The Last Seminar
In Crime, Social Control and Human Rights: From Moral Panics to Denial - Essays in Honour of Stanley Cohen, edited by Christine Chinkin, David Downes, Conor Gearty and Paul Rock
Howard S. Becker
Stan Cohen's grim fable, "The Last Seminar" (Cohen 1988, pp. 297-310), is an upsetting story of an ordinary professor in an ordinary British university, someone just like, we can suppose, most of the people who read it when it first appeared. The professor teaches in an unspecified department, probably sociology but maybe social work or criminology, and teaches courses in penology, among other subjects. In the story, people of the kind his courses and those of his colleagues deal with--criminals, prisoners, people who are mentally ill, poor people--begin to appear in the classroom and elsewhere on the university grounds and eventually take it over by, it seems, force of arms and other violence, including arson. I suppose I don't overstep any obvious line by assuming that the university is, if not the University of Essex, where Cohen taught at the time he wrote this piece, a place that looks and acts like Essex, its difficulties bearing a family resemblance to those Essex (and many other universities in Britain and elsewhere) went through in the 1960s and 70s.
I had my own personal experience of Essex sometime during the period that provoked the story, having the fortune (good or bad, I leave to readers) to be visiting the campus on the day the police invaded it. Which they did after a lengthy student strike that, as I remember it, was mounted in response to a rise in student fees. My visit took place, I think, in the spring of 1974, when I spent six weeks at the University of Manchester as Lord Simon Visiting Professor.
Those who have visited Essex know that the entire university at that time (and still, I have been told) consisted of a series of connected hollow squares, utterly featureless and indistinguishable from one another. As Stan led me from the parking lot to the sociology wing, he explained that the corridors and doors were all so similar that he could only find his way by using the names on the doors of people's rooms as landmarks. He found his own room by following directions like these: enter the first building, go up the stairs, turn right at Smith's room, continue down the hall and up the next stairs, turn left at Jones, and so on. God help you when the personnel changed.
The students' strike took advantage of a unique feature of the campus architecture. All motor vehicles entered the campus through one entrance, which ran under the main administration building. No one had been thinking of student uprisings when the campus was planned, but this feature allowed students, by occupying this narrow passage, to make it impossible for any vehicle to enter the campus. Faculty and students could walk in from the parking lot, but no trucks bringing supplies could enter. So there was no food for student dining halls or the faculty dining facilities, nor was there any toilet paper for the bathrooms or any supplies for the offices. On the day I was there, I went to see the site of the occupation, where a student leader was speaking loudly to a crowd of eager and curious listeners, but with so strong a Scots accent that I didn't understand a word.
As we onlookers watched, a large number of police unexpectedly entered the scene, and began clubbing students with their batons. The strike had been going on for a long time and no one knew why the police had chosen that day to strike back, as many had long urged them to do. Standing off to the side and not really feeling part of it--even though I was vaguely in sympathy with student protestors anywhere then, whether I knew the issues or not--I made a number of blurred photographs of the police hitting students, which I never did anything with. But the scene made a great impression on me, especially as I was then taken to deliver my talk--whose subject I don't remember--to the sociologists, faculty and students, most of whom had showed up in spite of the police-caused disorder. Everyone was very upset, I less than the others, and I don't know how they managed to pay attention to whatever I had to say. But they did.
All this had a connection to a question on the minds of people like me and my hosts. At that time, and to this audience, I almost surely would have been talking about the subject then known as "deviance," what had formerly been called things like "social disorganization" or "social problems." (Although I had switched my main field of work to the sociology of art, people still wanted to hear me talk about deviance and I usually obliged.) The theme of "The Last Seminar" was much on people's minds. The relation of people like us--researchers in the social sciences--to the people we gathered data on and wrote about was beginning to worry us all. We had left behind the innocence of being happy when we used the tricks we had been taught, and continued to teach to our students, to "get access" and "gain rapport." We rejoiced at our good fortune when people were willing to share their experiences and secrets with us, things they might have preferred the whole world not know about. We were proud of our ability to be "one of the boys" (or girls).
