Sociology 294/146, University of California—Santa Barbara, Spring 1997

Telling About Society

Howard Becker

Syllabus and Class Schedule


This class deals with ways people have developed for telling others what they think they know, what their research or investigation has revealed to them about society, social life, and social problems. It thus has to do with problems of what has been called “representation.”

The basic strategy of the course is comparative. What’s to be compared are a wide variety of genres of representation: from films, novels, and plays, on the one hand, to tables, charts, graphs, and mathematical models, on the other, and whatever else we can think of in between. They’ll be compared with respect to the way they solve the generic problems of representing social life. And that list of problems will in part be generated by seeing what kinds of problems are prominent in each genre. (This will make more sense as we do it; I can see how it might seem a little cryptic right now.)

You can think of the subject matter we’ll work with as a grid. Along one axis, kinds of media or genres, as in the list above. Along the other axis, problems that arise in making representations: the influence of budgets, the ethical obligations of makers of representations, ways of generalizing what one knows, degrees of polyvocality, etc. In principle, we could investigate every problem in every genre, fill in every box generated by that cross-classification, but that’s not practical. So our “coverage” will be more than a little haphazard, influenced mainly by the materials we have easily available to talk about and by my own particular interests. But the list of what’s to talk about can be extended to deal with other genres and problems, as the will of the people dictates.

Ideally, from my point of view, everyone would already have read or seen a great number and variety of such representations, so that we would have a common body of materials to talk about. Then we could engage in serious comparative talk from the beginning. That’s unrealistic, of course, so I’ve planned to provide some of that material in class, in the form of slides, videos, etc., and some of it in readings we’ll all do before each class. With that in common, we’ll have some basis for a discussion. And you will all bring the fruits of your own explorations of such representations of society with you to tell the rest of us about. What we know in common will increase as the quarter goes on, and the discussions should thus become denser with meaning and allusion.

There are ten weeks of class, so one-tenth of the class, whatever number that turns out to be, will be responsible for “leading the discussion” each week. I don’t want to dictate the exact meaning of “leading,” but at the least discussion leaders ought to be prepared to offer each of the following: 1) a description of a generic problem of representation the particular subject matter we are discussing is especially subject to; 2) a criticism of some statement in the reading that brings up a matter of real interest (as opposed to an ideological or technical criticism that is just a way of dismissing what was read as not worth the trouble, like saying that the author had a bad sample); 3) a statement of something you didn’t understand. There will be plenty that we don’t understand and—to anticipate some of our discussion—how many people understand a particular format or genre easily is exactly the sort of generic problem we’re looking for.

Each class will begin with an activity—many of them consisting of me making some sort of presentation or simply discussing some problems in a particular area, others taking the form of showing a film or photographs—followed by a break, followed by a discussion of the readings.

For the first week’s discussion, please read my paper, “Telling About Society,” which appears in my book Doing Things Together.

There will be one paper to write, due at the end of the quarter. That paper should compare two or more genres with respect to two or more generic problems of representation; the genres need not be ones that we have devoted time to in class (but please don’t everyone decide to write about the Internet, it’s not that interesting. I’ll talk about what making such a comparative analysis means in class but, in general, if you follow the reading and participate in the discussion and ask questions when you don’t understand things, there shouldn’t be any problem writing the paper. I hate giving “makework” assignments, and much prefer it when people write about things that interest them and that will be of use to them, so interpret the assignment relatively freely. Which is not to say that you should write the paper you have already written several times before.

I will not try to kid you. I don’t know all the answers to the questions that will come up. So think of this class as a sort of collective exploration of the problems, in which I’m a little bit ahead of you (at least I’ve done some of the reading before!) but not all that much.


Readings for “Telling About Society”


1. Film:

Carolyn Anderson and Thomas W. Benson, “Direct Cinema and the Myth of Informed Consent: The Case of Titicutt Follies,” pp. 58–90 in Larry Gross, John Stuart katz, and Jay Ruby, Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film, and Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Murray Sperber, “Hoop Dreams: Hollywood Dreams,” Jump Cut 40: pp. 3–7

Lee Jones, “Hoop Dreams: Hoop Realities,” Jump Cut 40, pp. 8–14

Pat Aufderheide, “The Good Fight,” pp. 489–494 in Alan Rosenthal, ed., New Challenges for Documentary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

Brian Winston, “Documentary: I Think We Are in Trouble,” pp. 21–33 in Rosenthal, op. cit.

