Howard S. Becker, Who Looked at Society With a Fresh Eye, Dies at 95
Howard S. Becker, an eminent American sociologist who brought his wide-ranging curiosity, sharp observation and dry wit to subjects as diverse as the art world, marijuana use and the meaning of deviance, died on Wednesday at his home in San Francisco. He was 95.
The death was confirmed by his wife, Dianne Hagaman.
Dr. Becker was probably best known for “Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance,” a groundbreaking book published in 1963. “The central fact about deviance: It is created by society,” he wrote, arguing that “deviance” is inherent not in certain behaviors but in the way those behaviors are viewed by others.
The book presents two “deviant” groups, marijuana smokers and dance musicians, and examines their cultures and careers. It is rich with the language of its subjects. The notion that deviance is a label applied by the larger society gave rise to what is called “labeling theory.” Dr. Becker was one of its pioneers, and the book’s perspective was especially innovative, appearing at the end of the conformist and moralistic 1950s.
Profiling Dr. Becker in The New Yorker in 2015, Adam Gopnik was fascinated by the “strange second act” of Dr. Becker’s career: renown in France. “Outsiders” became a staple of the French social science curriculum, and he became a force in French sociology. He spent several months a year in France, and Alain Pessin wrote two biographies and a sociological work about him (translated into English as “The Sociology of Howard Becker,” published in 2017). Collections of Dr. Becker’s articles were also published there.
Mr. Gopnick attributed Dr. Becker’s appeal as an intellectual hero in France to “three highly American elements — jazz, Chicago and the exotic beauties of empiricism.” (Dr. Becker had been a jazz piano player since his teens; “Paroles et Musique,” a collection of his papers about art and related subjects, included a CD of his duets with a French bass player.)
Dr. Becker’s second major book, “Art Worlds,” one of the first American volumes on the sociology of art, was published in 1982. It was based in part on his experience with photography, an activity he embraced in the 1970s to help understand the experience of art making. He examined the cultural context in which artists produce their work, advancing a view of art as collaborative.
Dr. Becker spoke of the list of credits after a Hollywood film as a model for how art is created by many hands. Even if a work originates with a single individual, many creative endeavors, such as music, literature and theater, clearly rely on activities carried out by others. Yet even the artist alone in a studio is part of a culture, Dr. Becker observed: People manufactured the oil paints and canvas the artist uses; provided the history and conventions that influence the artist; own the galleries in which the artist will exhibit and sell the work.
The theme that runs through his work, he said, is “how people do things together.”
Dr. Becker wrote frequently about sociology itself. In books like “Tricks of the Trade” (1998), “Telling About Society” (2007), “What About Mozart? What About Murder?: Reasoning From Cases” (2014) and “Evidence” (2017), he addressed such topics as communicating clearly, the various approaches to studying society, getting rid of errors in evidence and learning to make a general argument from specific cases.
Besides his more than two dozen books, he published numerous articles. His website, called Howie’s Home Page (“only my mother ever called me Howard,” he told Mr. Gopnik), illustrates his breezy style. It combines lists of publications as well as photographs of a young Howie Becker at the piano, his favorite quotations and advice for “students who are looking for information for a paper you are writing about me.”
Howard Saul Becker was born in Chicago on April 18, 1928, to Allan and Donna (Goldberg) Becker. His father, a descendant of Jewish immigrants, ran his own advertising firm. His mother was a homemaker.
Howie began playing the piano in his early teens. By the time he was 15 or 16, he was playing regularly at a strip club on Clark Street. He continued to perform at night even after being admitted to the University of Chicago after his second year of high school. (With World War II underway, “the reason I could get a job was that everybody who was over 18 was in the Army,” he told the University of Chicago Magazine.)
He had intended to study English in college, until he read St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s recently published study “Black Metropolis.” “It’s just like being an anthropologist but I can stay at home,” he said he thought, and pursued sociology instead.
He received a bachelor’s degree at 18, but his father insisted that he continue his studies as a postgraduate student.
For a subsequent class on field notes, Dr. Becker chose to observe the musicians he was playing with in a bar and at other night spots, noting their frequent use of marijuana. A professor of his, Everett Hughes, persuaded him to use the notes he took as the basis of a master’s thesis. The completed thesis became an article in The American Journal of Sociology, titled “Becoming a Marijuana User” and published in 1953.
At the time, the general view of marijuana hadn’t moved much beyond its frightening portrayal in the melodramatic 1936 film “Reefer Madness” — the notions that one toke would lead to a lifetime of addiction and that people who smoked it were troubled souls. Dr. Becker wrote about drug use rather than drug abuse. Marijuana users didn’t have to “assuage their difficulties with drugs,” he later said. “They’re having fun.”
The article was so well regarded that the University of Chicago Press republished it as a book in 2015.
Only 23 when he completed his Ph.D. in 1951, Dr. Becker pieced together a career as a “research bum,” filling in for absent department members at the University of Chicago, winning post-doc appointments and participating in various large studies. He was a research associate at Stanford University’s Institute for the Study of Human Problems when, in 1965, the head of Northwestern University’s sociology department lured Dr. Becker from his beloved San Francisco to join it.
He stayed there until 1991, when he moved to the University of Washington. After he retired in 1999, he and Ms. Hagaman lived in San Francisco while spending most autumns in Paris. He continued to write and make music.
Dr. Becker’s first marriage, to Nan Harris, ended with her death in 1986. In addition to Ms. Hagaman, he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, Alison Becker; a granddaughter; and a great-granddaughter.
Alex Traub contributed reporting.
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