Howard Becker and Alain Mueller discuss Telling about Society

[A note by Alain Mueller, who conducted this interview, the original of which appears on the web site of the on-line journal Ethnographique. The original contains these acknowledgements: This interview was done in an Parisian apartment where Howard Becker spends some months every year on the 20th October 2008. It was originally done for the online journal where it is available in French with some video samples. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Howard Becker and his wife, Dianne Hagaman, for their kindness, Octave Debary for his invaluable help, Sofia Norlin for having taken her time to film the interview and Marion Schulze for her help and her never ending support. ]

Talking with Howard Becker was a great honor for me. I approached him like an "old sage" of sociology, a direct descendant of the quasi-mythic Chicago School. But, as he says himself, he doesn't feel comfortable with such honors. Describing himself as an ex-professional jazz pianist who originally chose sociology as a pastime, he defends a simple, direct and straight to the point sociology and invites all social scientists to follow him on this "perfectly theorized art of not using any theory", as Bruno Latour rightly describes it.

Becker is, therefore, a tactful workman who assembles the multiplicity of the pieces of social reality like a puzzle – to use a metaphor of Georges Perec, one of his favorite writers. His stance implies a systematic deconstruction of any preconceived imagery ordinarily used by social scientists. Becker's "hand-crafted" sociology therefore seeks to avoid authoritarian definitions of social reality's boundaries and prefers a sociology close to actors' logics and practices. How could he accept being confined to the role of an "old sage"?

In his last book, “Telling about Society,” Becker questions commonly accepted ways of social science. The first part presents a theoretical framework and the second part a collection of examples. The book’s main idea is to question the belief that there is a "best" way of doing sociology. By contesting the theoretical monopoly appropriated by academic sociology, Becker invites us to understand how works as different as mathematical models, drawings and figures, photography, documentary, theater or literature, tell about society in their own way. Therefore they fully deserve the attention of academic sociology, which seldom seems ready to share the status of the legitimate producer of discourse about social life. To these examples, Becker adds a new perspective of understanding of a more classical example: the sociology of Erving Goffman.]

Which way of writing (régime d'écriture) for which audience?

AM: Howard, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview with me for To begin, I would like to mention something that I often experience in my job of teaching-assistant in anthropology. It frequently happens that students writing their master’s thesis ask me about what to do and where to start. They feel completely overwhelmed by all the theories they have read and the data they collected on the field. Most of the time, I simply recommend that they forget a bit about theories, and read just one book, Writing for Social Scientists. In this book, they find an invitation to simply start to write down all they know concerning their fieldwork.

HB: What they know from their own work is the thing they have that no one else has. Everybody can read the books, and read the theories, but no one else knows what they know from the field.

AM: To free young scholars of guilt by reminding them that they are the best specialists of their own fieldwork is an idea that comes back in Telling about Society. One of the main ideas developed in this book is that every way of doing things is perfect, and that the content and the way to do it simply depends on the conventional agreements between the makers and the users. But a problem seems to remain: maybe I can influence the way students produce their work, the way they can innovate in their role of makers, but I can't really do the same with the users who are, in this context, the ones who evaluate their work, the professors. They still very often expect that the students prove themselves by showing that they understand theories or concepts, that they follow rigorous scientific formalities. I have the feeling that it creates a gap between what they do and what they are expected to do. So this leads me to my question which refers to both Telling about Society and Writing for Social Scientists: Is this way of doing social sciences a privilege accorded to those who already proved themselves?

HB: The situation of a student who has to write a thesis is a very peculiar writing situation. It doesn't happen very often and, once you write your thesis, you don't have to do it again. So it's not a very useful way to learn to do writing in social science because it's the one time in your life when two or three or four people have complete authority to make the judgment. This never happens again. And once you stop being a student and start being a working social scientist then you put your work out into the world, and as we say in English, you address it to "to whom it may concern", that is, to anyone who wants to pick it up and read it. That's a very different situation. And, the worst thing about being a student is that you learn ways of writing and of putting arguments together, which are perfect for that situation of being at the mercy of a very small number of people. That's what I mean when I say: Every way of doing it is perfect for something. The way students write is perfect for the situation they are in, which is a very authoritarian, unequal situation. Once they are in the world, in the world of social science, they address themselves to everybody, to everyone who might read it: now, 50 years from now, a hundred years from now.

AM: You precisely address Writing for Social Scientists to these people, to this specific context of writing a master or a Ph. D. thesis.

HB: Right. Because I want to warn them that what they're doing now is not what they will be doing the rest of their professional lives and that they should be careful not to learn very bad habits. Because that's what happens. We train people—I never did, but my colleagues did— train people to write in this terrible way which will be of no use later on. But students think “Well, yes, this is the right way, this is the way you are supposed to do it” and then you generate a very vicious circle because they write that way for the journals they publish in, the journals have no choice because everything they see is written that way, so they publish it and then if I look in the journals to see how it should be done I see this kind of writing. On the other hand, if you want anyone to read it who isn't a specialist in this kind of arcane, esoteric writing then you have to think. It's very different if you write a book as opposed to an article for a review. Books, after all, people have to buy books and if they don't want to read it they won't buy it. So there is a strong pressure to write in a way that people can read. The journals, the libraries buy them anyway, and nobody cares if it's readable or not readable. So you have the result we have. You see, you pushed one of my buttons, Alain.

