Howard Becker

It is difficult to predict where life will lead us. One can be a talented, passionate piano player wanting to make a living as a great jazz pianist in America and end up creating one of the most influential theories in the sociology of crime and become an admired scholar in Paris. 

Howard Becker Howard Becker

Create learning materials about Howard Becker with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    That’s how it happened for now 94-year-old Howard Becker. Let us look at his life’s work in the field of music, sociology of art, and sociology of deviance.

    • We will start by introducing Howard Becker's life and career.
    • Then we will look at his contributions to sociology and his publications.
    • We will discuss his views on deviance and his labelling theory.
    • We will consider how labelling theory was adapted by scholars of the sociology of media and the sociology of education.
    • Finally, we will include some criticisms of Becker’s labelling theory.

    Howard Becker's biography

    Howard Saul Becker - Howie, as he prefers - was born in 1928, in Chicago.

    He started playing the piano at a very early age, and music became an essential part of his life. At the age of 12, he started playing in bars and strip joints in Chicago as a jazz pianist. He later recalled that this was only possible due to WWII, as most adult musicians were drafted.

    He initially wanted to become a professional pianist, and although he attended the University of Chicago, he thought of his sociology studies there as a kind of ‘pastime’. Becker continued playing music at entertainment venues and in the campus band, which was his main activity at the time.

    Playing in bars, observing and experiencing marijuana use turned his attention towards social questions a bit more. He went on to properly study the phenomenon and write his thesis about it. In the end, he became more serious about sociology and gained his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1951, at the age of 23.

    He was studying with Everett C. Hughes (who was a mentor to Becker), Georg Simmel and Robert E. Park. He was also friends and colleagues with Erving Goffman. All of the above and Becker were later referred to as the Chicago School of Sociology.

    The Chicago School was famous for analysing qualitative data and for using the city of Chicago as a research laboratory, testing their theories on its citizens. Becker’s early works were embedded in the traditions of the Chicago School.

    Becker taught at Northwestern University most of the time, but was also a visiting scholar in Europe and all around the US.

    During his academic career, Becker has received scholarships from prestigious foundations, such as the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. He has also received no less than six honorary degrees. The American Sociological Association awarded him with the prize for the Career of Distinguished Scholarship in 1998.

    As he spent most of his time at university or in jazz bars, playing the piano, he was mainly exposed to the societies and cultures that existed in these places. He turned his academic interest toward the people that frequented these places; looked at their lifestyles, habits, and ways of behaving and made sociological conclusions and theories from that observation.

    Within his early work, he researched dance musicians, marijuana users and his students at university. He later created the influential labelling theory, initially used in studies of deviance but later also adapted to the media and education.

    Howard Becker now lives between San Francisco, California and Paris, where he is a well-known scholar. He continues to write, play and record music.

    Howard Becker, photo of Howard Becker, StudySmarterHoward Becker created the influential labelling theory.

    Howard Becker’s contributions to sociology

    Becker has been a very active researcher and writer. He has published more than 200 items, 13 of which were books. He has been popular among students and fellow sociologists due to the engaging and readable style of his writing. This made his work accessible not only to scholars but to the wider public.

    His accessible writing style was a conscious choice. He also wrote about the significance of good writing in the spreading of sociological research. Three of his books address this topic and serve as writing guides:

    • Writing for Social Scientists (1986)

    • The Tricks of the Trade (1998)

    • Telling About Society (2007)

    Three of his other influential books are:

    • Outsiders (1963)

      • This was the first book in which Becker started to develop his labelling theory.

      • It was based on his experience of marijuana use in the jazz bars where he played the piano.

    • Art Worlds (1982)

      • A significant publication within the sociology of art.

      • Becker argued that an art piece was the product of a long creation, distribution and valuation process, in which the artist is only one of the numerous contributors.

    • What About Mozart? What About Murder? (2015)

      • In this work, Becker tackles the criticism he received on his theory of art and his theory of crime.

    Howard Becker’s sociology

    Howard Becker is often considered a symbolic interactionist sociologist. Although he rejects this association, his labelling theory of deviance became the lead theory of the interactionist perspective on crime and deviance.

    Interactionists argue that certain acts are labelled as criminal by the majority, and that is how deviance is socially constructed. Acts are not inherently deviant.

    Howard Becker on deviance

    Becker started to research deviance from a sociological perspective when he was exposed to marijuana at the jazz bars. He realised that there was a whole culture around marijuana smoking; it was not an individual, independent act that one could look at in isolation. His work later established an analytical focus on social structures and relations that allowed him and his followers to understand which social forces were at play in producing deviance.

    Labelling theory

    Becker’s labelling theory (1963) argued that:

    ...deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender"".

    No act has inherent deviance in it; it becomes deviant when people label it as such. In every society, there are common, acceptable values and rules and when these are crossed through an act, both the act and the person committing it are labelled ‘criminal’.

