Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You're Doing It

Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You're Doing It

by Howard S. Becker


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Drawing on more than four decades of experience as a researcher and teacher, Howard Becker now brings to students and researchers the many valuable techniques he has learned. Tricks of the Trade will help students learn how to think about research projects. Assisted by Becker's sage advice, students can make better sense of their research and simultaneously generate fresh ideas on where to look next for new data. The tricks cover four broad areas of social science: the creation of the "imagery" to guide research; methods of "sampling" to generate maximum variety in the data; the development of "concepts" to organize findings; and the use of "logical" methods to explore systematically the implications of what is found. Becker's advice ranges from simple tricks such as changing an interview question from "Why?" to "How?" (as a way of getting people to talk without asking for a justification) to more technical tricks such as how to manipulate truth tables.

Becker has extracted these tricks from a variety of fields such as art history, anthropology, sociology, literature, and philosophy; and his dazzling variety of references ranges from James Agee to Ludwig Wittgenstein. Becker finds the common principles that lie behind good social science work, principles that apply to both quantitative and qualitative research. He offers practical advice, ideas students can apply to their data with the confidence that they will return with something they hadn't thought of before.

Like Writing for Social Scientists, Tricks of the Trade will bring aid and comfort to generations of students. Written in the informal, accessible style for which Becker is known, this book will be an essential resource for students in a wide variety of fields.

"An instant classic. . . . Becker's stories and reflections make a great book, one that will find its way into the hands of a great many social scientists, and as with everything he writes, it is lively and accessible, a joy to read."—Charles Ragin, Northwestern University

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226041247
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/28/1998
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 239
Sales rank: 588,899
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Howard S. Becker has made major contributions to the sociology of deviance, sociology of art, and sociology of music. He received a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he was also an instructor in sociology and social sciences. He was professor of sociology at Northwestern University for twenty-five years and later became a professor of sociology and an adjunct professor of music at the University of Washington. He lives and works in San Francisco and Paris.

Read an Excerpt

Tricks of the Trade

How to Think about Your Research While You're Doing It

By Howard S. Becker

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-04123-9

Chapter One


Undergraduates at the University of Chicago, when I was a student there,
learned to deal with all difficult conceptual questions by saying,
authoritatively, "Well, it all depends on how you define your terms." True
enough, but it didn't help us much, since we didn't know anything special
about how to do the defining.

I stayed at the University of Chicago for my graduate training and so met
Everett C. Hughes, who became my adviser and, eventually, research partner.
Hughes was a student of Robert E. Park, who could be considered the "founder"
of the "Chicago School" of sociology. Hughes taught me to trace my
sociological descent, through him and Park, back to Georg Simmel, the great
German sociologist who had been Park's teacher. I am still proud of that

Hughes had no love for abstract Theory. A group of us students once approached
him after class, nervously, to ask what he thought about "theory." He looked
at us grumpily and asked, "Theory of what?" He thought that there were
theories about specific things, like race andethnicity or the organization of
work, but that there wasn't any such animal as Theory in general. But he knew
what to do when a class or a student got into a tangle over what we thought of
as "theoretical" questions, like how to define ideas or concepts. We would
wonder, for instance, how to define the concept of "ethnic group." How did we
know if a group was one of those or not? Hughes had identified our chronic
mistake, in an essay he wrote on ethnic relations in Canada:

Almost anyone who uses the term [ethnic group] would say that it is a group
distinguishable from others by one, or some combination of the following:
physical characteristics, language, religion, customs, institutions, or
"cultural traits." (Hughes [1971] 1984, 153)

That is, we thought you could define an "ethnic" group by the traits that
differentiated it from some other, presumably "nonethnic," group; it was an
ethnic group because it was different.

But, Hughes explained, we had it backwards. A simple trick could settle such a
definitional conundrum: reverse the explanatory sequence and see the
differences as the result of the definitions the people in a network of group
relations made:

An ethnic group is not one because of the degree of measurable or observable
difference from other groups; it is an ethnic group, on the contrary,
because the people in and the people out of it know that it is one; because
both the ins and the outs talk, feel, and act as if it were a separate
group. (Hughes [1971] 1984, 153-54)

So French Canadians were not an ethnic group because they spoke French while
other Canadians spoke English, or because they were usually Catholic while the
English were usually Protestant. They were an ethnic group because both French
and English regarded the two groups as different. The differences in language,
religion, culture and the rest we thought defined ethnicity were important,
but only because two groups can treat each other as different only if "there
are ways of telling who belongs to the group and who does not, and if a person
learns early, deeply, and usually irrevocably to what group he belongs." The
heart of the trick, which can be applied to all sorts of other definitional
problems (for example, the problem of deviance, to which I'll return later in
the book), is recognizing that you can't study an ethnic group all by itself
and must instead trace its "ethnicity" to the network of relations with other
groups in which it arises. Hughes says:

