Notes on and quotations from Howard Becker

Whose side are we on?
By Howard S. Becker
Presidential address, delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, Miami Beach, August, 1966.

To have values or not to have values: the question is always with us. When sociologists undertake to study problems that have relevance to the world we live in, they find themselves caught in a crossfire.Some urge them not to take sides, to be neutral and do research that is technically correct and value free. Others tell them their work is shallow and useless if it does not express a deep commitment to a value position.

This dilemma,which seems so painful to so many, actually does not exist, for one of its horns is imaginary.For it to exist, one would have to assume, as some apparently that it is indeed do, possible to do research that is uncontaminated by personal and political sympathies.I propose to argue that it is not possible and, therefore,that the question is not whether we should take sides, since we inevitably will, but rather whose side we are on.

I will begin by considering the problem of taking sides as it arises in the study of deviance. An inspection of this case will soon reveal to us features that appear in sociological research of all kinds. In the greatest variety of subject matter areas and in work done by all the different methods at our disposal, we cannot avoid taking sides, for reasons firmly based in social structure.

We may sometimes feel that studies of deviance exhibit too great a sympathy with the people studied, a sympathy reflectedin the research carried out. This feeling, I suspect, is entertained off and on both by those of us who do such research and by those of us who, our work lying in other areas, only read the results. Will the research, we wonder, be distorted by that sympathy? Will it be of use in the construction of scientific theory or in the application of scientific knowledge to the practical problems of society? Or will the bias introduced by taking sides spoil it for those uses?

We seldom make the feeling explicit. Instead, it appears as a lingering worry for sociological readers, who would like to be sure they can trust what they read,and a troublesome area of self-doubt for those who do the research, who would like to be sure that whatever sympathies they feel are not professionally unseemly and will not, in any case, seriously flaw their work. That the worry affects both readers and researchers indicates that it lies deeper than the superficial differences that divide sociological schools of thought, and that its roots must be of sought in characteristics of society that affect us all, whatever our methodological or theoretical persuasion.

If the feeling were made explicit, it would take the form of an accusation that the sympathies of the researcher have biased his work and distorted his findings. Before exploringits structural roots, let us consider what the manifest meaning of the charge might be.

It might mean that we have acquired some sympathy with the group we study sufficient to deter us from publishing those of our results which might prove damaging to them. One can imagine a liberal sociologist who set out to disprove some of the common stereotypes held about a minority group. To his dismay, his investigation reveals that some of the stereotypes are unfortunately true. In the interests of justice and liberalism, he might well be tempted, and might even succumb to the temptation, to suppress those findings, publishing with scientific [p. 240] candor the other results which confirmed his beliefs.

But this seems not really to be the heart of the charge, because sociologists who study deviance do not typically hide things about the people they study. They are mostly willing to grant that there is something going on that put the deviants in the position they are in, even if they are not willing to grant that it is what the people they studied were originally accused of.

A more likely meaning of the charge, I think, is this. In the course of our work and for who knows what private reasons,we fall into deep sympathy with the people we are studying, so that while the rest of the society views them as unfit in one or another respect for the deference ordinarily accorded a fellow citizen, we believe that they are at least as good as anyone else, more sinned againstthan sinning. Because of this, we do not give a balanced picture. We focus too much on questionswhose answersshow that the supposeddeviantis morallyin the right and the ordinarycitizen morallyin the wrong. We neglect to ask those questions whose answers would show that the deviant, after all, has done something pretty rotten and, indeed, pretty much deserveswhat he gets. In consequence, our overall assessmentof the problem being studied is one-sided. What we produce is a whitewash of the deviant and a condemnation, if only by implication,of those respectable citizens who, we think, have made the deviantwhat he is.

It is to this version that I devote the rest of my remarks. I will look first, however, not at the truth or falsity of the charge, but ratherat the in circumstances which it is typically made and felt. The sociologyof knowledge cautionsus to distinguishbetween the truth of a statementand an assessunderwhich ment of the circumstances that statement is made; though we trace an argumentto its source in the interestsof the personwho made it, we have still not proved it false. Recognizing the point and promising to address it eventually, I shall turn to the typical situations in which the accusationof bias arises.

