Defining Deviancy Up

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 17 2015 @ 7:32pm

Adam Gopnik looks back at the work of the iconoclastic sociologist Howard S. Becker – who also spent many nights in clubs and strip joints as a jazz musician. Those two aspects of his life came together in his famous 1953 paper in the American Journal of Sociology, “Becoming a Marihuana User”:

Becker insists that his accomplishment in the paper was no more than the elimination of a single needless syllable: “Instead of talking about drug abuse, I talked about drug use.” “Deviance” had long been a preoccupation of sociology and its mother field, anthropology. Most “deviance theory” took it for granted that if you did weird things you were a weird person. Normal people made rules—we’ll crap over here, worship over here, have sex like so—which a few deviants in every society couldn’t keep. They clung together in small bands of misbehavior.

Becker’s work set out to show that out-groups weren’t made up of people who couldn’t keep the rules; they were made up of people who kept other kinds of rules. Marijuana smoking, too, was a set of crips, a learned activity and a social game. At a time when the general assumption was that drug use was private and compulsive, Becker argued that you had to learn how to get high.

Smoking weed, he showed, was most often strange or unpleasant at first. One of his informants (a fellow band member) reported, “I walked around the room, walking around the room trying to get off, you know; it just scared me at first, you know. I wasn’t used to that kind of feeling.” Another musician explained, “You have to just talk them out of being afraid. Keep talking to them, reassuring, telling them it’s all right. And come on with your own story, you know: ‘The same thing happened to me. You’ll get to like that after a while.’ ” In the sociologese that Becker had not yet entirely discarded, he wrote, “Given these typically frightening and unpleasant first experiences, the beginner will not continue use unless he learns to redefine the sensations as pleasurable.” He went on, “This redefinition occurs, typically, in interaction with more experienced users, who, in a number of ways, teach the novice to find pleasure in this experience, which is at first so frightening.” What looked like a deviant act by an escape-seeking individual was simply a communal practice shaped by a common enterprise: it takes a strip club to smoke a reefer.