AM: So, if I apply the theoretical framework you present in Telling about Society to what you just said, I understand it in these terms: these are two very different interpretive communities. This process of writing a thesis creates a very specific community of academics.

HB: A specific community that includes me, the candidate with my jury, which means three or four or five people. That's a tiny community. I don't care at that moment if anyone else in the world reads, likes or doesn't like my work, only these five people. Because they are the ones who say "Yes" or "No".

AM: So you would suggest that students play the game of writing about theories?

HB: Well, if they must, they must.

AM: Their users need to read it.

HB: But students very often exaggerate what the professors want.

AM: And forget that they are the best specialists of their own fieldwork.

HB: Right.

Flashback on  the fabrication of Telling about Society

AM: In Telling about Society, you propose a very fine-grained analysis of different specific worlds or "interpretive communities" that produce accounts about society. You also underline the necessity for both makers and users to cooperate in following the tacit rules of each of these specific communities. Could you open the black box of the creation of this book? What is its biography? How did you end up gathering articles you already wrote and writing the part called ideas?

HB: The book is divided into two parts. One is "Ideas", the other is "Examples". I had written many of the pieces that are among the examples over a period of years because I was interested in all of this. I read George Perec and I thought that Perec really was a kind of sociologist and then I found, of course, that he said that himself. So I was glad that he agreed with me. I read Calvino and thought that he was a kind of sociologist and I was interested in the fact that these writers could produce work that doesn't look like conventional sociology but does some of the same kind of work, gives us some of the same kind of results.

But, to tell you the truth about the history of the book: In a way it began for me when I studied photography in 1970. I had a year’s leave and I spent it in California at a research center where they offered to pay for any training we might want. They would pay the cost of the classes. But I think they meant if I wanted to study Chinese or Russian or if I wanted to study Computers, which was then, you know, a very kind of secret subject almost. But I said, "No. I want to study photography." Well, I don't think the people who were in charge of this place thought that that really was something useful to do but they were trapped by their own words. So they paid for me to go to art school and take classes in photography, which I did. And I became acquainted with what you can call the literature of photography, the books of photographs by people like Robert Frank and Walker Evans and many other well known photographers who did what's usually called documentary photography. That is, photography which has as an explicit aim to tell you something about the social world. Books like Evans’ American Photographs and Robert Frank's book The Americans were exactly that kind of work. They might have now and then denied that they were doing social science; many photographers do that because they don't want people to think they aren't artists. But, I mean, they were doing a kind of social science. And once you start thinking that way, then you see many other things. In drama, you see plays like Ibsen’s or George Bernard Shaw’s plays. There was one that I realized very quickly was perfect for my purpose, Shaws’ play Mrs Warren's Profession, which is a kind of Fabian socialist analysis of the phenomenon of prostitution put in dramatic form.

I collected a lot of examples like this and I wrote things, I wrote pieces about photography especially, I wrote quite a bit about photography, and I began to teach photography. I taught it in a Sociology Department, but my students came from all over the university. I learned a lot about photography because the best way to learn anything is to teach it. It's a little bit at the expense of the students, but someone has to pay for me to learn and it was them. So I became really interested in this, I became very involved in photographic communities and did a lot of teaching. In the middle 70s or early 80s, my colleagues and I at Northwestern got a rather large grant from a foundation for a project that had a very grandiose name: "Modes of Representation of Society." And it was just a way for me to get some people to think with, get students to do some work on subjects that were related to this and to push the ideas along. Many of the people who gave us the money were convinced that it was foolishness, that it would never result in anything and for 20 years it seemed they were right. Because aside from me writing these various pieces, which appeared in all sorts of scattered places, nothing much came of the project.

And then, in the late 90s I began to teach a class, I taught it twice. I met a colleague at Northwestern in a department called Performance Studies. At the time there were only two departments of performance studies in the world, as far as I know one at Northwestern and one at New York University, and my colleague, Dwight Conquergood, was a kind of anthropologist although his focus was on . . . he liked to say that he studied "society as performance," as a continual round of performances. So he and I got the idea to teach a class together. Half the students would come from social sciences and the other half would come from his department and from the department of drama where they trained actors and directors and so on. We taught that class twice and it was absolutely wonderful. The first time, due to a strange administrative error, we had twice as many students as we intended. We thought we would have twenty, but we had forty. And Dwight had wanted . . . because he came from the performance side he was more interested in theories, because I came from the social science side, I was more interested in performance. Well, we didn't have time for the theories, because the idea was that every student would have to do one or two or three performances of Social Science. “Well, what is that?” “Whatever you like. Just something that you think has some Social Science content.”

AM: You give some examples in the book of what happened then.

