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Personal Change in Adult Life

Author(s): Howard S. Becker

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Sociometry, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Mar., 1964), pp. 40-53
Published by: American Sociological Association
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Personal Change in Adult Life *
HOWARDS. BECKER, StanfordUniversity

Personal changein adult life is an importantphenomenondeservingmore

research.In undertaking such research,we shouldbe aware that the kindof
changethattakesplace dependson whois categorizing and evaluatingit,and
bewareof the biases introducedby a too easy acceptanceof conventional
categories.Instead ofseekingexplanationsof changeand stabilityin elements
of personalityor in peoples' values,we should look to the effectsof social
structureon experience.The processof situationaladjustmentsuggestsan
explanationof change; the processof commitment suggestsan explanation
of stability.

Peopleoftenexhibitmarkedchange-intheirattitudes, beliefs,behavior
andstyleofinteraction-as theymovethrough youthand adulthood. Many
socialscientists,and othersinterested in explaining
humanbehavior, think
thathumanbeingsare governed by deep and relatively unchanging com-
ponents of thepersonality or self,so thatimportant changesat late stages
inthelifecycleareviewedas anomalies thatneedtobe explained away.They
maytracetherootsof behavior to personalitycomponents formed in early
childhood-needs, defenses, andthelike-andinterpret
identifications, change
in adulthood as simplya variation on an alreadyestablished theme.Or they
may,moresociologically, see the sourcesof everyday behaviorin values
established in the society,inculcated in the youngduringchildhood, and
maintained thereafterby constraints builtintomajorcommunal institutions.
Like thepersonality theorists,thosewhouse valuesas a majorexplanatory
variablesee changein adulthood as essentially a newexpression
of an unchanging underlying systemof values.In eithercase,thescientist
wishestoconcern himself withbasicprocesses thatwillexplainlastingtrends
inindividual behavior.
Boththeseapproaches errbytakingforgranted thattheonlywaywe can
arriveat generalized explanations of human behavior
is by findingsomeun-
changing components in the selfor personality.They err as wellin making
the priorassumption thathumanbeingsare essentially unchanging, that
changeswhichaffect onlysuch"superficial" phenomena as behaviorwith-
outaffecting deepercomponents ofthepersonaretrivialand unimportant.
* A slightlydifferent
versionof this paper was presentedat the Social Science Research
Council Conferenceon Socialization Through the Life Cycle, New York, May 17, 1963.
I wish to thank Orville G. Brim, Jr., Blanche Geer, and Anselm L. Strauss for their
commentson an earlierdraft.

Thereare good reasonsto denytheseassumptions.Brim,forinstance,has

persuasively arguedthatthereare no "deep" personality traits
of characterwhichpersistacrossany and all situationsand social roles.' In
any case, it is clearlya usefulstrategyto explorethe theoreticalpossibilities
openedup by considering what mightbe trueif we look in otherdirections
forgeneralizeable explanationsof humanbehavior.
A good manystudiesare now availablewhichsuggestthat an appropriate
area in whichfurther explanationsmightbe soughtis thatof social structure
and its patternedeffects on humanexperience.Two of theseseem of special
importance, and I devotemostof what I have to say to them.The process
of situationaladjustment,in whichindividualstake on the characteristics
requiredby the situationstheyparticipatein, providesan enteringwedge
intotheproblemof change.It showsus one exampleof an explanationwhich
can deal withsuperficial and immediatechangesin behaviorand at the same
timeallow us to makegeneralizedtheoriesabout theprocessesinvolved.The
processof commitment, in whichexternallyunrelatedinterestsof theperson
becomelinkedin such a way as to constrainfuturebehavior,suggestsan
approachto the problemof personalstabilityin the face of changingsitua-
tions.Beforedealingwiththeseprocesses,however,I will considera problem
of definition whichrevealsa further influenceof social structure,this time
an influence on the very termsin which problems of are
socialization cast.