When do we accuse ourselves and our fellow sociologists of bias? I think an inspection of representative instances would show that the accusation arises, in one importantclass of cases,when the research gives credence, in any serious way, to the perspective of the subordinate group in some hierarchical relationship. In the case of deviance, the hierarchicalrelationship is a moral one. The superordinate parties in the relationship are those who representthe forces of approved and official morality; the subordinate parties are those who, it is alleged, have violated that morality.

Though deviance is a typical case, it is by no means the only one. Similar situations,and similarfeelings that our work is biased, occur in the study of schools,hospitals,asylumsand prisons, in the study of physical as well as mental illness, in the study of both "normal" and delinquent youth. In these situations,the superordinate parties are usually the officialand professional authorities in charge of some importantinstitution,while the subordinates are those who make use of the services of that institution. Thus, the police are the superordinates, drug addicts are the subordinates;professors and administrators, principals and while teachers,are the superordinates, students and pupils are the subordinates; physicians are the superordinates, their patients the subordinates.

All of these cases representone of the typical situations in which researchers accuse themselves and are accused of bias. It is a situation in which, while conflictand tension exist in the hierarchy,the conflict has not become openly political. The conflicting segments or ranks are not organized for conflict;no one attemptsto alter the shape of the hierarchy. While [p.241] subordinates may complain about the treatment they receivefrom those above them, they do not propose to move to a position of equalitywith them, or to reverse positions in the hierarchy. Thus, no one proposes that addicts should make and enforce laws for policemen, that patients should prescribe for doctors, or that adolescents should give orders to adults. We can call this the apoliticalcase.

In the second case, the accusation of bias is made in a situation that is frankly political. The parties to the hierarchical relationship engage in organizedconflict,attemptingeither to maintain or change existing relations of power and authority. Whereas in the first case subordinatesare typically unorganizedand thus have, as we shall see, little to fear from a researcher, subordinateparties in a political situation may have much to lose. When the situationis political, the researcher may accuse himself or be accused of bias by someone else when he gives credence to the perspective of either party to the political conflict. I leave the political for later and turn now to the problem of bias in apolitical situations. 1

No situation is necessarily political or apolitical. An apolitical situation can be transformed into a political one by the open rebellion of subordinate ranks, and a political situation can subside into one in which an accommodation has been reached and a new hierarchy been accepted by the participants. The categories, while analytically useful, do not represent a fixed division existing in real life.

We provoke the suspicion that we are biased in favor of the subordinate parties in an apolitical arrangement when we tell the story from their point of view. We may, for instance, investigate their complaints, even though they are subordinates, about the way things are run just as though one ought to give their complaintsas much credence as the statements of responsible officials. We provoke the charge when we assume, for the purposes of our research,that subordinates have as much right to be heard as that they are as likely superordinates, to be telling the truth as they see it as superordinates, that what they say about the institutionhas a right to be investigatedand have its truth or falsity established, even though responsible officials assure us that it is unnecessarybecausethe charges are false.

We can use the notion of a hierarchy of credibilityto understandthis phenomenon.In any system of ranked groups, participants take it as given that members of the highest group have the right to define the way things really are. In any organization, no matter what the rest of the organization chartshows, the arrowsindicating the flow of informationpoint up, thus demonstrating(at least formally) that those at the top have accessto a more complete picture of what is going on than anyone else. Members of lower groups will have incomplete information, and their view of reality will be partial and distorted in consequence. Therefore,from the point of view of a well socialized participantin the system, any tale told by those at the top intrinsically deserves to be regarded as the most credibleaccountobtainable of the organizations'workings. And since, as Sumner pointed out, matters of rank and status are containedin the mores,2this belief has a moral quality. We are, if we are proper membersof the group, morallybound to acceptthe definition imposed on reality by a superordinategroup in preference to the definitions espoused by subordinates. (By analogy, the same argument holds for the social classes of a community.) Thus, credibility and the right to be heard are differentiallydistributed through the ranks of the system.

