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Book Review: What About Mozart? What About Murder? – Howard S. Becker

What About Mozart? What About Murder? differs from Becker’s previous work. It is not a monograph on a particular subject the ways that Art Worlds and Outsiders were. Nor is it wholly concerned with the craft in the way Writing for Social Scientists and Telling About Society were. Instead it offers a unique insight into the events and concerns that have sparked his sociological imagination over his career to date. It opens up some of the inner conversations and thoughts that link his work across areas as diverse as deviance and Art.

This volume is focused upon cases studies and their use within Sociology. It takes the reader through different the different forms these take and the ways in which cases can be used to illuminate issues and sociological concerns. Drawing on his wide experience both empirical and anecdotal this is not a text on methodology but an insight into how Becker’s work has been shaped by a commitment to the value of case studies. He addresses issues of how seemingly unrelated cases can spark thinking in completely different fields, how detailed studies of cases can make visible things that other methods hide in black boxes and how imaginary cases can help to make issues more visible.

Through his accessible writing style, Becker generously fills in the blanks by making visible the influences and inspiration behind the various areas of research he has addressed during his career. In making these visible, this book offers a unique insight into how seemingly unrelated areas of study can become influential and how the everyday and the imagined can also prove valuable in sociological research.

This book speaks of his generosity to the reader. He addresses some of those questions that I am sure every academic has asked at some point; how do I decide what to study, where do I go next and How do I know when enough is enough? He does this in an accessible insightful way that makes the reader consider how similar issues might be able to offer useful insights into their own work. As such this text in my mind is essential reading for all PhD and Early career researchers who may be wrestling with these issues and wondering how Becker seamlessly moved from looking at Musicians to Schools and from deviance to Art.

References

Becker (2014) What About Mozart? What About Murder? Reasoning from cases, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Education, higher education, PhD

Reading Lists: Recommendations, Rabbit holes and Reputation

I was recently asked to try and write a blog to explain my reading strategy. The questions posed were how I decide what to read, when and why. I was also asked about how I read and take notes. I am going to take this into two posts, the first focusing on how my current reading pile has come about.

Why has this stack of books come about?

I hadn’t really thought about this before so I took what I currently had and realised there were three main reasons books and references to follow up were there, namely some form of recommendation, a follow up from a reference i’d come across in other reading or the fact that I felt something was a seminal text in the areas i’m researching.

Recommendation

Recommendations that have populated my list have come from several sources. Some have been as a result of twitter, some from seeing mailshots and stands at conferences and some through personal recommendation.

For example, Education, disadvantage and place came onto my radar through a flyer from Policy Press. Other recent books to drop into this category are the Education Policy Research book I reviewed last week, which came as a result of attending a symposium at the BERA conference and Zizek’s First as tragedy, then as farce recommended by @andewilkins on tiwtter following a conversation about cynicism as ideology that has fascinated me since the BSA conference earlier in the year.

Rabbit holes

When you begin immersing yourself in one topic, you find references to many things you feel you should read, things that look interesting and things that might be central to your research. The process of following one reference to another without really knowing where you will end up brought to my mind the idea of Alice following the white rabbit in her adventures in wonderland and as a result I decided to term these texts my rabbit holes.

There are a number of journal articles relating to this  category in my list, probably too numerous to mention and often this has been a useful way to carve out my reading into relevant studies. It has also lead me to explore specific texts from authors that may have also fallen into the final category; that of reputation. Two examples here are Bourdieu’s Pascalian Meditations which Steven Jones talks about in his chapter in Education Policy Research and in which I wish to explore the notion of ‘playing the game’ further. Bauman’s Wasted Lives has also ended up on my must read list as although I have read several of his books this was cited in another chapter and I feel may have some relevance to issues surrounding my thesis.

Reputation

The books that I would currently put into this category are actually ones on my reading list to revisit. I have read with interest Mills’ Sociological Imagination, Bourdieu’s Distinction and Becker’s Telling about society and all have extensive notes in them. The reason they are still sitting in my reading pile, however, is that re-reading certain parts in light of other thoughts i’m having, now specifically related to my thesis may help me develop my own thesis by drawing on the issues and concepts that these works highlight.

What do I do with this reading?

I wouldn’t suggest by any means this list is exhaustive, nor that my way is the best way but this is how my current reading list has been shaped. It would be interesting to here if this resonates with anyone else or if people have very different strategies for deciding what to read. I will be following up this post by exploring the idea of how I read and think through reading in another post in due course.

public sociology

All in the delivery? To access new publics is it what we say, or how we say it that matters?

Every way of doing things is perfect – for something

(Becker, 2007 p.72)

Having spent this week reading Howard Becker’s superb Telling About Society, I have continued to muse on this issue of how to engage publics and what needs to be done about it. For those of you that haven’t encountered Becker’s book, it is the culmination of a project that brings together ideas from his research, teaching and broad range of interests outside of Social Science. It is also influenced by a number of interdisciplinary classes he taught, including “Telling About Society” (the books namesake) where he examined different media to provoke discussion regarding the best way to report of society. What this approach allows him to do, is to examine the flaws of traditional research outputs and the potentials other disciplines offer. I do not plan to precís the book here, but to draw of a few of the ideas that resonated with my current thinking.

Understanding the status quo

The fist key point he raises early on is that all representations are constrained within the norms of the organisations they are created in. The research paper, the television documentary, and the novel, all have expected elements and ways of being created, so they can be read by the audience they are designed for. It is therefore important to understand that the status quo is maintained usually due to the shared understandings of the creators and users. In order to access a new base of users (or readers or viewers), we need to be able to understand the tools they possess for decoding the information presented.

What I mean by this, is if we take the film, a fade from one scene to another means a change of time or place or in a research paper, academic know that a small sample size means that the conclusions drawn are likely to have low levels of generalisability. These are things that the user learns through experience, or education. It is therefore important that makers using an unfamiliar medium understand these conventions.

Do I mean what I say or what you hear?

Maybe this is one of the reasons that social science sticks to known outputs (or variations on them). Through using written argument, to an audience of similar experiences and understanding, it is more likely than not that what an author explains will be understood in the same way it was intended – even if perhaps, the user disagrees with it. The problem arises when the user is expected to make their own interpretations and draw their own conclusions, something that is often done within Art or Film – using the term in the broadest sense. In this case, more skill is needed to ensure that the evidence presented is framed in a way that helps the user gain the same meaning as the maker. As Becker states, ‘Any representation of social reality […] is necessarily partial’ (p.22) and thus the maker needs to understand how the audience interprets the form of representation that they plan to use.

The case for breaking the silo walls

My argument here, therefore, is that in order to reach these publics, we need to collaborate with those makers who understand them best. By this, I don’t just mean collaborate at the point of production. In the resent LSE Impact event, Fiona Devine talked about the ‘challenges’ of working with the media on the Great British Class calculator when one party has differing expectations to the other. What I am suggesting, is that academia reconsiders what needs to be an essential element of education within the Social Sciences: developing interdisciplinary courses that allow development of the skills and understanding of several groups at once in the way that Becker did within his class at Northwestern. I propose that by changing the way students start out thinking about Social Science as working not in a silo, but in integrated and interdisciplinary ways with those who are training to become skilled in the technicalities of presentation of media, we can begin to overcome the barriers to reaching out to a wider range of publics.

Reference

Becker, H.S. (2007) Telling About Society, Chicago, Chicago University Press