HB: Yeah, you remember the examples. It was very interesting because Dwight and I both had the same idea: that every student did the only thing he or she could think of. They could not think of anything other than just this one thing. But they all did something completely different from what the others did. And we felt like we had struck gold. And in the class, instead of discussing theories we just discussed the performances. What they had done, how they had made those choices. And especially, questions came up very early: “Well, is this true?” I mean, this was a real concern, because everybody realized that, if viewers believed that what the performance told them was true, then it had one effect. If it was an invention then it didn't have no effect, but it had a different effect. And this came to a head one day when one of the students, for his performance, came into the room with a handful of cards and on each card there was written a woman's name, a female name, and he passed them out. Everybody got a card and he said, "Ok, now, ask me anything you like". So, somebody said, "Well, who is Mary Jones?" and he said that “That was my first grade teacher in school when I was 6 years old.” "And who is Patsy Smith?" "That's the first girl I ever kissed." "And who is Sarah Brown?" "That's my aunt. She's married to my father's brother". Then he paused and said "And they have been having an affair for the last five years." And everything in the room stopped. There was not a sound. And then somebody said, "Is that true?"

AM: He refused to answer.

HB: Well, he stopped for a beat, you know, and then he said, "I don't think I'll answer that," and people were very angry. We had had a big discussion in which the art students, students from drama, had originally defended the idea that it needn't to be true—you know, the story of Nora in “A Doll's House” doesn't have to be true to be a play but if it is true, it's a different story and it has a different kind of consequence for the person who sees it. And I remember the example of Dickens, because in his novels, I mean he was a journalist for a while, and he was very concerned that his stories were true. No, there were no exact people like the people in Bleak House, those weren’t real people. He has a wonderful preface to Bleak House, which is the story of an estate, which is disputed and the two children who should receive this inheritance never see it because the lawyers fight about it until they have spent all the money on lawyers and there’s nothing left to inherit. And he said, "People have complained to me that this is an exaggeration".

AM: it can't be true.

HB: It can't be true. And he said: “Far from it: I restrained myself. There are much worse cases than this in the legal records and I can show them to you.”

AM: The social reality is more creative than its representation.

HB: Well, he said he had to calm it down. Because it was too . . . the reality was too extreme. So I knew that it made a difference if Dickens’ story was a fairytale or was a more of less accurate account of how that legal system worked.

And so I began looking everywhere, essentially for two things: Looking for the science in art and looking for the art in science. Because, of course, it's the same thing in either direction. So the real genesis of the book is when I taught that class twice and after each class there would usually be a very vigorous discussion. Students would really get into it and be excited and have strong opinions and I would go home and write pages of notes and ideas, which became the skeleton of the book. All the ideas about users and makers. That is the idea that there are some people who make these things and other people—these things being plays, scientific reports, photographs, films etc.—and other people who use them. They read them, see them, listen to them, and so on. That is not to say that these are two separate categories, because very often the people who make them are also among the users. And there are certain kinds of representations which are almost entirely made by people who also are the only people who use them. A relevant example is mathematical models for which you have to have a lot of mathematical knowledge and so people who know how to make them are also usually the only ones who know how to read them.

AM: It is even the same for sociology itself. I mean, you just mentioned journals before it’s the same system basically.

HB: Right.

What kind of users for this book?

AM: You just underlined the fact that it was pretty innovative what you did during this lecture. It reminds me of this idea of opposition between innovation and standardization developed in the book. I would like to apply this framework of analysis to the book itself: who do you actually address this book to? In which interpretive community does this book play a role? Is it addressed to sociologists, or to artists, or photographers?

HB: Well, like every author, I want many people to be interested in that book, many communities. And in fact, a successful book usually appeals to more than one audience.  So, yes, I am interested in social scientists, certainly, but I’m also interested in speaking to photographers and film makers, and novelists and people like that. My first experience after I studied photography in California, I came back to Chicago, and the first thing that happened was students began asking me to teach a class. But the second thing that happened was photographers began to call me and they’d say, I remember the first one, this man had six months of what we would call fieldwork in “Louisiane profonde”, you know, in the back bayous of Louisiana with Cajun people, where he made hundreds of photographs. He was puzzled because he knew how to make a good-looking photograph, he knew that, but he realized that he needed ideas to carry the whole project and he didn’t know how to work with ideas. They don’t teach that in art school. And so he came to me with a box of a hundred or a hundred and fifty photographs, and said “Can we talk about these? Maybe you can help me to get some ideas about what I can do with them, how I can put them together.” Because individually they were interesting, but the real interest was in the large project, the hundreds of pictures he had.

AM: To build a project with all of these?

HB: Yeah, a book, or an exhibit. And so we talked about that, and I realized that I knew how to talk about ideas, and it was helpful to him. So I understood that there are people in that community who would be glad for some thoughts about how you can bring ideas to bear on photographs. Because, quite often, the big idea that animates many documentary photographs is something very simple and not very helpful. The really good projects like Frank, like Evans, are much more complex, the ideas are subtle and complicated, but for a lot of people, the only idea is “Oh, look how these poor people are suffering!” That can be the beginning, but it can’t be the only thing you have to say. It’s not enough for someone to look at fifty pictures of people suffering in the same way, you have to think about more than that.