Many of the changesallegedto take place in adults do not take place at

all. Or, rather,a change occurs but an optical illusioncauses the outside
observerto see it as a changequite differentin kind and magnitudefrom
what it reallyis. The observer(a layman or a social scientistlookingat
the phenomenon froma layman'spointof view), througha semantictrans-
formation, turnsan observablechangeinto somethingquite different.
Take, forexample,thecommonly assertedproposition thattheprofessional
educationof physiciansstiflestheirnativeidealismand turnsit into a pro-
foundprofessionalcynicism.2Educated laymenbelieve this, and scientific

1 Orville G. Brim, Jr.,"Personalityas Role-Learning,"in Ira Iscoe and Harold Steven-

son, editors,Personality Development in Children,Austin: Universityof Texas Press,
1960,pp. 127-59.
2 This problem is discussed at greaterlengthin Howard S. Becker and Blanche Geer,

"The Fate of Idealism in Medical School," AmericanSociological Review, 23 (Feb., 1958),

pp. 50-56, and in Howard S. Becker, Blanche Geer, Everett C. Hughes, and Anselm L.
Strauss, Boys in White: Student Culture in Medical School, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1961,pp. 419-33.

studieshave beencarriedout to testthepropositionsObservedchangesin the

behaviorof fledgling physiciansattestto its truth.Doctorsare in factinclined
to speak withlittlereverenceof the humanbody; theyappear to be and
probablyare to a large extentunmovedin the emotionalway a layman
would be by humandeath; theirstandardsare not as high as the layman
thinkstheyoughtto be, theirdesireforwealthstronger thanit oughtto be.
People describethesechangeswithreference to an unanalyzedconception
of idealismand cynicism.It wouldnotbe unfairto describetheconceptionas
theperspectiveof a disgruntled patient,who feelsthat the doctorhe has to
deal withis thinking about otherthingsthanthe patient'swelfare.The per-
spectiveof thedisgruntled patientitselfdrawson someverygenerallay con-
ceptions which suggest that those who deal with the unpleasantand the
unclean-in thiscase, with death and disease-must of necessitybe cynical,
since"normalpeople"preferwhatis pleasantand clean and findthe unclean
It is typicallythe case in serviceoccupations,however,that the practi-
tionerswho performthe servicehave a perspectivequite different fromthe
clients,patientsor customersforwhomtheyperformit.4 They understand
thetechniquesused by professionals, thereasonsfortheiruse in one case and
not in another, the contingenciesof the worksituationand of workcareers
whichaffecta man's judgment and behavior, and the occupationalethosand
culturewhichguidehim.The clientunderstands nothingof this.In an effort
to make senseof his experiencewiththosewho servehim,he may resortto
the folknotionsI have alreadymentioned, reasoningthat people who con-
stantlydeal withwhat decentpeople avoid may be contaminated:some of
the dirtrubs off.The clientis neversure that the practitioner has his best
interests at heartand tendsto suspecttheworst.
But whyshouldwe assess and evaluatethe changethattakes place in the
doctoras he goes throughprofessional school fromthe pointof view of his
patient?Supposewe look at it insteadfromthe characteristic perspectiveof
the medical profession.If we do this, we find (as we would find if we
studiedthe views of almost any occupationtowardthe institutions which
trainpeople forentrance into them) that medical schools are typicallyre-
gardedas too idealistic.They trainstudentsto practice in ways that are not

8 See Leonard D. Eron, "Effectof Medical Education on Medical Students," Journal

of Medical Education, 10 (Oct., 1955), pp. 559-66; and Richard Christieand Robert K.
Merton,"Proceduresfor the Sociological Study of the Values Climate of Medical Schools,"
ibid.,33 (1958), Part II, pp. 125-53.
4 See, for a discussionof this point,Howard S. Becker,Outsiders: Studies in the Sociol-
ogy of Deviance, New York: The Free Press, 1963, pp. 82 ff.; and Everett C. Hughes,
Men and theirWork,New York: The Free Press, 1958, passim.

