Background Knowledge and The Universality of Sociological Work

Howard S. Becker

[This article appeared, in French, in the first issue of a new journal, Socio 01, 2013, pp. 109-19, under the title “Connaissances generales et universalité du travail sociologique.”]

Is the work of sociology intelligible everywhere in the world? Or does it depend on specific ideas, objects, and understandings known in some places but not in others? Probably not the former, at least not without a lot of advance training. It’s obvious, for instance, that some of what we (“we,” in this case, refers to North American) sociologists produce will not be understood by people who don’t have the background understandings we acquired unthinkingly as we grew up in North America and learned the things competent adults know, just as we won’t understand theirs fully or maybe even partially.

This problem resembles the familiar problem that arises in translating between languages when some words and phrases and ideas can’t, as we often say, throwing up our hands in defeat, be translated. It has serious implications for what social scientists who want to communicate, teach and learn across their own national borders can and will do, and for the consequences of their activity. If words, and the actions they are connected to, can’t be translated, then we will never have an international social science.

I’ll start with examples of the problem, so that we have something like the same things in mind as I proceed. Here’s a specifically North American example: baseball. I suppose this sport is becoming more widely known, since some very good players now come to North American teams from the Caribbean countries, elsewhere in South America, and Japan. Still, for most people who grew up outside the U.S., baseball is very hard to understand: dozens of arcane rules and understandings, applied in very specific situations. I once stood by as an intelligent and insightful French colleague, playing anthropologist, tried to understand a game of baseball being played by some ten year olds in an American park. I patiently explained that the “pitcher” “pitched” the ball to a “batter,” who could either swing or not. If he didn’t swing and the ball was within a carefully defined “strike zone” (between his shoulders and knees and “over the home plate”) where he might reasonably have been expected to be able to hit it with his “bat,” it counted as a strike. But, if the batter didn’t swing and the ball was outside that zone, it counted as a “ball” (in serious games, an official stood behind the “catcher” and decided which of these the pitch was). If the batter swung the bat at the ball and missed it, that too was a “strike.” If he hit it and it went out toward the playing field, it was either a “hit,” meaning he had been able to reach a “base” before the players on the field could throw the ball to “first base” before he got there. If, however, they did do that, or if they caught the ball before it touched the ground, he was “out.” If the “count” reached four balls, the player “walked” to first base, just as though he had made a hit. If the count reached three strikes first, he had “struck out” and, his turn “at bat” over, the next batter came to bat.

My French colleague watched carefully as I explained all this, absorbing a lot of esoteric information in a short time. As a quasi-anthropologist, he could master that. But then one of the little boys, at bat, swung at a ball and missed and it was the third strike and he was out. Or would have been—except that the “catcher” dropped the ball, whereupon the batter ran to first base and was “safe.” My friend said, “Why isn’t he out? He swung and missed three times and you said that meant he was out!” I then had to explain a supplementary and seldom-relevant rule: if the catcher dropped the ball, that constituted a “dropped third strike” and the rules allowed the batter to run as though he had hit the ball “safely.” At which point my till then patient colleague had had enough and refused to watch such an illogical proceeding any further.

If I write about baseball, either as a real topic of investigation or as an example of some sociological phenomenon, I can’t take anything for granted when I send my writing to readers from other countries. But that’s only the beginning of the problem. Metaphors from baseball form the basis for descriptions of many common phenomena totally unrelated to baseball. We now have in the state of California and elsewhere what’s often called a “three strikes” law (‘three strikes and you’re out”). In the criminal justice context, this means that the third time someone is convicted of a serious crime they automatically go to prison for the rest of their lives; the reference is to the baseball convention governing when a person is “out”). What does someone who doesn’t know baseball understand by a “three strikes law”? On a less serious note, what do such readers understand when someone says that a young man going home from a Saturday night in a bar “struck out?” Do they understand, as a North American would, that he hadn’t found the companion he hoped to meet and take home for a night of sex ? (Special bonus question: Do they understand what a male teen-ager means when he says he was only able to get to “second base” with a girl he went out with?)