AM: But it can be the same case for ethnographies.

HB: Yes, it can, but of course people are criticizing them constantly, the ethnographers, for their lack of theories, their lack of ideas. But photographers very often will say, “Well, it’s just my personal view”, which is . . . . Yes, it’s your personal view, but why should I be interested in your personal view? Tell me something else. So I think there’s an audience among people like that. The theater is filled with work that is very explicitly designed to be about things that people are concerned about in the organization of society. I like very much the chapter about drama in the book because it starts out with a theory, which is Bakhtin’s idea, dialogical interaction, and how great novels make room for many voices. That’s why he likes Dickens so much, because Dickens is full of different voices. And then I found three examples that I think are just wonderful: the play of Shaw that I mentioned, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”; the play by Caryl Churchill called “Mad Forest,” which is about the fall of the Ceausescus in Romania and which has a very striking way of presenting, a very sociological analysis of crowd formation, a very specialized sociological topic; and then Wallace Shawn’s play, “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” which makes very clear how much we depend on the playwright to provide us with the moral compass for the story the play tells us, how much we depend on a playwright to say “These are the good people!” and “These are the bad people!” and “Don’t be confused, I’m going to make it clear so that you know that these are bad and these are good,” like the old western movie convention: a black hat for the villain, and a white hat for the hero. So I would like to think that all those kinds of people would be interested in the book and, you know, in my greatest fantasies I imagine that there could grow up a new interpretive community, which would be made up of all these people talking to each other. 

Questioning the monopoly of academic sociology

AM: But on the other hand, if I consider the highly professionalized world of academic sociology, where makers and users are almost the same people as we just discussed before and as you say in the book, what you propose is actually a critical view of sociology, it’s a sociology of a sociology, and I was wondering what can be the reaction of these people when they read the book, because I was wondering if you don’t saw off the branch they are sitting on, you know what I mean?

HB: Yes, yes.

AM: Because I think they think that (academic) sociology is the only, or maybe rather the best way of speaking about society.

HB: I would like to underline two ideas here. The first one is that everything changes. So the world of academic sociology now is not what it was fifty years ago, not what it was thirty years ago, not what it was ten years ago and certainly not what it will be ten years from now. Things change all the time. So they may feel that this is the right way and the only way but that won’t last very long, because there will be new developments, there will be new people, universities will change in some ways, sources of money will change and one thing I know for sure about academic people is that wherever the money is, they will be there. One part of this change is that the students are not the teachers and when they become teachers, they will teach what they want to teach and it won’t be the same.

AM: This refers to the innovative part of every community, an idea developed in the book.

HB: Yes, and it’s always changing. I mean when I wrote Outsiders many years ago the established theory of so-called deviant behavior was Robert Merton’s theory; everybody more or less accepted it and a number of us began to approach this from a different point of view and within ten years that became the new idea, “the new idea,” which was an old idea, became the dominant idea, just like that.

AM: That’s a bit Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm change.

HB: Yeah, exactly. But it wasn’t really. When Kuhn talks about paradigms, he’s talking about something much more fundamental, because the idea of labeling theory I was interested in was after all an old idea in sociology. The idea is simple, the way people define things creates a reality, the idea is usually attributed to W. I. Thomas in 1918. So it’s not a new idea, it’s an application of that idea to an area where it hadn’t been applied, but it’s not really a revolution. In academic departments where people had been teaching the old theory for years, it was sort of a revolution because they were accustomed to teaching things the way they always had and they didn’t want to change, it was the young people who created that change. So no, I don’t think I’m sawing off the limb I’m sitting on, I think it’s really the wrong metaphor, Alain, because the appropriate metaphor is not the limb but the tree, and the tree grows. A more appropriate metaphor is the one that Latour uses, which is of a network, a network of ideas, if you saw this one off, there are many other ways to go.

AM: What I found very funny, you say there’s no better way than another to tell about society, but when you talk about David Antin’s work, you say with humor that you are very imperialistic, always wanting to call smart people who do interesting work sociologists.

HB: Yes!

AM: So that might make us think that you still have a slight conviction that sociology is a bit better than other ways to tell about society. Is it the case?

HB: Well, no. I meant that whenever anybody does something smart, that must be sociology. Maybe I should say a word about what’s the best way. When I say I mean that every way is the best way to do something, I really mean that, but it requires you to be very specific about what you’re doing. It’s the best way to do what? Which includes for whom. That’s the best way to tell this kind of story to those kinds of people in this situation, not good for anything else. The example I give is the one of the map I would need to get to your house. Well, now I can use google maps and GPS systems and so on . . . .

AM: But a self-made map still could be better  . . . .

HB: It still could be better because it can say “when you reach this street, you’ll see a big sign that says, ‘Red something’” . . . .

AM: Yes, because it’s produced for one user . . . .

HB: It’s produced for me. It’s perfect to get from my house to your house. It’s not good for someone else to get from his house to your house. Part of it will be, but another part not. The important thing about that statement is the best way to do something and to be explicit about this something is what it directs you to do, that’s why I say useful.

