Interview with Howard Becker, January 4, 2005
NC: What I’d like you to begin with is an initial description of the social context in which you began to come into contact with drug users, and the kinds of observations that initially piqued your interest.
HB: I came into contact with drug users because I was a 15-year-old piano player in Chicago, and I was working with a campus band at Northwestern University. I wasn’t a student there. There was another guy in the band, maybe a year older than me, a saxophone player, and we got to talking and during the intermission we went out in the parking lot and he produced a half pint of gin and asked if I wanted a drink. I didn’t want to look square so I got it down, and the next week, since I was such a good student, he produced a joint and asked if I wanted to get high. I said sure, and I quickly realized that that was better than drinking gin. So I came into contact with drug users, you could say, because I was one, and I was in a trade where most people did do that. And I knew from my experience over the years that the thing that I made such a big deal out of in the research that I did, namely that people often don’t get high the first time they smoke dope, was something that I’d seen happen over and over again. Everybody knows that, it was kind of a common understanding that that was a likely thing to happen. When I read Alfred Lindesmith’s book, Opiate Addiction, when I read Lindy’s book, I said, this is really interesting because it’s like marijuana but it isn’t, because nobody gets withdrawal sickness from marijuana. So this would be a great comparative study. And I was thinking about that and then I got my Ph.D., and I got it very young, I was 23 when I graduated. I didn’t have a job and had no prospects of finding an academic job, because people thought I was too young.
NC: Tell me something about working underage in the jazz clubs.
HB: We were actually playing fraternity and sorority dances, but I also really did play in strip clubs and bars. They weren’t really jazz clubs, they were just neighborhood bars, or strip clubs on Clark Street in Chicago. It was during World War II and the reason I was doing that was that was all the guys 18 and older were in the Army, and somebody had to be playing there. So it was me and a bunch of guys who were 4F, who were physically unfit to be in the Army. I’m talking about ‘44-‘45-‘46, up through when I got my Ph.D. in 1951. So I’m talking about essentially toward the end of the war, and then the next five years when I was getting my Ph.D. I was working sometimes in clubs, but sometimes with campus bands.
NC: Did you observe any opiate addiction or heroin use?
HB: Yes, I worked with a number of junkies. Well, the thing everybody knew was they were a terrible pain in the ass because they were very likely not to show up for work ‘cause they were standing on a street corner somewhere waiting for their connection to show up. I can remember working in a bar, me and a saxophone player and a drummer, and the drummer didn’t show up. He came in 90 minutes late because his connection hadn’t showed up and he had to stand on the corner and wait for him. I knew a lot of junkies. In fact one of the drummers I worked with, he wanted to be a junkie, he thought it was really quite romantic, but he had a physiological thing, he really couldn’t tolerate opiate drugs so every time he’d inhale heroin, he’d run off and vomit almost immediately. He finally had to give it up. There were a lot of junkies around. It just never tempted me because I could see how much trouble it was.
NC: So you did not consider yourself in any way attracted to it?
HB: No, it was ridiculous. Same thing with amphetamines. I took Benzedrine a couple of times and all that happened was I just talked nonstop for hours and I talked enough without any help. I couldn’t see that that was any fun, so I didn’t do that any more…
NC: At what point did you meet the person who became “Janet Clark”?
HB: Her name was Marilyn Bishop and she was the girlfriend of the drummer I just told you about that left us waiting for him for 90 minutes, a guy named Harold (Hal) Russell who became a well-known jazz player. He was a good drummer. So I met her sometime in the early 1950s. I got a job at the Institute for Juvenile Research, which was a state agency, actually, run by Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, who were the grand old men of delinquency research. They had gotten a big grant to study teenage opiate addiction from the National Institute of Mental Health, and I found out about it. I didn’t have a job and I persuaded them to hire me half-time to do this marijuana study I wanted to do. They thought it was trivial because marijuana wasn’t habit-forming, so it wasn’t a social problem. But somehow, I don’t quite know why, they decided to take me on. So I said to Marilyn, among other things I said to Marilyn, you know, these people do life histories, they pay their informants, the kids that they interviewed about heroin addiction, $5 an interview, so I said I could get them to pay you $5 an interview. Why don’t we do one of these life histories? As I said in the book, she just talked in paragraphs and chapters and I didn’t do anything but correct the punctuation when it was typed up. She was something else.
NC: She seemed to know a great deal about psychoanalysis. Was psychoanalysis much in evidence when you began talking to people who used drugs at that point?
HB: Psychoanalysis was around, it was the hip thing. When I was in graduate school, I was at a party with a lot of graduate students, and there was one other guy there, and we agreed that we were the only two people out of fifty who were not in psychoanalysis right then. A lot of them were on the GI Bill and they got that as medical treatment. They got psychoanalysis as part of that. And Marilyn was… you know, it wasn’t esoteric, everyone knew about psychoanalysis.
NC: Did people use psychoanalytic concepts to give meaning to what they were doing?
HB: Well, the ones who were in psychoanalysis.
NC: Was psychoanalysis something you would normally encounter in the course of interviewing addicts?
HB: I don’t think so. She was kind of an intellectual, sort of an autodidact. She was quite well read and smart.
NC: In your postscript you said something about her coming back from a short jail term and giving a more detailed analysis than the one that was presented in the book. Can you remember any of the details?
HB: Not really. You could look at the book by James Bennett. He dug into all the papers because there was quite a fight about publishing that book. I’ll just guess that what was involved was that she was badmouthing people that Shaw and Co. didn’t want to have trouble with, and they just insisted that that not be in there.
NC: Did you ever visit Lexington?
