On Howie Becker, ‘old descriptivism’, and the question of technology

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

At our May conference on qualitative political communication research, Rod Benson gave a presentation (posted here) challenging what he sees as the rise of a “new descriptivism” in political communication research and journalism studies.

Broadly speaking, Rod was taking aim at qualitative studies more interested in how-type questions than why-type questions, sometimes reluctant to discuss issues of generalization, and, especially in journalism studies, increasingly framed in the terminology of actor-network theory (ANT, the tradition represented by Bruno Latour and others more broadly coming from the field of science and technology studies (STS)).

The implicit contrast here is in part Rod’s own impressive and influential work (drawing on in large part on Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory), and that of like-minded scholars (institutionalists like Tim Cook, for example)—deeply committed to qualitative methods as a core component of political communication research, but also more explicitly interested in generalizable findings and formally elaborated causal theories than some others.

Rod’s talk implicitly presented this tradition as old, and the “new descriptivism” as, well, new.

I came to think of this discussion when I read Adam Gopnik’s wonderful profile of the great sociologist Howie Becker in the New Yorker recently, in part because I have often been struck by what I see as the underlying and implicit commonalities between an older tradition of Chicago-school type American sociology—Becker’s supervisor at Chicago was Everett Hughes—and what I consider some of the best examples of contemporary ANT/STS-inspired work.

Here is how Gopnik introduces Becker, explicitly positioning him as an American pragmatist against a tradition of French grand theory represented by Pierre Bourdieu—

[Becker’s] work is required reading in many French universities, even though it seems to be a model of American pragmatism, preferring narrow-seeming “How?” and “Who, exactly?” questions to the deeper “Why?” and “What?” supposedly favored by French theory. That may be exactly its appeal, though: for the French, Becker seems to combine three highly American elements—jazz, Chicago, and the exotic beauties of empiricism.

Gopnik’s article also explicitly highlights how the low-key and straightforward style of analysis and writing—no less demanding than complex modelling and convoluted language, I would add—in fact share many of the same concerns that occupy people who prefer a more abstract and formal theoretical language.

Basically, Becker believes that Yogi Berra was right: you really can observe the most by watching. Heather Love, a professor of English at Penn who specializes in gender and sexuality studies, points out that it shares “many of the same concerns, about institutions, power, the dynamics of social relations” as contemporary post-structuralist research, “but all in this kind of homegrown, ordinary language, a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ style that has the appeal of American noir and hardboiled fiction.”

This is different from the very micro-interaction oriented approach that some work in the Chicago tradition took in the US after WWII, with for example Erving Goffmann and other people broadly identified with the “Second Chicago School” having very different interests from the earlier “First Chicago School” generation of Park, Burgess, Hughes, etc. (This divides are never neat or simple, Herbert J. Gans, for example, takes a much broader approach to big picture questions than those interested in minute details of everyday interactions.)

It is interesting, however, that the profile of Becker also makes a Bourdieu-type argument about the relational dynamics of many fields that is implicitly in favour of the kind of heterodox mixed approaches Rod also talked about in May.

Becker’s role as the American not-Bourdieu is so essential to his reputation in France that, in talking about Becker, one invariably also talks about his other.

Also, in the spirit of academic infighting, Becker is, for all his qualities, not really fair to Bourdieu when he says “he doesn’t speak about people. He just speaks about forces. There aren’t any people doing anything.” I don’t buy this.

I think there is room for finding much more common ground here by thinking more in terms of difference of emphasis than a deep antagonism.

Scholars like Bourdieu are of course not indifferent to agency, to people and their motivations, just as scholars like Becker aren’t indifferent to why-type questions either—it is just that the underlying assumption in much of the Chicago-school tradition is that in many cases, to paraphrase Chuck Tilly, the how is the why, or at least a large part of the why. The focus in the latter tradition is on context and processes more than on variables, as Andrew Abbott has argued, and the mindset more ideographic than nomothetic, but everyone is, or should be, interested in more than his or her case study.

Here is Becker in the article—

“How does it really happen isn’t the only question, sure,” he says. “It’s just the one with the biggest chance of having an interesting answer rather than a predictable, safe one. I’m interested in how power happens, not just saying, ‘Oh, the exercise of power.’ ”

That’s the “old descriptivism”, then. And it is not atheoretical, despite what some claim—it just has a different approach to theory. When Becker is talking about power in the quote above, he is really echoing Herbert Blumer (another Chicago sociologist) and his distinction between “definitive concepts” and “sensitizing concepts”: “Whereas definitive concepts provide prescriptions of what to see, sensitizing concepts merely suggest directions along which to look.”

What is the relation between the “old descriptivism” (which as I have argued here is not “only” descriptivism, though good description is hard enough—just try it!) and the “new descriptivism” that Rod talked about, then?

At its best, in my view, ANT and STS-inspired work on political communication and journalism has much in common with the tradition that Becker represents and has contributed so much to, but makes a conceptually very simple but substantially very important move as it asks the “how”-questions meant to lead (also) to at least some kind of “why” answer: it adds technology.

ANT and STS-type approaches and related ways of thinking sees tools and large technical systems as integral to almost all human activities, from the most seemingly mundane interpersonal (say, online communications) to the most abstract and global (say, financial markets) and all the ways in which we move between them, the ways they work, the consequences they have.

This is something that neither the “old descriptivism” of Becker nor the grand social theory tradition represented by for example Bourdieu has really been interested in. And it is something that, especially with the rise of digital media, but also in retrospect when thinking about the role of newspapers, radio, and television, both political communication research and journalism studies needs to take far more seriously than it has.

The question of technology does not supplant questions of meaning or institutions, but it is an important, even necessary, supplement if we want to understand political communication processes, how they work, and what their consequences are.

This is where I personally think what Rod calls the “new descriptivism” has the most to add, as I’ve argued elsewhere.