AM: But it can be disturbing. For me, as a social scientist, I thought a lot about it and I realize that I can’t get rid of my own imperialistic assumption that there must be one method which is better than the other.

HB: The cure for that is always to add “is better for what?”. Because no way is better for everything. It’s not even good for every sociological purpose, it’s good for some things, so asking that question really is the cure. It’s the antibiotic you take to fight this disease grabbing you.

AM: So you mean I could be kind of blinded by the tacit rules of doing representations in my own community, which is anthropology, or sociology?

HB: Absolutely, and most of us are, because that’s the world we live in. The people who constitute these communities are the people we give our work to, the people who already agree with us about all of those foundational questions. So the cure for it is something that I also think is good for every aspect of social science work, which is not to spend all your time with social science people. It seems to me very obvious that if you live in a world where everyone you know does the same kind of work for the same kind of people, you will all agree on almost everything. That is not good for social science. And conversely, the more time you spend with people who do other kinds of work, film makers, actors, mathematicians, biologists, people who study volcanoes, the better it is, because it opens your mind up, you see other ways of thinking and doing things.

AM: But what’s disturbing is that you could have the feeling that everything you do is for nothing actually, because it only speaks to my community, it has no other impact.

HB: Another way to think about this is that every work creates its own community, it finds the people who can use it, who are interested in it. Many works of literature are used over and over again by different communities for different purposes. I’m just now beginning to fulfill a dream I’ve had for a long time, which I will never finish, but it’s to read Balzac’s “Comédie humaine” en français, so I started Le père Goriot. Balzac certainly was not thinking about me when he wrote this work, and what I might use it for, but I found it, and I am reading it, and I will use it. It's in the same way that surely Italo Calvino didn’t explicitly have in mind that sociologists should study Invisible Cities as a guide for their own work. Well, I shouldn’t say surely, because he said that his friends who were urbanists told him that they found his work about cities very interesting, and he was not displeased, he was very happy. So I think works don’t just find an already existing community, they find people who might become a community.

AM: Who can make something new out of it. It reminds me of the cases in which anthropological works are used by native people to create their identities and to claim their rights.

HB: Yes, or by filmmakers to make films out of it.   

From books to Smellavision

AM: But if you really want to not just stick to one way of telling about society, if you also want to integrate photography or films for example in your research and your scientific work, aren’t books finally outdated? Isn’t it better to do an Internet page where you would have films on it, scientific text, photos on it? As researchers, shouldn't we find new ways  for “telling about society”?

HB: Well, surely. I mean, all the ways are good, right. I really do believe that. So a book is a great way to do certain things. The problem with a book is that you can’t have a film in it, you can have photographs but you can’t have a film. You can’t have a lot of things. And so, for example, the thing that I think is maybe the most interesting thing you can do with a computer is not just that you can have images as well as words, but that you can have links. So that you don’t have one fixed way of seeing the work. But rather you can go through alternate routes. I learned about that very early from Michael Joyce, a friend of ours who writes hypertext fiction—and you know there’s earlier versions of that like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch for instance—but when it’s implemented on the computer, it’s just wonderful, you read a little text and if you click on this word it goes to this screen next, and if you click on this word it goes to a different one, and maybe it tells you, when you click a link, where it will take you but maybe it doesn’t. You click on a word that seems good to you, and the text goes in one direction. And you can put together a fiction, which Michael did. It’s very complex and it has this strange property that you don’t know if you’ve finished reading it, because it doesn’t come in a physical form, page one, page two until you reach a page at the end, the last page. That I think is the most interesting thing.

AM: But in the case of books, if you want to have photos in them they get really expensive. And if you talk about something vivid, you can’t just limit yourself to photos. It is difficult to show something really lively, so then a film would be perfect. Therefore scholars start to put a DVD in their books.

HB: Cost is certainly a major factor, we didn’t talk about that. But that’s a major thing to do with every kind of representations. How much is this going to cost? When Dianne made “Howie Feeds Me,” this big computer piece, the original idea was to put it on a DVD. But that gets quite expensive very quickly. It had to be a DVD, because ten years ago, if you put it up on the web to download, it would take all day and all night. Now it takes one second and it’s done. In a relatively short time, that was a big change. But originally it was unthinkable to have it be downloadable. Now it’s commonplace. So if you follow the rule “Everything is a good way to do something,” and you decide what you want to do, given the constraints that you have, physical constraints of the form, like you can’t put a movie on a book. On the other hand, another thing we found out when Dianne made the piece is that you don’t know what it’s going to look like, because everybody’s screen is not the same as the screen that you made it on and at some point you have to say, “Well, OK, I don’t know what it’s going to look like because they may have a terrible screen and there’s nothing I can do about that.” In the same way, I can make the book perfect. But it’s only perfect in the way I intended if you read it from the front to the back. And some people, when they read a book, they read the first page and then they read the last page, and read a page here and a page there, then after they read fifteen to twenty pages that way, then they decide “Maybe I’ll read it”, which is not the way you intended it. The Internet is great, but there’s always innovations, I’m waiting for the one that integrates odors, smells, it used to be a joke, you know, you would have Smellavision, and at one time they had films where they gave you a card, and you would scratch the card at a certain point in the film  “Ok, scratch No. 1”. You smelled it,  “Ahh, jungle.”

