This text appeared first as an interview:

Sociological Forum, 21 (2006), pp. 275–86.

Then it appeared as the epilogue in the 25th aniversary of the book Art Worlds [1982], which appeared updated and expanded in [2008], pp. 372-386.

Preface of the edition (here)

A Dialogue on the Ideas of “World” and “Field”

Howard Becker and Alain Pessin

[The idea of (social) world] contains people, all sorts of people, who are in the middle of doing something which requires them to pay attention to each other, to take account consciously of the existence of others and to shape what they do in the light of what others do. In such a world, people do not respond automatically to mysterious external forces surrounding them. Instead, they develop their lines of activity gradually, seeing how others respond to what they do and adjusting what they do next in a way that meshes with what others have done and will probably do next.

Above all, the metaphor is not spatial. The analysis centers on some kind of collective activity, something that people are doing together. Whoever contributes in any way to that activity and its results is part of that world. The line drawn to separate the world from whatever is not part of it is an analytic convenience, not something that exists in nature, not something which can be found by scientific investigation. [//] So the world is not a closed unit. Sometimes, of course, there really is a bounded area of activity, such as the university world, in which some set of organizations and people monopolizes the activity in question. Some forms of collective action have walls around them, not just the total institutions Goffman described but also all the companies where you have to have a badge to get beyond the reception area and, in the cases Bourdieu focuses on, those places where physical access isn’t limited but access to positions and activities is. [//] In these cases, you might say, the field, limited as it is by rules and practices which keep outsiders out, makes it impossible to be part of some collective activity unless you are chosen by the people who already are part of it. You can’t do sociology or intellectual work if you are denied access to the places where people are doing that sort of work together. So you can’t be a sociologist unless you can have a job in a sociology department or research center and can publish your work in the recognized places where sociology is published. [//] To say it that way raises obvious problems. Even in such cases, the monopoly is almost never complete and certainly is never permanent. So, as Bourdieu describes the world that was the setting for the beginning of his career, doing sociology was not confined to the places he seems to care about most. But it was not only at the Sorbonne or the College de France that sociological work got done. He never mentions, for example, Georges Friedmann, who was a friend of my mentor, Everett Hughes, and who studied factories, the industrial world. [//] I suppose a Bourdieusien might say that, well, of course, you could do something that would look like sociology and might even, from some point of view (maybe, as in the case of Friedmann, from the point of view of a visiting American industrial sociologist), be sociology, but, let’s face it, it wouldn’t really be sociology because the people who own the trademark wouldn’t recognize you as doing the real thing. “Congratulations, Friedmann, looks like interesting stuff, too bad no one knows or cares about you.” The equivocal term here is “no one,” because of course people knew about Friedmann but the people who counted, in Bourdieu’s view, didn’t accept him.

At this point it is, as we like to say, an empirical question: is it true that someone can control access to everything important in that way? Can your heterodox ideas be prevented from reaching some public if the “important people” ignore them? That depends. I think that probably it is not really very common, although it is common for people to feel that this is what’s happening to them and their ideas.

A “world” as I understand it —and if my language elsewhere doesn’t convey this then I’ve failed to be clear— consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. Because everyone has a project, and the outcome of negotiations between them is whatever they finally all agree to, everyone involved in such an activity has to take into account how others will respond to their own actions. David Mamet, the playwright, said somewhere I can’t now find that, in a scene in a play, everyone in the scene has something they want. If they didn’t want something they wouldn’t be there, they’d be off someplace where they could pursue something they did want. The scene consists of each one trying to get what he or she wants, and the resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to. [//] This means that while people are free to try to find other possibilities, those possibilities are limited by what they can force or persuade other people to do.

This approach perhaps makes social life seem more open to continuous change and spontaneous action than it really is. Social life exhibits, after all, substantial regularity, People do not do whatever comes into their heads at any moment. On the contrary, most of the time they do things as they have done them before. In a scheme that emphasizes openness and possibility, that regularity requires explanation. [//] I find that explanation mainly in the idea of “convention.” People often, but not always, know how things have been done in the past, how things are usually done, and they know that others know all these things too. So, if I do things as I know everyone knows they are usually done and is prepared to do them, I can feel confident that my actions will fit in with theirs and we will be able to accomplish what we are trying to do with a minimum of difficulty and misunderstanding. This is not to say that there is not, or never has been, conflict, but rather that in most cases the conflict has been settled, one way or another, and participants in the activity have agreed to do it this way rather than one of the other ways it might have been done.

[//] That’s very abstract, so I’ll give an example, taken from my favorite domain of examples, music. Musicians and composers sometimes disagree on how many notes to include between the two notes of an octave. God did not decree that there should be the twelve notes of the Western chromatic scale. Musicians in other traditions have often made other choices and great musical traditions are founded on them. But Western musicians, over a very long time, did accept the twelve tone chromatic scale as the basis of their music. Now the instruments we play have that scale built into them, the notation we use to write music down for replaying, and everything else connected with Western music takes for granted, on the basis of shared conventional understandings, that everyone will be playing music written in that form on instruments built to play those notes. So it is always easier to play music based on that convention than music created in some other system. The cost in time and energy is much greater when you don’t accept these conventions. So—here, I’m afraid, is a physical metaphor!—a kind of inertia disposes people to do things as they have been done in the past, and that accounts for a great deal of the regularity of social life. [//] Among the conventional understandings that produce these regularities, we will of course, often find elements of coercion and force, open or disguised, which will produce inequalities and what we may feel are injustices. People often agree to things that are unfair, for lack of any better alternative.

Collective action —two or more (usually a lot more) people doing something together— is not the same as cooperating in the more conventional, minimal understanding of that word, in which it has overtones of peacefulness, getting along with one another, and good will. On the contrary, the people engaged in collective action might be fighting or intriguing against one another. [...]

[//] But they might also be working together to do something (rehearsing for a concert they are going to give that night), or might be linked indirectly, one doing something necessary for what the other does, even though they might not know each other (as the instrument repair man fixes the broken saxophone necessary for the musician’s evening performance). They might have joined forces for this one occasion, as composers who otherwise compete with each other for scarce commissions and posts will cooperate to put on a concert of contemporary music (see Gilmore 1987). Or might routinely work together on the particular thing that brings them together, as the players in an orchestra with a long season do.

The nature of these relations between people is not given a priori, not something you can establish by definition. It’s something you discover by observing them in action, seeing what they do. If they are in conflict you’ll see that. If they are working together on a project you’ll see that. And if they do both—fight and work together on a project, you will see that too.

Many social theories start with the premise that reality is hidden from ordinary mortals and that it takes a special competence, perhaps even a magical gift, to be able to see through these obstacles and discover The Truth. I have never believed that. To quote my mentor Hughes again, he often said that sociologists did not know anything that nobody knew. Whatever sociologists knew about social life, they had learned from someone who was part of and fully engaged in that area of life. But since, as Simmel had made clear in his essay on secrecy (Simmel 1950), knowledge is not equally distributed, everyone doesn’t know everything. Not because people are blinded to reality by illusions, but because things have been kept from them by institutional arrangements (which may or may not have been put in place to achieve that end). Sociologists find out what this one knows and what that one knows so that, in the end, they can assemble the partial knowledge of participants into a more comprehensive understanding.