Everything’s coming up Howie
Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, recently profiled eminent American sociologist Howard S. Becker (Howie, please: “Only my mother ever called me Howard”), one of the biggest names in the field for over half a century, yet still, as with so many purveyors of haute critique, better known in France. Becker is no wilting lily on these shores, however—since the publication of his pathbreaking Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (1963), he’s been presiding as grand doyen over methodological confrontations with the particularly slippery slopes of human existence, including our very notion of “deviance.” All this, a half dozen or so honorary degrees, a lifetime achievement award, a smattering of our most prestigious fellowships, and the 86-year-old Becker is still going strong, with his most recent book published only this past year.
From the New Yorker profile:
This summer, Becker published a summing up of his life’s method and beliefs, called “What About Mozart? What About Murder?” (The title refers to the two caveats or complaints most often directed against his kind of sociology’s equable “relativism”: how can you study music as a mere social artifact—what about Mozart? How can you consider criminal justice a mutable convention—what about Murder?) The book is both a jocular personal testament of faith and a window into Becker’s beliefs. His accomplishment is hard to summarize in a sentence or catchphrase, since he’s resolutely anti-theoretical and suspicious of “models” that are too neat. He wants a sociology that observes the way people act around each other as they really do, without expectations about how they ought to.
The provenances of that sociology have included: jazz musicians, marijuana users, art world enthusiasts, social science researchers, medical students, musicologists, murderers, and “youth,” to name a few.
As mentioned earlier, his latest book What About Mozart? What About Murder? considers the pull of two methodologies: one, more pragmatic, which addresses its subjects with caution and rigor on a case-by-case basis, and the other, which employs a more speculative approach (guesswork) by asking “killer questions” that force us to reposition our stance on hypothetical situations, such as whether or not, indeed, murder is always already (*Becker might in fact kill me for a foray into that particular theoretical shorthand*) “deviant.”
His work is required reading in many French universities, even though it seems to be a model of American pragmatism, preferring narrow-seeming “How?” and “Who, exactly?” questions to the deeper “Why?” and “What?” supposedly favored by French theory. That may be exactly its appeal, though: for the French, Becker seems to combine three highly American elements—jazz, Chicago, and the exotic beauties of empiricism.
On the heels of his appearance in the New Yorker, Becker participated in a recent, brief sitdown with the New York Times, where he relayed thoughts on Charlie Hebdo and the French media, Nate Silver, and jazz trios, among other concerns.
From that New York Times Q & A:
I work out in a gym with a trainer twice a week. Oh, it’s pure torture, but I’m 86 so you’ve got to do something to stay in shape. I do a mixture of calisthenics, Pilates and yoga—a lot of work on balance. My trainer has this idea that every year on my birthday I should do the same number of push-ups as I have years old. We work up to it over the year. I was born on the anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906. It seems auspicious but I don’t know why.
To read more by Becker, click here.