Professional jazzman or pastime sociologist?

AM: It’s a question I should have asked you before because you already spoke a bit about it. I wanted to ask you why you chose sociology as a professional way of telling about society. Because you just told me that you were a photographer, I know you are a musician, which is also a way to speak about society I think, so how did you end up with the idea of specializing yourself in sociology as a professional?

HB: That question takes something for granted that it shouldn’t.

AM: Which is?

HB: That I chose. Because I didn’t choose.

AM: It’s sociology that chose you.

HB: No, well, both, I mean, it was a gradual thing. When I finished university as an undergraduate, I was quite young, and still living with my parents, and my father was very unhappy that I was spending all my nights playing in bars, playing the piano, which was the thing I was really serious about, and so I thought, well, the way to keep him from getting too upset was to continue to go to school, which meant I had to go to graduate school. But what field should I go to graduate school in? Because I was not interested in an academic career, but I thought about English literature, because I liked to read and read a lot, so that would be good. But then I read a book called Black Metropolis, which is a great work of urban anthropology done in the 1930’s in Chicago and it’s a really remarkable, very large study of the Black community on the South Side of Chicago and I just loved this book because I liked the idea of anthropology, and it’s a very romantic idea to be an anthropologist, you know, go off to Bali, or some place like that, or the Upper Xingu in Brazil, but I knew that if you do that you have to live in these terrible places, and eat terrible food, and I didn’t want to do that, I’m a city kid, so I would like to do anthropology, but I would like to still live in Chicago or San Francisco, or Paris, some nice, reasonable city.

AM: But I think at that time the frontier between urban sociology and urban anthropology was already quite hazy?

HB: Nobody called themselves an urban anthropologist then. I think, I’m not sure, but I know one place where that started was in Brazil, during the dictatorship in the 60’s and 70’s. The dictatorship forbade sociology, you couldn’t do any academic sociology, so the people doing that kind of sociology immediately called themselves urban anthropologists. Anthropology was OK. The dictatorship, the leaders, were not worried about that. But I think, the kind of sociology that I found, we would now think of this as urban anthropology, or anthropology in contemporary society, yes.

So I just went to school, because I didn’t want my father to get upset and I didn’t have any trouble in graduate school because I never worried about school, it was simply a pastime, it was a hobby. The serious business was playing the piano. So I didn’t chose sociology, I just kept doing it and then, one day, I had a Ph.D., not trying very hard, not because I am brilliant, but because all my colleagues were worrying and worrying, just because they were very serious. If you don’t worry it’s not that difficult to go through graduate school successfully. And then I realized two things. One is the kind of music business I was in was probably not such a wonderful thing to do forever, because the people I worked for were small time criminals, you know, Mafiosi, and so on, and that probably wasn’t good, and the things that would be more successful weren’t really so interesting, like writing music for advertising, which I think I could have done very well. So I thought, well, maybe I should try sociology, which I did, and in the same way, you know, you don’t choose these things, you do something and that leads to something else.

AM: The network metaphor again!

HB: Yes. You just keep doing things and pretty soon, through a variety of historical accidents, I ended up in a very good position, when sociology in the United States boomed, and suddenly there were hundreds of positions available and not enough teachers. We wish we had that situation now! But I tell people who say to me, you know, like you approach the old sage and say: “ What is the secret of your success?” and I tell them “The secret is to choose the right year to be born!” This is very important.

AM: If you would have to live all of this again, would you make the same choices? Do you have any regrets?

HB: No I don’t have any regrets. I would say that I’m very glad to be finished with working in universities, because I think they are changing in ways that I wouldn’t like very much, you know, too bureaucratic, too much concerned with assessments . . . .

AM: . . . and about money as you said before . . . .

HB: Yes, it’s not a good time. When I said I was born in the right year, I meant I was born in a year that meant that when I was ready to go to work in sociology there was a lot of financial support for the kind of work I like to do, and without all of that bureaucracy and so forth, so I was pretty fortunate to be there and, you know looking back, now, it looks like a Golden Age. 

It's the activity that counts, not the label

AM: I wanted to come back to the distinction between users and makers. You show that the labor is divided between users and makers with meticulous care in every community and you show that they can’t exist without each other.

HB: No, no, that’s not true. They can exist. Because the makers can just make things for themselves. That’s the limiting case.

AM: Yes, they become their own users. Concerning this point, I wanted to ask you if the categorization itself between users and makers still makes sense? Is there a risk of reification by allocating the role of making to only one specific group?

HB: Absolutely, of course. But there is a simple solution: The solution is – and it’s one I recommended in a lot of other places – which is not to treat people as kinds of people.

AM: This reminds what Latour says when he says that there are no groups but only group makings.

