The Life and Work of Howard S. Becker

A Brief Biography and Intellectual History

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Howard S. "Howie" Becker is an American sociologist renowned for his qualitative research into the lives of those otherwise classified as deviant, and for revolutionizing how deviant behavior is studied and theorized within the discipline. The development of the subfield focused on deviance is credited to him, as is labeling theory. He also made significant contributions to the sociology of art. His most notable books include Outsiders (1963), Art Worlds (1982), What About Mozart? What About Murder? (2015). Most of his career was spent as a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. 

Early Life

Born in 1928 in Chicago, IL, Becker is now technically retired but continues to teach and write in San Francisco, CA, and Paris, France. One of the most prolific living sociologists, he has about 200 publications to his name, including 13 books. Becker has been awarded six honorary degrees, and in 1998 was given the award for Career of Distinguished Scholarship by the American Sociological Association. His scholarship has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. Becker served as President of the Society for the Study of Social Problems from 1965-66, and is a lifelong jazz pianist.

Becker earned Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees in sociology from the University of Chicago, studying with those considered a part of the Chicago School of Sociology, including Everett C. Hughes, Georg Simmel, and Robert E. Park. Becker himself is considered a part of the Chicago School.

His career in studying those considered deviant began thanks to his exposure to marijuana smoking at Chicago's jazz bars, where he regularly played piano. One of his earliest research projects focused on marijuana use. This research fed into his widely read and cited book Outsiders, which is considered one of the first texts to develop labeling theory, which postulates that people adopt deviant behavior that breaks social norms after they have been labeled deviant by others, by social institutions, and by the criminal justice system.

Importance of His Work

The importance of this work is that it shifts analytic focus away from individuals and to social structures and relations, which allows for the social forces at play in producing deviance to be seen, understood, and changed, if need be. Becker's groundbreaking research resonates today in the work of sociologists who study how institutions, including schools, use racial stereotypes to label students of color as deviant problems that must be managed by the criminal justice system, rather than in-school punishment.

Becker's book Art Worlds made important contributions to the subfield of the sociology of art. His work shifted the conversation from individual artists to the whole field of social relations that make the production, distribution, and valuation of art possible. This text also proved influential to the sociology of media, media studies, and cultural studies.

Another important contribution that Becker made to sociology was to write his books and articles in an engaging and readable way that made them accessible to a wide audience. He wrote prolifically also on the important role that good writing plays in disseminating the results of sociological research. His books on this topic, which also serve as writing guides, include Writing for Social ScientistsThe Tricks of the Trade, and Telling About Society.

Learn More About Howie Becker

You can find much of Becker's writing on his website, where he also shares his music, photos, and favorite quotes.

To learn more about Becker's fascinating life as a jazz musician/sociologist, check out this in-depth 2015 profile of him in The New Yorker.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Life and Work of Howard S. Becker." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). The Life and Work of Howard S. Becker. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Life and Work of Howard S. Becker." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).