NC: So most of your knowledge was from people who were talking about it?
HB: Entirely, and from reading about it.
NC: Reading what?
HB: Maybe Mezz Mezzrow’s book. And from talking to Lindy.
NC: At what point did you meet Alfred Lindesmith?
HB: I met Lindy shortly after I graduated with my Ph.D. in 1951. I think the American Sociological Association was meeting in Chicago that summer. I had become quite friendly with Anselm Strauss, who had just come back to the University of Chicago to teach, and he introduced me to Lindy; they had taught together at Indiana. This was just as I was negotiating with the people at IJR to do the research about this marijuana thing. Lindy said to me, “Well, be careful with Shaw because he doesn’t like to see anybody’s name on anything that comes out of there except his,” which turned out to be exactly true. But Lindy and I got to be very friendly and he talked a lot about Lexington and the people at Lexington and the federal people.
There’s a famous story about Lindesmith and Harry Anslinger. After he had done his dissertation and published an article or two, and he was at Indiana teaching, one day an agent from the Treasury Department showed up and told him he had to stop publishing this stuff. And Lindy was a kind of bull-headed Midwest farmer, a no-nonsense kind of guy. The guy from the Treasury told him that if he didn’t stop publishing, they would plant drugs in his office or his house and arrest him. As soon as he left, Lindy called a friend of his who was a law professor from Indiana who was working in Washington, and said this is what happened, can they do that? So the guy told Lindy, give me all the details and I’ll look into it. So a couple of weeks later some highly placed director, or assistant director, from the FBN showed up to smooth things over, and Lindy got on his high horse and began berating this guy, “Why are you bothering a poor professor in his ivory tower, you should be out chasing big-time drug dealers and smugglers and all that.” The guy said, “That is a common misapprehension about our work. That is part of our job--but the other part is disseminating correct information and making sure incorrect information is not disseminated.” So you can imagine when I heard that story, I thought, oh boy, what am I in for?
NDC: Did you personally ever hear from anyone at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics?
HB: I never heard from anybody. I never heard of any other sociologists being bothered.
HB: Yes, and it was earlier, 10, 15 years earlier, and I think they probably learned a lesson. But Lindy knew all the people at Lexington and they knew him. He was the enemy to them, at least as he told it.
NC: Tell me more about that. He consulted there in 1949.
HB: I didn’t know that—you surprised me when you said that.
NC: Abe Wikler used to write up the congressional appropriations reports and there is record that in 1949 Lindesmith was a consultant at the ARC. I can’t imagine what he did there. What I don’t understand is why the folks at Lexington would have developed such animosity towards him?
HB: As near as I can make out, they just thought that he was dangerous. I only got it from him and he was sort of bemused by it. I mean, Lindy was a very goodhearted guy, not overly subtle or anything, not reading things into anything. The kind of guy who was always trying to get a visiting gig at Southern California so that he could go to the race track out there. He was a horse player. He would have been a serious horse player if he lived near a track. He was not the kind of person who you could imagine making things up or over-interpreting. What I always understood, and I don’t know what it was based on, was that they thought that his theory was dangerous, that the idea that essentially anybody could become a junkie, that it was not a matter of predisposition, they thought that was quite a harmful idea. Also very early on he began advocating loosening up the narcotics laws and a more rational approach.
NC: So it was his policy position?
HB: They were alert to what they would have seen as the policy implications of all this social-psychological work.
NC: Do you know who it was at Lexington who would have been most concerned?
HB: The only name I heard from him was Abe Wikler, and I think that was somewhat personal. I think they had a kind of respect for each other, that’s my memory of it. Abe really thought that Lindy was dangerous and Lindy thought Abe was silly for thinking that.
NC: What about your relationship with Lawrence Kolb?
HB: I didn’t know anything about him besides reading.
NC: Really? Now I’m surprised because I assumed that in Outsiders, Kolb was someone you were attempting to refute because of his theory about psychopathology.
HB: Here’s the thing. The marijuana thing didn’t arise as a research problem or a researchable problem in the context of the literature on drugs. It was a fairly straightforward application of the kind of social-psychological theory I learned from Herbert Blumer. But after I did the research, then of course I had to go read the literature. The literature on marijuana was almost nonexistent, so that was good since I’m not a great scholar. I read the LaGuardia Commission report and I read whatever there was of the literature, which wasn’t much. Kolb, I remember the name but I don’t remember. . . I was looking for a hook to hang this on and it seemed obvious that all these other theories were theories about personality, that there was a kind of personality that was addiction-prone. The standard formulation was that you solved your personal problems by taking drugs. I thought, incorrectly, by the way, that my research showed that wasn’t true. Well, it didn’t really show that it wasn’t true because it didn’t really consider it. It didn’t refute it, it just ignored it. It led me down the wrong path, actually, because it wasn’t until years later that I realized what that research was actually about because it’s not about is it personality or not. It’s about how people learn to interpret their own inner sensations. I wrote these two later papers after LSD happened and that led me to understand what the marijuana research had actually been about. It was a perfect place to study that phenomenon because you have this very ambiguous physical and mental experience and then you have to figure out what happened to you. That helped me make sense out of the LSD thing. I was very proud of those papers, although no one ever paid any attention to them.
NC: You and Lindy obviously thought drug use involved some sort of socially mediated learning process, that there was an interpretive moment. Did you always think that the “vaguer” the drug effect, the more interpretive flexibility there was?