HB: Well, I think there are only activities. There is the activity of making this kind of stuff. There is the activity of using it. And the question is what’s the division of labor. Which people do the making, which people do the using. And very often the same people do both. Everybody in a film community, I’m sure, in Hollywood, let’s say, is also a very avid consumer of films. Not all the people who see films also make films. But I’m just as sure that all the people who make films see many films, in fact I know they do.

AM: So makers and users are not groups but they are activities.

HB: Well, they can be a group.

AM: In a specific context?

HB: Yeah, I mean they could be a group. I suppose that the people who use mathematical models in sociology probably all know each other, and do constitute some kind of fairly cohesive group. But that’s unusual.

AM: You speak about this common sociological mistake of the hierarchy of credibility.

HB: Yes, in “Tricks of the Trade” I talk about this very specifically, about the idea that you shouldn’t confuse types of people and types of activity. Just because someone does this doesn’t mean that they are some specific kind of person. There’s this wonderful character, in Doris Lessing’s’ novel “The Four-Gated City,” who hears voices. Nobody is there but she hears people speaking and so she is diagnosed as schizophrenic and she believes that she’s schizophrenic. Well, too bad, you know. And then, in the course of the novel, which goes into—I think it must have been written 40 or 50 years ago now—early 2000 and at that point they discover that there are indeed people who have the capacity to hear other people’s thoughts and she was one of the early ones to show this capacity. But at the time when she says she’s schizophrenic, she says: “I don’t mind when people say I’m schizophrenic. I am. But that’s not all I am.” That’s just something, one thing, about me. So the idea that there’s someone characterized by this activity, that may be true, but it’s the activity that’s the important thing analytically. 

AM: And it’s very respectful with social actors because you let them play a role in creativity.

HB: No, I don’t think I’m respectful. I think I’m only trying to be respectful of reality. I don’t worry about whether this is respectful or not. I want to be sure that I’m not saying something that’s obviously false. That if someone else goes to look they will see what I saw.

AM: I wanted to ask the same question concerning the idea of interpretive community. Is there a risk of reifying these groups? Because all these communities are probably far from being homogenous, stable and clearly identifiable.

HB: To the degree that they are really communities, which is something you have to find out empirically. But you can’t just say it’s a community as a convenience. It carries a lot of associated meaning, and we have to discover in the particular case if it’s true. Sometimes, like the theater community of Paris, or the theater community of Chicago, that’s probably a more or less definable group of people. I mean people come and people go, but these people are actually are interacting with each other physically in the same space. The community of people who make use of mathematical models might never see each other. They might live in fifty places far separate around the world. So it’s not the same kind of community.

AM: So you actually use the concept of community as an ideal type.

HB: Rather like sort of a probe for my imagination to push me to look for this, look for that, see if it’s there, but I’m not concerned ever whether this is a community or isn’t a community. It’s not an interesting question. The interesting questions are “What is it?” And “What are these people doing with each other?”

Standardization Vs Innovation

AM: In chapter five, you discuss the bipolarity between innovation and standardization existing in each interpretive community. I was wondering how much these categories fluctuate because it seems that there are worlds, and here I’m thinking of the arts, where innovation is the standard, you have to be innovative to be standardized. What do you think about it?

HB: Yes, it's true, you have to be innovative in that kind of world, but not too much. Well, you have to be innovative in science, too. If I do the same study that you do and get the same result, no one is very interested. Everybody says it’s very good to replicate studies, but nobody believes it. Nobody wants to be the one who did the replication. You want them to say: “Müller found” not “f Becker ound and Müller also found”. So it’s more a question of what’s regarded as innovative. There are people who make changes and everybody says “Oh, you’re right”, not a problem, and then someone does something else that is a big problem for everybody. It happens in all kinds of communities, especially in the arts. The new book that Rob Faulkner and I just finished is about the jazz repertoire and innovations and what goes into the jazz repertoire and innovations may be very upsetting to a lot of people. Even though, yes, of course, everybody wants to be individual and unique but not so unique.

AM: This reminds me a lot of my own fieldwork because in the hardcore punk scene you have to be standardized, you have to sing the same lyrics that one band in Washington D.C. did 20 years ago, you have to do the same moves on stage and if you are quite a bit innovative you are not hardcore anymore, you don’t belong to the scene anymore.

HB: Every art form has the whole range of examples. When people do a modern-dress version of Shakespeare, for instance, or some classic opera (even if it’s no longer very shocking today), many people are very upset. “That’s not the way La Traviata is supposed to be done, they wearing business suits, it’s ridiculous.” But for other people that’s fine. Similarly, when Orson Welles did a modern dress “Julius Caesar” in the 1930s, making obvious sort of references to contemporary Italy and Mussolini and fascism, etc., people were just absolutely shocked and very upset. The “right way” to do Shakespeare, you wear these funny clothes. You certainly don’t wear a suit.

What's next? The projects of Howard Becker

AM: And this is a question of times again as you said before. You know, when I was a teenager I did like hardcore fanzines and the last question was always “Is there a last question you want to ask yourself?”. So, is there a last question you want to ask yourself?