"practical,"suitedto an ideal worldbut not to the worldwe live in. They

teach studentsto ordermore laboratorytests than patientswill pay for,
to ignorethe patient'srequestsfor "new" drugsor "popular" treatments,0
but do not teach studentswhat to do when the waitingroomholds more
patientsthan can be seen duringone's officehours.Similarly,people often
complainof schools of educationthat they train prospectiveteachersin
techniquesthatare notadaptedto thesituationtheteacherwill reallyhave to
deal with; theyidealisticallyassume that the teachercan accomplishends
whichin fact cannotbe gainedin the situationsshe will face. They do not
fifthgrader,nor do theytell
tell the teacherhow to teacha fifteen-year-old
herwhatto do whenshe discoversa pupil carryinga switchbladeknife.
It is a paradox.In one view,professionaltrainingmakes physiciansless
idealistic,in the other,more idealistic.Where does the truthlie? I have
alreadynotedthatmanyof the changesseen as signsof increasingcynicism
in theyoungphysiciando in facttake place. It can equallybe demonstrated
that the changeswhichmake him seem too idealisticalso take place. The
medicalstudentswe studiedat theUniversity of Kansas expected,whenthey
graduated,to practicein ways thatwouldbe regardedas hopelesslyidealistic
by many,if not most,medicalpractitioners. They proposedto see no more
than20 patientsa day; theyproposedneverto treata diseasewithouthaving
firstmade a firmdiagnosis.These beliefs,inculcatedby a demanding
faculty,are just the oppositeof the cynicismsupposed to afflictthe new
The lessonwe shouldlearnfromthisis thatpersonality changesare often
presentonly in the eye of the beholder.Changesdo take place in people,
but the uninformed outsiderinterprets the changewrongly.Justas doctors
acquirenewperspectives and ideas as a resultof theirmedicaltraining,any
adult may acquirenewperspectives and ideas. But it wouldbe a mistaketo
assume that thesechangesrepresentthe kind of fundamental changessug-
gestedby such polar termsas "idealism"and "cynicism."We learn less by
studyingthestudentswho are allegedto have lost theiridealismthanwe do
by studyingthosewho claim theyhave becomecynical.
Even so, adultsdo change.But we mustmake sure,not onlyby our own
observationbut also by carefulanalysis of the termswe use to describe
what we see, that the changeswe try to explain do in fact take place.
an interesting
Parenthetically, possibilityof transferringconceptsfromthe
studyof adults to the studyof socializationof childrenlies in definingthe
characterof the changes that take place as childrendevelop. Is it too

5 See Eliot Freidson, Patients' Views of Medical Practice, New York: Russell Sage
Foundation, 1961, pp. 200-202.
6 Becker, et al., Boys in White,op. cit.,pp. 426-8.

farfetchedto say thatthedefinitionsordinarilyused are excessively

in thattheyare all arrivedat fromthe adult pointof view?What wouldour
theorieslook like if we made a greatereffortto capturethe child'spointof
view? What does he thinkis happeningto him? How does his conception
of theprocessdiffer fromthatof theadultswho bringhimup and thosewho
studyhisgrowing up?


One of the most commonmechanismsin the developmentof the person

in adulthoodis the processof situationaladjustment.This is a verygross
conception, whichrequiresanalyticelaborationit has not yet received.But
themajoroutlinesare clear.The person,as he movesin and out of a variety
of social situations,learnsthe requirements of continuingin each situation
and of successin it. If he has a strongdesireto continue,the abilityto assess
accuratelywhat is required,and can deliverthe requiredperformance, the
individualturnshimselfintothe kindof personthe situationdemands.
Broadlyconsidered,this is much the same as Brim's notionof learning
adult roles.One learnsto be a doctoror a policeman,learnsthe definitions
of the statusesinvolvedand the appropriatebehaviorwithrespectto them.
But the notionof situationaladjustmentis moreflexiblethan that of adult
rolelearning.It allowsus to deal withsmallerunitsand makea fineranalysis.
We construct theprocessof learningan adult roleby analyzingsequencesof
smallerand morenumeroussituationaladjustments. We shouldhave in our
mindsthe pictureof a persontryingto meetthe expectations he encounters
in immediateface-to-face situations:doingwell in today's chemistry class,
managingto be poised and matureon tonight'sdate, surmounting the small
crisesof the moment.Sequencesand combinations of small unitsof adjust-
mentproducethelargerunitsof rolelearning.
If we view situationaladjustmentas a majorprocessof personaldevelop-
ment,we mustlook to the characterof the situationforthe explanationof
whypeople changeas theydo. We ask what thereis in the situationthat
requiresthe personto act in a certainway or to hold certainbeliefs.We do
not ask what thereis in him that requiresthe actionor belief.All we need
to knowof thepersonis thatforsomereasonor anotherhe desiresto continue
his participationin thesituationor to do well in it. Fromthiswe can deduce
that he will do what he can to do what is necessaryin that situation.Our
further analysismustadjust itselfto the characterof the situation.
Thus, for example,in our presentstudy of college undergraduates,we