2 William Graham Sumner, "Status in the Folkways,"Folkways,New York: New AmericanLibrary,1960, pp. 72-73.

As sociologists, we provoke the [242] charge of bias, in ourselvesand others, by refusing to give credenceand deference to an establishedstatus order, in which knowledge of truth and the right to be heard are not equally distributed. "Everyone knows" that responsible professionals know more about things than laymen, that police are more respectableand their words ought to be taken more seriouslythan those of the deviants and criminals with whom they deal. By refusing to accept the hierarchyof credibility,we express disrespectfor the entire established order.

We compound our sin and further provoke charges of bias by not giving immediate attention and "equal time" to the apologies and explanations of official authority.If, for instance, we are concernedwith studying the way of life inmates in a mental hospital build up for themselves,we will naturally be concernedwith the constraints and conditions created by the actions of the administratorsand physicians who run the hospital. But, unless we also make the administrators and physicians the object of our study (a possibility I will consider later), we will not inquire into why those conditions and constraints are present. We will not give responsibleofficials a chance to explain themselves and give their reasons for acting as they do, a chance to show why the complaints of inmatesare not justified.

It is odd that, when we perceive bias, we usually see it in these circumstances. It is odd because it is easily ascertained that a great many more studies are biased in the direction of the interests of responsible officials than the other way around. We may accusean occasionalstudentof medical sociology of having given too much emphasisto the complaintsof patients. But it is not obviousthat most medical sociologists look at things from the point of view of the doctors? A few sociologists may be sufficientlybiased in favor of youth to grant credibility to their account of how the adult world treatsthem. But why do we not accuse other sociologists who study youth of being biased in favor of adults? Most researchon youth, after all, is clearlydesigned to find out why youth are so troublesomefor adults, rather than asking the equally interesting sociologicalquestion: "Why do adults make so much trouble for we youth?"Similarly, accusethose who take the complaintsof mental patients seriously of bias; what about those sociologists who only take seriously the complaintsof physicians, families and othersaboutmentalpatients? in

Why this disproportion the direction of accusationsof bias? Why do we more often accuse those who are on the side of subordinates than those who are on the side of superordinates? Because, when we make the former accusation, we have, like the well socialized members of our society most of us are, acceptedthe hierarchy of credibility and taken over the accusation madeby responsible officials.

The reasonresponsibleofficialsmake the accusation frequentlyis precisely so becausethey are responsible. They have been entrusted with the careand operation of one or anotherof our important institutions:schools, hospitals,law enforcement, or whatever. They are the ones who, by virtue of their official position and the authority that goes with it, are in a position to "do something" when things are not what they should be and, similarly,are the ones who will be held to account if they fail to "do something"or if what they do is, for whateverreason,inadequate.

Becausethey are responsiblein this way, officialsusually have to lie. That is a gross way of putting it, but not inaccurate.Officials must lie because things are seldom as they ought to be. For a great variety of reasons, wellknown to sociologists, institutions are refractory.They do not perform as society would like them to. Hospitals do not cure people; prisons do not [243] re-habilitate prisoners; schools do not educate students. Since they are supposed to, officials develop ways both of denying the failure of the institution to perform as it should and explaining those failureswhich cannotbe hidden. An accountof an institution's operation from the point of view of subordinatestherefore casts doubt on the official line and may possibly expose it as a lie.3

3 I have stated a portion of this argument more briefly in "Problems of Publication of Field Studies," in Arthur Vidich, Joseph Bensman, and Maurice Stein (Eds.), Reflections on Community Studies, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1964, pp. 267284.

For reasons that are a mirrorimage in of those of officials,subordinates an hierarchical relationshiphave apolitical no reason to complain of the bias of sociological research oriented toward Subordithe interestsof superordinates. nates typically are not organized in such a fashion as to be responsiblefor the overall operationof an institution. What happens in a school is credited or debited to the faculty and administrators;they can be identifiedand held to account.Even though the failure of a school may be the fault of the pupils, they are not so organizedthat any one of them is responsiblefor any failure but his own. If he does well, while others all around him flounder, cheat and steal, that is none of his affair, despite the attempt of honor codes to make it so. As long as the sociological report on his school says that every student there but one is a liar and a cheat,all the studentswill feel complacent, knowing they are the one exception. More likely, they will never hear of the reportat all or, if they do, will reason that they will be gone before long, so what differencedoes it make? The lack of organizationamongsubor-dinate membersof an institutionalized relationshipmeans that, having no responsibility for the group's welfare, they likewise have no complaints if someone maligns it. The sociologist who favors officialdom will be spared the accusation of bias.

