In The Swim of Things: From Folk to Sensitizing Concepts

Miklos Rozsa conducts a scoring session at Universal Studios Soundstage 10 in the 1940s – source:

By Robert Faulkner

Professor emeritus, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Guest of honour

La Rochefoucauld remarked that one can know things well only when one knows them in detail. Yet detail is infinite. Hence our knowledge is fated to remain superficial and imperfect. 

But there is a way of turning back the superficial.  And that is by turning to folkways and mores. I argue that folk concepts turned into sensitizing concepts, while imperfect, may enhance realism and reality in social science research.  I use a case of Hollywood film musicians and their community to illustrate this. 

We met at Nickodell Restaurant around the corner from Paramount Pictures on Melrose Avenue.  It was the autumn of 1966 and I was just getting started with my interviews with musicians in Los Angeles. I was asking one of my first interviewees, a well-known woodwind player about his work: its satisfactions and its problems.  It was a late lunch after his three-hour movie recording session at Paramount.  I was trying to get a feel for the conditions of freelancing in high-stakes and high-tension recording in Hollywood. And this being the heyday of “alienation” as a topic in sociology, I was armed with four or five “structured questions” about “the alienation of the artist.” This was, I figured, standard protocol in interviewing respondents, at least how I was trained and now out in the field – which meant a booth at Nickodell with a tape to tape recording device running. I got about half way through these  Ph.D. infused and committee vetted type questions and he said “you’ve got to remember that we’re not artists around here, I’m not an artist, I’m like a plumber, we’re like plumbers, very good plumbers.”  He continued, “we come in [to a recording session] and there’s a three-inch-thick stack of music on our stands.  We run the cues down checking for any copying errors or mistakes and then we play it… then we go on to the next cue until we complete the music… no mistakes.  Perfect.  The red light goes on and we record.”  Then he paused and said, “you should talk to people who are in the swim of things.”

 Now this was significant. What were these “things” and who was “in the swim” of them?  I already loved Hollywood and its music, and knew something about its musicians, but I understood little about free-lance contracting – the old studio orchestras were still in place but becoming relics of a past age.  “In the swim” appeared to be a folkish way of depicting some kind of organization.  Maybe it was a hierarchical system of prominence.  Maybe it was even some kind of community ordering of prominence — I was trying to remember those studies of reputational ranking.  I didn’t ask what instrumentalists were at the top of (or if I saw it as a hierarchy) or at the center of (or if I saw it was a network).  All of that came much, much later.  I asked my respondent now turned informant the best question I ever asked in several decades of asking questions of instrumentalists and composers: “who’s in the swim of things?” And then, quickly, “Can you give me their names?”

When one looks for different things, one sees different things.

And there I was, or, better, there it was. Less than an hour into an interview I had a piece of paper with a list of the top instrumentalists in the studios, that is, the most prominent free-lance musicians as seen from the viewpoint of this respondent/informant.  Now, desert and coffee arrive at our booth at Nickodell and I was looking over the list of the “top” string players, brass players, woodwind players.  Six or seven violinists, five cellists; four clarinet players, a handful of oboists and flute players.  Then I kept writing down the list he was ticking off. There they were: the brass players.  There was Uan Rasey, first-call for MGM since 1949, on more soundtracks than I could recall.  There was Vince DeRosa, first-call for film and television and principal horn on all the Sinatra recordings, probably the most prominent and even famous French-Horn player in Hollywood.  Kurt Reher (cello), Louis Kaufmann (violin), and Luella Howard (flute) were high on the list as was Dick Nash, Henry Mancini’s favorite trombone player and stalwart on the early Peter Gunn breakthrough television series that brought both Mancini and producer/director Blake Edwards into show-business prominence.  Then there was clarinet virtuoso Mitchell Lurie who was first-call at RKO in the 1950s and whom I had heard with Stravinsky’s orchestra. I as wrote down the players by their instruments, up came the names of people I had talked to previously and came to know through friends of friends.  Manny Klein (trumpet), Dominick Fera (clarinet), George Roberts (bass trombone), Bill Ulyate (reeds), Bill Decker (French Horn), Larry Bunker (percussion), and Robert DiVall (trumpet).  I had studied with DiVall at UCLA. Both Kurt Reher and DiVall were principals in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  The list was long—and need not be extended here. 