HB: To be honest, to try and think back to what I thought 50 years ago. . . . Probably what I would have thought would have been based on my experiences with dope smokers and junkies. In both cases it’s an interpretive process. Getting high on marijuana is sufficiently vague that you could pretty well ignore it, whereas having serious withdrawal symptoms, you’d be hard put to ignore. You might not understand it as the drugs but you would certainly have difficulty saying, “Nothing’s happening.”
NC: Let’s go back a bit. I thought you had it in for Lawrence Kolb a little more pointedly, a little more directly, because in Outsiders, you said that “sophisticated users” would give you “moral directive” or something that was derived from psychiatric theory and I assumed that they were in their interviews sort of spitting back some of that at you.
HB: It was just common sense. You didn’t have to be in psychoanalysis to have the idea that “sick people took drugs.” That was everywhere. That was common knowledge that you had to be sick to be doing something like that.
NC: The other folks you quote, like Gerard and Kornetsky, you didn’t have any interactions with them, you were just being a good reader?
HB: I was just covering my ass. Look at the literature. OK. I thought it was pretty stupid. The first medical, biological people that I got to know well were people like Andy Weil who did the first biological assay of marijuana.
NC: When did you get to know him? How did you get to know the non-sociologists in the drug world?
HB: It was in the ‘60s sometime. When was the Summer of Love? ‘67. For years and years I spent summers in San Francisco. There was a big trial in Boston. A lawyer named Joseph Oteri had a criminal law firm in Boston and he was getting a lot of drug cases because they were busting college kids at MIT, and Harvard, and Brandeis. He was getting a lot of these cases, and most of those were not really cases the state could win if they actually went to trial. All that Joe would do was show up, or send one of his lawyers to show up, and the case would get dropped. He was having a lot of success and they were making a lot of money. Some of the younger guys in the firm, including one whose name I still see around, who is still active in that field, Harvey Silverglate, kept bugging Joe, let’s bring a test case. So he said, “Well, OK, we’ll devote a certain amount of money that comes off these other cases to finance it.” These young guys went to work and it was a labor of love. They worked very hard, developed a gigantic case about how it was an irrational law, I think it was under that kind of constitutional argument that the law serves no rational purpose ‘cause in fact there’s no danger. So the Boston cops would arrest somebody and they would show up to make their test case, and the Boston prosecutors would back down because they didn’t want to deal with it. Finally, they busted three kids from Brandeis for picking up 20 pounds of marijuana at the Logan Airport. If they didn’t try that case, that would mean in fact the law was dead. So they hired a special prosecutor, someone who had been on the staff of the Army-McCarthy hearings, James St. Clair, and Oteri’s people had assembled this gigantic cast of expert witnesses, of whom I was one of, you know, an army. So we were all in Boston at various times for the pretrial hearing to throw the case out before the actual trial. St. Clair had called a couple of expert witnesses, an Indian guy they used to drag in, but on our side there were like dozens of people, including Herbert Blumer. They put us all up in a suite at one of the downtown hotels. I was sharing a suite with David E. Smith of the Haight Asbury, who became a very good friend of mine, and Andrew Weil. At that time he had just graduated Harvard and was an intern in San Francisco at Mt. Zion. So I got to know both of them that way, got to be good friends with both of them. I don’t see too much of them anymore. These were the medical people. The other thing that happened was that--after I did the marijuana thing and wrote the book, I wasn’t involved with drug research anymore. In 1965 I quit the research job I had at Stanford and became a professor at Northwestern. No sooner had I arrived at Northwestern than a bunch of Northwestern students were busted at a party someplace and there was marijuana there. It was happening all over the country, it was just the beginning of when white, middle-class kids were getting busted for that. The guy who brought me to Northwestern, the head of my department, was a guy named Raymond Mack, who was a drummer, that was how we got to know each other, and he helped the administration of the university organize a response to this dreadful attack, which was what happened very commonly in universities where this was happening, they had a symposium. So they got me and somebody from student health, probably a psychiatrist, and we each got up and said a few things. I remember the student health guy, who made a kind of standard speech about how terrible it was, a dangerous drug, etc., and afterward I said to him, “Hey, do you really think marijuana’s that dangerous?” “Well,” he said, “not compared to alcohol, what we see is the number of kids who are in bad automobile accidents because of driving drunk or they get into fights, there’s a lot of traumatic injury from fights, or they fall or get pushed out of windows, stuff like that’s much more dangerous.” This was happening everywhere, I started to get invited to these symposia and meetings and conferences.
NC: And you went even though you didn’t think of yourself at that point as in the field?
HB: Yes, it was interesting. I was learning a lot, meeting all these people. The variety of medical and biological types, pharmacologists, that were in this was pretty variable. You had the oldtimers, and then you had people like Andy Weil. There was a meeting in Buffalo, a wonderful guy named Michael Aldridge, who was a graduate student in English. His dissertation was on marijuana literature. He was actually the graduate student of somebody I knew from out here in California who was a professor of English who did not believe at all in dope smoking because one of her husbands was high all the time and she thought it was dreadful but she supported Mike. There was this giant event, there were people from everywhere, two or three days, nonstop talks. I don’t know where he got the money. I don’t remember who he got to represent the law enforcement point of view. It was a scream because it was in the big ballroom of the student union and it was filled with kids. This guy was trying to read his paper about how dangerous marijuana was and these kids were booing and shouting. He was quite put out.
NC: Were these events always organized around public health versus law enforcement?
