Professor Howard “Howie” Becker has been a world-renowned figure in the field of sociology for more than five decades. Now in his eighties, he continues to write, lecture, play music, and shape a new generation of scholars. On Thursday 10 September he receives an Honorary Degree from Goldsmiths, University of London.
Born in Chicago in 1928, Becker credits his time as an under-age piano player in the city’s strip joints with kick-starting his sociological career. Filling in for older musicians away in military service, he found himself in a world where "everybody winked".
“This was a world where cops were paid off, gangsters got away with murder and where the relationships between normal and 'deviant' behaviour seemed rather arbitrary: it all depended upon who had the power to define it so,” says Professor Les Back, who nominated Professor Becker for an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Social Science).
All this informed Becker’s classic book The Outsiders. Published in 1963, it remains a critical text for A-Level Sociology students today, 'labelling theory' having become a timeless sociological idea.
Becker received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1951 and became associated with what has come to be known as the Chicago School of sociology. He studied with Everett C. Hughes, Herbert Blumer and W. Lloyd Warner and was a fellow student of Erving Goffman and David Reisman.
His books include Boys in White: Student Culture in Medical School with Blanche Geer, Everett C. Hughes and Anselm Strauss (1961), The Other Side: Perspectives on Deviance (1964) and Sociological Work: Method and Substance (1970). In the 1980s Becker published an influential book on the sociology of art entitled Art Worlds and between 1965 and 1991 was Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, Chicago.
“Becker’s work has also focused on the craft of scholarship and it’s helped shape a generation of scholars who have used his books as a way to work out the problems they’re grappling with,” says Professor Back. These include Writing for Social Scientists (1986), Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You're Doing It (1998), Telling About Society (2007) and 2015’s What About Mozart? What About Murder?
Becker speaks and writes French fluently and is probably as significant an intellectual in the French speaking world as he is in North America. He’s the recipient of a host of international honours and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978, and the Award for a Career of Distinguished Scholarship from the American Sociological Association in 1998. He holds six honorary degrees from the University of Edinburgh, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, and a number of French institutions.
In January this year, The New Yorker published a lengthy tribute to him titled ‘The Outside Game: How the sociologist Howard Becker studies the conventions of the unconventional’.
Becker told the magazine that he never intended to stay in academia: “It was only after I finished the PhD that I more or less realised that my choice now was to be the most educated piano player on Sixty-Third Street or start taking sociology more seriously.”
“Howie Becker is the perfect choice for a Goldsmiths Honorary Degree,” says Professor Back. “His work is read and used widely by our graduate community, not just in the department of sociology, but in music and media communications as well. He has visited us several times, always drawing a packed audience.
“I understand that he has a special fondness for the kinds of work we do at Goldsmiths - edgy, searching, playful, irreverent and urgent – and sees himself reflected in it.”
A short interview with Howie Becker
Why are we so fascinated by crime?
Are we? I wouldn’t have said that. Sociologists got interested in crime because, first of all, if you think of society as characterized, among other things, by the existence of widely accepted rules that most people follow—if you have that idea, then it seems frightening when some people seem to ignore those rules, and if you think that the job of sociology is to help preserve society as it is, then it follows that your further job is to see how to make them do that.
If you take sociology’s job to be to understand what people are doing when they act together, then acting together to create rules and procedures for deciding who has violated those rules is an instance of that and it’s fascinating for that reason.
As a young jazz musician in the Chicago taverns you met hoodlums and crooked cops, how do you think that influenced your kind of sociology of deviance?
If nothing else, I learned not to believe pious cant about how the laws embody eternal wisdom and the enforcers of the law are righteous activists working to make sure that eternal wisdom gets followed. I learned that by simple observation. When I saw a bar owner who habitually violated legal requirements give money to the local police officer, it didn’t take much reflection to see that conventional wisdom about law and order had substantial holes in it. And I think that carried over into a general skepticism about common sense and received wisdom.
Do you think sociology can help us think about crime differently?
Yes. Just by showing that “crime” is not a naturally occurring category but a social definition that varies from time to time and place to place.
What kind of advice - if any - would you offer to the young graduates of today?
The same advice any people entering the adult world should receive, things like “don’t believe everything they tell you,” and the famous words of the black American baseball player, Satchel Paige: “Keep moving and don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.”