What does need to be said is that this was an exciting moment.  It got even better when my lunch-mate suggested a few names that I should (again that word) talk to. He offered two names and said of them, “he’s got his finger on the pulse of how things go around here.”  By now I knew he meant by “around here” not The Nickodell but Hollywood.  But that was not quite accurate for over in a long booth by the door sat five French Horn players, three of them probably who had just worked the same film recording date at Paramount with my interview.  It was not only a small community, but a small community of instrumentalists within a community.  He looked over at them and told me who they were.  They were already on the list: one, two, three, and four ranked. 

I did my next set of interviews clutching this list and staying close to the names that were named.  As fate would have it, all the players I interviewed subsequently in the early going confirmed the existence of this rank ordering of first-call or prominent players and there was what we call in the trade (our trade) confirmed inter-rater reliability. In fact, all of the musicians seemed to take the task I put before them with enthusiasm.  Interviews often stretched from two to three hours, some four hours including, again, lunch.  I had some great meals at Musso and Frank’s up on Hollywood and fun watching big shots and names in the business vie for stools at the bar.  I was having too much fun.  Still this “project” as I began to call it, using film industry talk, was on track and uncovering how these players thought about their work, the composers they played for, the contractors they were hired by, and where others were on the reputational roster. 

 This was an exploration of occupational position using the reputational method often used to uncover community elites and power in medium sized cities.  It seemed to be working for me.  The results of this devise are found in Table A.1 (2013: 191) of the latest printing of Hollywood Studio Musicians.  That’s the roadmap.

 There was a danger in doing this: some players were in and others were not. Some were on the list and others were not.  I knew this.  And I knew I had to enlarge the circle (a Simmel-like idea) or move down the ladder on the hierarchy if I was to get a full picture of the occupation and its ecology of action. By interview number thirty I was well away from folkways, mores, and folk concepts such as “swim of things.”  I was quickly discovering a Mary Douglass-like “grid” or Floyd Hunter like “elite” and wanted to make sure I had a representative set of interviews with musicians.  I hesitate to call this a “sample” of a musical community, but my list and its sequential coverage was yielding the details that I wanted.  I was happy to call this a “snowball” sample – and crossed my fingers that the Ph.D. committee back in Westwood would agree.        

I was ready to wrap up the interviews at around number fifty. Transcribing an hour of taped interrogation takes about four hours at the typewriter. I transcribed immediately after to catch nuance and make notes to myself.  I farmed out a dozen. I did not feel good about that but interview fatigue was starting to set in and there were no surprises at about interview number sixty-five or so.  Seventy-five seemed like a convenient end.  For completeness I moved upward in the Hollywood world and called some film composers.  They were amazing and brought a whole new dimension to my little community study. Gerald Fried (Paths of Glory 1957) was particularly informative and helped me see the problems and exigencies from the creative (as opposed to performance) side of the “business.”  Other composers came later in another study of Hollywood. 

Folk concepts take shape from a starting point in the mundane features of work.  Sometimes those concepts put forward an argument (a concept of hierarchy is “20 percent of the players do 80 percent of the work”); sometimes they tap into resonant experiences (a concept of performance demands is “90 percent of the time it’s boredom and 10 percent of the time it’s terror”); sometimes each vignette is effortlessly moving (a concept of aging is “the wheel turns”); frequently concepts overlap, entwining combinations of antagonistic cooperation and fate control (a concept of market choice is “they have the power to hire or not hire you”). 

Part back-story, part clunky cliché, and part awkward analogizing, folk concepts often put forward a version of work, one might go farther and say an absolutist version of work reality.  It is inevitably I found heavy on the “ought’s” and the “should”. Oftentimes rigid and even unbending, folk concepts have a moralistic edge to them.  This edge can nudge the researcher toward more elaborate, or if you wish, more accepted (and fancy) sociological and anthropological ideas. Working toward sensitizing concepts often involves taking the edge off the moralism, sanding down the sanctimonious show of righteousness buried in an occupational (or organizational) culture. This is part of what we do when we speak of the “social character” of institutional practices. It is also what we often do when we evoke the high-level concept of “institution,” as in institutional action. 