7 Statements about collegestudentsare based on preliminary

analysisof the data
in a studyofundergraduates
collected ofKansas,in whichI collaborated
at theUniversity

findthat theytypicallyshare a strongdesire to get high grades.Students

workveryhard to get gradesand considerthemveryimportant, both for
theirimmediateconsequencesand as indicatorsof theirown personalability
and worth.We need not look verydeeplyinto the studentto see the reason
for his emphasison grades. The social structureof the campus coerces
studentsto believethatgradesare importantbecause,in fact,theyare im-
portant.You cannotjoin a fraternity or sororityif yourgradesdo not meet
a certainminimum standard.You cannotcompeteforhighoffice in important
campusorganizations if yourgradesare not highenough.As many as one-
fourthof the studentsmay not be able to remainin school if theydo not
raise theirgradesin the nextsemester.For thosewho are failing,low grades
do notsimplymeanblockedaccess to thehighestcampushonors.Low grades,
for these unfortunates, mean that everyavailable momentmust be spent
studying,that the timethe averagestudentspendsdating,playing,drinking
beeror generallygoofingoffmustbe givenoverto the constanteffort to stay
in school.Gradesare thecurrency withwhichthe economyof campussocial
life operates.Only the well-to-docan affordthe luxuries; the poor work
as hard as theycan to eke out a marginalexistence.
The perspectives a personacquiresas a resultof situationaladjustments
are no morestable than the situationitselfor his participation in it. Situa-
tions occur in institutions:stable institutionsprovidestable situationsin
whichlittle change takes place. When the institutions themselveschange,
the situationstheyprovidefortheirparticipantsshiftand necessitatedevel-
opmentof new patternsof belief and action. When, for instance,a uni-
versitydecidesto up-gradeits academicprogramand beginsto requiremore
and different kindsof workfromits students,theymustadjust to the new
contingencies withwhichthe changeconfronts them.
Similarly,if an individual moves in and out of given situations,is a
transientratherthana long-term participant, his perspectives
will shiftwith
his movement. Wheelerhas shownthat prisonersbecomemore"prisonized"
thelongertheyare in prison; theyare morelikelyto make decisionson the
basis of criminalthan of law-abidingvalues. But he has also shown that
if you analyzeprisoners'responsesby timestill to be served,theybecome
morelaw-abidingthenearertheyapproachrelease.8This may be interpreted
as a situationalshift.The prisoneris frequentlysorrythathe has been caught
and is in a mood to give up crime;he tendsto respectlaw-abidingvalues.
But when he entersprison he enters an institutionwhich,in its lower

with Blanche Geer and Everett C. Hughes. A monograph reportingour findingsis in

preparation.The study was supportedby the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
8 Stanton Wheeler,"Socialization in CorrectionalCommunities,"American Sociological
Review, 26 (Oct., 1961), pp. 697-712.

reaches,is dominatedby men weddedto criminalvalues. Studiesof prisons

have shownthat the mostinfluential prisonerstend to have stable criminal
orientationsand that inmatesocietyis dominatedby these perspectives.9
In orderto "make out" in theprison,thenew inmatediscoversthathe must
make his peace with this criminallyorientedsocial structure, and he does.
As he approachesrelease,however,he realizesthat he is goingback into a
worlddominatedby peoplewho respectthelaw and thatthe criminalvalues
whichstand him in such good stead in prisonsocietywill not workas well
outside.He thereuponbeginsto shed the criminalvalues appropriateto the
prisonand renewhis attachmentto the law-abidingvalues of the outside
We discoveredthesameprocessin themedicalschool,wherestudentsgave
up a naive idealisticapproachto the problemsof medicineforan approach
that was specificallyorientedtowardgettingthroughschool. As they ap-
proachedthe end of theirschooling,theyrelinquishedtheirattachmentto
these school-specificvalues and once more returnedto theirconcernwith
problemsthat would arise in the outerworld,albeit with a new and more
professionalapproachthantheywouldhave been capable of before.
We finda similarchange in collegestudents,when we observethemin
the Springof theirlast collegeyear. They look back over the fouryears of
school and wonderwhy they have not spent theirtime better,wonderif
collegehas beenwhattheywanted.This concernreflects theirpreoccupation,
whilein school,withthepursuitof values thatare valuableprimarily within
the confinesof the collegiatecommunity:grades,officein campusorganiza-
tions,and the like. (Even thoughtheyjustifytheirpursuitof theseends in
part on the basis of theirutilityin the outsideworld,studentsare not sure
that the pursuitof otherends,less valued on the campus,mightnot have
evenmoreusefulnessforthefuture.)Now thattheyare leavingfortheadult
community, in whichotherthingswillbe valuable,theyfindit hardto under-
stand theirpast concernsas theytry,retrospectively,to assess theexperience
theyhave just been through.
Situationaladjustmentis veryfrequently not an individualprocessat all,
but a collectiveone. That is, we are not confrontedwithone personunder-
goingchange,but withan entirecohort,a "class" of people,who enterthe
institutionand go throughits socializingprogramtogether.This is most
clearlythe case in thoseinstitutions whichtypicallydeal with"batches" of