It takes more than one ethnic group to make ethnic relations. The relations
can no more be understood by studying one or the other of the groups than
can a chemical combination by the study of one element only, or a boxing
bout by the observation of only one of the fighters. (Hughes [1971] 1984,

That's what a trick is-a simple device that helps you solve a problem (in
this case, the device of looking for the network in which definitions arise
and are used). Every trade has its tricks, its solutions to its own
distinctive problems, easy ways of doing something lay people have a lot of
trouble with. The social science trades, no less than plumbing or carpentry,
have their tricks, designed to solve their peculiar problems. Some of these
tricks are simple rules of thumb derived from experience, like the advice that
putting colorful commemorative stamps on the return envelopes will get more
people to send their questionnaires back. Others come out of a social
scientific analysis of the situation in which the problem arises, like Julius
Roth's (1965) suggestion that researchers consider the problem of cheating
survey interviewers not as a kind of police matter, a problem of chasing down
irresponsible employees, but rather as the way people who have no interest or
stake in their work are likely to behave when their only motivation is

The tricks that make up the content of this book help solve problems of
thinking, the kind of problems social scientists usually see as "theoretical."
Defining a term by looking for how its meaning arises in a network of
relations is just the kind of trick I'm talking about, but it's not the usual
way of settling theoretical questions. Social scientists typically discuss
"theory" in a rarefied way, as a subject in its own right, coordinate with,
but not really related to, the way we do research. To be sure, Merton's two
classic papers (Merton 1957, 85-117) outline the close relations he thought
theory and research ought to have to one another, but students studying for
examinations used those ideas more than working researchers ever did. Hughes,
who oriented his own methodological work to the practical problems of finding
out about the world, always threatened to write "a little theory book,"
containing the essence of his theoretical position and somehow different from
the nuggets of sociological generalization scattered through his essays and

Hughes's students, me among them, all hoped he would write that theory book,
because we knew, when we listened to him and read his work, that we were
learning a theory, though we couldn't say what it was. (Jean-Michel Chapoulie
[1996] analyzes the basic ideas of Hughes's sociological style perceptively.)
But he never wrote it. He didn't, I think, because he didn't have a systematic
theory in the style of Talcott Parsons. He had, rather, a theoretically
informed way of working, if that distinction conveys anything. His theory was
not designed to provide all the conceptual boxes into which the world had to
fit. It consisted, instead, of a collection of generalizing tricks he used to
think about society, tricks that helped him interpret and make general sense
of data. (The flavor is best conveyed in his essays, collected in Hughes
[1971] 1984.) Because his theory consisted of such analytic tricks rather than
a Theory, students learned it by hanging around him and learning to use his
tricks, the way apprentices learn craft skills by watching journeymen, who
already know them, use them to solve real-life problems.

Like Hughes, I have a deep suspicion of abstract sociological theorizing; I
regard it as at best a necessary evil, something we need in order to get our
work done but, at the same time, a tool that is likely to get out of hand,
leading to a generalized discourse largely divorced from the day-to-day
digging into social life that constitutes sociological science. I've tried to
tame theory for myself by viewing it as a collection of tricks, ways of
thinking that help researchers faced with concrete research problems make some

To repeat and amplify, a trick is a specific operation that shows a way around
some common difficulty, suggests a procedure that solves relatively easily
what would otherwise seem an intractable and persistent problem. The tricks
that follow deal with problems in several areas of social science work, which
I've roughly divided under the headings of imagery, sampling, concepts, and

My descriptions of the tricks frequently consist of extended examples that
might serve as exemplars in one of the Kuhnian senses, as models you can
imitate when you run into a similar problem. I've been guided in this
preference for examples, as opposed to general definitions, by my experience
in teaching. When I taught the sociology of art, at a time when I was writing
what became the book Art Worlds (Becker 1982), I was eager to share with
students my theoretical framework for understanding art as a social product.
But, of course, to fill out the class hours I told a lot of stories. One of my
best lectures was on the Watts Towers, the incredible construction an Italian
immigrant mason made in Los Angeles in the 1930s, and then left to take care
of itself. I told his story and showed slides of the work. I meant it as a
limiting case of the social character of an art work. Simon Rodia, who made
the Towers, really did it all himself, with no help from anyone, no reliance
on art theories or ideas or art history or art supply stores or museums or
galleries or any organized art anything-and I explained how the work
exhibited that independence and showed how you could see the marks of most
works' dependence on all that stuff in the way they were made. To me, the
point was the way the marginal case explained all the other cases. It was
chastening, therefore, when students later told me that the thing they really
remembered from that course was the Watts Towers. Some of them, with the story
in mind, remembered the point I had been at such pains to make with the Towers
too, but most of them just remembered the fact of the Towers' existence, the
story of this crazy guy and his crazy art work. That taught me that stories
and examples are what people attend to and remember. So there are plenty of
both here.

