Sociologist Howard Becker takes on deviance, Bourdieu

The New Yorker profiles sociologist Howard Becker’s insights into how deviance is learned as well as worlds (as compared to Bourdieu’s fields):

Becker’s work set out to show that out-groups weren’t made up of people who couldn’t keep the rules; they were made up of people who kept other kinds of rules. Marijuana smoking, too, was a set of crips, a learned activity and a social game. At a time when the general assumption was that drug use was private and compulsive, Becker argued that you had to learn how to get high. Smoking weed, he showed, was most often strange or unpleasant at first. One of his informants (a fellow band member) reported, “I walked around the room, walking around the room trying to get off, you know; it just scared me at first, you know. I wasn’t used to that kind of feeling.” Another musician explained, “You have to just talk them out of being afraid. Keep talking to them, reassuring, telling them it’s all right. And come on with your own story, you know: ‘The same thing happened to me. You’ll get to like that after a while.’ ” In the sociologese that Becker had not yet entirely discarded, he wrote, “Given these typically frightening and unpleasant first experiences, the beginner will not continue use unless he learns to redefine the sensations as pleasurable.” He went on, “This redefinition occurs, typically, in interaction with more experienced users, who, in a number of ways, teach the novice to find pleasure in this experience, which is at first so frightening.” What looked like a deviant act by an escape-seeking individual was simply a communal practice shaped by a common enterprise: it takes a strip club to smoke a reefer.

The lessons learned in the night clubs remain present even today. In his new Mozart/Murder book, Becker points out the continuities between the middle-class housewives of the early twentieth century who became addicted to the opium products then sold over the counter for “women’s troubles” and black youths who now take essentially the same kinds of drug, in a different world: “When middle-class women could buy opium, they did, and they got addicted. When they couldn’t, they didn’t. When poor black boys could buy it, they did, and they got addicted, too.” In Becker’s work, a small realism of social scenes replaces the melodrama of personal pathology…

“Bourdieu’ s big idea was the champs, field, and mine was monde, world—what’s the difference?” Becker asks rhetorically. “Bourdieu’s idea of field is kind of mystical. It’s a metaphor from physics. I always imagined it as a zero-sum game being played in a box. The box is full of little things that zing around. And he doesn’t speak about people. He just speaks about forces. There aren’t any people doing anything.” People in Bourdieu’s field are merely atom-like entities. (It was Bourdieu’s vision that helped inspire Michel Houellebecq’s nihilistic novel of the meaningless collisions of modern life, “The Elementary Particles.”)

“Mine is a view that—well, it takes a village to write a symphony and get it performed,” Becker goes on. “It’s not just the composer. The great case for me is in film, because nobody ever figured out who the real artist is: the screenwriter or the director or who? Or, rather, everybody figured it out, but never figured out the same thing. Early on when I was reading about art, I read a book by Aljean Harmetz on the making of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ She was the daughter of someone in the wardrobe department of M-G-M, and she explains that there were four directors of that film, and the guys who thought of the crucial thing, the change from black-and-white to color when the characters enter Oz, were the composer and the lyricist! In an important way, I took the list of credits at the end of a Hollywood film as my model of how artistic creation really happens.”

Pretty interesting story of a sociologist who has written a number of influential works. For example, I just ran into two references (one in Sarah Thornton’s new book and the other in a paper I was reviewing) to Becker’s classic Art Worlds which discusses the collaborative and collective nature of producing art and other cultural products. I wonder how many academics today get pull off such influence with such an unconventional career?

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