Which poses the more serious question: How can I write something my colleagues in my own country and also colleagues in other countries, who do not share all the “background knowledge” I take for granted when I write for compatriots, will understand? The problems are not just trivial linguistic lacunae in the reader’s knowledge because—it’s the lesson of Wittgenstein about how language gets meaning from the forms of life it is embedded in—not understanding the words means not understanding the social practices. Every research and every report of results, every expansion of research results into a more general framework (which is the way I think of “theory”), assumes that readers know many things the writer will rest his case on.

As my own experience learning to navigate, a little, in the French language demonstrates. When I listen to the “Journal de Vingt Heures” every day on TV5 Monde, for instance, I hear unfamiliar words: on this particular day, smicard. What must I know to understand what’s being referred to, what things that any knowledgeable French twelve year old knows? I have to understand that the suffix -ard indicates a person who has the characteristic indicated by the part of the word the suffix is attached to. So I know that it is someone who is connected to something called smic. I learned, soon enough (but it’s not obvious, I had to consult Wikipédia), that that referred to the SMIC, the “salaire minimum interprofessionnel de croissance,” whose more-or-less counterpart in the United States we call the “minimum wage.” A little analysis convinced me that a smicard was someone who lived on what I now understood to be the minimum wage.

A more general example: money. Americans joke that Starbucks’ success results from discovering a way to charge $2.50 for a fifty-cent cup of coffee. How well does that joke, as they say, “travel”? Will French readers understand it? Russians? Chinese? Tunisians? If they don’t understand it, what part of it won’t they understand? The money terms? Not likely, because the dollar is known everywhere. The price of a cup of coffee? Perhaps, because not everyone knows that the cup once cost fifty cents and for them the reference will not be completely intelligible; they may not have that handy scale of conventional prices in their heads. Are there places where people don’t know about coffee? I don’t suppose so, but what do I know? Are there places where the local monetary unit doesn’t have a stable value from one day to another, and certainly not long enough for any specific sum to carry much meaning? Certainly. In countries experiencing a violent inflation, people confront just that situation, as Brazilians did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They could use inflation itself as a metaphor, but no specific amount of money meant anything you could count on.

David Antin’s brilliant essay “the currency of the country” (1984, 2012) gives a profound analysis of the interpenetration of language, social and financial organization, and customs, disguised as a story about a imaginary country whose air is so polluted by industrial neighbors that people can only survive on purer air stored in tanks which, being quite expensive, can only be used for serious purposes. And so only the very rich can afford to have breathable air in more than one room of their house or apartment, with easily imagined consequences for family life, romantic encounters, etc. The most instructive part of Antin’s story is his analysis of the way common linguistic forms embody this situation. Here’s an example: a very rich man can be described as “someone who makes love in his own house,” implying that he has so much money that he can afford to furnish two rooms with breathable air, rather than the one most people have to make do with, and can thus have an entire room for the privacy of love-making. Less wealthy people have to take a tank of air to a secluded place in the open and make sure to consummate their liaison before it is consumed.

Different kinds of labor “contracts” in different countries provide more realistic and more consequential examples for social science. I put the word in quotation marks to indicate that the French idea of a job involving an implicit or explicit and legally enforceable indefinite contract is not widespread in the United States. In the United States, workers may be “fired” for any number of reasons and, unless they have the increasingly scarce protection of union membership, or unless the firing clearly discriminates because of the worker’s race, gender or a few other “protected” characteristics, in which case the worker can initiate a legal action.

Here’s an example from my own specialty, the sociology of art. Workers in the musical and dramatic arts usually work sporadically, “now and then.” A few have permanent positions in stable symphonies, or theater or opera companies; everyone else works for organizations that come and go and don’t provide continuous employment for anyone. In the United States, successful performing artists manage by building networks of potential employers who know them by reputation, to reliably do competent work, demonstrating that in person or relying on colleagues who vouch for their abilities, the combination keeping them more or less continuously working. The others usually have a second occupation (North American musicians call it a “day job”) or rely on some form of government aid (in the U.S., it’s called “unemployment insurance,” but performing artists are often not eligible for it).

