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1This is a French translation of Howard Becker’s What about Mozart? What about Murder? Reasoning from Cases, published in 2013 by the University of Chicago Press – the latest work by one of the most renowned sociologists of the second Chicago school. Becker is the author of fundamental studies on discrimination, deviance and art (Outsiders, Art Worlds) and extremely useful works on methodology (Sociological Work: Method and Substance, Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research while You’re Doing It).

2The book’s seven chapters lay down the crucial components of the method: analysing cases so as to develop more general hypotheses on social processes by way of analogy. What Becker calls “black boxes” and their inputs and outputs are the central means of comparing cases and thereby gradually coming to understand the principles of social structure. Social processes, he argues, can be elucidated by analysing what goes into and what comes out of those boxes. Comparing similar cases will enable the researcher gradually to define their cogs and gearwheels.

3The book puts forward a plea for reasoning by analogy in social science research while attesting to the viability of this approach. Becker describes precisely and instructively why and how he uses specific cases to generalize and gradually develop sociological theories. The cases are extremely varied. He draws on his own work and that of others, notably in the field of American pragmatic sociology, as well as personal experiences, anecdotes and fictional cases. He draws on some of his own articles on the effects of drugs and lay knowledge to illustrate his “black box” notion, citing passages of “Consciousness, Power and Drug Effects” (1973) and “Drugs and Politics” (1977) to explain how reasoning can be applied step by step to open the “black box” wherein some users are transformed into deviants – a highly instructive demonstration of how sociological theories can be elaborated on the basis of empirical observations and scientific study.

4Becker calls for a sociology grounded in wide-ranging general culture rather than limited to specialized sociological studies. Finding different, inspiring cases, including imaginary ones, is, as he sees it, the best way of breathing fresh air into the discipline and sustaining scientific curiosity so that sociology remains an innovative science.

5While the translation is clumsy in places and some of the content has been published elsewhere, this book will prove highly useful to social science students seeking practical advice on how to produce rigorous, innovative sociological studies. And it is a timely reminder of how crucial it is for sociology to remain open to the world surrounding it.

  • Becker Howard S., 2016, La bonne focale. De l’utilité des cas particuliers en sciences sociales, originally published as What about Mozart? What about Murder? Reasoning from Cases, Paris, La Découverte, Grands repères, 272 p.
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