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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

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book review, digital sociology

What can Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists teach us about blogging?

Recently a few other bloggers including David Beer had mentioned Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. Having been a fan of his style of writing since I first discovered Art Worlds a few years ago, I was keen to see what sagely advice he had to offer. Interestingly, much of what he suggested are things I already do. Interestingly, the way he suggests writing for getting words down, regardless of quality and worrying about that later is something i’ve always done. I can see how this, to some people would be an huge leap from their current way of working. I never got on with planning in the traditional sense, preferring to get stuff down and them look at how to shape it and it was a relief to see i’m not the only one.

Interestingly, this relief at seeing commonalities between what others do and how beginning academics work is something Becker stresses in the book and I would whole heartedly support this.

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It was no surprise that seeing it sitting on my car seat next to a map was a light bulb moment as it felt like the guidebook that had been missing from my writing. I had figured most of it out already like any explorer of a new place often does, but it was good to see that I hadn’t missed anything important. I think this is the key reason to read this book, if you aren’t sure how to make your writing better then it will help but if you think you know but have niggling worries that you aren’t on the right track, it can help reinforce those ideas.

This second edition examines some of the changes in technology in the twenty years since it was first published, especially in terms of ways in which computers have enhanced the ability for drafting and rearranging ideas and the reduced permanence of the text that is churned out, allowing for writers to take more risks with what they put into being. This, combined with some of his lines of argument about the value of sharing and discussing writing lead me to thinking how the rise of blogs have changed the game even further since 2007.

Becker uses a lovely phrase in chapter three. He says ‘A thought written down is stubbon, doesn’t change it’s shape and can be compared to thoughts that come after it’ (p.56). For me, this forms the crux of why I am finding blogging so valuable for my writing, it allows me to commit those ideas to writing and to share them with other people, not only my close academic network, but more widely. It allows me to ask questions, to float partially formed thoughts and to help develop the thinking by continuing to write about them. This is what many academics have down for years in letters and through discussions so why, in some cases is there a resistance to blogging still by some people?

Becker poses a possible reason why, he says ‘There’s something that I think many of us believe: talking about work is less of a risk than writing about it. In part it’s because no one remembers the ideas you speak.’ (p.118). I wonder if it is an extension of this argument that keeps the discussions in private opposed to in the open on a blog. Maybe if you do not make public your partially formed ideas, people won’t remember all the wrong turns you took., after all, your audiences only want to hear the perfectly formed ideas, not those provisional ones, right?

Wrong! I think if Becker’s book teaches one thing, it is that being open about the writing (and by extension, thinking) process can help combat the intrinsic worry, especially in students and early career academics that they are doing it all wrong. By unveiling the mysticism of the process of idea formation, it opens up an understanding of the true messiness of it. I think when Becker comments about writing his quote could equally be about blogging:

In some ways writing gets easier the more you do it, because the more you do it, the more you learn that it’s not really as risky as you fear. You have a history on which to draw for self confidence […] You took the risk, produced something and voila! (p.119)

Of course, this is just my interpretation of how his work be translated to the risks and fears of blogging and how blogs can offer ways to address some of the concerns of writing he raises in the book. Maybe he would speak differently?

References

Becker, H.S. (2007) Writing for Social Scientists (2nd Ed.), Chicago, University of Chicago Press

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