What I began to inspect, discover, and explore – to use Blumer’s words – was the following: 

1. Echelon and prominence.  This was turning toward sensitizing concepts such as “grid” and unambiguous ranking;

2. Fate and professional standing.  This was a version of “client control” and how hiring practices shape work continuity;

3. “Career stages” and the rise, continuity, and fall of place in the Hollywood community; and

4. “Occupational perspective” and the pride free-lance musicians have in their skills.  Throughout there was the presence of the Chicago school and its old-fashioned notion (old-fashioned to me) of “the ecology” of competition and its aspiration to discover and disclose “how” in “how things work around here.”

 Revealing how those things work are, of course, what E. C. Hughes was after when he spoke of the “working constitution” of an institution, its “going concerns,” as well as the  “ecology” of competition and rivalry in collective action. And right in the back of and underlying the “how things work” is the encompassing notion of “how things should work.”  And again, the phrase I encountered among my closest informants was “the way things work around here.”  The most damning phrase to accuse someone in the Hollywood film industry is this: “She or he doesn’t understand how we do things around here.”  It is no surprise that The Chicago School of occupational sociology grounded many of its leading concepts in folkways, mores, and rules. 

We find these as the polemical edge in such concepts and different contexts as “the inmate social structure,” “the code of the street,” “moral career,” “crock,” and even “techniques of neutralization” – it’s a long list.   If you were to ask convicts, gang members, physicians in training, how things are supposed to work around here, you would discover mundane folk concepts at work.  You would have to know something, probably a great deal about, the people you are studying and talking to.  But I think the inspiration goes back to Simmel and Park, through Blumer, to our contemporaries.  In my opinion, and it is very personal, the central figure is E. C. Hughes and his determined fixation on the comparative of society as “a moral order.” The moral order of society is what we’re after as students of music and its musicians.

  Over 60 years ago, Herbert Blumer introduced the evocative idea of “sensitizing concept.”  “Sensitizing concepts” emerge when the observer discovers something worth problematizing, “addressing” the concept to the objects of investigation, producing precise and accurate evidence of chosen phenomena.  He suggests that “sensitizing concepts” (1954) may be “attached” to events in the empirical world, suggesting “exploration” and inspection” as the tools to deploy in the attachment process.  But he leaves the issue of where sensitizing concepts come from and how they become aligned with evidence and proof. 

I think that sensitizing concepts come from folk concepts.  The latter seem to be particularly alive and available in studies of communities, occupations, and secret societies.  Blumer habitually exhorted sociologists to relinquish their commitment to received concepts and theory testing.  Better to get out into the thick of things – into the swim of things. He distinguishes between agency of the idea – a concept’s ability to act on the sociologist – and agency over the concept – the sociologist’s ability to act upon the concept (see Latour 1987).  In this back and forth, Blumer prefers control over the concepts emerging from engagement.  However, the reader of Blumer is left adrift with vague ideas about a “careful and imaginative study of the stubborn world to which such concepts are addressed.” We need more detailed and precise direction, and concrete examples. Fieldwork beginning with mundane folk concepts is one way of laying out the direction and level of effort Blumer recommends.  Getting into “the swim of things” and discovering “a list” and a hierarchy of performers of course faces well known methodological problems: informant bias, faulty recollection, incomplete documentation, and inadequate inter-rate reliability.  Those are all known threats to internal validity.  However, when the researcher pays attention to folkways as revealed in folk concepts, and listens to informants, their utterances and what I call “keywords” facilitate the entwining of what is known grandly as “a world view” with more levelheaded ideas such as “occupational culture.” 

In Hollywood Studio Musicians it was first discovering, then disclosing and then closing in on the hierarchical and echelon structure of freelance contracting – an outcome of bureaucratic and craft administrative decisions. In particular in the middle stages around interview fifty-five the idea of “career contingencies” took root.  Career contingencies are features upon which career mobility (up the hiring ladder) and career continuity and prominence depend.  Craft and bureaucratic administration were dual (and higher level) concepts for getting a handle on and writing a proper sociological account of how the musicians and their work in Hollywood was accomplished and structured. 