HB: No, they were organized around all kinds of things. Then all the hustlers got into it. So everybody knew you could get money for this kind of stuff and bring their friends in. There were all kinds of people who were regulars on that circuit. Some New Age psychiatrists and some drug therapists. There were all these drug researchers and this was the time when acid also became an issue, so there’d be Timothy Leary. This went on for a number of years. One of the great people was Allen Ginsberg, who was very interested in drug issues. Allan traveled all the time, he knew everybody, he was like Johnny Appleseed. He’d call me up when he was in Chicago, and say, “By the way, I met so and so, he’s a physiologist who’s doing work on marijuana that I think would interest you, and here’s a reference. And what are you doing?” He was all over the place. He knew Lindy very well, he knew all these physiologists. He was just spreading the word. He was like a one-man Internet.
HB: Sounds familiar. But I didn’t know any of these people very well. I would just meet them at these meetings. I remember once some student at Northwestern came to interview me and she asked, “Do you know this one or that one?” And I knew them all. And she said, “How do you know all these people?” And I said, “The federal government paid for me to get to know them.” The federal government was sponsoring most of these meetings. I remember meeting a physiologist from Urbana who said to me, “Marijuana is such an interesting drug pharmacologically because it has such a decided psychological action but there’s essentially no physical activity. There’s hardly anything physiologically--we can’t find it, how it works, but it sure works.” So he thought that was really interesting to study. Then I met Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswander, and all those people. It was a relatively small number of people and I was kind of on the fringe of it because the real action was these physiologists. But I got very interested in stuff like Stanley Schachter’s findings about drug action, and Dole and Nyswander’s stuff. Because it all went to the same point that there was a distinct difference between pharmacological action, which you could document, blood pressure and things like that, and these psychological consequences. Then there was a wonderful piece, that Dave Smith published in his journal, by Richard Blum, a psychiatrist at Stanford, who had interviewed people who took LSD under various auspices, some of them in the original experiments where it was supposed to mimic psychosis, some people who had gone to the International Foundation for Internal Freedom in Palo Alto and were supposed to find God, and also some people who took it to get high and some people who were given LSD to treat their alcoholism, in a jail in San Mateo. . . and his finding was that whatever they thought was going to happen, that’s what happened. The people who went to IFIF saw God, the people who were part of the experiment thought they went crazy for 10 hours, etc. All that went into the papers that I wrote.
NC: Tell me about the conceptual genesis of those two papers on LSD—“History, Culture, and Subjective Experience” in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior and the Trans-Action paper.
HB: The Trans-Action paper was published twice. There was an early one about history and another one, which was a more general one, compared drug use under medical auspices and under religious auspices, and under chemical warfare.
NC: Tell me how those papers came out of the milieu of the circuit.
HB: Well, I was hearing all about acid and it was really interesting. What happened was. . . . I thought I understood exactly what was going on with acid by comparison to the marijuana thing. When I was doing my scholarly archival literature work on marijuana, such as it was, I’d run across these wonderful papers in medical journals about people who were having marijuana psychoses, which then disappeared. I mean, after a while nobody had a marijuana psychosis anymore. And I thought I understood why that was and I thought the same thing would very likely happen with LSD. Which I think is what did happen. I always tell people I made one of the few successful predictions in sociology--which is a nice prediction because it’s counterintuitive--that as LSD use increased, the amount of pathology associated with it would decrease. So it’s kind of like the reason I did the marijuana stuff, it wasn’t really because I was interested in the drug problem, but because I thought it was a nice sociological thing. I got into it, because I was around all these people who were dealing with acid, like Dave Smith, and I was hearing all these stories. As I said, I thought I understood the rationale, I thought I understood what was going on and could explain it. And I knew people like . . . there was nurse named Peggy Sankot who worked at the Haight-Asbury clinic. Peggy was the one who invented the talking-down therapy for people who were freaking out on acid. She told me all about that, and it made perfect sense from my point of view, although it doesn’t make sense from a pharmacological point of view. So it just came out of that, I thought it would make a nice piece of sociology.
NC: What is the role of the drug itself in the sociology of drugs?
HB: The role of it is like the role of the weather in the study of social activity. It’s a fact that has to be dealt with. If there’s a lot of snow, there are certain things that have to be taken care of. I understand the effects of the drugs to be like, let’s say, that aspirin lowers fever. If you take aspirin when you have a fever it will probably come down and that’s an effect probably independent of what you think about it. You may not notice that your fever came down, or you might not think it was taking the aspirin that did it. But that it happens is probably demonstrable even with all the sociology of science caveats about that, about how you might demonstrate that, probably that’s what’s going on. So that’s how I understand the role of drugs. If you shoot enough heroin over a long enough period of time you’ll probably get withdrawal symptoms and you’ll need to deal with that. It will be more or less of a problem depending on a lot of other things, like how easy it is to get hold of and all that.
NC: Now let’s think about behavior and behaviorism. In the Ken Plummer interview, you talk about Blumer’s criticisms of “stimulus-response theory.” How do you think about behaviorism?
HB: That’s easy, I don’t.
NC: But you must have. You remember you said something about Blumer being critical of stimulus-response theory because it couldn’t explain reflection, internal dialogue, or cognition.
HB: It’s not that it couldn’t explain it, it ignored it.
NC: It just ignored it completely? That gap is where you’ve done a lot of your work so could you talk about how you think about that reflective step, that internal dialogue?
HB: That’s one of the things I just assume goes on, that people are talking to themselves about what they’re doing. A simple model is chess, playing chess, if I move here my opponent might do this, or might do that, or might do the other and depending on which one they do, I’ll maybe do this, thinking ahead about what might be done, which is essentially what Blumer, taking from Mead, understood as the dialogue that makes up the self, the lines of activity are built up over the course of that kind of internal dialogue. That’s it. You have to understand that in the period when I was getting my Ph.D., and when Blumer was writing all this stuff, stimulus-response psychology was a big deal. There were these people doing learning theory, it was just like all over the place, they were prepared to explain anything in the whole world as the result of reinforced stimulus-response connections. It was actually irrelevant to anything that we were doing but it was always there. They were like rivals in explaining what was going on in the world.