9 See Donald R. Cressey,

editor,The Prison:Studiesin Institutional
Change, New York: Holt, Rinehartand Winston,1961; and Richard A. Cloward, et al.,
of thePrison,New York: Social ScienceRe-
Studiesin Social Organization
search Council,1960.

people.'0Schoolsare perhapsthe best example,takingin a class of students

each year or semesterwho typicallygo throughthe entiretrainingprogram
as a unit,leavingtogetherat the end of theirtraining.
But situationaladjustmentmay have a collectivecharactereven where
people are not processedin groups.The individualentersthe institution
alone, or with a small group,but joins a largergroup therealready,who
stand ready to tell him how it is and what he should do, and he will be
followedby othersforwhomhe willperform the same good turn.'1In insti-
tutionswherepeople are acted upon in groupsby socializingagents,much
of the change that takes place-the motivationfor it and the perceived
desirabilityof differentmodes of change-cannot be tracedto the predilec-
tionsof the individual.It is, instead,a functionof the interpretive
made by the entiregroup,the consensusthe groupreacheswithrespectto
The guidelinesforour analysiscan be foundin Sumner'sanalysisof the
development of folkways.'2A groupfindsitselfsharinga commonsituation
and commonproblems.Variousmembersof the groupexperiment withpos-
siblesolutionsto thoseproblemsand reporttheirexperiences to theirfellows.
In the courseof theircollectivediscussion,the membersof the grouparrive
at a definition of the situation,its problemsand possibilities,and develop
consensusas to the most appropriateand efficient ways of behaving.This
consensusthenceforth constrainsthe activitiesof individualmembersof the
group,who will probablyact on it, giventhe opportunity.
The collectivecharacterof socializationprocesseshas a profoundeffecton
theirconsequences.Because the solutionsthe group reacheshave, for the
individualbeing socialized,the characterof "what everyoneknows to be
true,"he tendsto accept them.Random variationin responsesthat might
arise fromdifferences in prior experiencesis drasticallyreduced.Medical
students,forinstance,began theirtrainingwitha varietyof perspectives on
how one oughtto approachacademic assignments. The pressuregenerated
by theirinabilityto handle the tremendous amountof workgiventhemin

10 See Erving Goffman'suse of this idea in Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation
of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc.,
1961,pp. 6 and passim.
11See Anselm L. Strauss, Mirrors and Masks: The Search for Identity,New York:
The Free Press, 1959; and Howard S. Becker and Anselm L. Strauss, "Careers, Person-
ality and Adult Socialization," American Journal of Sociology, 62 (Nov., 1956), pp.
12 William Graham Sumner, Folkways, Boston: Ginn and Co., 1907. See also Albert

K. Cohen, Delinquent Boys: The Culture of a Gang, New York: The Free Press, 1955;
and Richard A. Cloward and Lloyd E. Ohlin, Delinquency and Opportunity:A Theory
of Delinquent Gangs, New York: The Free Press, 1960.