And thus we see why we accuse ourselves of bias only when we take the side of the subordinate.It is because, in a situationthat is not openly political, with the major issues defined as arguable,we join responsible officials and the man in the street in an of unthinkingacceptance the hierarchy of credibility.We assume with them that the man at the top knows best. We do not realize that there are sides to be taken and that we are taking one of them.

The same reasoning allows us to has understandwhy the researcher the same worry about the effect of his sympathieson his work as his uninvolved colleague. The hierarchy of credibilityis a featureof societywhose existence we cannot deny, even if we disagree with its injunction to believe the man at the top. When we acquire with subordinates to sufficient sympathy see things from their perspective,we know that we are flying in the face of what "everyoneknows." The knowledge gives us pause and causes us to share, however briefly, the doubt of our colleagues.

When a situation has been defined politically, the second type of case I want to discuss, mattersare quite difhave some degree ferent. Subordinates of organizationand, with that, spokesmen, their equivalent of responsible officials.Spokesmen,while they cannot actually be held responsible for what membersof their group do, makeassertions on their behalf and are held responsible for the truth of those assertions. The group engages in political activity designed to change existing and hierarchical relationships the crediof its spokesmendirectly affects bility its political fortunes. Credibilityis not the only influence, but the group can ill-affordhaving the definitionof reality proposed by its spokesmen discredited, for the immediate consequence [244] will be some loss of political power.

Superordinate groups have their spokesmentoo, and they are confronted with the same problem: to make statements about reality that are politically effective without being easily discredited.The political fortunes of the superordinate group-its ability to hold the status changes demanded by lower groups to a minimum-do not depend as much on credibility,for the group has other kinds of power available as well.

When we do researchin a political situation we are in double jeopardy, for the spokesmen of both involved groups will be sensitiveto the implications of our work. Since they propose openly conflictingdefinitionsof reality, our statementof our problem is in itself likely to call into question and make problematic,at least for the purposes of our research,one or the other definition. And our resultswill do the same.

The hierarchy credibility operates of in a different way in the political situation than it does in the apolitical one. In the political situation, it is precisely one of the things at issue. Since the political struggle calls into question the legitimacyof the existing rank system, it necessarily calls into question at the same time the legitimacy of the associatedjudgments of credibility. Judgments of who has a right to define the nature of reality that are taken for granted in an apolitical situation become matters of argument.

Oddly enough, we are, I think, less likely to accuse ourselves and one anotherof bias in a politicalthan in an apolitical situation, for at least two reasons.First, becausethe hierarchyof credibilityhas been openly called into question, we are aware that there are at least two sides to the story and so do not think it unseemlyto investigate the situation from one or another of the contending points of view. We know, for instance,that we must grasp the perspectivesof both the resident of Watts and of the Los Angeles policeman if we are to understand what went on in that outbreak.

Second, it is no secret that most sociologists are politically liberal to one degree or another. Our political preferencesdictate the side we will be on and, since those preferences are sharedby most of our colleagues, few are ready to throw the first stone or are even aware that stone-throwingis a possibility. We usually take the side of the underdog; we are for Negroes and against Fascists.We do not think anyone biased who does researchdesigned to prove that the former are not as bad as people think or that the latter are worse. In fact, in these circumstances we are quite willing to regardthe questionof bias as a matter to be dealt with by the use of technical safeguards.

We are thus apt to take sides with equal innocence and lack of thought, though for different reasons, in both apolitical and political situations. In the first, we adopt the commonsense view which awards unquestioned credibility to the responsible official. (This is not to deny that a few of us, because something in our experience has alertedthem to the possibility,may question the conventionalhierarchyof credibility in the special area of our expertise.) In the second case, we take our politics so for grantedthat it supplants convention in dictating whose side we will be on. (I do not deny, either, that some few sociologists may deviate politically from their liberal colleagues, either to the right or the left, and thus be more liable to question that convention.)