Jerry Kuehl, “Truth Claims,” pp. 103-109 in Rosenthal, op. cit.


2. Photographs:

“For God’s Sake, Margaret: Conversation with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead,” Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication (Winter 1977), pp. 78–80.

Howard S. Becker, “Do Photographs Tell the Truth?,” pp. 273–292 in his Doing Things Together (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1986).

Howard S. Becker, “Aesthetics and Truth,” pp. 293–301 in op. cit.

Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins, Reading National Geographic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 47–85.


3. Novels:

Antonio Candido, “On Vengeance,” pp. 3–21 in Howard S. Becker, ed., Antonio Candido: Essays on Literature and Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

Antonio Candido, “Repression’s Truth,” pp. 75-78 in Candido, op. cit.


4. Scientific Articles:

Bruno Latour and Françoise Bastide, “Writing Science–Fact and Fiction: The Analysis of the Process of Reality Construction Through the Application of Socio-Semiotic Methods to Scientific Texts,” pp. 51–66 in Michel Callon, John Law and Arie Rip, Mapping the Dynamics of Science and Technology (London: MacMillan, 1986).

William Fielding Ogburn, “On Scientific Writing,” American Journal of Sociology 52 (1947), pp. 383–388.

Jane Tomkins, “Fighting Words: Unlearning to Write the Critical Essay,” The Georgia Review XLII (1988), pp. 585-590.


5. Tables:

Lawrence T. McGill, “Toward a Model of Journal Reading: An Eppirical Study,” pp. 132–141 in Albert Hunter, The Rhetoric of Social Research: Understood and Believed (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

Susan Cotts Watkins, “Graphics in Demography,” Studies in Visual Communication (??), pp. 2–21.

John W. Tukey, “Some Graphic and Semigraphic Displays,” pp. 293–316 in T.A. Bancroft, ed., assisted by Susan Alice Brown, Statistical Papers in Honor of George W. Snedecor (Ames, Iowa: The Iowa State University Press, 1972).

Collection of charts and graphics from various sociological works.


6. Life History and Ethnography

James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Authority,” pp. 21–54 in James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

Michal McCall and Judith Wittner, “The Good News About Life History,” pp. 46–89 in Howard S. Becker and Michal McCall, eds., Symbolic Interaction and Cultural Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

Bob Blauner, “Problems of Editing ‘First-Person’ Sociology,” Qualitative Sociology 10 (Spring 1987), pp. 46–64.


7. Maverick Genres

Clifford Geertz, “Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought,” pp. 19–35 in his Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

David Antin, “the currency of the country,” pp. 5–47 in his tuning (New York: New Directions, 1984).

Hans Haacke, “The Guggenheim Project,” pp. 60–67 in his Framing and Being Framed (New York: New York University Press, 1976).

Howard S. Becker and John Walton, “Social Science and the Work of Hans Haacke,” pp. 145–153 in Haacke, op. cit.


8. Mathematical Models:

Thomas C. Schelling, “The Inescapable Mathematics of Musical Chairs,” pp. 47–80 in his Micromotives and Macrobehavior (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978).

William N. McPhee, “When Culture Becomes a Business,” pp. 227–243 in Joseph Berger, Morris Zelditch Jr., and Bo Anderson, Sociological Theories in Progress: Volume One (New York; Houghton Mifflin, 1967).

John G. Kemeny, Laurie Snell, and Gerald L. Thompson, Introduction to Finite Mathematics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974), pp. 451-461.


Class Schedule



Week 1: Introduction to the class and the subject

Activity

Class “performs” Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest (Act 2)

Reading

Becker, “Telling About Society”


Week 2: Drama

Activity

Watch video of Anna Deveare Smith’s “Fire in Crown Heights”

Reading

George Bernard Shaw, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”


Week 3: Films

Activity

Watch “Titicutt Follies” by Frederick Wiseman; if you can manage to watch “Hoop Dreams” before class, that would be good too.