(Some readers will note that many of my examples are not exactly up-to-date,
not the latest findings or ideas. I've made that choice on purpose. It
surprises me how much good work of the past is forgotten, not because it isn't
good, but because students have never heard about it, never had their
attention drawn to it. So I have often picked my examples from work that is
thirty, forty, even fifty years old, in hope of giving it a deserved new

These tricks, then, are ways of thinking about what we know or want to know
that help us make sense of data and formulate new questions based on what
we've found. They help us get all the good we can out of our data by exposing
facets of the phenomenon we're studying other than those we've already thought

Sociologists of science (e.g., Latour and Woolgar 1979 and Lynch 1985) have
shown us how natural scientists work in ways never mentioned in their formal
statements of method, hiding "shop floor practice"-what scientists really
do-in the formal way they talk about what they do. Social scientists do that
too, using a workaday collection of theoretical tricks when they're actually
doing social science, as opposed to talking about Theory. This book deals with
what are often thought of as theoretical problems by cataloguing and analyzing
some tricks social scientists use, social science's shop floor practice. I'll
describe some of my favorites, as well as some I learned from Hughes, noting
their theoretical relevance as I proceed. I've occasionally given them names
to serve as mnemonics, so you'll encounter such creatures as the Machine
Trick, the Wittgenstein Trick, and many others.

Calling this book Tricks of the Trade creates some ambiguities that should be
cleared up right away. The phrase has several potential meanings, most of
which I don't intend. Some may hope that I'm going to pass on tricks of
getting along in academia: how to get a job, how to get tenure, how to get a
better job, how to get your articles published. I'm always willing to discuss
such things. My unconventional academic career, in which I spent many years as
what used to be called a "research bum" before finally entering academia as a
full professor, might have given me some special insights that come with
marginality. But times change and the economic and political situation of
universities has changed sufficiently that I doubt I any longer have any
inside information on those chancy processes. In any event, academia isn't the
trade I have in mind. (Aaron Wildavsky [1993] covers a lot of that ground.)

Others may think I mean technical tricks of writing or computing or "methods"
or statistics (though not many expect statistical tricks from me). I've told
what I know about technical writing tricks elsewhere (Becker 1986b), and
probably have a similar collection of folkloric tips on other areas of social
science practice to pass on. But those, while they are tricks of our social
science trade, are too specific, not generalizable enough to warrant lengthy
discussion. They are appropriately handed on in the oral tradition.

So I am talking about the trade of sociologist or (since so many people do
work that I think of, imperialistically, as sociology even though they
themselves think they are some other breed of social scientist or humanist)
about the trade of studying society, under the aegis of whatever professional
title suits. The tricks I have in mind are tricks that help those doing that
kind of work to get on with it, whatever professional title they use. As a
result, I have been somewhat carefree in using "sociology" and "social
science" interchangeably, even though that occasionally creates ambiguities
with respect to disciplines on the margin, like psychology.

Another thing I hope will be clear, but probably need to say explicitly, is
that my thoughts are not restricted to what is usually called "qualitative"
research. It's the kind of research I've done, but that represents a
practical, rather than an ideological, choice. It's what I knew how to do, and
found personal enjoyment in, so I kept on doing it. But I've always been alive
to the possibilities of other methods (so long as they weren't pressed on me
as matters of religious conviction), and have found it particularly useful to
think about what I did in terms that came from such other ways of working as
survey research or mathematical modeling. So the ideas contained here are not
meant for the initiates of anthropological-style fieldwork alone, though they
will, I hope, find its contents familiar though not soothing. It's also meant
for people who work in the variety of styles and traditions that make up
contemporary social science.

The word "trick" usually suggests that the device or operation described will
make things easier to do. In this case, that's misleading. To tell the truth,
these tricks probably make things harder for the researcher, in a special


Excerpted from Tricks of the Trade
by Howard S. Becker
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Tricks
2. Imagery
3. Sampling
4. Concepts
5. Logic

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