In any event, even if our colleagues do not accuseus of bias in researchin a political situation, the interested partieswill. Whether they are foreign politicians who object to studies of how the stability of their government may be maintainedin the interest of [245] the United States (as in the Camelot affair)4 or domesticcivil rights leaders who object to an analysis of race problems that centers on the alleged deficiencies of the Negro family (as in the receptiongiven to the Moynihan Report),5 interested parties are quick to make accusationsof bias and distortion. They base the accusationnot on failures of technique or method, but on conceptualdefects. They accuse the sociologistnot of getting false data but of not getting all the data relevant to the problem. They accuse him, in other words, of seeing things from the perspective of only one party to the conflict. But the accusationis likely to be made by interestedparties and not by sociologists themselves.

4 See Irving Louis Horowitz, "The Life and Death of Project Camelot," Transaction, 3 (Nov./Dec., 1965), pp. 3-7, 44-47.

5 See Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey, "Black Families and the White House," ibid., 3 (July/August, 1966, pp. 6-11, 48-53).

What I have said so far is all sociology of knowledge, suggesting by whom, in what situationsand for what reasons sociologists will be accusedof bias and distortion.I have not yet addressed the question of the truth of the accusations,of whether our findings are distortedby our sympathyfor those we study.I have implied a partial answer, namely, that there is no position from which sociological research can be done that is not biased in one or another way.

We must always look at the matter from someone's point of view. The scientist who proposes to understand societymust, as Mead long ago pointed out, get into the situation enough to have a perspective on it. And it is likely that his perspective will be greatly affected by whatever positions are taken by any or all of the other participants in that varied situation. Even if his participationis limited to readingin the field, he will necessarily read the argumentsof partisansof one or another side to a relationshipand will thus be affected,at least, by having suggested to him what the relevant argumentsand issues are. A studentof medical sociology may decide that he will take neitherthe perspectiveof the patient nor the perspective of the physician,but he will necessarilytake a perspective that impinges on the many questions that arise between physicians and patients; no matter what perspective he takes, his work either will take into account the attitude of subordinates, it will not. If or he fails to considerthe questions they raise, he will be working on the side of the officials.If he does raise those questionsseriouslyand does find, as he may, that there is some merit in them, he will then expose himself to the outrageof the officialsand of all those sociologists who award them the top spot in the hierarchy of credibility. Almost all the topics that sociologists study, at least those that have some relation to the real world around us, are seen by society as morality plays and we shall find ourselves,willy-nilly, taking part in those plays on one side or the other.

There is another possibility. We may, in some cases, take the point of view of some third party not directly implicated in the hierarchy we are investigating. Thus, a Marxist might feel that it is not worth distinguishing between Democrats and Republicans, or between big businessand big labor, in each case both groups being equally inimicalto the interestsof the workers. This would indeed make us neutral with respect to the two groups at hand, but would only mean that we had enlargedthe scope of the political conflict to include a party not ordinarily brought in whose view the sociologist was taking.

We can never avoid taking sides. So we are left with the question of whether taking sides means that some distortion is introducedinto our work so great as to make it useless. Or, less [246] drastically,whether some distortionis introduced that must be taken into accountbefore the resultsof our work can be used. I do not refer here to feeling that the picture given by the researchis not "balanced,"the indignation aroused by having a conventionally discrediteddefinition of reality given priority or equality with what "everyoneknows," for it is clear that we cannot avoid that. That is the problem of officials, spokesmen and interestedparties, not ours. Our problem is to make sure that, whatever point of view we take, our research meets the standardsof good scientific work, that our unavoidablesympathies do not renderour resultsinvalid.

We might distort our findings, because of our sympathywith one of the parties in the relationship we are studying, by misusing the tools and techniquesof our discipline.We might introduce loaded questions into a or questionnaire, act in some way in a field situation such that people would be constrained tell us only the kind to of thing we are already in sympathy with. All of our research techniques are hedged about with precautionary measures designed to guard against these errors. Similarly, though more abstractly,every one of our theories presumablycontains a set of directives which exhaustivelycovers the field we are to study, specifying all the things we are to look at and take into account in our research.By using our theories and techniques impartially,we ought to be able to study all the things that need to be studied in such a way as to get all the facts we require, even though some of the questionsthat will be raised and some of the facts that will be produced run counter to our biases.