NC: Can you characterize the nature of that rivalry—was it ideological?
HB: It probably had some ideological overtones. Truthfully, it was a straightforward professional theoretical [rivalry]. In sociology there was always the question, “Are the things that are going on that we think are bad due to people being bad people or having bad habits or bad personalities, or is this the way anybody would behave, put in that situation?” And the psychologists tend to, you know, [hold] the idea that there are stable elements in these people, however they get there, and those stable elements would get triggered in specific situations, but they were there to be triggered, and they were automatic, learned responses. Blumer also criticized the idea of culture as an explanation, which had the same automaticity, as he described it. “Well, that’s the culture,” what are you going to do? You have marry your mother’s brother’s daughter, and there’s no reflection or thinking about it. He thought that was silly. In areas where fields overlap, which generally has to do with specific areas where there was in fact a matter of government intervention, like education, which was totally dominated by psychologists. . . . so if you mess around in education, you constantly ran up against these people who were doing that kind of thing, stimulus-response explanations. And I think there was an overtone that they were more conservative, that we believed that everybody was terrific, and you just had to put them in the right situation for their terrificness to show.
NC: So you would very much agree with Lindy’s critique of conditioning theory and his arguments against behavioristic psychologists. So when you talk about interpretation and they talk about learning theory, you’re talking about vastly different paradigms.
NC: Have you kept up with their attempts to verify or replicate your study?
HB: You probably know more about that than I do.
NC: You haven’t paid any attention at all to the life of your work in drug research today?
HB: No, it was 50 years ago and I never did any more. I learned to turn off media interviews after I got burned a couple times when people interviewed me for hours and then some weird distortion emerged. They would call me up and say, “Professor Becker, you’ve done drug research,” and I’d say, “Oh, yes, that was in 1953,” and they’d say, “Haven’t you done anything more recently?” and I’d say, “No, but it was terrific research.”
NC: But you were pulled back in for while in the 1960s?
HB: But I wasn’t doing research. Then I would have known if anyone was replicating what I did. A couple of times people have sent me sort of dumbbell articles that don’t grapple with whatever issues there were.
NC: That’s been my sense of it—they don’t get at the conceptual level you did. They are behavioral and they are attempts to replicate parts of your study, use your methodology. How would you talk about leaving the field? Did you really never see yourself as in the field?
HB: I never saw myself as a drug researcher any more than I thought of myself as a researcher “in education,” although I did a lot of research in educational institutions. Or medicine. We studied students of medicine. We always said that was our major finding, that the important word in the phrase “medical student” is “student.” I avoided that always—I always said I was a sociologist of work, sometimes I would say I was a social psychologist, and for quite a while now I say I’m a sociologist of art.
NC: I promised you we wouldn’t talk at all about deviance.
HB: Let me tell you a story I’ve been saving for you. Sometime in the ‘70s there were people at NIMH, there was a guy named Mitchell Balter, who was a physician, and there was another one named Leonard Duhl, they were from the Kennedy space cadet group, young hot shots the Kennedy people brought in. Some Israeli scientists had synthesized tetrahydrocannabinol, and the NIMH people had bought 40 grams of it and they were going to dispense it to various researchers who were doing important research on marijuana. They had a meeting in Washington, in Bethesda, to dole out the material. I was invited as the “token social scientist,” I think it was because I knew Duhl, he had given us the money to do the college study. So there I am with all these famous names, including Harris Isbell. So Balter explained the situation: that Mechoulam had created this synthetic, now we have a way of studying marijuana without, God forbid, people having to smoke marijuana, which also was a technical problem because you were never sure what the dosage was. Now we have to decide how to divide it up and we need to concentrate on the really crucial problems, and he turns to Harris Isbell and said, “Harris, you’re the dean of research in this field, what would you say is the most important problem that has to be settled with respect to marijuana?” “Well, there’s no question that the most important problem is the long-term effects of chronic use.” “And how would you propose to do that?” “Well, you have to do this in three animals, the rat, the dog, and the human, and it should be for at least 6 months.” “How much material would you need, Harris?” “Well, you’d have to do it by body weight,” and he starts to calculate and calculate, and everybody’s very patient because, after all, this is the dean of research in the field. “Well, it would have to be twenty grams out of the forty.” Suddenly everybody sees that their interests are threatened. “Twenty grams, that’s quite a lot, Harris.” “Yes, it is.” “I suppose there’s solid evidence, some reason to think that there are long-term effects.” “Oh, yes.” “Could you tell us where?” “Well, there’s the Morocco study”—do you know the Morocco study? Someone in a mental hospital in Morocco had shown that of the 4,000 mental patients there, 70 percent had at one time or another smoked kif. So Tod Mikuriya, he was a leftie hippie psychiatrist, been around for years and was part of the traveling group I was talking about, he was a young, hip guy, and he said, “Well, Dr. Isbell, have you ever visited that hospital in Morocco?” “No, I haven’t.” “Would it interest you to know that it’s true there are 4,000 patients, but there’s only one psychiatrist, so those diagnoses were not made by a psychiatrist.” “Ohhh.” Then they began to smell blood. They said, are there any other studies? They just pursued him until finally Isbell said, there is no solid evidence in the literature. Well, he had never said a thing like that in his life. It always stood out in my mind because it was like social control was palpable. Here were his scientific peers, he didn’t dare to lie, he didn’t dare to say what he would have said to a congressional committee, because there they were at NIH and if he said there was a study, they were going to go to the library to look for the study at lunch time, and that would be that.
