Howard S. Becker

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When a rule is enforced, the person who is supposed to have broken it may be seen as a special kind of person, one who cannot be trusted to live by the rules agreed upon by the group. He is regarded as an outsider. But the person who is thus labeled an outsider may have a different view of the matter. He may not accept the rule by which he is being judged and may not regard those who judge him as either competent or legitimately entitled to do so.

Howard Saul Becker (April 18, 1928August 16, 2023) was an American sociologist who has made major contributions to the sociology of deviance, sociology of art, and sociology of music.


  • Good sociology is sociological work that produces meaningful descriptions of organizations and events, valid explanations of how they come about and persist, and realistic proposals for their improvement or removal.
    • Becker (1972) "'Radical politics and sociological research" cited in: John Peter Sugden, Alan Tomlinson (2002) Power Games: A Critical Sociology of Sport. p. 108.
  • For any picture, ask yourself what question or questions it might be answering. Since the picture could answer many, questions, we can decide what question we are interested in. The picture will, of course, suggest that some questions are likely to find answers in it. For instance, Owens's pictures of pantries and refrigerators clearly suggest that they will answer questions about what kinds of food the inhabitants of the houses store and presumably eat, while other pictures in Suburbia suggest that they will answer other questions about the housekeeping arrangements of these people.
    • Howard Becker (1974). "Art as Collective Action." American Sociological Review 39:767-76.
  • Laymen learn to read photographs the way they do headlines, skipping over them quickly to get the gist of what is being said. Photographers, on the other hand, study them with the care and attention to detail one might give to a difficult scientific paper or a complicated poem.
    • Becker (1978) in: Creative Camera No.163-174. p. 70.
  • Photographers learn to interpret photographs in that technical way because they want to understand and use that ‘language’ themselves (just as musicians learn a more technical musical language than the layman needs). Social scientists who want to work with visual materials will have to learn to approach them in this more studious and time-consuming way
    • Becker (1978) cited in: Peter Hamilton (2006) Visual Research Methods. Volume 1. p. 214.
  • Even in the simplest societies, no two people learn quite the same cultural material; the chance encounters of daily life provide sufficient variation to ensure that. No set of cultural understandings, then, provides a perfectly applicable solution to any problem people have to solve in the course of their day, and they therefore must remake those solutions, adapt their understandings to the new situation in the light of what is different about it.
    • Becker (1982) "Culture: A Sociological View", In: Yale Review, Summer 1982, pp. 513-27.
  • Every part of the photographic image carries some information that contributes to its total statement; the viewer's responsibility is to see, in the most literal way, everything that is there and respond to it
    • Becker (1986) "Do Photographs Tell the Truth?” and “Aesthetics and Truth" as cited in: Ingolf Erler (2010) Das Buch als soziales Symbol. p. 147.

Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (1963)


Source: Howard S. Becker (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press

