Sociologist Howard S. Becker, PhB’46, AM’49, PhD’51, talks about his career studying deviance.
In 1948, 19-year-old Howard S. Becker was playing piano in a bar on West 63rd Street six nights a week. He was also a graduate student in sociology: “I thought, well, if I write down what happens there, those are field notes.” Becker’s (PhB’46, AM’49, PhD’51) early observations about jazz musicians eventually grew into the groundbreaking Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), one of the first books to establish “labeling theory.” Deviance, that theory held, was not an innate quality of someone’s actions, but an interaction between the so-called deviants and those who labeled them that way.
Becker argued that deviants are not simply breaking rules set down by mainstream society (“squares,” in jazz musicians’ argot). Instead, musicians and other deviants follow different, but often equally strict, rules of their own. In July the University of Chicago Press will reissue the Outsiders chapter “Becoming a Marihuana User” (originally published in 1953 in the American Journal of Sociology) as an 88-page book.
During his long, multifaceted career Becker has written more than two dozen books—about education, art, and sociology itself. His most recent book, What About Mozart? What About Murder? Reasoning from Cases (University of Chicago Press, 2014), takes apart what he calls “killer questions” aimed at his work on art and deviance.
Becker, who lives in San Francisco but spends autumns in Paris, is especially well regarded in France. In June he was named a Chevalier de L’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of France’s highest cultural honors: “Isn’t that cute?”
In an interview with the Magazine, edited and adapted below, Becker reflected on his life and career.
All that jazz
I started playing the piano when I was maybe 14 years old. I played with a bunch of kids who didn’t play any better than I did, for people our age who couldn’t afford real musicians.
Then at some point I bumped into some guys—by this point I was about 15, maybe even 16—who were working at a strip club, McGovern’s Liberty Inn, at Clark and Erie. The band was four pieces: two saxophone players, a piano player—that was me—and a drummer. And the two saxophone players, one played piano and one played drums, so there were three people on the stand at any one time. We just rotated all night, from nine to four. My father had a fit.
The reason I could get a job was that everybody who was over 18 was in the Army. The rest of the band were 4-F.
I worked with some very wonderful bands. Jimmy Dale, the band that rocks. It was racially mixed, which meant effectively that we only played black dances. I got to be very familiar with the bright light area of the South Side. I was quite at home on 47th and South Parkway [now Martin Luther King Drive].
The academic side of College life
I came [to the College] in my third year of high school. Do they do that anymore? It was wonderful. I felt like I’d been released from prison.
In humanities we read Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, I think. I got a real introduction to great literature. My father was a great reader. Sometimes he used to refer to himself as a “wordsmith.”
I don’t think anyone thought [playing jazz] was that unusual. The College, everything was unusual. You’d be walking across the quadrangle and you’d walk by some kid who looked like he was 11 years old and maybe was as old as 12, and he was conducting a learned discussion about Sigmund Freud with somebody. That kind of thing. People did all sorts of things.
So there I was, 18, and I have a bachelor’s degree. Of course my father would not hear of me quitting school. I was all set to go full-time into playing in bars. So I thought, well, I better go to graduate school.
Marijuana use and social control
Anybody who ever knew a junkie knows that being a junkie is no solution to any problem. It just creates a barrel of new problems. Marijuana, if you knew the people who used it, it was just patently obvious that that wasn’t true. It wasn’t nutty people who were suffering and have to assuage their difficulties with drugs. They’re having fun.
I was the first person to write a scientific article about marijuana that spoke not of marijuana abuse but of marijuana use. And everybody who read it saw that immediately as a very daring thing to do.
L’École de Chicago
I had started to work on Art Worlds (University of California Press, 1982) around 1970. A good friend gave me Raymonde Moulin’s book on the art market (Le Marché de la peinture en France, 1967). I didn’t know French, but I knew how to do it, because I’d done it with Portuguese. You look up every word on the first page, then 98 percent on the second page, and you get to the end of the chapter, you’re reading.
Eventually [Moulin] invited me to spend a month at her research center in Paris. At the same time another group, who called themselves the “Chicago School of Paris,” had translated Outsiders. So those were two of the connections I had to France.
If you read the language, people give you things to read. And if you read them, they’re very pleased and you have something to talk about. Generally when French sociologists deal with Americans, they have to learn English and they read what the Americans write, and the Americans never get around to reading what they write.
Books in progress
Well, yes. It’s a bad habit. There are two different projects.
One of them is concerned with errors in sociological data. Obvious things, like the interviewers for large survey organizations, a certain number of them cheat. I’m just going to start a big chapter on the census, because the census is wonderful as a source of problems. How do you measure race? That’s a well-known one. The census solution is very straightforward: whatever they say. Anyway, that’s the one project.
I have a good friend in Paris named Daniel Cefaï, a sociologist. He’s interested in the sociology department at the University of Chicago when I was a graduate student, which sometimes is given the name of the “second Chicago school.” It’s me and Erving Goffman [AM’49, PhD’53]; Eliot Freidson [PhB’47, AM’50, PhD’52]; and Joseph Gusfield [PhB’46, AM’49, PhD’54]. I was the living witness. So we decided we needed to write a book about that.
What readers misunderstand about his work
I’m tempted to say everything and nothing. It always astounds me what people read into what I write. There are all kinds of goofy interpretations. He says this, therefore he must mean that. It’s particularly terrible in France.