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The Sociology of Howard S. Becker

Theory with a Wide Horizon

Howard S. Becker is a name to conjure with on two continents —in the United States and in France. He has enjoyed renown in France for his work in sociology, which in the United States goes back more than fifty years to pathbreaking studies of deviance, professions, sociology of the arts, and a steady stream of books and articles on method. Becker, who lives part of the year in Paris, is by now part of the French intellectual scene, a street-smart jazz pianist and sociologist who offers an answer to the stifling structuralism of Pierre Bourdieu.

French fame has brought French analysis, including The Sociology of Howard S. Becker, written by Alain Pessin and translated into English by Steven Rendall. The book is an exploration of Becker’s major works as expressions of the freedom of possibility within a world of collaborators. Pessin reads Becker’s work as descriptions and ideas that show how society can embody the possibilities of change, of doing things differently, of taking advantage of opportunities for free action. The book is itself a kind of collaboration—Pessin and Becker in dialogue. The Sociology of Howard S. Becker is a meeting of two cultures via two great sociological minds in conversation.

144 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2017

Art: Art--General Studies

Philosophy: Philosophy of Society

Sociology: General Sociology, History of Sociology, Occupations, Professions, Work


“Part transatlantic dialogue, part paean to intellectual friendship, this volume is essential reading for anyone looking to understand the work of one of America’s greatest sociological craftsmen and, more broadly, sociology as a flexible science. Like the best of Becker’s work, this volume is a collective accomplishment, with Pessin aptly developing the standards provided by ‘Howie,’ and a dazzling overture solo by Kornblum. This book shows what it looks like to do theory without a capital t.”

Claudio Benzecry, Northwestern University

“Anyone interested in society will learn a great deal from French sociologist Pessin’s lucid and compelling synthesis of how Becker studies social worlds. All sociologists owe it to their discipline to read this deft little gem of a book. Our collective enterprise will be the better for it.”

John R. Hall, University of California, Davis

The Sociology of Howard S. Becker is a gift, and everyone who reads it—as every sociologist should—will be thankful.  A lucid translation of Un sociologue en liberte: Lecture de Howard S. Becker by the late Alain Pessin, the book presents the panorama of ‘Beckerian Sociology’— a ‘theory with a wide horizon’ (the book’s subtitle). For more than half a century, Becker’s writings have been opening our eyes to social phenomena most of us overlook (social conventions, careers, cooperative activities, among others), and Pessin’s study opens our eyes to aspects of Becker’s work nearly everyone has overlooked, especially Becker’s sensitivity to fluid practices, contingent choices, and chance events. Pessin lauds Becker for teaching much while keeping his lessons light, quoting Becker’s quip: ‘If it’s interesting, it’s sociology.’  Following Becker’s example, Pessin gives us an absorbing book that will draw students into the adventure of sociology and inspire its practitioners to fundamentally rethink how they go about their work.”

Charles Camic, Northwestern University

Table of Contents

William Kornblum
1 People Who Get High and the Others
2 Jazzmen and Company
3 Culture in Motion
4 A Sociological Perspective
5 What Is There to See, What Is There to Say?
6 A Researcher Set Free
Introduction to the Appendixes
Howard S. Becker
Appendix A: A Dialogue on the Ideas of “World” and “Field”
Howard S. Becker and Alain Pessin
Appendix B: A Tribute to Alain Pessin
Howard S. Becker
Appendix C: Four Things I Learned from Alain Pessin
Howard S. Becker

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