Posted by Jay Livingston
|You know what the real problem with Bourdieu was? The real problem with Bourdieu was that he was a schmuck – power-hungry and mean in spirit and obsessed with career.|
Now that I’ve got your attention . . . Yes, I suppose that’s the money quote in Adam Gopnik’s profile of Howie Becker in the latest New Yorker (here). Most of the article, thankfully, is not about character assessment (or assassination). It’s about sociology, American sociology as practiced by Howe Becker.
Gopnik interviews Becker in Paris – at his apartment in the 5ème and at a nearby resto. I had not known that Becker has a following in France, unexpected given his preference for starting with ground-level data – what people do and say.
The important difference between Becker and European sociologists (and many American sociologists too) is Becker’s commitment to “exotic beauties of empiricism” (Gopnik’s phrase, not Becker’s). “He’s resolutely anti-theoretical and suspicious of ‘models’ that are too neat.”
The “why” question focuses all attention on the deviant. It also leads to theoretical abstractions. Becker asks “how,” which focuses attention on what people actually do.
Gopnik, by the way, is sensitive to this France/America divide over the primacy of facts or theory. As an American journalist in Paris, he had to fact-check an article, only to find that the French were completely unfamiliar with this job. “What do you mean, une fact checker?”
|There is a certainty in France that what assumes the guise of transparent positivism, “fact checking,” is in fact a complicated plot of one kind or another, a way of enforcing ideological coherence. That there might really be facts worth checking is an obvious and annoying absurdity; it would be naive to think otherwise.**|
For Becker, checking the facts, even the ordinary ones, and thinking carefully about them is not only necessary; it is what eventually leads to sociological insight.
*I had always assumed that Becker was a competent but ordinary jazz pianist. In Outsiders, he refers to the musicians he played with (and got high with) as “dance musicians.” Now, thanks to Gopnik, I discover that he studied with the extraordinary Lennie Tristano.
**From Paris to the Moon (2000). An earlier blog post on facts and theory in France and the US is here. http://montclairsoci.blogspot.com/2007/07/thinking-and-working.html