By the 1970s we all knew this relation was not so innocent as all that. What were the terms of this one-sided giving of information? Did we give anything back? Was the exchange as unequal as it seemed to be when we took a good look? Were we exploiting our superior educations and class positions to take advantage of innocent people? The answers weren't obvious. Some people said that we gave, in return for data, our undivided attention and our caring acceptance of their lives, however unsavory those might seem to middle-class people who hadn't achieved our level of "insider" understanding. Others thought that our research could lead us and others, perhaps people in positions of power who could undertake effective interventions, to an understanding that might improve the lives of the people who gave us our data, and so allow us to pay back their acceptance and even trust.
Still others derided these perhaps self-serving analyses, pointing out that our "respondents" or "subjects"-- what to call these people, what name would not be condescending, continues to be a problem to the present day--would almost surely continue to be poor, deprived of opportunity, and in no way better off for their kindness to us. The people in power, they thought, who already had the good things of life, would not use our research findings to improve things, but rather to oppress the already oppressed even further. We, on the other hand, even if we shared the privations of the people we studied during our research--ate unhealthy food, slept in unwholesome places, suffered in the cold, ran risks vis-à-vis the law--would waltz off with our precious "data," and turn it into articles and books from which we would profit by building academic careers of privilege.
That's the crudest version of the opposing positions on this difficult question, to which Stan applied himself often. Many of the essays in Against Criminology take it up or allude to it in one way or another.
"The Last Seminar" is a stark analysis of one way the relationship might play out. Fictional, of course, and "overdrawn," unlikely actually ever to happen just like that. But also quite realistic, exposing in a raw and undisguised form the tensions that might exist in these relations we talk about so easily from the comfort of the Senior Common Room. (Never having been a faculty member at a British university, I have never enjoyed whatever the pleasures of inhabiting such a place might be. It's sort of a mythical creature to me.)
It raises a number of questions about our research practice and experience, and forces us to reconsider (perhaps not always in the direction its author intended) some general problems of social research.
Our People and Us
General analyses of conceptual problems are usually colored by the specific examples the analyst has in mind, though they may never be named. "The Last Seminar" more or less takes as given that our relations with the people we study are unequal, in the way they would certainly be between, say, prisoners and researchers, or delinquents or (less successful) criminals and researchers. Most discussions of this problem take as a given that we will be studying people poorer than us, less educated, and more at risk for disease and early death, arrest and imprisonment, unemployment and suffering at the hands of unfeeling bureaucrats who administer welfare schemes, and a host of other bad things.
In another direction, discussion of these problems often assumes that we are likely to do harm to those we study, presumably inadvertently, by (in the cant phrase often invoked) "serving the interests of the powerful." The question of the harm we do or might do to the people we study deserves more attention than this ideological and typically not empirically based charge. Or than the automatic and formulaic "consideration of the rights of human subjects," which has become a major obstacle to sociological research in universities in North America, without doing much good for the people it is supposed to protect. These safeguards were put into place to protect the research subjects of medical researchers who did in fact do harm to some of their subjects--injected them with cancer cells, refused to treat their syphilis--and continue to do so where they can get away with it. The safeguards are now applied with plenty of bureaucratic zeal and little comprehension of the situations of research in the social sciences, whose potential for harm is more often asserted than demonstrated.
I'll begin with my own experiences, but I am not the only person whose researches have had this character, and I will mention whole areas of research where the relations between researchers and those studied are quite different from the picture of our subjects evoked in "The Last Seminar."
In some of my projects, I studied people who were, in general, just like me (Becker 1963, pp. 79-119). In my first field research, for my master's thesis, I studied musicians of just the kind I was, people who played in bars and clubs or for private parties of various kinds, for not very much money, but (some of us) intent on becoming good jazz players or, at least, competent professionals. I did not and could not take advantage of the people I studied because I had no more power over the conditions of my life than they did over theirs.