North American sociologists of the arts, reading about the working arrangements of French performing artists, first notice the ubiquitous word intermittent and eventually learn that it doesn’t simply mean, as it would in New York or Chicago, that these artists sometimes work and sometimes don’t. Instead, it refers to a legally defined category of worker, whose members can rely, if they do things properly, on a special kind of insurance meant for workers in the arts, workers like them. To qualify for that help, they must have worked a certain length of time, had a certain number of jobs, collected a specific number of cachet (we would call these something like "credits"). If they collect enough cachets they get paid for the rest of the year. North American artists don’t have this kind of cushion against the uncertain employment opportunities of their professions.

When sociologists’ research on artistic employment in France tells us that much of an arts worker’s economic planning revolves around finding an efficient way of collecting the needed cachets (Menger 2009; Perrenoud 2007), and that furnishing them to artists who need them is often a bargaining tool for the employers, we aren’t surprised—if we know all about “intermittents” and “cachets.” Without that knowledge, we’re in the situation of the anthropologist trying to understand baseball.

Untranslatability moves to center stage when we talk about general cultural understandings that are inherently vague and not quite pin-downable. When I first went to Brazil in 1976, I soon encountered the word malandro, a sort of “social type,” a word everyone but me seemed to understand. The English translations typically offered for malandro are words like “rascal,” “rogue,” “scamp,” and others which fail to convey the sportiness, charm and other traits of the species. I finally decided, for myself, that the best contemporary American term might be “hustler,” but better yet would be to see MacHeath of Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera” as embodying the type. The Brazilian scholar and sociologist Antonio Candido takes twenty-four pages to convey some of its overtones (Candido 1995, 79-103), largely by analyzing a work of fiction whose chief character embodies the type.

I gradually got a feeling for what malandro meant from the contexts it was used in, from the people it was used to describe, from the attempts people made to explain it to me. That’s how we usually learn what these “foreign” terms mean. But learning that really means—everyone knows this—learning to participate in a culture, learning what to expect and how to respond when you hear someone described that way. If I learn what a malandro is I learn to be, at least a little, a Brazilian of some kind.

And here we reach the heart of the problem of internationalizing social science and, in particular, sociology. How many social scientists in which countries will make the effort to understand things like malandro or intermittents de spectacle or the metaphorical extensions of baseball terminology (or the language of cricket, another difficult-to-understand sport that embodies important national ideas in many countries, and whose terms provide metaphorical resources in those places as well) to understand research which requires that understanding? And, given that not all of them (and perhaps only a small number of them) will, how will the institutions of scholarly communication help or hinder the process?

Given all these difficulties, how can a social scientist write something that will make full use of what he knows about the social activity he has studied in his own society and still be intelligible to someone from another country and cultural tradition? And not only intelligible but, far more difficult, interesting? Keeping in mind that anything that tells us important things about a social situation will necessarily rely on all sorts of unstated foundational concepts (“dropped third strike” is a trivial but characteristic such idea) and understandings about how such items can be used in a variety of metaphorical ways.

The problems of misunderstanding don’t always manifest themselves in obvious ways, like a failure to understand the rules of baseball. Europeans don’t say “I don’t know what a three-strikes law is,” they just look at the book, leaf through it, and then put it away as being something “too American” to be interesting if you aren’t part of that way of life. American sociologists of art say, more ethnocentrically, “Well, it’s not about America, so why should I be interested?” And, yes, I have heard respected people say just that, about excellent works of French sociology.