  • When a rule is enforced, the person who is supposed to have broken it may be seen as a special kind of person, one who cannot be trusted to live by the rules agreed upon by the group. He is regarded as an outsider. But the person who is thus labeled an outsider may have a different view of the matter. He may not accept the rule by which he is being judged and may not regard those who judge him as either competent or legitimately entitled to do so. Hence, a second meaning of the term emerges: the rule-breaker may feel his judges are outsiders.
    • pp. 1-2.
  • It is easily observable that different groups judge different things to be deviant. This should alert us to the possibility that the person making the judgment of deviance, the process by which that judgment is arrived at, and the situation in which it is made may all be intimately involved in the phenomenon of deviance. To the degree that the common-sense view of deviance and the scientific theories that begin with its premises assume that acts that break rules are inherently deviant and thus take for granted the situations and processes of judgment, they may leave out an important variable.
    • p. 4.
  • There is little disagreement about what constitutes a healthy state of the organism. But there is much less agreement when one uses the notion of pathology analogically, to describe kinds of behavior that are regarded as deviant. For people do not agree on what constitutes healthy behavior... The medical metaphor limits what we can see much as the statistical view does. It accepts the lay judgment of something as deviant and, by use of analogy, locates its source within the individual, thus preventing us from seeing the judgment itself as a crucial part of the phenomenon.
    • p. 5-6.
  • I … view deviance as the product of a transaction that takes place between some social group and one who is viewed by that group as a rule-breaker. I will be less concerned with the personal and social characteristics of deviants than with the process by which they come to be thought of as outsiders and their reactions to that judgment.
    • p. 10.
  • In addition to recognizing that deviance is created by the responses of people to particular kinds of behavior, by the labeling of that behavior as deviant, we must also keep in mind that the rules created and maintained by such labeling are not universally agreed to. Instead, they are the object of conflict and disagreement, part of the political process of society.
    • p. 18.
  • There is no reason to assume that only those who finally commit a deviant act actually have the impulse to do so. It is much more likely that most people experience deviant impulses frequently. At least in fantasy, people are much more deviant than they appear. Instead of asking why deviants want to do things that are disapproved of, we might better ask why conventional people do not follow through on the deviant impulses they have. Something of an answer to this question may be found in the process of commitment through which the “normal” person becomes progressively involved in conventional institutions and behavior.
    • pp. 26-27.
  • The normal development of people in our society (and probably in any society) can be seen as a series of progressively increasing commitments to conventional norms and institutions.
    • p. 27.
  • The “normal” person, when he discovers a deviant impulse in himself, is able to check that impulse by thinking of the manifold consequences acting on it would produce for him. He has staked too much on continuing to be normal to allow himself to be swayed by unconventional impulses.
    • pp. 27-28.
  • Even though no one else discovers the nonconformity or enforces the rules against it, the individual who has committed the impropriety may himself act as the enforcer. He may brand himself as deviant because of what he has done and punish himself in one way or another for his behavior.
    • p. 31.
  • Treating a person as though he were generally rather than specifically deviant produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. It sets in motion several mechanisms which conspire to shape the person in the image people have of him. It the first place, one tends to be cut off, after being identified as deviant, from participation in more conventional groups, even though the specific consequences of the particular deviant activity might never of themselves have caused the isolation had there not also been the public knowledge and reaction to it. For example, being a homosexual may not affect one’s ability to do office work, but to be known as a homosexual in an office may make it impossible to continue working there. Similarly, though the effects of opiate drugs may not impair one’s working ability, to be known as an addict will probably lead to losing one’s job... The homosexual who is deprived of a “respectable” job by the discovery of his deviance may drift into unconventional, marginal occupations where it does not make so much difference. The drug addict finds himself forced into other illegitimate kinds of activity, such as robbery and theft, by the refusal of respectable employers to have him around.
    • p. 34.
  • The prototype of the rule creator, but not the only variety as we shall see, is the crusading reformer. He is interested in the content of rules. The existing rules do not satisfy him because there is some evil which profoundly disturbs him. He feels that nothing can be right in the world until rules are made to correct it. He operates with an absolute ethic; what he sees is truly and totally evil with no qualification. Any means is justified to do away with it. The crusader is fervent and righteous, often self-righteous.
    • p. 147.
  • Deviance — in the sense I have been using it, of publicly labeled wrongdoing — is always the result of enterprise. Before any act can be viewed as deviant, and before any class of people can be labeled and treated as outsiders for committing the act, someone must have made the rule which defines the act as deviant. Rules are not made automatically. Even though a practice may be harmful in an objective sense to the group in which it occurs, the harm needs to be discovered and pointed out. People must be made to feel that something ought to be done about it. Someone must call the public's attention to these matters, supply the push necessary to get things done, and direct such energies as are aroused in the proper direction to get a rule created. Deviance is the product of enterprise in the largest sense; without the enterprise required to get rules made, the deviance which consists of breaking the rule could not exist.
    • p. 162.

Art Worlds (1982)


Source: Howard S. Becker (1982) Art worlds University of California Press.