You might object that, true as that might have been, the other musicians, the ones I was studying, were stuck with being that and no more, while I, a privileged kid of the middle class, a student at a major university, would eventually leave this life and become the professor/professional my class status made it possible for me to be. Middle class people who studied factory workers might be criticized in this way. I certainly had the possibility of entering academia and eventually took advantage of it. But so did many of the people who figured in my study. The kind of music I played was almost entirely a part-time job. With few exceptions, the people who did this work had "day jobs" as well, often quite good ones, though just as often not such good ones either. But "everyone knew" that it was only prudent to have a day job. I was no more different from them than they were from one another. And within the world of music, we all acted on the understanding that the only status differences that mattered had to do with how you played. The power differentials we considered important were those that put us at the mercy of club owners (often enough small time hoodlums capable of violence, though it was seldom directed at us), audience members, and others who prevented us from playing what we wanted to play. That privation does not compare with going hungry or being arrested but, in our world, it was a privation we all suffered.
The only thing all marijuana smokers (another group I studied, see Becker 1963, pp. 41-78) had in common was that they smoked marijuana. And when I studied them, I was just like the people I interviewed in that defining characteristic. Otherwise, we were as various in class origins and positions as it was possible to be. Some were poor, some were from well-to-do families; some were black, some were white; most were men but some were women. Insofar as we were oppressed by virtue of smoking dope, we were all oppressed in just the same way, by being subject to arrest and imprisonment for our indulgence. It is true that some of us were better prepared, because of our class position, to deal with that possibility, but it was equally true that the possibility was remote and that a user who took the simplest precautions had nothing to worry about. (Which is not to say that everyone took those simple precautions; many of us were young and not very thoughtful.)
In neither case did I hide what I was doing from the people I was studying. They typically responded to my requests for information or interviews by trying to be helpful, often because they thought bringing what they regarded as the truth about their activities to public attention would be a helpful thing, or with indifference. I don't remember anyone ever suggesting that I was taking advantage of them. Although an old friend, when I started asking a lot of questions about his experience with marijuana without telling him it was an interview (I ordinarily did tell people that), got angry and shouted, "You son of a bitch, you're interviewing me!" He was angry because he thought I was taking advantage of our friendship which, indeed, I had unthinkingly done. That's not the same as taking advantage of a powerless person.
In other cases, the people I studied were at least as privileged as I was, and potentially much more so. The medical students I spent three years hanging around with to gather data for Boys in White (Becker et. al. 1961) were on their way, for the most part, to lucrative careers and secure upper-middle class status (despite the commitment they had all made, because they knew it was something that would help them get admitted to the University of Kansas Medical School, to a life of practicing general medicine in a small town in the rural western part of the state, a commitment few of them respected when the time came). They thought what I was doing--sociological research--was "interesting," but not the most profitable way you could spend your time. Some of them questioned me about how much I earned doing this work and how much I could expect to make at the peak of my career. When they heard the numbers, they nodded sympathetically and soothingly, and made it clear that they felt sorry for me. My only superiority to them (and to the undergraduate college students my colleagues and I wrote about in Making the Grade (Becker et. al. 1968)) was in age, and that didn't count for much.
Physicians and hospital administrators typically treated medical sociologists as a lesser breed, better than nurses perhaps, as was evidenced in the constant jockeying of sociologists in that specialty for a "better" position vis-à-vis their "subjects."
Students of white collar crime similarly often had an inferior position to those about whom and from whom they got data. When Baker and Faulkner (2003, 2004) interviewed investors in a fraudulent oil drilling scheme in Southern California, they were certainly interviewing people who were dumber than them, since Baker and Faulkner knew better than to invest in such a scam. But they were just as certainly interviewing people who had more money and, probably, a higher class position than they did, people who had the money to put into such a speculation. And when Edwin Sutherland interviewed Broadway Jones (the name of "Chic Conwell," the author of The Professional Thief (Conwell and Sutherland, 1937)), though Jones was later reduced to lecturing to college classes to make some extra change, he had lived very high in his time, and it's not at all clear that he thought (or should have thought) the modest life of even so eminent a college professor as Sutherland preferable to the one he had led, even though he was subject to oppression by the police of a kind Sutherland never risked.
Sociologists of science (e.g., the field study by Bruno Latour reported in Latour and Woolgar 1979) study people who are like us in many ways, often university teachers and researchers themselves, mostly in fields with more prestige than social science, but who often enough don't think that social science is "real science," though they often charitably cooperate with our (sometimes intrusive) data gathering.
