on 6 February 2012
As someone involved in a subculture that revolved around drug use when I eventually tore myself away through an education portal this book was the one that helped me make sense of what I'd been through: both in terms of the experience of being involved in the subculture and of being the 'subject' of the moral and legal sanction of the authorities.
Of course, the out-groups have changed, of course the notion of the label being 'fixed' is flawed. But most of the claimed problems with the book stem from academics more concerned with selling a 'textbook' or bashing a 'theory'. How someone can claim a symbolic interactionist is 'deterministic' defies common sense.
This book still has a lot to offer because the issues may change but people remain the same - social beings likely to engage in some form of activity that draws them together and sets them apart. Forget Hebdige, look beyond the label, and it all makes sense.
Howard Becker wrote a seminal book, focusing on deviance creation, a big criminological industry. He looks at its formation, maintenance and the effects. As a member of an outsider subculture, he has formulated a view from insight not from the outside. This irks academia because they like to gaze though the telescope rather than the subjects themselves writing out their lives. It puts the "academic" out of business. This opus is derived from an outre scene participation of musicians, drawn from the late 50's/60's, the beatniks. Becker waited until the McCarthy witch trials had ran out of steam, before detailing his lifestyle. Ask Rocky Erikson what happens to someone caught with one reefer in Texas in the liberated 60's?
Second hand accounts abound of his Marijuana initiation picture abound. In the straight worlds of Bilton et al 80's college life, we were informed incorrectly Becker showed Dope Smoking effects were wholly socially constructed. No effect existed, apart from what the group defined as being stoned. Having imbibed on the weed prior to being given this piece of priceless information I quickly made up my mind, Becker was another straight speeling nonsense.
This is a complete misconception of Becker. In reading the original version, the chapter on Dope Smoking is the ultimate in harm reduction. He describes the initial effects of the drug, ranging from initially mild drunkeness to incapacitation. The inability to mix the correct amount of air to THC and holding the brew in the lungs creates consumption errors. When large amounts are undertaken the effect of being completely stoned, paralysis, coupled with the feeling of ever-present dread of space, time, distortion replete with nausea is pure horror.
Becker details this entrance into the gates of hell and its transcendence. He portrays the importance of taking wisdom from older smoke imbibers and having an initiation into the overcoming these effects, rather than succumbing to terror.
People may believe only they feel this internal effect, especially when all around appear "cool". I wish I had read this years ago. Becker pin points this initiation, a form of psychological tidal wave rearing over the initiate, needing to be overcome. The test arises in negotiating the effects of the drug, to calm, then tame it, finally it becomes enjoyable.
Sound harm reduction advice, extremely prescient especially for those who are psychologically unstable when imbibing.
The work analysing how deviance is socially constructed is revelatory. This has pure presence. Becker shows how the outsider is created through the appliance of rules by people who define deviance and then search for the miscreants, as much as the behaviour of the outsider. It is form of institutional violence enacted on the powerless outer groups to create an inner sense of group camaraderie; the socially included.
The War on Drugs, a great witch hunt leading to a huge erronous social policy disaster of an astounding magnitude, locking up young black males en masse in the USA and criminalising the young in the UK. All based on the propogation that Cannabis is a gateway drug to hard drugs, when the real research shows familial violence is a far greater emotional super highway to chronic forms of self medication. This is detailed in Douglas Valentine's books on the formation of the "Strength of the Pack" and "Strength of the Wolf". Ainslinger the former head of the Drug Enforcement Agency created the Cannabis panic detailed in Becker's book to ensure his anti narcotic agency still received funding during WW2 and its aftermath, as heroin and cocaine were no longer used recreationally, due to the shipping disruption.
His work on Jazz musicians has strong resonance with punk and its rules around insiders and outsiders. An outre group defined in response to an inner group. The tension between expression and commercialism was a key issue during the 70/80's. Becker defines it succinctly in his chapters detailing the tensions when relationships form and the need to obtain money becomes paramount. This should be a key chapter for all cultural studies readers. It looks at why people "sell out" especially when they have to support a family.
Few sociology books transcend both the academic ivory towers of "self abuse" and say something relevant about the real world. Abstract meanderings of very dull minds is the staple fayre of the social sciences. This however strikes a chord, and chimes in resonance with "reality."
Forget the pretentious posturings of pseudo academics, this transports sociology into the everyday lives where it belongs, before the alienated men and women turned it into the mire regurgitate whatever fashion appears within university.
They are primarily interested their will power turns knowledge into abstract theorising, ordinary mortals will scratch their heads in powerless bewilderment. It is another form of social exclusion, only the initiates can imbibe, ultimately in terms of the march universe, it is meaningless.
Becker eschews the language of pretension to make his texts as easily read as possible, so everyone can relate to them. A key insight into pricking the pomposity of the middle brow academic.