    Becker used the example of drugs to support his argument. He claimed:

    ...the act of injecting heroin into a vein is not inherently deviant. If a nurse gives the patient drugs under a doctor’s orders, it is perfectly proper. It is when it is done in a way that is not publicly defined as proper that it becomes deviant."

    Master status

    Becker argued that the deviant label can become a ‘master status’ in a person’s identity, overbearing all other identities. This process happens through five stages:

    1. The public label an individual as deviant. Social groups (family, friends, co-workers, etc.) reject the individual.

    2. The individual may turn to more deviant behaviour as a response to the label and rejection.

    3. The official punishment of deviant behaviour often drives individuals into committing further crimes. For example, people with a criminal record find it hard to get a job, which might make them turn towards criminality again for survival.

    4. The continuance of criminal acts might result in a deviant career. A deviant career is usually completed when the individual joins an organised criminal group. Becker says this is the stage when the individual fully accepts their deviant identity and lets it overbear all other identities.

    5. The deviant label becomes a master status. The deviant group becomes the most important relationship for the individual, and the deviant identity determines the individual’s identity.

    Influence of labelling theory

    Labelling theory, when it first emerged, became very popular among sociologists because it created a new perspective on the study of crime. Instead of focusing on the offender, and why they commit crimes, it discussed how agencies of social control label act as deviant and how the whole process of labelling impacts society.

    Howard Becker’s theory in media and education

    Labelling theory was applied to areas of sociological research other than crime and deviance. It was adapted to the sociology of media and also to the sociology of education.

    Labelling theory in the media

    We can apply labelling theory to the process of media representation of certain social groups. For example, Becker argued that the deviance of youth subcultures has been systematically exaggerated by the mainstream media, creating a ‘moral panic’ in society about youth subcultures.

    Pressured by the public, authorities attempt to restrain these subcultures, which results in them becoming even more deviant, according to interactionist sociologists.

    Howard Becker, live report from the mass media, StudySmarterAccording to interactionists, the mass media exaggerated the deviance of certain social groups, thus creating moral panic in the general public.

    Labelling theory in education

    Labelling theory is also used in the sociology of education for explaining differences in educational achievement of pupils.

    Becker (1970) argued that there is an ‘ideal pupil’ that teachers like and positively encourage. This ideal pupil is usually middle-class, well-behaving, respectful and ready to submit to the values and rules of the school. Intelligence plays only a little role in who gets to be labelled as an ideal pupil - according to research, middle-class students are labelled more positively than working-class pupils of the same intelligence level.

    Becker’s research also showed that pupils who are positively labelled by teachers show more academic development, while pupils labelled as bad students show a decline in their academic achievements. Pupils seen as unintelligent and misbehaving internalise this and eventually live up to the label. This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can read more about this in our explanation on Teacher-Student Labelling.

    Criticisms of labelling theory

    • Labelling theory is too deterministic, according to some sociologists. They argue that labelling theory ignores people who actively reject the labels they were given.

    • Some sociologists take issue with the application of labelling theory to the media. They argue that interactionists tended to attribute the existence of crime to media construction, which is a reductive approach. Yes, the media might exaggerate crime, but it does not cause it.

    • Labelling theory focuses on how deviance impacts society, and not on why deviant acts are committed by individuals in the first place. Labelling theory only comes into use once a crime was committed. But first, we must understand why the crime was committed.

    Howard Becker - Key takeaways

    • Howard Becker is an influential American sociologist of the Chicago School; he is also a jazz pianist.
    • Becker has been a very active researcher and writer. He has published more than 200 items, 13 of which were books. He has been popular among students and fellow sociologists due to the engaging and readable style of his writing.
    • Howard Becker is often considered a symbolic interactionist sociologist; however, he rejects this label.
    • Becker’s labelling theory argued that "deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender"".

    • Labelling theory could easily be transferred into areas of sociological research other than crime and deviance. It was adapted to the sociology of media and also to the sociology of education.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Howard Becker

    Who is Howard Becker?

    Howard Becker is an influential American sociologist of the Chicago School. He is als a jazz pianist.

    What did Howard Becker argue?

    Becker’s labelling theory argued that "deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender”". 

    What is Howard Becker's theory?

    Becker created the influential labelling theory, initially used in studies of deviance, but later also adapted to the media and education. His labelling theory stated that certain acts are labelled as criminal by the majority, and that is how deviance is socially constructed. Acts are not inherently deviant.  

    What did Howard Becker do for sociology?

    Becker has been a very active researcher and writer. He has published more than 200 items, 13 of which were books. He has been popular among students and fellow sociologists due to the engaging and readable style of his writing. This made his work accessible not only to scholars but to the wider public.  

    His accessible writing style was a conscious choice. He also wrote about the significance of good writing in the spreading of sociological research.


    Is Howard Becker an interactionist?

    Howard Becker is often considered a symbolic interactionist sociologist; however, he rejects this label. 

    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Howard Becker Teachers

    • 11 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App