Howard Becker’s Idea of A World

Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker profile of sociologist Howard Becker brought this passage to my attention. It resonated with so many things I’ve been reading about and even writing about lately that I immediately searched out the source of the passage Gopnik quotes: “A Dialogue on the Ideas of ‘World’ and ‘Field,’” between Becker and Alain Pessin. There’s a transcript of the 2006 dialogue on Becker’s site; it also appeared in Sociological Forum and in the French journal Sociologie de l’art. Here’s the passage that initially struck me:

A “world” as I understand it–and if my language elsewhere doesn’t convey this then I’ve failed to be clear–consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. Because everyone has a project, and the outcome of negotiations between them is whatever they finally all agree to, everyone involved in such an activity has to take into account how others will respond to their own actions. David Mamet, the playwright, said somewhere I can’t now find that, in a scene in a play, everyone in the scene has something they want. If they didn’t want something they wouldn’t be there, they’d be off someplace where they could pursue something they did want. The scene consists of each one trying to get what he or she wants, and the resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.

A world is a place where, willy-nilly, we find ourselves trying to do things and where we are always already committed to doing things with others; so we need constantly to read their minds or at least get a good working sense of what they want and take their intentions into account. This permits and requires us to make claims or demands on them and them on us. We ask for or compel their assistance in myriad ways, even as they and others do the same to us and myriad others.

In this conception, at least, a world is not a fiat of power, a matter of a coup or command, but an ongoing negotiation and accommodation. As Becker says elsewhere in the “Dialogue,” when Pessin presses him, once again, to differentiate idea of a world from Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of a “field”:

the metaphor of world–which does not seem to be at all true of the metaphor of field–contains people, all sorts of people, who are in the middle of doing something which requires them to pay attention to each other, to take account consciously of the existence of others and to shape what they do in the light of what others do. In such a world, people do not respond automatically to mysterious external forces surrounding them. Instead, they develop their lines of activity gradually, seeing how others respond to what they do and adjusting what they do next in a way that meshes with what others have done and will probably do next.

I like Becker’s sense here that we are never starting from scratch. We are always in medias res and our work is always unfinished, and it keeps unravelling and collecting itself in different configurations, collaborations, joint commitments and shared intentions.

There’s no extra-social territory, no Archimedean point from which we make a world. We are already in it; and we are never very far from each other, even when we think we are making plans of our own. We are constantly making little, often imperceptible adjustments and changes to what we are doing and what we want to do, re-routing desire, fidgeting and digressing, retreating and advancing, even as we gradually recalibrate our next moves (our “lines of activity,” as Becker so nicely puts it).

Inevitably, we end up doing something other than what we initially thought we wanted or tried to do — which we ordinarily allow, because we’ve already conceded and agreed to the imperfect outcome a thousand times over.

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