But the question may be precisely this. Given all our techniques of theoreticaland technical control, how can we be sure that we will apply them and impartially acrossthe boardas they need to be applied? Our textbooks in methodology are no help here. They tell us how to guard againsterror,but they do not tell us how to make sure that we will use all the safeguards available to us. We can, for a start, try to avoid sentimentality.We are sentimentalwhen we refuse, for whatever reason,to investigatesome matter that should properly be regarded as problematic. We are sentimental, especially, when our reason is that we would prefer not to know what is going on, if to know would be to violate some sympathywhose existence we may not even be aware of. Whatever side we are on, we must use our techniques impartially enough that a belief to which we are especiallysympathetic could be proved untrue. We must alwaysinspect our work carefully enough to know whether our techniques and theories are open enough to allow that possibility.

Let us consider,finally, what might seem a simple solution to the problems posed. If the difficultyis that we gain sympathywith underdogsby studying them, is it not also true that the superordinatesin a hierarchical relationship usually have their own superordinates with whom they must contend? Is it not true that we might study those superordinates or subordinates, presenting their point of view on their relationswith their superiorsand thus gaining a deeper sympathywith them and avoiding the bias of one-sided identificationwith those below them? This is appealing, but deceptively so. For it only meansthat we will get into the same trouble with a new set of officials.

It is true, for instance, that the administrators a prison are not free to of do as they wish, not free to be responsive of the desires of inmates, for instance.If one talks to such an official, he will commonly tell us, in private, that of course the subordinatesin the relationshiphave some right on their side, but that they fail to understand that his desireto do betteris frustrated [247] by his superiorsor by the regulations they have established.Thus, if a prison administratoris angered because we take the complaints of his inmates seriously,we may feel that we can get around that and get a more balanced picture by interviewing him and his associates.If we do, we may then write a report which his superiors will respond to with cries of "bias." They, in their turn, will say that we have not presented a balanced picture, because we have not looked at their side of it. And we may worry that what they say is true.

The point is obvious. By pursuing this seemingly simple solution, we arrive at a problem of infinite regress. For everyone has someone standing above him who prevents him from doing things just as he likes. If we question the superiors of the prison administrator,a state department of correctionsor prisons, they will complain of the governor and the legislature. And if we go to the governor and the legislature,they will complain of lobbyists,partymachines,the public and the newspapers.There is no end to it and we can never have a "balanced picture" until we have studied all of society simultaneously. do not I to hold my breath until that propose happy day.

We can, I think, satisfythe demands of our science by always making clear the limits of what we have studied, marking the boundariesbeyond which our findings cannot be safely applied. Not just the conventional disclaimer, in which we warn that we have only studied a prison in New York or California and the findings may not hold in the other forty-nine states-which is not a useful procedureanyway,since the findings may very well hold if the conditions are the same elsewhere. I refer to a more sociological disclaimer in which we say, for instance,that we have studied the prison through the eyes of the inmates and not through the eyes of the guards or other involved parties. We warn people, thus, that our study tells us only how things look from that vantage point-what kinds of objects guards are in the prisoners' world-and does not attempt to explain why guards do what they do or to absolve the guards of what may seem, from the prisoners' side, morally unacceptable behavior. This will not protect us from accusations of bias, however, for the guards will still be outragedby the unbalanced picture. If we implicitly accept the conventional hierarchy of credibility, we will feel the sting in that accusation.

It is something of a solution to say that over the years each "one-sided" study will provoke further studies that graduallyenlarge our grasp of all the relevant facets of an institution's operation.But that is a long- termsolution, and not much help to the individualresearcher who has to contend with the anger of officialswho feel he has done them wrong, the criticismof those of his colleagueswho think he is presenting a one-sided view, and his own worries.

What do we do in the meantime? I suppose the answersare more or less obvious.We take sides as our personal and political commitmentsdictate, use our theoreticaland technical resources to avoid the distortions that might introduceinto our work, limit our condusions carefully, recognize the hierarchyof credibilityfor what is is, and field as best we can the accusations and doubtsthat will surelybe our fate

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