So we are not always better off than the people we study. Sometimes we are more or less equal to them, sometimes we are superior to them, sometimes we are inferior to them, and in each case the problems of relations between us and them will be different.
This immediately raises the question of what scale is being used to calculate these comparative ranks. "The Last Seminar" seems to use a very conventional scale: money and social rank and legitimacy as sociologists usually measure the latter when they talk about "deviance," "oppression," and the like. But it's well attested in the research literature that people use a multitude of different scales to measure rank. In many situations, skill at a particular task outweighs any other consideration. (See the discussion of contradictory status systems in Hughes' essay on "Dilemmas and Contradictions of Status," in Hughes 1984, pp. 141-50.) In general, the people we work with use a variety of scales, according to the situation and their interests in it, which cannot simply be deduced from what we think those interests might be, or ought to be.
How does the researcher/researched relation differ when the statuses of the parties differ in these ways? Here are some guesses, informed by my own experiences, reading, and by stories others have told me.
People who feel superior to us--in class, in professional status, or otherwise--often patronize us and, feeling sorry for us, give us the data we want from them to help us out. This is the motivation Robert Park told students to rely on when they went out to do the fieldwork he had assigned them. "Tell them you're a poor student and your teacher wants you to do it, they'll feel sorry for you," and often they did. Sometimes they feel that it's a sort of civic duty to help science out in this way. The schoolteachers I interviewed for my dissertation treated me as a sort of junior teacher who was working on a degree as they once had, or might have done. We can take advantage of such generous motives to get what we want, and that might be a little devious, but it certainly does not constitute taking advantage of powerless folks.
But we can use the knowledge we get in ways people more powerful than us don't like: to take one possibility, to generate publicity that they feel might harm their interests. If they decide that we have injured them in some way, they can and will do something about it, or try. The Dean of the medical school we studied was very angry about the first version of Boys in White he read, and immediately demanded to see our "superior." He meant Everett Hughes, who he mistakenly thought would see things his way. When Hughes didn't agree with him, he threatened to sue us if we didn't change some of the things in the book. We didn't, and he didn't, but the threat was real and more than a little scary. The negotiations that followed, masterfully handled by Hughes (another story for another day), were negotiations between two parties of more or less equal power, this being a surprise to the Dean, who was used to being undisputed boss in his own institution and in his relations with non-physicians. He might have pursued the matter, but probably (I never discussed it with him afterward) decided that any kind of legal action would just generate more publicity and be even more harmful than our not likely to be widely known scholarly book.
These possibilities exist in relations with people in other kinds of status relations to us. Getting information from people is always a negotiation. The people we study are not necessarily so powerless in relation to us, so defenseless against our attempts to get what we want from them. In fact, they often tell us they aren't interested, don't want to play our game, and just walk away. That's why questions of "getting access" occupy so much space in our discussions and in students' nightmares.
Dealing with our equals or peers is a quite different kind of situation. It's not easy for us to take advantage of equals by using a class differential in status or power, since in fact there isn't much differential between "us" and "them," as there was not between me and the musicians and marijuana users I wrote about. We can, of course, do harm to them by revealing things we learn, in an apparently confidential relationship, to others who might use it maliciously, but they can probably do the same to us.
Let's return to "The Last Seminar." For all my quibbling about how my own experiences differ from those alluded to as the genesis of the events in the story, it evokes the problem it discusses powerfully and memorably. Could we tell as interesting and compelling stories about a hypothetical future in which our peers or social and political superiors invaded the campuses we work in, and did--well, what would they do? I suppose they would not come and sit in our classes and eye us suspiciously. Nor would they, probably, attack us personally or burn the buildings we worked and taught in. Do we have a story to tell as interesting as the one Stan Cohen tells us? A story that will wake us to something as important ethically and morally? Do we need a sociological imagination as lively and unconventional as Stan's to find the narrative of middle- and upper-class invasion of the university world?
Fortunately, for few of us think and write as well as Stan, we don't have to invent these stories. We have only to record what is going on around us. I will speak here only of what I know a little about--the situation in the United States--and not at all of what I know almost nothing about, the situation in Britain and elsewhere.