the firstyear anatomycourseforcedthemto adopt collectivelyone of the

manypossiblesolutionsto the problem,that of orientingtheirstudyingto
learningwhat the facultywas likelyto ask about on examinations.(Where
the situationdoes not coercea completelycollectiveresponse,variationdue
to differencesin backgroundand experienceremains.Irwin and Cressey13
arguethatthe behaviorof prisoners, bothin prisonand afterrelease,varies
dependingon whetherthe convictwas previouslya memberof the criminal
In addition,where the responseto problematicsituationsis collective,
membersof the groupinvolveddevelopgrouployaltiesthat becomepart of
theenvironment theymustadjust to. Industrialworkersare taughtby their
colleaguesto restrictproductionin orderthatan entireworkgroupmay not
be held to the higherproductionstandardone or two people mightbe able
to manage.'4 Medical students,similarly,findthat theywill only make it
harderforothers,and eventuallyforthemselves, if theyworktoo hard and
One majorconsequenceofthecollectivecharacterofsituationaladjustment,
a resultof the factorsjust mentioned, is that the groupbeing socializedis
able to deviatemuchmorefromthe standardsset by thosedoingthe social-
izing than would be possibleforan individual.Wherean individualmight
feel that his deviantresponsewas idiosyncratic, and thus be open to per-
suasion to changeit, the memberof a group knows that thereare many
who thinkand act just as he does and is thereforemoreresistantto pressure
and propaganda.A personbeingsocializedalone,likewise,is freerto change
his waysthanone who is constrained by his loyaltiesto fellowtrainees.
If we use situationaladjustmentas an explanationforchangesin persons
duringadulthood,the most interesting cases for analysisare the negative
cases, those instancesin whichpeople do not adjust appropriatelyto the
normsimplicitor explicitin the situation.For not everyoneadjusts to the
kindof majorsituationalforcesI have been discussing.Some prisoninmates
nevertake on criminalvalues; some collegestudentsfail to adopt campus
values and thereforedo not put forththeirfull effortin the pursuitof
grades.In largepart,cases in whichit appearsthatpeople are not adjusting
to situationalpressuresare cases in whichcloser analysis reveals that the

13 John Irwin and Donald R. Cressey, "Thieves, Convicts and the Inmate Culture,"

Social Problems, 10 (Fall, 1962), pp. 142-55. See also Howard S. Becker and Blanche
Geer, "Latent Culture: A Note on the Theory of Latent Social Roles," Administrative
Science Quarterly,5 (Sept., 1960), pp. 304-13.
14Donald Roy, "Quota Restrictionand Goldbrickingin a Machine Shop," American
Journal of Sociology, 57 (Mar., 1952), pp. 427-42.
15 Becker,et al., Boys in White,pp. 297-312.

situationis actuallynot the same for everyoneinvolvedin the institution.

A job in the librarymay effectively removethe prisonerfromthe control
of morecriminallyorientedprisoners;his situationdoes not constrainhim
to adopt criminalvalues.The politicalrewardsoweda student'slivinggroup
may requirea campus organizationto give him an officehis grade point
averagewould otherwisemake it difficult for him to attain.
More generally,it is oftenthe case that subgroupsin an institution will
oftenhave somewhatdifferent lifesituations.College,forinstance,is clearly
one thingformen,anotherforwomen;one thingformembersof fraternities
and sororities, anotherforindependents. We only rarelyfindan institution
as monolithic as the medicalschool,in whichthe environment is, especially
duringthe firsttwoyears,exactlyalike foreveryone.So we mustmake sure
that we have discoveredthe effective environment of those whose personal
development we want to understand.
Even afterremovingthe variationin personalchangedue to variationin
thesituation, we willfinda fewcases in whichpeoplesturdilyresistsituational
pressures.Here we can expectto finda corresponding weaknessin the desire
to remainin the situationor to do well in it, or a determinationto remain
in thesituationonlyon one's termsor as longas one can get whatone wants
out of it. Many institutionshave enoughleewaybuiltinto themfora clever
and determined operatorto survivewithoutmuch adjustment.


The processof situationaladjustmentallowsus to accountforthe changes

people undergoas theymove throughvarioussituationsin theiradult life.
But we also knowthat people exhibitsome consistencyas theymove from
situationto situation.Their behavioris not infinitely
mutable,theyare not
flexible.How can we accountforthe consistency
infinitely we observe?
Social scientistshave increasinglyturnedto the conceptof commitment
for an explanationof personalconsistencyin situationswhich offercon-
flictingdirectives.The termhas been used to describea great varietyof
social-psychologicalmechanisms, sucha varietythatit has no stablemeaning.
Nevertheless,I thinkwe can isolate at least one processreferred to by the
termcommitment, a processwhichwill help explain a great deal of be-
Briefly,we say a personis committedwhenwe observehim pursuinga
consistentline of activityin a sequence of varied situations.Consistent
activitypersistsover time.Further,even thoughthe actor may engage in

