Whose Side Are We On?

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Sociología, interaccionismo simbólico, jerarquías de credibilidad, relaciones de poder.
  Whose Side Are We On?Author(s): Howard S. BeckerSource: Social Problems, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Winter, 1967), pp. 239-247Published by: University of California Press  on behalf of the Society for the Study of SocialProblems Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/799147 . Accessed: 04/07/2014 10:17 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at  . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp  . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.  . University of California Press  and Society for the Study of Social Problems  are collaborating with JSTOR todigitize, preserve and extend access to Social Problems. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from on Fri, 4 Jul 2014 10:17:56 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  WHOSE SIDE ARE WE ON?* HOWARD S. BECKER Northwestern niversity To have values or not to have values: the question s always with s. When sociologists ndertake o study problems hat have relevance o the world we live n, they ind hemselves caught n a crossfire. ome urge them not to take ides, o be neutral nd do research hat s technically orrect nd value free. Others ell them heir work is shallow nd useless f it does not express deep commitment o a value position. This dilemma, hich eems o pain- ful to so many, ctually oes not exist, for one of its horns s imaginary. or it to exist, ne would have to assume, as some pparently o, that t s indeed possible o do research hat s uncon- taminated y personal and political sympathies. propose o argue hat t is not possible nd, therefore, hat he question s not whether e should ake sides, since we inevitably will, but rather hose ide we are on. I will begin y onsidering he prob- lem of taking ides as it arises n the study f deviance. An inspection f this ase will soon reveal o us features that ppear n sociological esearch f all kinds. n the greatest ariety f sub- ject matter reas nd in work done by all the different ethods t our dis- posal, we cannot void taking ides, for reasons irmly ased n social truc- ture. We may ometimes eel that tudies of deviance xhibit oo great sym- pathy with he people studied, sym- pathy eflected n the research arried out. This feeling, suspect, s enter- tained ff nd on both by those f us who do such research nd by those f us who, our work ying n other reas, only ead he results. Will the research, we wonder, e distorted y that ym- pathy? Will it be of use in the con- struction f scientific heory r in the application f scientific nowledge o the practical roblems f society? r will the bias ntroduced y aking ides spoil t for hose uses? We seldom make the feeling ex- plicit. nstead, t appears s a lingering worry or sociological eaders, who would ike to be sure they an trust what hey ead, nd a troublesome rea of self-doubt or those who do the research, ho would like to be sure that whatever ympathies hey eel are not professionally nseemly nd will not, n any case, seriously law their work. That the worry ffects oth readers nd researchers ndicates hat it ies deeper han he uperficial iffer- ences that divide sociological chools of thought, nd that ts roots must e sought n characteristics f society hat affect s all, whatever ur method- ological or theoretical ersuasion. If the feeling were made explicit, t would take the form f an accusation that the sympathies f the researcher have biased his work nd distorted is findings. efore xploring ts tructural roots, et us consider hat he manifest meaning f the harge might e. It might mean hat we have cquired some sympathy ith the group we study ufficient o deter s from ub- lishing those of our results which might rove damaging o them. One can imagine liberal ociologist ho set out to disprove ome of the com- mon stereotypes eld about minority group. o his dismay, is nvestigation reveals that some of the stereotypes are unfortunately rue. n the nterests of ustice nd iberalism, e might ell be tempted, nd might ven succumb to the temptation, o suppress hose findings, ublishing with scientific *Presidential ddress, delivered at the an- nual meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, Miami Beach, August, 1966. This content downloaded from on Fri, 4 Jul 2014 10:17:56 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  240 SOCIAL PROBLEMS candor the other results which con- firmed is beliefs. But this eems not really o be the heart f the harge, ecause ociologists who study deviance do not typically hide things about the people they study. hey re mostly illing o grant that here s something oing on that put the deviants n the position hey are in, even f they re not willing o grant hat t is what the people they studied were srcinally ccused f. A more likely meaning of the charge, think, s this. n the course of our work nd for who knows what private easons, e fall nto deep sym- pathy with he people we are studying, so that while the rest of the society views hem s unfit n one or another respect for the deference rdinarily accorded fellow itizen, we believe that hey re at east s good as anyone else, more inned gainst han inning. Because of this, we do not give a bal- anced picture. We focus oo much n questions hose nswers how hat he supposed eviant s morally n the ight and the ordinary itizen morally n the wrong. We neglect o ask those ues- tions whose nswers would show that the deviant, fter ll, has done some- thing retty otten nd, ndeed, retty much eserves hat he gets. n conse- quence, ur overall ssessment f the problem being studied s one-sided. What we produce s a whitewash f the deviant nd a condemnation, f only by mplication, f those especta- ble citizens ho, we think, ave made the deviant what he is. It is to this version hat devote the rest of my remarks. will look first, owever, not at the truth r falsity f the charge, ut rather t the circumstances n which t is typically made nd felt. he