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Reefer Madness was a deliberately false and misleading film made to influence parents’ thinking about the dangers of marijuana. As they watched the story, parents learned that pushers get high school kids hooked on marijuana, which makes the kids go insane –  murdering, raping, and committing suicide by leaping out of windows. Critics everywhere have called it one of the worst films ever made. Because it was so heavy-handed, it came to be viewed as an unintentional comedy, not as a public education film.

When World War II began, Howard Becker was fifteen years old

A remarkable student, he went to college during the day and played the piano in bars at night. Becker said the only reason he was hired was that so many musicians were away fighting the war. He liked to tell people that music was his career and sociology was his hobby. 

Becker had planned to study English but switched to Sociology

His epiphany came after he read Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. The book was authored by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, who detailed the history of blacks in Chicago from the 1840s to the 1940s.

Black Metropolis was what the Encyclopedia of African American History called “A foundational text in African American history, cultural studies, and urban sociology.” Others called it a landmark study of race and urban life.

As a 19-year old postgraduate student, Becker and fellow students were given an assignment to study and write about a group

He chose the bars where he played because he was friendly with other musicians, several of whom were known to be regular marijuana smokers. Becker turned his field notes into a Master’s thesis, which became an article called Becoming A Marihuana User. After it was published in the American Journal of Sociology, Becker turned it into his first book. 

For many years to come, the 1936 film Reefer Madness was most people’s only source of information about marijuana 

Marijuana use was commonplace among musician and artist subcultures. It grew in the wild and was legal until 1937, when it was classified as being as dangerous as heroin. If you’d like to read more about the man who criminalized marijuana, click here. Today 38 states and 40 countries have reversed their opinions and legalized medical and/or recreational cannabis. 

The New York Times says Harold Becker looked at society with a fresh eye

He challenged conventional thinking on matters as diverse as marijuana use, deviance, art-making, education, and occupations. Becker said the theme that runs through all his work is “How people do things together,” which is one of sociology’s simplest and most comprehensive definitions.

Harold S. Becker was one of the leaders of the Chicago School 

The term schools of thought describes a way of thinking that is shared by a group. The Chicago School was a group of like-minded sociologists who shared a system of beliefs, ideas, and opinions tied together by a unifying philosophy. They were the first sociologists dedicated to studying life and human interactions in cities.

In 1945, the Chicago School was known as the epicenter of qualitative research

It was led by sociologists Howard Becker, Erving Goffman (author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life), and David Riesman, (author of The Lonely Crowd.) The University of Chicago’s sociology department focused their energies on urban life, collective behaviors, deviance, race, and ethnic relations. They made participant observation* one of the most powerful tools in research.

The American Sociological Review

One critic wrote how the writing in Black Metropolis “alternates between systematic analysis, literary excursions, and journalistic protest writing.” Systematic analysis is expected in any kind of research, but criticizing the authors’ work as literary and journalistic is common in a sociological community increasingly focused on statistics instead of stories.

Steven Pinker wrote an article called Why Academics Stink at Writing

In it he asks “Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?”

Academics like to answer by saying:
  • Cumbersome writing is unavoidable when dealing with complex and abstract subjects. 
  • The use of professional shorthand (their name for jargon) is inevitable and non-academics aren’t capable of understanding it.
  • The gatekeepers and arbiters of what makes it into journals require it.
Critics like to answer by saying:
  • They’re a bunch of narcissists. 
  • They deliberately obfuscate to hide the fact they have nothing to say.
  • They dress up the trivial and obvious with terms non-scientists can’t possibly understand.
  • It’s easy to be complicated and hard to explain things simply.

Academic writing has earned a reputation for being dull, dense, and unreadable

Needlessly complex writing has become traditional in academia, where the writing is so dreadful that contests are held to find the worst examples. The Atlantic says one reason academic writing is so awful is that professors write for a specialized audience of peers. To academics, writing about studies is not meant for the general public, but for a very small group of scientists who judge whether articles are worthy of publication.

Another said academics are practicing obscurantism

Wikipedia says this word describes “The practice of deliberately presenting information in an abstruse and imprecise manner that limits further inquiry and understanding of a subject.”

The Harvard Crimson

It goes straight to the heart of the matter: “If the purpose of academic writing is to clearly communicate one’s ideas and research to the reader, then writing that is difficult to read is bad writing. Period.”

Bonus: Howard Becker’s most well-known books:

The Other Side: Perspectives on Deviance

Becker said deviance is created by society and defined by the reactions of others. Agents of social control such as police and judges assign stigmatizing labels that not only change the way others respond to the person considered deviant, but also change the way labeled people look at themselves. Simplysociety.org says “The central feature of labeling theory is the self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In Becker’s words, “deviance is not a quality of a bad person but the result of someone defining someone else’s activity as bad.” Unlike others before him, Becker was not interested in deviance as a social problem that needed to be solved. His interest was in how people choose to see themselves and others and how they interact with each other.

Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance

This is Becker’s most famous book. It analyzes unconventional individuals and their place in normal society. In it, he says “Deviance is not a quality that lies in the behavior itself, but in the interaction between the person who commits an act and those who respond to it.”

Becker’s musician friends took pride in being outsiders because not fitting in with the square world was a part of their identity. They liked to put distance between their world and the square world. In the jazz world, squares were conventional people who failed to appreciate jazz music. Squares looked upon musicians as deviants; jazz musicians saw themselves as fitting in with their preferred subculture.

Art Worlds

Goodreads tells us Becker “argues that works of art are not the creation of isolated individuals.” For example, the list of credits that roll when the movie has ended is an excellent illustration of art as a collaborative activity. A film needs more than a story. It needs a script, director, actors, sets, lighting, makeup artists, stunt doubles, stand-ins, grips, best boys, and many more.


When Howard Becker changed his major to sociology, he said it was because “it’s like anthropology, but you don’t have to go anywhere.”

* * *

*When you are a participant observer, you are not watching from the sidelines. As a part of the group you are studying, you get to see things up close. Because Howard Becker was a musician playing in nightclubs with bands, he was accepted as a part of the musician subculture, where he had a front-row seat to everything.

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