16 Howard S. Becker, "Notes on the Concept of Commitment,"American Journal of

Sociology,66 (July,1960), pp. 32-40.

a varietyof disparateacts, he sees themas essentiallyconsistent;fromhis

point of view theyserve him in pursuitof the same goal. Finally,it is a
distinguishingmarkof commitment that the actorrejectsothersituationally
feasiblealternatives,choosingfromamong the available coursesof action
thatwhichbest suitshis purpose.In so doing,he oftenignoresthe principle
of situationaladjustment, pursuinghis consistentline of activityin the face
of a short-term loss.
The processof commitment consistsin thelinkingof previouslyextraneous
and irrelevant linesof actionand setsof rewardsto a particularline of action
understudy.If, forinstance,a personrefusesto changejobs, even though
the new job would offerhim a highersalaryand betterworkingconditions,
we should suspectthat his decisionis a resultof commitment, that other
sets of rewardsthan incomeand workingconditionshave becomeattached
to his presentjob so thatit wouldbe too painfulforhimto change.He may
have a largepensionat stake,whichhe will lose if he moves; he may dread
the cost of makingnew friendsand learningto get along withnew working
associates; he may feel that he will get a reputationforbeing flighty and
erraticif he leaves his presentjob. In each instance,formerly extraneous
interestshave becomelinked to keepinghis presentjob. I have elsewhere
describedthisprocessmetaphorically as the makingof side-bets.
The committed personhas actedin sucha way as to involveotherinterests
extraneousto theactionhe is engagedin, directlyin that
of his,originally
action. By his own actions . . . he has staked somethingof value to him,
something originallyunrelatedto his presentline of action,on beingcon-
sistentin his presentbehavior.The consequencesof inconsistency will
be so expensive that inconsistency . . . is no longer a feasible alternative.'7

A person may make side-betsproducingcommitments consciouslyand

deliberatelyor he mayacquirethemor have themmade forhimalmostwith-
out his knowledge, becomingaware thathe is committed onlywhenhe faces
a difficultdecision.Side-betsand commitments of the lattertype,made by
default,arise fromthe operationof generalizedculturalexpectations,from
the operationof impersonalbureaucraticarrangements, fromthe processof
individualadjustmentto social positions,and throughthe need to save face.
One way of lookingat the processof becomingan adult is to view it as
a processof graduallyacquiring,throughthe operationof all thesemechan-
isms,a varietyof commitments whichconstrainone to followa consistent
patternof behaviorin manyareas of life. Choosingan occupation,getting
a job, startinga family-all thesemay be seen as eventswhichproducelast-

IT ibid., p. 35.

ing commitments and constrainthe person'sbehavior.Carefulstudymight

showthattheoperationof the processof commitment accountsforthe well-
knownfact that juvenile delinquentsseldom become adult criminals,but
ratherturninto respectable,conventional, law-abidinglower-classcitizens.
It may be thatthe erraticbehaviorof the juveniledelinquentis erraticpre-
cisely because the boy has not yet taken any actions which commithim
moreor less permanently to a givenline of endeavor.
Viewingcommitment as a set of side-betsencouragesus to inquireinto
thekindof currency withwhichbetsare made in thesituationunderanalysis.
What thingsare valuableenoughto make side-betsthatmatterwith?What
kindsof countersare used in the game underanalysis?Verylittleresearch
has been done on this problem,but I suspect that erraticbehaviorand
"random"changein adult life resultfromsituationswhichdo not permit
peopleto becomecommitted becausetheydenyto themthemeans,thechips,
withwhichto make side-betsof any importance.
Membersof medical facultiescomplain,for instance,that students'be-
haviortowardpatientsis erratic.They do not exhibitthe continuedinterest
in or devotionto the patient'swelfaresupposed to characterizethe prac-
ticingphysician.Theyleave thehospitalat fiveo'clock,eventhougha patient
assignedto themis in criticalcondition.Their interestin a surgicalpatient
disappearswhenthe academicschedulesends themto a medicalward and
a new set of studentduties.The reason for students'lack of interestand
devotionbecomes clear when we considertheir frequentcomplaintthat
they are not allowed to exercisemedical responsibility, to make crucial
decisionsor carryout important procedures.Their behaviortowardpatients
can be less constrainedthanthat of a practicingphysicianpreciselybecause
theyare neverallowedto be in a positionwheretheycan make a mistake
that matters.No patient'slife or welfaredependson them; theyneed not
persistin any particularpatternof activitysince deviationcosts nothing.'8
The conditionof being unable to make importantside-betsand thus
commitoneselfmay be morewidespreadthanwe think.Indeed,it may well
be thatthe age at whichit becomespossibleto make lastingand important
side-betsis graduallyinchingup. People cannot become committedto a
consistentlineof activityuntillaterin life.As divorcebecomesmorefrequent,
forinstance,the abilityto make a lastingcommitment by gettingmarried
becomesincreasingly rare. In studyingthe possibilitiesof commitment af-
fordedby social structures, we discoversome of the limits to consistent
behaviorin adultlife.
(It mightbe usefulto apply similarconceptsin studiesof childsocializa-