sociology f knowl- edge cautions s to distinguish etween the truth f a statement nd an assess- ment f the circumstances nder which that statement s made; though we trace n argument o its source n the interests f the person who made t, we have still not proved t false. Recog- nizing the point and promising o address t eventually, shall turn o the typical ituations n which the accusation f bias arises. When do we accuse ourselves nd our fellow ociologists f bias I think an inspection f representative n- stances would show that the accusa- tion arises, n one important lass of cases, when he esearch ives redence, in any serious way, o the perspective of the ubordinate roup n some hier- archical elationship. n the case of deviance, he hierarchical elationship is a moral one. The superordinate parties n the relationship re those who represent he forces f approved and official orality; he subordinate parties re those who, it is alleged, have violated hat morality. Though deviance s a typical ase, it s by no means he only ne. Similar situations, nd similar eelings hat ur work s biased, ccur n the study f schools, ospitals, sylums nd prisons, in the study f physical s well as mental llness, n the study f both normal and delinquent youth. n these ituations, he uperordinate ar- ties re usually he official nd profes- sional authorities n charge of some important nstitution, hile he subor- dinates re those who make use of the services f that nstitution. hus, the police re the uperordinates, rug d- dicts re the subordinates; rofessors and administrators, rincipals and teachers, re the superordinates, hile students nd pupils are the subordi- nates; physicians re the superordi- nates, heir atients he subordinates. All of these ases represent ne of the typical ituations n which re- searchers ccuse themselves nd are accused of bias. It is a situation n which, while onflict nd tension xist in the hierarchy, he conflict as not become penly olitical. he conflict- ing segments r ranks re not orga- nized for conflict; o one attempts o alter he hape f the hierarchy. hile This content downloaded from on Fri, 4 Jul 2014 10:17:56 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  Whose ide Are Wle On? 241 subordinates ay complain bout the treatment hey eceive rom hose bove them, hey o not propose o move to a position f equality ith hem, r to reverse positions n the hierarchy. Thus, no one proposes that addicts should make and enforce aws for policemen, hat patients hould pre- scribe or doctors, r that dolescents should give orders o adults. We can call this he political ase. In the econd ase, he ccusation f bias is made in a situation hat is frankly olitical. The parties o the hierarchical elationship ngage in organized onflict, ttempting ither o maintain r change xisting elations of power and authority. hereas n the first ase subordinates re typically unorganized nd thus ave, s we shall see, little to fear from researcher, subordinate arties n a political itua- tion may have much to lose. When the ituation s political, he researcher may accuse himself r be accused of bias by someone lse when he gives credence o the perspective f either party o the political onflict. leave the political or ater nd turn ow to the problem f bias n apolitical itua- tions.1 We provoke he suspicion hat we are biased n favor f the subordinate parties n an apolitical rrangement when we tell the story from their point of view. We may, for nstance, investigate their complaints, even though they are subordinates, bout the way things re run ust as though one ought o give their omplaints s much credence s the statements f responsible fficials. e provoke he charge when we assume, or the pur- poses of our research, hat ubordinates have as much right o be heard as superordinates, hat hey re as likely to be telling he ruth s they ee it as superordinates, hat what they say about he nstitution as a right o be investigated nd have ts truth r fal- sity established, ven though espon- sible officials ssure us that t is un- necessary ecause he charges re false. We can use the notion f a hier- archy f credibility o understand his phenomenon. n any ystem f ranked groups, participants ake it as given that members f the highest group have the right o define he way hings really are. In any organization, o matter hat the rest f the organiza- tion hart hows, he rrows ndicating the flow f information oint up, thus demonstrating at least formally) hat those t the top have access o a more complete icture f what s going on than anyone lse. Members f lower groups will have incomplete nforma- tion, nd their iew of reality ill be partial nd distorted n consequence. Therefore, rom he point f view of a well socialized articipant n the sys- tem, ny tale told by those t the top intrinsically eserves o be regarded as the most redible ccount btainable of the organizations' orkings. nd since, s Sumner ointed ut, matters of rank nd status re contained n the mores,2 his elief has a moral uality. We are, f we are proper members f the group, morally ound o accept he definition mposed on reality by a superordinate roup n preference o the definitions spoused by subordin- ates. (By analogy, he same argument holds for the social classes f a com- munity.) Thus, credibility nd the right o be heard re differentialIy is- tributed hrough he ranks of the system. As sociologists, we provoke the 1 No situation s necessarily olitical or apolitical. An apolitical situation can be transformed nto a political one by the open rebellion of subordinate anks, nd a political situation can subside into one in which an accommodation as been reached and a new hierarchy een accepted by the participants. The categories, while analyti- cally useful, do not represent fixed divi- sion existing n real life. 2 William Graham Sumner, Status in the Folkways, Folkways, New York: New American Library, 1960, pp. 72-73. This content downloaded from on Fri, 4 Jul 2014 10:17:56 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
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