This remains a musician-centric study, it’s about the instrumentalists and their work and career. It’s not about Fried’s Paths of Glory, David Raksin’s Laura (1944), Leonard Rosenman’s Fantastic Voyage (1966), Elmer Bernstein’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and the Sweet Smell of Success (1957).  Nor is it about Jerry Goldsmith’s Seven Days in May (1964), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Planet of The Apes (1968); nor the great Jerry Fielding’s The Wild Bunch (1969) – screen filming when I was re-writing for Howie Becker and Aldine.  It’s not about Alex North’s A Street Car Named Desire (1951) and scores as varied as Spartacus, The Rose Tattoo, Cleopatra, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Nor, to cap this aside off, is it about the Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn and Touch of Evil.  It is not about film and music. Maybe it should have been, but that’s for another story, perhaps best left for others with other professional skills.  I wanted to discover an occupational culture.  Maybe I should have titled the whole enterprise “gig culture.”  That would have been more in tune with the free-lance type administrative set up.  “Gig economy” of course has become the cliché of today.  We know little about it and virtually nothing about its folk concepts, mores, and overall community – or lack of community.  And maybe we, as students of musicians, are best equipped to handle the social research on temporary, short-term contracting, and its resultant “moral order.”  We were there first.     

I’ll conclude with a line from the great Max Steiner film, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948).  Walter Huston says to Humphrey Bogart, “….you don’t even see the riches you’re treadin’ on with your own feet.” 

Selected sources

Becker, Howard S. and Anselm L. Strauss.  1956.  “Careers, personality, and adult socialization.”  American Journal of Sociology.  62L 253-263.

Becker, Howard S. 1958.  “Problems of inference and proof in participant observation research.”  American Sociological Review. 23: 625-660.

Becker, Howard S., Blanche Geer, Everett C. Hughes and Anselm L. Strauss. 1961.  Boys in White.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Becker, Howard S. 1963.  “Careers in a deviant occupational group: the dance musician.”  Pp. 101-119.  In Outsiders.  New York: Free Press of Glencoe.  Pp. 101-119. 

Becker, Howard S. and Robert R. Faulkner. 2006. “Le repertoire de jazz.”  Pp. 243-248.  In J. Uzel editor.  Enonciation Artistique et Socialite.  Paris: L’Harmattan. 

Blauner, Robert. 1964.  Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Blumer, Herbert.  1954.  “What is wrong with social theory?”  American Sociological Review.  19: 146-158.

Faulkner, Robert R. 1971.  Hollywood Studio Musicians: Their Work and Careers in the Record Industry. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.  New Observations Series: Editor, Howard S. Becker.  [1985 New York: University Press of America; 2013 New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction, with a new preface by Howard S. Becker]. 

_______________.  2009.  “Improvising on Sensitizing Concepts.”  Pp. 79-91.  In Ethnographies Revisited: Constructing Theory in The Field.  Edited by Antony J. Puddephatt, William Shaffir, and Steven W. Kleinckecht.  London: Routledge.

Geertz, Clifford.  1973.  The Interpretation of Cultures.  New York: Basic Books.   

Glaser, Barney G. and Anselm L. Strauss.  1967.  The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research.  Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company. 

Goffman, Erving.  1959.  The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Hall, Oswald.  1948.  “The Stages of a medical career.”  American Journal of Sociology. 53: 327-336.

Hughes, Everett C.  1958. Men and Their Work.  New York: Free Press.

Hunter, Floyd.  1963.  Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers.  New York: Doubleday Anchor Books. 

Perrenoud, Marc.  2005.  (Jouer le jazz: où, comment?  Approche ethnographique et distinction des dispositifs de jeu.”  Pp. 25-42.  In Sociologie de L’art.  Nouvelle Série—Opus 8.  Les mondes du Jazz aujourd’hui.  Paris: L’Harmattan.

Schatzman, Leonard and Anselm Strauss.  1973.  Field Research: Strategies for a Natural Sociology.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

Stinchcombe, Arthur L. 1959.  “Bureaucratic and craft administration of production.”  Administrative Science Quarterly. 4: 168-187.

Strauss, Anselm. 1959.  Mirrors and Masks.  Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Nuné Nikoghosyan (January 15, 2019). In The Swim of Things: From Folk to Sensitizing Concepts. Working in Music. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from

You may also like...

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search