Howard S. Becker Interviewed by Harvey Molotch
Harvey Molotch (HM): I’d like to know, why are you not “Howard”?
Howard S. Becker (HSB): Only my mother ever called me Howard.
HM: And how long have you been “Howie”?
HM: How do you portion it off, Howie versus Howard?
HSB: Well, you know, when I got into the business, when I started at Northwestern, I knew everybody there. And my first day, I had a class, and I thought, “Should I wear a tie?” And I thought, well you know, I don’t wear a tie ever. But I’m a professor, so now I should. So I put on a tie. And on the way home, I thought, “Hey, I’m a scientist. What will happen if I don’t wear a tie?” So I didn’t wear a tie the next day. Nothing happened. And I never wore a tie again. But, you know, when you write your dissertation, they don’t want nicknames. And so when I wrote the first article, which was at Everett Hughes’s insistence — did I ever tell you about that?
HSB: I was working in Everett’s office, and he said, “About time you wrote an article,” the way he did. So I said, “What should I write about?” He said, “Take something out of your master’s thesis.” I said, “What?” He said, “Just take some idea, and whatever sticks to it leave in, and whatever doesn’t leave out.” I said, okay, sounds good. I did that.
And then he said, “Now send it out to get it reviewed.” So I sent it to six different journals, all of which turned it down. So Everett said, “Goddamnit, send it to the AJS [American Journal of Sociology],” which he was the editor of. And it was accepted. This was my introduction to the politics of publishing.
HM: What I’m going for is the informality. It could have gone the other way around, someone could have experimented and worn a tie again and again and the world also wouldn’t fall apart. And so you had a bias, in a way, toward a certain kind of substantive solution.
HSB: I got my PhD at twenty-three, in 1951. And I probably looked like a kid. And I dressed like a musician. And I think it just didn’t, you know, they weren’t sure they wanted to hire someone like that as a college professor.
And so I wandered into a research career (without a tie). For the fourteen years after I got my PhD I was essentially a research bum. I don’t think it’s a career you could have now. There was a lot of research money available. I had a postdoc at the University of Illinois. I got hired for a year at the Institute for Juvenile Research in Chicago, which is when I did the marijuana interviews. Then I went to Kansas City to work with Hughes on two big projects. So there was never any occasion for people to treat me like Professor Becker. I just worked with other people in this research organization, which was very informal.
But I went to Stanford for three years, because I had dearly wanted to live in San Francisco. I took this research job at Stanford in the Institute for the Study of Human Problems, which was run by Nevitt Sanford, who had gotten a million dollars from the NIH [National Institutes of Health], at a time when that was really a lot of money, to start an institute for the study of alcohol problems.
I knew Nevitt, and we had met at a bunch of conferences. He called me and said, “How would you like to be the sociologist in our institute?” So I said, “Sure.” Again, I was just Howie. I wasn’t a professor. I was kind of half a professor for one year, then I quit the sociology department.
HM: But see, again, it could have gone either way. Some other people who look young might then compensate and of course wear a tie in order to differentiate themselves from the kid that is the research assistant. So it seems to me that is a choice, a mood, to persist in Howie.
HSB: Well, why not? I mean, I wasn’t enamored of becoming a college teacher. That wasn’t it.
HM: I don’t want to push it too hard . . .
HSB: What you would like me to say is, “Why did I do that?” I don’t know why. I just did it.
HM: So, okay. I’ll allege something then. There is something about you that embraces the informal and the mundane. And does not sit well with pretentiousness.
HSB: I guess so. If you say so. [Laughs.]
HM: That’s what it looks like . . .
HSB: If that’s the allegation, I won’t deny it . . . counselor.
HM: And the reason why I make something of it is because it’s just possible that we see it in other manifestations, like in your work. So one knows the remarkable range of things that you’ve been involved in. And they declare you to be a leader in a whole range of fields—symbolic interaction, deviance studies, music, photography . . .
HSB: I plead “not guilty” to all of this.
HM: So to me a lot of this comes to a head, almost as a capstone, in your book Telling about Society. Do you view Telling about Society as in a way . . . I don’t want to use words like masterwork or words like capstone . . .
HSB: Yeah, but I think all my books of the past ten or fifteen years are like that. Art Worlds was that kind of bringing together of a lot of stuff. And Tricks of the Trade certainly is.
HM: So in Telling about Society, if we could just stay with that, one of the things you’re doing is declaring a kind of epistemological map of the different ways people can know about and then represent society. Have I got that, more or less?
HSB: Yes. Why not?
HM: So . . .
End of Excerpt | access full version