What about Mozart? What about Murder?: Reasoning from Cases, by Howard Becker

Now in his ninth decade, sociologist Howard Becker has produced a classic, writes Les Gofton

October 23, 2014

If I had to suggest a soundtrack to this book, I’m pretty sure I could persuade the author, a lifelong jazz musician, to go for It Ain’t Necessarily So. As a research guide, it will assume a deserved place in the existing canon, but to any motivated thinker, it offers much more. This is a guide to thinking.

This book is a delight. Howard Becker is that rarity: an academic writer who brings you into his presence, makes you comfortable, then entertains and educates you from first to last page. He is a writer who effortlessly communicates his enthusiasm and general glee with a career going back to the sociology department of the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, and still enthrals himself and his devotees as he approaches his tenth decade.

It is no small measure of that ability to make analogical reasoning, or argument from cases, into such an engrossing read. Alongside his other essential writing on how to do research, writing it up and getting it submittable, this book is chock-full of good sense and practical advice, laid on a bed of excellent examples in a range of subject areas, and covered in a delicious sauce of personal reminiscence and just great gossip. My favourite has to be the story of Donald Roy’s doctoral viva. Ever since reading his irresistible articles on machine-shop and garment workers as an undergraduate, I have pictured him as Peter Falk’s rumpled detective Columbo. Apparently, as he exited from a defence of his thesis, he whispered to his supervisor, Everett Hughes, of his interrogators that “there’s a lot of holes in this thing these guys never got near”. That image is now delightfully confirmed.

Becker’s own research is used for illustration in many instances, but he covers a much wider range of topics and issues. The title of his book comes from the objections raised to his approach at either end of his long career. He is generally recognised as the originator of the labelling approach to studies of deviance, shifting the focus in research from the intrinsic qualities of human actions to the processes and institutions involved in defining and sustaining an individual’s actions. A senior figure at one of the earliest presentations of these ideas responded with the argument that surely murder was not simply a label but intrinsically evil. Applying a developed version of this approach to the world of art, another interlocutor objected that rather than art being the product of collective behaviour and institutions, it rests on the innate genius of individuals such as Mozart.

The book is an extended response; an exploration of the centrality of cases in the formulation of social science questions as the basis for research, about developing ideas and opening up new possibilities. Rather than simply accepting the idea that, for instance, morality or aesthetic values are given, Becker argues for a close examination of how these qualities are socially constructed and the outcome of collective activities and institutions.

The range and variety of material covered is exemplary. We move from considering the role of “fixers” in impoverished neighbourhoods, to ways of finding your way around in New York or Paris, from worker motivation and the factors common to embezzlers, between lay and medical referral and diagnosis, to the “black box” argument that connects drug addiction to race, gender and poverty without reference to the actual effects of power and economic interest, from earthquakes to the number of books an academic needs, or not.

This is already a personal classic. Becker has been a hero for me since I opened my copy of Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance as a first-year undergraduate. My bookshelves still contain most of his output, and I won’t be sending them to Oxfam just yet. To all new sociologists, as well as oldies: buy this. You will not regret it.

What about Mozart? What about Murder?: Reasoning from Cases

By Howard Becker
University of Chicago Press, 224pp, £35.00 and £12.00
ISBN 9780226166353, 6490 and 6520 (e-book)
Published 2 September 2014

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