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Howard Saul Becker (born April 18, 1928, Chicago) is an American sociologist.



Howard Becker was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 18,1928 [1]. As an undergraduate and later a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he worked as a professional jazz pianist, and plays still [2]. He earned his Ph.B., A.M., and Ph.D., all at the University of Chicago, 1946, 1949 and 1951, respectively[3].

His professor, Everett C. Hughes, whose primary interest was the sociology of work and professions, was an important influence on Becker. It was Hughes, Becker reports, who first encouraged him to undertake the study of jazz musicians as a professional group. This research led Becker to write extensively about drug use, and he put off publishing it for over a decade until 1963, when the political climate in the United States had improved. The resulting book, "Outsiders" was a critical work in the sociology of deviance and laid the foundation of labelling theory. In that book he "said everything I have to say about labeling theory." [4].

For his doctoral dissertation, Becker studied Chicago schoolteachers. Generally speaking, his work reflects the prevailing thematic and theoretical preoccupations of Chicago sociology at that time, with its attention to symbolic interactions involving race, status, and power in the urban melting pot. Erving Goffman was a contemporary of Becker's at Chicago, and their research interests and writing styles both reflect a similar formative milieu.

After receiving his Ph.D. in Sociology in 1951 he went on to teach in Sociology Departments at Northwestern University, the University of Washington, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. However, the majority of his research, writing and teaching was in other fields of sociology, including but not limited to the sociology of art, qualitative method, visual sociology and the practice of research and writing (composition theory) in social sciences.

Becker is acclaimed for the clarity of his prose, and is a staunch advocate of what has been termed the "Plain style" of writing (see, for example, The Elements of Style). His stylistic predilections betray his academic pedigree: at the time he was a student, sociologists at the University of Chicago embraced European positivism and Midwestern pragmatism. They sought to communicate their ideas with scientific precision, on the one hand, while making them accessible to politicians and planners, on the other. He developed various aspects of a sociology of writing in his Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article[5]. It is considered to be one of the best books advising all academics how to write. The book reflects the conviction that clear prose and clear thinking are inseparable. He served on the advisory board for the 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Becker is notable for coining the phrase "hierarchy of credibility (in ‘Whose Side Are We On?’, Social Problems, 1967.)" The Hierarchy of credibility is a concept according purportedly objective judgments of fact and evidence are necessarily tilted in favor of those at the top of a society because they will have had more resources to produce seemingly objective evidence that tends to favor the privileges they enjoy. Becker argues that it is the scholar's responsibility to create evidence that supports the claims of society's least privileged.

While he lives in San Francisco, Becker regularly sojourns in France, previously in the company of Alain Pessin, a sociologist at the University of Grenoble who wrote a book on Becker titled Un sociologue en liberté. Lecture de Howard S. Becker (A sociologist in liberty; a reading of Howard S. Becker). Pessin died in 2005.

Becker's students include Elijah Anderson and Mitchell Duneier.


  • Boys in White: Student Culture in Medical School, with Blanche Geer, Everett C. Hughes and Anselm Strauss (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961)
  • Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. (New York: The Free Press, 1963)
  • Making the Grade: The Academic Side of College Life with Blanche Geer and Everett C. Hughes (New York: Wiley, 1968). New edition (1995) with new introduction.
  • Sociological Work: Method and Substance. (Chicago: Adline, 1970) collected papers, including two previously unpublished: "On Methodology" and "Field Work Evidence."
  • Art Worlds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).
  • Writing for Social Scientists. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, Second Edition, 2007). ISBN 9780226041322
  • Doing Things Together: Selected Papers, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1986).
  • Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You're Doing It (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). ISBN 9780226041247 Excerpt
  • Telling About Society. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). ISBN 9780226041261
  • Do You Know . . . ? The Jazz Repertoire in Action (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), with Robert R. Faulkner. ISBN 9780226239217 Excerpt


External links

  • Becker, Howard (1967) Whose Side Are We On? Social Problems, 14 (Winter) pp. 239–47 [1]
  • Howard S. Becker's website [2]
  • Howard S. Becker's Curriculum Vitae [3]


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