At times, publishers and/or translators, perhaps hoping to interest potential readers who might respond with that kind of disinterest, describe books misleadingly to an audience in another country, presumably to make them more intelligible to people who work from different background understandings. I vividly remember my shock when I first saw the French translation of Erving Goffman’s Asylums, turned to the first pages, and saw that the key term in his analysis, “total institutions,” had been translated as institutions totalitaire. I went to the Petit Robert and saw that totalitaire was indeed listed as a possible translation of “total,” though certainly not the preferred one. I knew very well—any careful reader of the book would have known—that Goffman would never have used so blatantly political a term, because it wasn’t what he meant at all. The essay in Asylums that carries that title is not about totalitarianism as the term is ordinarily understood. It deals with something quite different: a kind of social organization, carefully defined by, first of all, its geographical separation from others, then by a series of specifics that, as he shows, flow from that, like the division into inmates and staff. In further distinction from conventional social science writing about such places, he adopted a specialized vocabulary, using neutral words to describe what is ordinarily described in moral disapprobation (see my full description of these in Becker 2007, 228-30). But, I will guess, totalitaire fit the political times in a way that totale didn’t. (Of course, sophisticated French readers of social science make it their business to understand these nuances, and the situations that might provoke such a translation, and interpret the result accordingly.)

My people (North Americans), unlike most European scholars, seldom read any other language than their own, so their reading of work from elsewhere is restricted to what has been translated. The publication of translations is, everywhere, an expensive and risky business, and American publishers prefer to publish translations that have several potential markets, something for example that will attract readers in philosophy or critical studies or literature as well as sociology. (Bruno Latour’s books have been translated into English, surely because the sociology of science, while not an enormous field, has a substantial number of readers, many of them anglophone, who will buy his books even if sociologists don’t.) But these tastes for the exotic (which is what sociology is for people who work in other disciplines) are hard to predict, hard to anticipate, and most often lead to disappointment for the publisher. It’s safer to choose someone Very Well Known. Which is why more of Pierre Bourdieu’s work has been translated into English than that of any other French sociologist, and why so few of the long list of French social scientists who interest me have been translated.

If North American publishers have little incentive to publish work originally written in languages other than English, North American authors similarly have little incentive to publish in those languages. Because their compatriots so seldom read other languages, to publish other than in English costs them something. Their American colleagues will not be able to read what they have written and will not cite their articles in other languages. Students will not find and read them and incorporate their ideas into their own work. And, since English language journals typically refuse to publish translations of articles originally published in other languages, the article they have written will appear in English only if they incorporate it into a book. Which means that, unless the article was written for some occasion of special interest in the country whose language it is written in or for an occasion specific to that country, the disincentives to publish in another language are substantial. In general, for the ordinary anglophone scholar, the result of doing that will be as though they hadn’t written the article or book at all. Only people who have substantial networks of colleagues in another country will make that kind of sacrifice.

There probably lies the ultimate solution to these dilemmas that so diminish the international flow of ideas and writing: a circular process in which English language scholars become so involved with scholars working in other languages that they find it interesting to learn enough to carry on in some sort of bilinguality. I speak from my own experience, of course, in saying that this works. The more involved I have become with French and Portuguese speaking social scientists, the more they have sent me to read and the more (because the work is generally at least as interesting as what’s available to me in English and often more so) I have read. As a result of this circularity, I have gradually learned about all sorts of things scholars from these places know without thinking about them much, and so have been better able to understand what’s being talked about, have learned what smicard and intermittents de spectacle mean, not just in the dictionary but in the lives of real people and groups.

I’m unsure how realistic a model my experience provides for anyone else, though I’m equally sure that it is not unique. But it isn’t a remedy for a quick fix. Like anything else worth having, it will require some work.


Antin, David. 1984. “The currency of the country.” Pp. 5-47 in tuning. New York: New Directions.

Becker, Howard S. “Erving Goffman: langage et stratégie comparative.” Pp. 223-37 in Telling About Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bowker, Geoffrey and Susan Leigh Star. 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (Inside Technology). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Candido, Antonio. 1995. "Dialectic of Malandroism." Pp.78-103. In Candido, Antonio. 1995. On Literature and Society.Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Menger, Pierre-Michel. 2009. Le travail créateur: S'accomplir dans l'incertain. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard.

Perrenoud, Marc. 2007. Les musicos: enquête sur des musiciens ordinaires. Paris: La Découverte.