Are our equals, our peers, present in the university already? Certainly. They are there as students, as the parents of students, etc. They are also there as reporters, who come to reveal the university's secrets to the world. As I write this, my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, has just run a series of stories exposing the outrageously large payments made to top administrators of the university in the guise of reimbursement for all sorts of expenses that others in the university community have to pay for themselves (costs of moving, for example). And that has provoked some other visitors to come: politicans who will now investigate what was after all not such a big secret in the first place. I'm not sure that "peer" or "equal" is the appropriate description of these folks, though they are not really so much more powerful than a university professor, or not for long, or not for many of the things that are important to us.
Have the rich and politically powerful invaded the campus? Of course they have, but "invasion" is hardly the way to talk about those who come bearing gifts. Often very substantial gifts, in the form of endowed university chairs which some among us will be fortunate enough to sit in, or research centers in which we can work on our own projects instead of teaching large rooms full of undergraduates, or handsomely equipped libraries with all the obscure journals we might need to pursue our interests, or wonderful concert halls and theaters in which the world's greatest artistis will entertain us, or . . . . It is a very long list.
The people and organizations who give these gifts may not be there in person, but their names are everywhere (in American universities, certainly). We can imagine that their influence is there too. We needn't be conspiracy theorists, and imagine that an administrator will lock us out of our rooms and forbid us to enter the campus because we have written something a donor found offensive. But it is not a possibility to dismiss out of hand.
"The Last Seminar," implicitly and not arguing the point, takes the particular cases of criminals, the mentally ill, and other conventionally despised groups and the people who have studied them as the general situation of researchers and researched. I said to myself, "That's a good idea, but the specifics don't fit my own research experiences. How would it be if the people I studied occupied the campuses I worked at?"
That's the first moral: to apply general ideas and questions to the full range of cases encompassed by their definitions. In this case, to apply the concern about our relations with those we study to the full range of people sociologists have actually studied. Because sociologists have studied people up and down a variety of social scales, and their experiences with those people have not always, and probably not often, been the kind to produce the acts of revenge the story describes. It's possible to imagine people whose lives have been written about in ways they think disrespectful doing those things: ignoring conventional patterns of politeness and civility and disrupting settled professorial routines at first; and then the assaults and fires and all the rest of it, what we can imagine we might want to do if we had been so cavalierly mistreated by researchers.
In fact, no one I studied ever cared that much about what I wrote; they had far more important things to worry about. In the one case where my work created trouble, it was not the people I wrote about who complained. Medical students--the few who read what we wrote--did not find fault with our descriptions. No, it was the school's administrators, for whom our book presented a potential public relations problem, and they had plenty of weapons available, though in the end they seemed to have decided that any revenge they took would cost more than it was worth.
There's a second moral, though there is no need to preach it to Stan Cohen. He knows and has always practiced the simple maxim that it is better to stick close to the nitty-gritty of life than to develop our understanding from general principles. "The Last Seminar" seems to violate that maxim by indulging in a fiction. The lesson it teaches is that "nitty-gritty" is important as an aid to thought when it isn't "what actually happened." The fiction makes us think about a reality that, though it hasn't happened yet, is recognizably a reality that could happen. The details prompt our imaginations in a way that abstract concepts seldom do. "The Last Seminar's" details prompt a serious reconsideration of our relations with people we study. Let it be a lesson.
Baker, Wayne E., and Robert R. Faulkner. 2003. "Diffusion of Fraud: Intermediate Economic Crime and Investor Dynamics." Criminology 41:1173-1206.
—. 2004. "Social Networks and Loss of Capital." Social Networks 26:91-111.
Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press.
Becker, Howard S., Blanche Geer, and Everett C. Hughes. 1968. Making the Grade: The Academic Side of College Life. New York: John WIley and Sons.
Becker, Howard S., Blanche Geer, Everett C. Hughes, and Anslem L. Strauss. 1961. Boys in White: Student Culture in Medical School. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cohen, Stan. 1988. Against Criminology. New Brunswick: Transaction.
Conwell, Chic, and Edwin H. Sutherland. 1937. The Professional Thief, by a Professional Thief; annotated and interpreted by Edwin H. Sutherland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hughes, Everett C. 1984. The Sociological Eye. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.
Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Fact. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.