NC: Was there a general ethos around the professional or scientific status of the Lexington researchers? Were they cast as out of the scientific mainstream?
HB: Nobody thought about it that much, but they were vulnerable in this way. Nobody was going to give them a pass on this. Nobody was going to defer to them because they were, after all, the people from Lexington. They were used to that, I think. That was Isbell’s bent.
NC: Yes, they were used to that.
HB: Here were a bunch of younger people who were rooted not in drug research, not in narcotics, but in physiology, neurophysiology, and pharmacology, and they had their own professional base and they essentially didn’t care what Isbell and Co. did until it infringed on their interests, which it was doing right here. That was the end of Isbell’s six-month, three-animal study; they just forgot about it.
NC: I’ve been thinking about Adele Clarke’s ideas about illegitimate scientific enterprises in Disciplining Reproduction. The oldtime addiction researchers do get illegitimized, delegitimated over time.
HB: That’s right--when it became something that people in the normal, so to speak, the normal science of pharmacology or physiology got into, these people were not doing great research, not doing cutting edge research. It was sort of like a “sheltered workshop,” nobody cared what they did because the people who were doing this other kind of research, hip research, were interested in the…it was like me, I was interested in sociology, not drug policy. Nobody cared as long as it didn’t interfere but when he was going to take half the material, that was another story.
Another thing I wanted to tell you was that I was a member of a National Research Council committee called Substance Abuse and Habitual Behavior. They [the NRC] only do things if they are paid for it. The money for this came from NIDA and it was run by Bob DuPont just when they were talking about putting together, amalgamating the institutes on alcohol, drugs, and tobacco and they were going to make one big thing that was about all that. DuPont wanted to get ahead of the others in the competition to be head of the combined agency so he put up the money out of his budget for this thing. They had about 30, 40 people on this big committee, of every variety. They had one guy who had spent his entire life developing rat models for the study of alcohol addiction. At every meeting he would come and tell about the latest developments in rats, and nobody cared. One of the people on this committee was Danny [Daniel X.] Freedman. At some point the group was asked to produce a policy statement on research on marijuana. They appointed a subcommittee, and the way they did it was really nuts, because it was like putting the inmates in charge of the asylum. It was me, Troy Duster, another sociologist, and a lawyer named John Kaplan, who was a professor at Stanford, someone who had been kind of anti-drug. His attitude was that, if there were laws, they were probably there for a good reason unless you could show otherwise. He got to know me by calling me up, saying he wanted to talk to me about marijuana, he’d heard I thought that marijuana wasn’t harmful, he thought it probably was, what could I tell him. We became quite good friends and he was converted ‘cause he started to look into it and realized there was no real solid basis for the argument that marijuana was harmful. We understood that if we said anything rash in this report the whole report would just be thrown out. So we were very cautious, but we did suggest that maybe, possibly, the committee could consider the possibility of recommending, blah, blah, blah, that the option of legalization be looked into. Well, don’t ask. Danny Freedman had never showed up to one single meeting except maybe the first one. The night before this was to be discussed, all of a sudden here’s Danny, politicking, running around from one to the other committee member trying to line up votes to kill this, not to kill it, to table it because there was insufficient knowledge, he had heard from the Institute of Medicine that there would be a report one of these days and until that happened. . ., and he spent the whole evening doing that and then left. That’s what he’d come for. Obviously, he’d been alerted by someone to come and do that. This was about the time that the chairmanship of the committee had changed. It had been a psychologist named Gardner Lindsey, who was a very establishment type, and the head of the group became an oldtime pharmacologist named Lou Lasagna, a kind of conservative guy, not a revolutionary. So our report came up and was being discussed, and at the end of the afternoon, he said, “Well, look, I don’t know, I have to think about this, I want you people who are telling me that it’s dangerous to give me some references to literature that I can look at and I’ll look at it overnight and we’ll discuss it in the morning.” He came back in the morning, and I’ve rarely seen someone so angry. He said, “Listen, if you invoke the kind of standards you’re raising here, we wouldn’t be able to use aspirin. This is ridiculous, there is no evidence. I think this should go ahead.” So what could they do? It was released by the National Research Council. It was buried; they ordinarily have press conferences, they did nothing to announce this, they printed 500 copies, didn’t distribute them, Kaplan leaked the story to somebody in the media and so there was a flurry of news about it. This would have been right around 1980. One thing that came out of it for me was I met a whole lot more people, of course, pharmacologists and what not. There’s a paper I wrote with a number of other people, committee members, called “Informal Social Controls in Substance Abuse” in the Journal of Drug Issues, 1979, volume 9, and it was co-authored with Deborah Maloff, who was the staff person from the NRC. I created a scene by insisting she be listed as the senior author, since she’d done all the work. Ordinarily, staff people never got their names on things, I just raised hell, and so did the other author, and Debby became senior author.
NC: Did you have anything to do with the inception of NIDA and the federal organization of drug research?