HB: Oh, I don’t know. I wonder what I’m going to do next. That’s an interesting question. Because, I know, I will do something.

AM: And what’s the next project?

HB: I have to do something to stay out of trouble. Well, there are two projects I am thinking about now which I’ll surely do. One is, my friend Faulkner and I are going to do something which will be a big departure for me. He’s a wonderful fieldworker. But he’s also very competent in elaborate statistical manipulations. And he’s put together a database about accusations of criminal activity on the part of large cooperations. So he’s got maybe a thousand cases that he put together from newspapers and legal proceedings and so on and he wants to work with this to develop some kind of theory which would be a big addition to the theory of deviance because it would focus on the process of accusation which is something that a Brazilian friend of mine, Gilberto Velho, wrote about in a really important article 20 or 25 years ago which no one has paid any attention to, unfortunately. For me this would be a way to learn how to do, you know, elaborate statistical things, which I would like to learn.

The other thing is more or less the way I put the Telling About Society together. I have a number of papers which rely on the operation of comparison to make the points they make. But they are about a variety of things, about drug use for example. There is one paper I love, it’s called “How much is enough?” It’s about how much preparation should a city make for a heat wave or a snow storm or an earthquake and it ends up with a question which speaks to every academic, which is “How many books is it enough to have?”

If you don’t already have this problem, you surely will. Your house will fill up with books, everybody’s house does, and you don’t want to get rid of of any of them. Soon it becomes a terrible burden, which we had to confront when we moved from Seattle, after we retired, to our apartment in San Francisco. In Seattle we had a big house. I had a big office full of books. We had a big house full of books. And in San Francisco we had an apartment that was filled with books. So, there was no room. And we started, it was so painful, I can’t tell you. The first 100 books to pick out to sell, that’s hard, but after that it was easy.

AM: You sold them.

HB: We sold maybe, I don’t know,1500 books. But the first 10 are the hardest. After that, it’s much easier. And it’s good because you realize that most of them were books you haven’t touched which you realize when you pick them up and they are filthy, covered with dust and you aren’t going to read them again, if you ever read them at all, and there is somebody somewhere who really who wants them. We had a friend who deals in old books and he was very glad to find these books, some of them, the ones he could sell. But he had a friend in San Francisco, in Berkeley, who was ready to take the rest of them. So I had this wonderful thing. I called him up and said, “Gino, I’m a friend of Louis and I want to sell you some books” and he had already bought some of the books I sold to Louis, so he had an idea what kind of books I was talking about and I said: “But there is one condition that you have to respect.” He said, “I know, I have to take them all.” “How did you know?” He said: “Well, you know, you aren’t the first professor I’ve bought books from.” And he came and he took them all. I had a pile of books a meter high in the room I work in, sitting on the floor, 700 or 800 books at least. And he came and it was really funny because he picked one up and, after he looked at 3 or 4, he said: “Well, I can give you a price for each book and I’ll stay here all day and we’ll do that. Or I will just take them all away now and I’ll send you a check.” Gone! Well, they weren’t gone. It took him the rest of the morning to carry all the books down the stairs, they were very heavy. Anyway, that’s a long diversion, so I’ve got these papers that all use the operation of comparison and what I’d like to do is understand what I did when I did the comparisons they are based on. You know, to dissect that operation and see if I can explain how it’s done, so that everybody doesn’t have to invent it for themselves. It may be that a lot of people have written about this. So maybe there’s nothing left to say, but I think maybe I’ll find something. Those are two projects.


A number of books are mentioned in the text. Here are the references.

Antin, David. 1976. talking at the boundaries. New York: New Directions.

—. 1984. tuning. New York: New Directions.

—. 1993. what it means to be avant-garde. New York: New Directions.

Bakhtin, M. M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Becker, Howard S. 1973. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press.

—. 1986a. "Telling About Society." Pp. 121-135 in Doing Things Together, edited by Howard S. Becker. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

—. 1986b. Writing for Social Scientists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—. 1998. Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You're Doing it. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—. 2007. Telling About Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Calvino, Italo. 1974a. Invisible Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace.

—. 1974b. Les villes invisibles. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Churchill, Caryl. 1996. Mad Forest: A Play from Romania. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Cortázar, Julio. 1966. Hopscotch. New York: Pantheon.

Drake, St. Clair, and Horace Cayton. 1945. Black Metropolis. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Evans, Walker. 1975 (1938). American Photographs. New York: East River Press.

Frank, Robert. 1969 (1959). The Americans. New York: Aperture.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Perec, Georges. 1990. Things : a story of the sixties. Boston: D. Godine.

Shaw, Bernard. 1925 (1946). "Mrs. Warren's Profession." Pp. 181-286 in Plays Unpleasant, edited by Dan B. Laurence. New York: Penguin Books.

Shawn, Wallace. 1985. Aunt Dan and Lemon. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Velho, Gilberto. 1976. "Accusations, Family Mobility and Deviant Behavior." Social Problems 23:268-75.

—. 1978. "Stigmatization and Deviance in Copacabana." Social Problems 25:526-530.