What about Mozart? What about Murder?

Howard S. Becker. University of Chicago Press, 2014. 204 pages. $17.00.

By Svetlana Alpers

Howard Becker is a sociologist of a certain age (over 80) who is also a skilled jazz musician. This book is a fascinating summing up of his life’s work. Becker is just as engaged now as he was in the 1940s when he discovered what sociology could be for him. It reads like the book of a young man though with the wisdom  that comes with years. Unlike many American sociologists, he is not a quantifier. He does not conduct research to arrive at underlying laws about human behavior; rather, he conducts research to understand people’s experience, how they live. His concern is with the human activities that produce the situations that interest him. Three of his major focusses have been the sociologies of deviance, of art, and of science. 

Two of those are referred to in the jokey title which came out of two public occasions when Becker’s views were challenged. The first came about when a sociologist of criminology, newly dubbed deviance studies, called Becker on his view that deviance was not an innate or inherent aspect of a person’s behavior but rather resulted from the joint activity of such an actor and of the people who responded to his or her activity by labeling it as deviant. “What about murder, isn’t that really deviant?” was the question put to Becker who calmly proceeded to open up the circumstances that made the answer not at all so clear cut.   Deviance is of interest to him. He has done a lot of work on drug-taking broadly conceived—comparing, for example, the historical case of middle-class American women getting addicted to drugs used to help them through menopause to that of lower-class young black men who become junkies. Again, the nature of  behavior broadly considered rather than something thought of as deviant is at issue.

On another occasion, when he gave a lecture taken from his book called Art Worlds the question “What about Mozart?” challenged Becker’s proposal that the definition of objects or performances as art is itself a form of collective activity: the very notion of great art is not an absolute, but  rather the result of a consensus arrived at between people. While a philosopher/aesthetician might address the question of what is great art, this sociologist studies how people might come around to think about this or that work of art as being great. Being himself a performing musician is surely no small part of this sense of things.

The book is informal in its presentation with Becker giving many examples of how he comes to his subjects. His image for what he investigates is what he calls the black box—the question not being how do we get from A to B, but what are the variants that take place in between in what is essentially a black box. His point is that the richest sociological (might one not also say human) possibilities lie in the smallest details. How he managed to get a visto document in Brazil or the comparison of the ordering of Paris, which lacks city blocks, with Chicago that has them, leads to considerations of arrangements of lives lived in different countries.

Sometimes Becker reasons by analogy (the title of one of the chapters):  comparing what he had read about embezzlement of money to the lying by the employee of a publisher he knew about the use of her time (she was stealing time), or comparing medical referral structures (doctors working in their professional world) and lay referral structures (people getting advice from the community or their friends).  

Again and again the account he gives of his research is unsettling because it makes what one takes for granted as established conditions (working at a publishing house, or being a patient  to whom a doctor prescribes a certain treatment) in a new light. A frequent effect is  to make one feel yes, I have been there and experienced that but no one has thought to take it seriously. Becker shows what happens if you do. 

Though Becker’s arena is the academy, what he writes of is of immediate practical use for anyone trying to make sense of the world in which he or she lives. He writes with wit and grace and the book a delight to read.  

Svetlana Alpers, an artist, critic and renowned art historian, is professor emerita of the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley and a visiting scholar in the Department of Art History at New York University.