  • Maybe the years I spent playing the piano in taverns in Chicago and elsewhere led me to believe that the people who did that mundane work were as important to an understanding of art as the better-known players who produced the recognized classics of jazz. Growing up … may have led me to think that the craftsman who help make art works areas important as the people who conceive them... Learning the "Chicago tradition" of sociology from Everett C. Hughes and Herbert Blumer surely led to a skepticism about conventional definitions of the objects of sociological study.
    • p. ix.
  • The idea of an art world forms the backbone of my analysis. "Art world" is commonly used by writers on the arts in a loose and metaphoric way, mostly to refer to the most fashionable people associated with those newsworthy objects and events that command astronomical prices. I have used the term in a more technical way, to denote the the network of people whose cooperative activity, organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produce(s) the kind of art works that art world is noted for.
    • p.x.
  • I think it is generally true that sociology does not discover what no one ever knew before.
    • p.x.
  • The dominant tradition in the sociology of art... defines art as something more special, in which creativity comes to the surface and the essential character if the society expresses itself, especially in the great work of the genius.
    • p.xi.
  • All artistic work, like all human activity, involves the joint activity of a number, often a large number of people. Through their cooperation, the art work we eventually see or hear comes to be and continues to be. The work always shows signs of that cooperation.
    • p. 1.
  • (Art worlds) consist of all the people whose activities are necessary to the production of the characteristic works which that world, and perhaps others as well, define as art.
    • p. 34.
  • John Cage said that music is the moral evaluation of sound. We might generalize his remark: when we speak of art, we make a moral evaluation of the relative worth of the various contributions to a work. It is no surprise that many of the participants differ with more conventional evaluations and rank their own contributions as more important than that of the artist as conventionally defined.
  • p. 91.
  • The audience is unpredictable, and the people who produce and distribute the artistic work have no real contact with it. They market the work in large quantities as with books and records, or through a mechanical system, as with radio and television, so that they could not, if they tried, know audience members personally.
    • p. 125.
  • [Professionals] define the problems of their art similarly and agree on criteria for an acceptable solution. They know the history of previous attempts to solve those problems, or some of it, and the new problems those attempts generated. They know the history of work like theirs, so that they, their support personnel, and their audiences can understand what they have attempted and how and to what degree it works.
    • p. 230.
  • [ Folk art, consists of] work done by ordinary people in the course of their lives, work seldom thought of by those who make or use it as art at all.
    • p. 245 as quoted in: John Ross Hall, Mary Jo Neitz, Marshall Battani (2003) Sociology On Culture. p. 196.

Writing for Social Scientists (1986)


Source: Howard S. Becker (1986/2010) Writing for Social Scientists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • That accounts for a truly crazy cycle in which students repeat the worst stylistic excesses the journals contain, learn that those very excesses are what makes their work different from what every damn fool knows and says, write more articles like those they learned from, submit them to journals whose editors publish them because nothing better is available (and because academic journals cannot afford expensive copy editing) and thus provide the raw material for another generation to learn bad habits from.
    • p. 41.
  • The point is professionalization. Academics-in-training worry about whether they are yet, can ever be, or even want to be professional intellectuals of the kind they are changing themselves into. Second or third or fourth year graduate students have not taken binding vows. They may have second thoughts. Nor have they been finally chosen. They might flunk out. Their committee might turn their theses down. Who knows what might happen?
    • p. 52.
  • Doesn't every sentence somehow contain in itself, at least by implication, the whole argument? Sure. So what? Remember that any sentence can be changed, rewritten, thrown out or contradicted. That lets you write anything at all.
    • p. 70.
  • The tension between making it better and getting it done appears wherever people have work to finish or a product to get out: a computer, a dinner, a term paper, an automobile, a book. We want to get it done and out to the people who will use it, eat it, read it. But no object ever fully embodies its maker's conception of what it could have been. Human frailty, your own and that of others, makes flaws and mistakes inevitable.
    • p. 122.
  • Imagine you are doing a woodworking project, perhaps making a table. Fortunately, you needn't make all the parts yourself. Some are standard sizes and shapes - lengths of two by four, for instance - available at any lumberyard. Some have already been designed and made by other people - drawer pulls and turned legs. All you have to do is fit them into the places you left for them, knowing they were available. You want to make an argument instead of a table. You have created some of the argument yourself, perhaps on the basis of new data or information you have collected. But you needn't invent the whole thing. Other people have worked on your problems or problems related to it, and have made some of the pieces you need. You just have to fit them in where they belong. Like the woodworker, you leave space, when you make your portion of the argument, for the other parts you know you can get. You do that, that is, if you know that they are there to use. And that's one good reason to know the literature: so that you will know the pieces are available and not waste time doing what has already been done.
  • The marketing people don't care about the elegance and perfection that impresses the engineers' peers. They think engineers are impractical cuckoos who would just as soon bankrupt the company by pursuing perfectionist pipe dreams.
    • p. 159.
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