18 Becker,et al., Boys in White,op. cit.,pp. 254-73.


tion.It is likely,forinstance,that childrencan seldomcommitthemselves.

Our society,particularly, does not give themthe meanswithwhichto make
substantialside-bets,nor does it thinkit appropriatefor childrento make
committing side-bets.We viewchildhoodand youthas a timewhena person
can make mistakesthatdo not count.Therefore, we wouldexpectchildren's
behaviorto be flexibleand changeable,as in factit seemsto be.)
Situationaladjustmentand commitment are closely related,but by no
means identical,processes. Situationaladjustmentproduces change; the
person shiftshis behaviorwith each shiftin the situation.Commitment
producesstability;the personsubordinatesimmediatesituationalinterests
to goals thatlie outsidethesituation.But a stablesituationcan evokea well-
adjusted patternof behaviorwhichitselfbecomesvaluable to the person,
one of the countersthathas meaningin the game he is playing.He can be-
comecommitted to preserving theadjustment.
We find another such complementary relationship betweenthe two when
we consider the length of time one is conventionally expectedto spend in
a situation, either by oneself or by others, and the degreeto whichthepresent
situation is seen as having definite connections to importantsituationsantici-
patedat somelaterstageof development. If one sees thathis presentsituation
is temporary and that later situationswill demandsomethingdifferent, the
processof adjustmentwillpromotechange.If one thinksof thepresentsitua-
tion as likelyto go on fora long time,he may resistwhat appear to him
temporarysituationalchangesbecause the strengthof the adjustmenthas
committed himto maintaining it. This relationship requiresa fulleranalysis
than I have given it here.


The processeswe have consideredindicatethat social structurecreates

the conditionsfor both change and stabilityin adult life. The structural
characteristicsof institutionsand organizationsprovide the framework of
the situationsin whichexperiencedictates the of
expediency change.Sim-
ilarly,theyprovidethe counterswithwhichside-betscan be made and the
links betweenlines of activityout of whichcommitment grows.Together,
theyenable us to arriveat generalexplanationsof personaldevelopment in
adult life withoutrequiringus to posit unvaryingcharacteristics of the
person,eitherelementsof personalityor of "value structure."
A structuralexplanationof personalchangehas important for
attemptsto deliberately moldhumanbehavior.In particular,it suggeststhat
we need not try to develop deep and lastinginterests,be they values or
personalitytraits,in orderto producethe behaviorwe want. It is enough
to create situationswhich will coerce people into behavingas we want

themto and then to create the conditionsunderwhichotherrewardswill

become linked to continuingthis behavior.A final medical example will
make the point.We can agree,perhaps,that surgeonsoughtnot to operate
unlessthereis a real need to do so; the problemof "unnecessarysurgery"
has receiveda greatdeal of attentionboth withinand outsidethe medical
profession.We mightachieve our end by inculcatingthis rule as a basic
value duringmedicaltraining;or we mightuse personalityteststo selectas
surgeonsonly thosemenwhoseown needswould lead themto exercisecau-
tion.In fact,thisproblemis approachingsolutionthrougha structural inno-
vation: the hospitaltissuecommittee,whichexaminesall tissueremovedat
surgeryand disciplinesthose surgeonswho too frequently removehealthy
tissue. Surgeons,whatevertheirvalues or personalities,soon learn to be
carefulwhenfacedwiththe alternativeof exposureor discipline.