociology. (Asked if he knew so much because he was smoking weed himself, he says, “Yeah. Obviously.” And does he still smoke it? “Yeah. Obviously.”) 
Side bar: LOL.
Becker insists that his accomplishment in the paper was no more than the elimination of a single needless syllable: “Instead of talking about drug abuse, I talked about drug use.” “Deviance” had long been a preoccupation of sociology and its mother field, anthropology. Most “deviance theory” took it for granted that if you did weird things you were a weird person. Normal people made rules—we’ll crap over here, worship over here, have sex like so—which a few deviants in every society couldn’t keep. They clung together in small bands of misbehavior.

Becker’s work set out to show that out-groups weren’t made up of people who couldn’t keep the rules; they were made up of people who kept other kinds of rules. Marijuana smoking, too, was a set of crips, a learned activity and a social game. At a time when the general assumption was that drug use was private and compulsive, Becker argued that you had to learn how to get high. Smoking weed, he showed, was most often strange or unpleasant at first.

In the sociologese that Becker had not yet entirely discarded, he wrote, “Given these typically frightening and unpleasant first experiences, the beginner will not continue use unless he learns to redefine the sensations as pleasurable.” He went on, “This redefinition occurs, typically, in interaction with more experienced users, who, in a number of ways, teach the novice to find pleasure in this experience, which is at first so frightening.” What looked like a deviant act by an escape-seeking individual was simply a communal practice shaped by a common enterprise: it takes a strip club to smoke a reefer.
But elsewhere, he began synthesizing his visions related to deviance to other kinds of social behavior.
Jazz musicians smoked weed to get high, but one of the effects was to set them off from the night-club-going customers they despised. “This insight looks original only now,” Becker says. “If you were playing, that was all you heard: ‘Fucking squares, now look what they want!’ I remember learning to leave the stand quickly, before any one could ask me to play ‘Melancholy Baby.’ That was the stuff of every minute of what you were doing.” He adds, “The originality—I shouldn’t even call it that—was to pay attention to it as something worth talking about.”

This insight turned out to apply to a lot more than marijuana smokers. “My dissertation supervisor, Everett Hughes, loved the idea that anything you see in the lowly kind of work is there in privileged work, too, only they don’t talk about it,” he says. “Later on, he went to the American nurses’ association and they hired him as a consultant, and he said, ‘Let’s do some real research: why don’t you talk about how nurses hate patients?’ There was a shocked silence and then someone said, ‘How did you know that?’ ”

His experiences as a working photographer, like his earlier ones as a working jazzman, illuminated what eventually became his second important book, “Art Worlds” (1982), which advanced a collaborative view of picture-making. Like reefer-smoking among jazz musicians, artmaking was not the business of solitary artists, inspired by visions, but a social enterprise in which a huge range of people played equally essential roles in order to produce an artifact that a social group decided to dignify as art. Art, like weed, exists only within a world.
The article then discusses Becker's popularity in France as the kind of "anti-Bourdieu," while bringing his friend and contemporary, the also-legendary Erving Goffman.
This view of the world has something in common with that of Becker’s longtime friend and colleague Erving Goffman. “But Goffman got more interested in the micro-dramatics of things,” Becker points out, meaning, for instance, his studies of how people look when they lie. “I was always more interested in the big picture.”
Which is ironic, since the article ends with this observation from Becker:
“What does sociology bring to the table? Well, I’d expand the definition of sociology. Calvino, in ‘Invisible Cities,’ is a sociologist. Robert Frank, in ‘The Americans’—that’s sociology. There’s a thing that I’m sure David Mamet said once, though I’ve never been able to track it to its source. He was talking about the theatre, and he said that everyone is in a scene for a reason. Everyone has something he wants. Everyone has some plan he’s trying to pull off. ‘What’s the reason?’ is the real question. So that’s what you do. It’s like you’re watching a play and you—you’re the guy who knows that everyone is there for a reason.”
Essentially, Goffman's Dramaturgical Analysis, Presentation of Self, and Impression Management.

What a great read. At a time when most people would be resting on their laurels in comfy retirement, it's so good to see Becker still blessing us with his piercing insights, observations and theories.

And a great way to start the semester.

Cross posted to: The Cranky Sociologists

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