HB: No. I sort of knew about it because I was hearing things from Andy Weil. He told me a great story about a meeting organized by the Ford Foundation around the time I met him in the early ‘70s. The Ford Foundation took cognizance of the potential danger of drug use, especially marijuana use, to the nation’s industrial plant because workers were coming in high. They were very sensitive to this particular issue and they brought together a group of about 15 people to discuss it, and Andy was one. And he said after about an hour it was obvious that half the scientists had smoked marijuana, understood that it was a trivial problem in this context, and the other half had never had any experience with it and thought they had an open mind, unsullied by facts. So Andy said, “Wait a minute, this is what I perceive is going on here, here’s what I’m prepared to do, those of you who have never had experience with marijuana, I will be glad to provide that experience to you this evening, and then tomorrow we can discuss it.” So, he said, three or four of them said no, they wouldn’t do that, but there were three or four others who did. And of course they all said, “That’s what they’re all talking about? That’s what all this big deal’s about? That’s ridiculous.” That’s kind of the atmosphere at that time. That actually is very symptomatic of the fact that there was a younger generation of scientists who knew perfectly well that it wasn’t harmful from, their own experience, and they were having to argue with people who essentially believed the mythology, who had no reason to doubt what they were told by people like Wikler and Co. There were people testifying, there were a bunch of oldtimers who were prepared to testify to Congress. I got denounced by some oldtimer out here in Berkeley who was a well-known antidrug guy. Somebody told me, you know, “Hey, you were denounced before a Senate Committee,” and I had to say no, I didn’t know about that. I didn’t have anything to do with the federal thing. There were stories a lot of people heard that, during the Carter administration, there was a drug doctor, a guy named Peter Bourne, [who] got busted for writing prescriptions for all sorts of stuff for White House staff. The rumor was that Carter was going to make a move to legalize marijuana, and just then Bourne got busted, and that was the end of that. Everybody was very pissed at Bourne for being so stupid.
NC: what about Jerry Jaffe--did you know him in Chicago?
NC: Different kinds of drug knowledges try to make sense of individual variations like that. Now there’s this turn to genetics as an explanation; there have been different registers to which we turn to make sense of something like that. Tell me, was the NRC committee the last of your experiences with the governmental apparatus? What about the 1962 White House conference. Can you tell me about that?
HB: The 1962 White House conference was a joke. I got this envelope in the mail with gold lettering, “The president of the United States invites you….” I thought, holy shit, hot stuff. So I went there and there were hundreds of people. It was entirely a PR thing, morning and afternoon for two days we sat there and speeches got made, Bobby Kennedy made a speech, Jack Kennedy made a speech, various other people made speeches, and then it was announced that we had all agreed on the following. There were no meetings or discussions. A ballroom filled with chairs with all these people sitting there being lectured, so there were no epistemic communities there. It was just PR. It was a lesson to me about what this was all about. Aside from that, I think in sociology there was practically nobody interested in this stuff because there was not much money. People did research on what they got paid to do research on. So I was studying medical students and college students because that was what we did that got research funding, and it was every bit as interesting to me as this stuff. There certainly was no money for marijuana research and to be perfectly honest I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do about that. I found out what I wanted to find out.
NC: So you really did see it as an endpoint?
HB: Yes, but it was not an endpoint in another sense because it did lead on to a much wider concern. It tied in with things like Stan Schachter’s research on why are you hungry? I began to see it in that light. There are these physiological things for sure, but the interesting thing for a social scientist is what becomes of them. Everybody knows you have to eat, you have to drink fluids, so there are these certain basic physiological things going on. But the interesting thing is how that gets shaped into particular kinds of desires that are built into social organization. That would be true of sex, be true of food, be true of love, of shelter. How come people keep their houses so much warmer back east than they do out on the west coast, for instance? That, to me, would have been the prolongation of the work.
NC: That has an interesting resonance with Vince Dole and his work on metabolism of appetite, when do you feel full?
HB: Yes, exactly, and with Schachter, [who was] another one I saw in the background of those two papers. If I had pursued that, that’s where I would have gone. Now somewhere in there is when I met Bruno [Latour]. I met Bruno just about the time that he published the first paper in English on Pasteur because he came out here to California. There was a guy who had a little research institute named Elihu Gerson. Elihu invited Bruno to come and talk and that’s where I met Bruno. I was busily trying to teach myself to read French so I could finish my art book so I read the Pasteur book before it was translated.
NC: What appealed to you about Latour’s work? How would you describe your resonance with Bruno’s work?
HB: Well, I thought he was doing the same thing with respect to science that I had tried to do with respect to art in the book Art Worlds. You know, that the scientific object, like the art object, is the creation of everybody who’s involved, who had anything to do with it, and that there’s this process like the process he described in Science in Action, where the fate of the result is in the hands of the people who pick it up. So to me it looked like we were doing the same thing. Bruno, being a French scholar and academician, would never cop to that. But he and I got to be good buddies. And I had known Antoine Hennion, who worked in that same center, years earlier because of Antoine working on music, and so I had seen his first book out on the recording industry in France. I had read his wonderful little book on how children learn about music. So that was kind of where I saw the connection, and I thought it was a very deep connection. There are some differences but essentially the same kind of stuff happening. Also I was very close to Anselm Strauss so that whole gang of people who studied with Anselm were all people I knew, I was on their dissertation committees, like Leigh Star, Joan Fujimura. . . .
NC: Did you know Dorothy Smith, have any interaction with her? Some of her talk about social organization is similar to the social worlds approach.
HB: Yes, absolutely. I had a student named Marjorie DeVault, who get her degree at Northwestern; it’s fair to say she was also Dorothy’s student. I think Dorothy came to teach at Northwestern once when I was on leave, so we didn’t actually overlap, and she had an enormous effect on Marj. It’s not that Dorothy’s stuff was contrary to mine, there was a lot of overlap. I guess my feeling was she was fighting with different people than I was, and I wasn’t sure who she was fighting with, and I didn’t want to fight those people because they weren’t important to me.
HB: Michael Agar was a member of the NRC committee. Marsha Rosenbaum and that whole gang, I knew out here, Sheigla Murphy and Dan Waldorf. We all overlap so much.
