Becker in Paris

January 5, 2015
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.”

Becker never starts by laying out theoretical concepts; he starts with people doing something together – playing music,* getting high, studying medicine. When he does move to a slightly more theoretical plane, it’s to point out something that is fairly simple but that most people seem to be overlooking. Until Outsiders (1963), much writing about deviance and crime started from the question, “Why do those people do those weird or bad things?” Becker reminded us that deviance is a process; it involves not just breaking rules but also creating and enforcing those rules, and that we should study the motives and methods of the “moral entrepreneurs” as well as those of the deviants.

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.


Anonymous said...

Hello - writing from France, I can tell you things change - we're now 15 years after 2000 and fact checking is more and more used in here, with dedicated sites like this one : - and others.

Thank you for your blog - I follow you with much interest.


Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for writing (and reading). Fact checking at newspapers and magazines in the US may be partly a pre-emptive defense against lawsuits. That's a different motive than what's behind Websites like Politifact.
I also see that according to Wikipedia, fact-checking in France is, as you say, rather recent: "C'est à partir de 2011 que la vérification des faits est mise en œuvre à large échelle dans les médias de masse à l'occasion des campagnes politiques de l'élection présidentielle française de 2012."

Andrew Gelman said...


Your statement, "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," resonated with me. It's similar to the point that Basbøll and I make in our sociology article on the relevance of stories in social science.