Becker, Howard

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Becker, Howard



During most of his career, Howard Becker (1899−1960) taught at the University of Wisconsin. He is best known as a sociological theorist and methodologist. His work is most closely related to that of the German sociologists Max Weber and Leopold von Wiese and of certain Americans, particularly R. E. Park and G. H. Mead.

For Becker, the study of values constitutes the core of sociology; indeed, he regarded them as indispensable tools for sociological interpretation (1950). Judgments of right and wrong, good and bad, superiority and inferiority, and usefulness and uselessness determine the ends and means of human action and thus of institutions, customs, folkways, and so on. Valuation, for Becker, is not the reflection of social processes but arises primarily in the processes by which personality is acquired; the human propensity to form values is thus determined by the inner structure of the personality itself. Following Weber’s leads closely, Becker divided situations of human action into four types: (1) expedient rationality, where any means can be used to achieve any end; (2) sanctioned rationality, where the means chosen are limited by the nature of the ends; (3) traditional nonrationality, in which means become the ends of action; and (4) affective nonrationality, where the distinction between means and ends is lost.

Human actions occur within social and cultural contexts, which are, at base, systems of values and which determine the preponderance of one type of action over the others. These contexts also determine the latitude the individual has in substituting ends and means within the rubric of one type of action and in shifting from one type of action to another.

There are two major contexts, the sacred and the secular. Sacred societies manifest an inability or unwillingness to respond to the new and are dominated by traditional nonrationality and sanctioned rationality. Two major subtypes of sacred society may be distinguished, folk and prescribed. Folk societies are marked by geographical, social, and mental isolation. Such societies are often, though not always, nonliterate. They are dominated by tradition and strong kinship ties. Prescribed sacred societies are governed by written and rigidly prescribed rules, laws, and sacred texts. Ties of kinship are replaced by ties of race, ethnicity, or language. Prescriptions may arise from the slow systematization of folk wisdom and deductions from it, or they may have their source in charismatic leadership. Thus, sacred societies are not necessarily small, isolated, nonliterate, and technologically backward. On the contrary, very large, literate, and technologically advanced societies may also be sacred societies. Modern large-scale totalitarian movements and societies provide examples (1946).

Secular societies, in Becker’s view, demonstrate receptivity to change. Expedient rationality and affective nonrationality are the prevailing modes of action. Such societies are not completely lacking in traditions or prescriptions, but these are much looser than in sacred society. Here again Becker described numerous subtypes of secular societies; the main distinction is between the “principled” and the “normless” types (also called stable and unstable). In the principled type, some sacred prescriptions remain, but these are of a kind that permit a wide latitude for change. A stable democracy, for instance, is based on sacred principles. In the normless type, virtually all prescriptions have been lost; at the extreme such a society approaches a state of anomie. Normless societies are generally found in areas of intense culture contacts, such as large cities, where isolation is at a minimum.

Sacred and secular societies are not actually found in “pure form.” For instance, all secular societies have sacred elements. Furthermore, many societies are in a process of change from a sacred to a secular type. Secularization may occur as the result of migrations or increased communications. Definite social and psychological manifestations accompany these changes.

The construction of such concepts as “sacred” and “secular” societies exemplifies what Becker called “constructive typology,” a methodology he advocated for all sociological investigation. There is an indefinite number of ways in which the world may be regarded, of which the scientific way is one. Each manner of regarding the world is defined by the questions it poses and consequently reflects the values of the observer. The supreme values of science are the prediction (and, if possible, the control) of natural phenomena. Science asks the following kind of question of nature: “If and when certain conditions hold, what results will follow?” This approach is to be contrasted with that of the idiographic historian, who seeks to determine what actually happened in a particular instance, but no approach is intrinsically superior to any other. The merit of each depends on the purposes and values of the investigator.

Constructive typology is a scientific approach to human events; it seeks to pose “if and when” questions about these events. There are several stages in the process of constructing types. First, the sociologist frames a provisional hypothesis about causal, related, or prior conditions of some phenomenon he wishes to study. He then makes an investigation of the case itself or of a series of cases—“culture case studies” in Becker’s terminology—and abstracts from these a “typical set of typical personalities, processes, and structures” (1950, p. 107) which seem adequate to explain the case or cases studied. It should be emphasized that although constructed types are composed of elements abstracted from a single concrete phenomenon or a set of closely related phenomena, they are neither ideal types nor fictions. The components of the constructed type must be found in reality, and the manner in which they are related to each other must not contravene empirical reality, logic, or established scientific theory.

The final stage in the process is to check the validity of the constructed type by applying it to other empirical instances. A failure to predict accurately or to explain these other instances indicates that they are basically different from the concrete phenomenon first studied and that the initial constructed type should be modified or abandoned. However, should prediction prove possible, and still further application reveal the continued utility of the constructed type, a genuine sociological generalization of the “if and when” type will have been achieved. It is in this way that sociology will gradually accumulate a set of valid laws, which may then be combined into a more general theoretical system.

Eugene V. Schneider

[For the historical context of Becker’s work, seeTypologiesand the biographies ofMead; Park; Scheler; Troeltsch; Weber, Max; Wiese.]


1932 Processes of Secularisation: An Ideal-typical Analysis With Special Reference to Personality Change as Affected by Population Movement. Sociological Review 34:138−154, 266−286.

(1938) 1961 Barnes, Harry E.; and Becker, HowardSocial Thought From Lore to Science. 3d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Dover.

1940 Barnes, Harry E.; Becker, Howard; and Becker, F. B. (editors) Contemporary Social Theory. New York: Appleton.

1941a Supreme Values and the Sociologist. American Sociological Review 6:155−172.

1941b The Limits of Sociological Positivism. Journal of Social Philosophy 6:362−369. → A critical review of George Lundberg’s Foundations of Sociology.

1942 Becker, Howard; and Hill, Reuben (editors) Marriage and the Family. Boston: Heath.

1946 German Youth: Bond or Free. London: Routledge; New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

1950 Through Values to Social Interpretation: Essays on Social Contexts, Actions, Types and Prospects. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

1957 Becker, Howard; and Boskoff, Alvin (editors) Modern Sociological Theory in Continuity and Change. New York: Dryden.


Wiese, Leopold von (1924−1929) 1932 Systematic Sociology: On the Basis of the Beziehungslehre and the Gebildelehre of L. von Wiese. Adapted and amplified by Howard Becker. New York: Wiley. → First published as System der allgemeinen Soziologie.