NC: Like you, Michael Agar depicts himself as having left the field, and recently wrote an interesting article about that. His reflections are similar in a way to yours.
HB: For a lot of people, drugs was not really what we wanted to do, but it was a good field to do what we wanted to do. So it worked for us. Mike got a lot of research money from them--he was part of the Distant Early Warning System for new drugs. I remember he wondered if he should be doing that, why am I telling these people these things?
NC: Let me follow up on that statement, “Drugs was not what we wanted to do.” Didn’t drugs enable or were important to the formation of symbolic interaction?
HB: You mean to the formation of that way of thinking? I don’t think so. The whole symbolic interaction thing, insofar as it’s a coherent point of view, which is a big insofar (it’s now turned into something that I don’t recognize or want to be part of), that was formulated in essence by Blumer in the ‘30s. I always understood it the way I described in the paper you saw, or in his paper on the sociological theories of George Herbert Mead, it was all there. And Lindy was a major case, a wonderful piece of research that embodied that point of view.
NC: What did drugs mean to him?
HB: He wandered into it, he was a criminologist who ran across a junkie, Broadway Jones, who invented himself, and he just thought it was interesting. Lindy was a kind of naïve farmboy for all his immersion in the quasi-underworld, in drugs, he was a kind of simple, straightforward guy. I think he got his back up when they pushed him. He just got irritated, you know, who are they to tell me what to say or do? Then he got interested in the policy aspect. I mean Lindy’s is the kind of career that I think is interesting, where you study just one thing your whole life and you know everything about it. He wrote a good book on drug policy, political science. . . . So I don’t think he had that great a personal interest in it. He says, I think in his book, that he took morphine once when he had surgery and he could see why people liked it.
NC: But it certainly enabled him to do certain things conceptually.
HB: Yes. It turned out to be… There are some topics that just really bring out certain issues in a very clear way. It seemed like drugs did that for him, the whole difference between habituation and addiction that’s so central, is the perfect way to model the symbolic interaction point of view about human experience.
NC: Perfect in what sense?
HB: Because there’s such a difference between the physical action and the psychological experience, the individual experience. The difference shows you what’s due to interaction with other people. Just like with marijuana, it’s just so blatant and obvious that people don’t know what to do until somebody helps them figure it out and the helping them consists of telling them what everybody knows, which is to say culture. So I think it was perfect in that way. Everett Hughes had, as one of his many little mantras, that every topic is a perfect place to study something, and when you start out to study something your job is to figure out what it’s the best place to study. Of course, that’s very different from having a hypothesis.
NC: So there was something about analytic induction and that way of going about things, an attitude that was important?
HB: Yes, it was a general, fieldwork-y thing, in the way that Latour going to the Salk Institute, says “Jesus, who are these people walking around in white coats? I’m going to start out knowing nothing.” It’s that attitude. So it’s much more general than symbolic interaction.
NC: Part of what I was trying to get at with the question in the first place was what was important conceptually about drugs and you then produced a perfect example of that.
HB: I did?
NC: Yep. You said that with drugs you almost have an assay, you have a way of showing what’s due to social interaction and what’s not.
HB: Right. Hughes’ line was you study something, you found something in the place where it was really obvious. Like my master’s thesis was on musicians. Everett [Hughes] had had students in his course on “The Sociology of Occupations, the Professsions” (which was the way that what is now called the sociology of work was conceptualized) who wanted to study the professions, doctors, lawyers. So I came along, this kid, and wandered into his orbit because, as an exercise for a class, I’d kept fieldnotes on this tavern I was working in playing piano. I was sent to Hughes and he read my fieldnotes and treated me like a little prince, “Come in, Mr. Becker,” but only after he’d read the fieldnotes. Before that he was snotty. The reason was, these people were talking very openly about how they hate and despise their clients, and his idea was, hey, if in a lowly field like this, people are free to say what they’re not free to say in medicine, in law, they can’t say, “I despise my patient,” but probably they do. Not that it proves that that’s the case, but it sure gives you a clue what to look for. Well, it’s the same thing. This is such an obvious case that it then points you to other things which will similarly be involved in social interpretation, collective action. It’s related in some way to everything I’ve done about art. Of course, like everybody else, I can see perfect coherence to everything I’ve done in my whole career, but that’s not obvious to anyone else. I see it--I see how one thing led to another.
NC: Perhaps the social worlds work knits it together.
HB: It’s funny. Anselm [Strauss] and I both used that expression, but I’m not sure I ever understood what he meant by it. I had that problem with a lot of things Anselm said, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.
NC: Do you mean that you and he meant something different?
HB: Anselm’s concepts, I often felt, were very vague. I couldn’t quite pin it down. All of the people who worked with Anselm had that problem because if you start out with that conception of a social world, it’s not exactly clear. Anselm’s genius, for all the conceptualizing that he did, I don’t think that’s what it was. I think you see what he was really fabulous at in those books where they reproduce the notes from his classes and you see how he’s taking apart someone’s fieldnotes, saying, “Look at this, look at that.” I always had trouble figuring out exactly what he was talking about when he talked about social worlds. I knew in general, you know those kinds of feelings you get. I meant something very specific, very pin-downable, which was that you started with x and you figured out all the people who had to do with it, seriously, and what their actions were, and that it did have a line around it, you stopped here. It was kind of a way of thinking about the connectedness of all this stuff, all the dependencies and so on.
NC: Certainly. Well, following drugs creates its own difficulties.
HB: Some of these stories I’ve been carrying around for years, like the story of Danny Freedman, and you were the one who got them.