Reading

Carolyn Anderson and Thomas W. Benson, “Direct Cinema and the Myth of Informed Consent: The Case of Titicutt Follies”

Murray Sperber, “Hoop Dreams: Hollywood Dreams,”

Lee Jones, “Hoop Dreams: Hoop Realities”

Pat Aufderheide, “The Good Fight”

Brian Winston, “Documentary: I Think We Are in Trouble”

Jerry Kuehl, “Truth Claims”


Week 4: Photography

Activity

Look at slides of documentary photo projects (Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange).

Reading

“For God’s Sake, Margaret: Conversation with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead”

Catherine Lutz and Jane L. Collins, “Inside the Great Machinery of Desire” (from their Reading National Geographic)

Howard S. Becker, “Do Photographs Tell the Truth?”

Howard S. Becker, “Aesthetics and Truth”

Howard S. Becker, “Visual Sociology, Documentary Photography, and Photojournalism: It’s Almost All a Matter of Context” (found on my Home Page, address: http://weber.u.washington.edu/~hbecker)


Week 5: Novels


Reading

Antonio Candido, “On Vengeance”

Antonio Candido, “Repression’s Truth”


Week 6: The scholarly article

Reading

Bruno Latour and Françoise Bastide, “Writing Science–Fact and Fiction: The Analysis of the Process of Reality Construction Through the Application of Socio-Semiotic Methods to Scientific Texts”

William Fielding Ogburn, “On Scientific Writing”

Jane Tomkins, “Fighting Words: Unlearning to Write the Critical Essay”


Week 7: Graphics and tables

Activity

Compare graphic representions of social data (e.g., stuff from various social science studies like Hughes, Drake and Cayton, Mansbridge, Davis and Gardners)

Reading

A collection of charts and graphics from various sociological works.

Lawrence T. McGill, “Toward a Model of Journal Reading: An Empirical Study”

Susan Cotts Watkins, “Graphics in Demography”

John W. Tukey, “Some Graphic and Semigraphic Displays”


Week 8: Life History and Ethnographic Writing

Reading

Michal McCall and Judith Wittner, “The Good News About Life History”

James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Authority”

Bob Blauner, “Problems of Editing ‘First-Person’ Sociology”


Week 9: Blurred Genres

Reading

Clifford Geertx, “Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought”

David Antin, “the currency of the country”

Hans Haacke, “The Guggenheim Project”

Howard S. Becker and John Walton, “Social Science and the Work of Hans Haacke”


Week 10: Mathematical models

Activity

I’ll demonstrate what they are and how they work

Reading

Thomas C. Schelling, “The Inescapable Mathematics of Musical Chairs”

William N. McPhee, “When Culture Becomes a Business”

John G. Kemeny, Laurie Snell, and Gerald L. Thompson, “Marriage Rules in Primitive Societies,” and “Choice of Marriage Rules”



Some other reading I think is interesting, but less accessible or for reasons of language or technicality or length:

Alain Desrosiéres, La politique des grands nombres: histoire de la raison statistique (Paris: La dècouverte, 1993), is an interesting sociological history of statistical reasoning; the chapter on tables is very relevant to our concerns.

Jacques Bertin, Graphics and Graphic Information Processing (New York: de Gruyter, 1981), gives a systematic analysis of the language of tables, charts, graphs, and maps that is very useful.

Clyde Kluckhohn’s monograph—“The Personal Document in Anthropology,” in Louis Gottschalk, Clyde Kluckhohn, and Robert C. Angell, eds., The Use of Personal Documents in History, Anthropology, and Sociology (New York, Social Science Research Council, 1945)—is the standard reference on life histories. See also Jean Peneff, La méthode biographique: de L’École de Chicago à l’histoire orale (Paris: Armand Colin, 1990).

John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) is an important account of the rhetoric of sociological fieldwork.

Jennifer Platt’s A History of Sociological Research Methods in America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) is an often surprising story of how what contemporary methods are is hidden in pseudohistory and rhetoric. A little tangential to our subject, but terrific.

Keith Smith’s Structure of the Visual Book (Rochester: Keith Smith, 1984) and Text in the Book Format (Rochester: The Sigma Foundation, 1989) are wonderfully detailed analyses of the physical language of book-making and its conceptual meanings.