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Notes on the Concept of Commitment

Author(s): Howard S. Becker


Source: The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Jul., 1960), pp. 32-40
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2773219
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NOTES ON THE CONCEPT OF COMMITMENT'
HOWARD S. BECKER

ABSTRACT
The concept of commitment is widely used but has received little formal analysis. It contains an
implicit explanation of one mechanism producing consistent human behavior. Commitments come into
being when a person, by making a side bet, links extraneous interests with a consistent line of activity.
Side bets are often a consequence of the person's participation in social organizations. To understand
commitments fully, an analysis of the system of value within which side bets are made is necessary.
The term "commitment" enjoys an in- has been little formal analysis of the con-
creasing vogue in sociological discussion. cept of commitment and little attempt to
Sociologists use it in analyses of both indi- integrate it explicitly with current sociologi-
vidual and organizational behavior. They cal theory. Instead, it has been treated as a
use it as a descriptive concept to mark out primitive concept, introduced where the
forms of action characteristic of particular need is felt without explanation or examina-
kinds of people or groups. They use it as tion of its character or credentials. As is
an independent variable to account for cer- often the case with unanalyzed concepts
tain kinds of behavior of individuals and used in an ad hoc fashion, the term has been
groups. They use it in analyses of a wide made to cover a wide range of common-sense
variety of phenomena: power, religion, oc- meanings, with predictable ambiguities.
cupational recruitment,bureaucraticbehav- In what follows, I consider the uses to
ior, political behavior, and so on.2 which the concept of commitmenthas been
In spite of its widespreaduse, the appear- put and the possible reasons for its increas-
ance of the concept of commitmentin socio- ing popularity, indicate the nature of one of
logical literature has a curious feature the the social mechanismsto which the term im-
reader with an eye for trivia will have plicitly refers, and develop a rudimentary
noticed. In articles studded with citations to theory of the social processesand conditions
previousliterature on such familiarconcepts involved in the operationof this mechanism.
as poweror social class, commitmentemerges Because the term has been used to expressa
unscathed by so much as a single reference. varied assortment of ideas, it is fruitless to
This suggests what is in fact the case: there speculate on its "real" meaning. I have in-
stead chosen one of the several images
' An earlier version of this paper was presented evoked by "commitment"and tried to make
at the meetings of the Midwest Sociological Society, its meaning clearer. In doing so, I will un-
April, 1959. I wish to thank Eliot Freidson, Blanche
Geer, Sheldon Messinger, and the Journal's anony- avoidably short-change those for whom the
mous editorial consultants for their helpful com- term evokes other of the associated images
ments. more strongly. The ultimate remedy for this
2 See the following examples: E. Abramson et al., injustice will be a classification and clarifi-
"Social Power and Commitment: A Theoretical cation of the whole family of images in-
Statement," American Sociological Review, XXIII volved in the idea of commitment."3
(February, 1958), 15-22; Howard S. Becker and
James Carper, "The Elements of Identification 'Such a classification and clarification are not
with an Occupation," American Sociological Re- attempted here. For a pioneer effort see Gregory P.
view, XXI (June, 1956), 341-48; Bryan R. Wilson, Stone, "Clothing and Social Relations: A Study of
"An Analysis of Sect Development," American So- Appearance in the Context of Community Life"
ciological Review, XXIV (January, 1959), 3-15; (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of
Philip Selznick, TVA and the Grass Roots (Berke- Sociology, University of Chicago, 1959). I have
ley: University of California Press, 1953) ; and also confined myself to consideration of the con-
Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Com- cept as it applies to individual behavior, though it
mnunistParty: A Critical History, 1919-57 (Bos- often appears in analyses of the behavior of organi-
toIi: Beacon Press, 1957). zations.

32
NOTES ON THE CONCEPT OF COMMITMENT 33

I behavior, for which commitment seems so


Sociologists typically make use of the useful an explanatory variable?
concept of commitment when they are try- To begin with, it persists over some period
ing to account for the fact that people en- of time. The person continues to follow the
gage in consistent lines of activity.4 Howe party line; he remains in the same occupa-
and Coser, for instance, seek to explain the tion. But the notion of a consistent line of
behavior of the follower of the Communist activity implies more than this, for we often
party line in this fashion: "The Stalinist did think of complexes of quite diverse kinds of
not commit himself to the use of Marxism; activities as consistent. In fact, the examples
he committed himself to the claims of the just cited conceal a great diversity of activ-
Party that it 'possessed'Marxism."5By this ity. The Stalinist may engage in diametri-
they mean that the Stalinist did not under- cally opposed lines of activity as the party
take always to use Marxist styles of thought line shifts. A person remaining in the same
but that he did undertake always to honor occupation may engage in many kinds of
the party's claim that it knew what the activity in the course of his career. The
Marxist truth was. In short, they explain a diverse activities have in common the fact
man's persistent support of the shifting that they are seen by the actor as activities
party line by referringto a commitment on which, whatever their external diversity,
his part to the belief that the party repre- serve him in pursuit of the same goal. Final-
sented the source of correct Marxist knowl- ly, the notion of consistent lines of activity
edge. seems to imply a rejection by the actor of
The concept of commitmentenjoys use in feasible alternatives. He sees several alter-
studies of occupational careers. We can ex- native courses open to him, each having
plain the fact that men ordinarily settle something to commend it, but chooses one
down to a career in a limited field, and do which best serves his purposes.
not change jobs and careerswith the alacrity It is one of the central problems of social
of the proverbial economic man under science, of course,to account for consistency,
changing market conditions, by referring to so defined, in human behavior. Many expla-
a process whereby they become committed nations have been forthcoming, but none
to a particular occupation. James Carper has remained unscarred by critical attack.
and I found that graduatestudents in physi- The volume of criticism suggests that soci-
ology originally wanted to become physi- ologists are still looking for an unexception-
cians but eventually developedcommitments able explanation of consistent behavior. At
to the field of physiology such that they the risk of doing violence, by reason of brev-
were no longer interested in the medical de- ity, to some complex arguments,let me sum-
gree they had earlier desired so much.6 marize these explanations and the criticisms
In these examples, and others that might that have been made of them.
be cited, commitmentis used to explain what Some of the most clearly sociological ex-
I have already called "consistent behavior." planations (in the sense of being based most
What are the characteristicsof this kind of firmly in the process of social interaction)
have been theories built around the related
'Cf. Nelson N. Foote, "Concept and Method in concepts of social sanction and social con-
the Study of Human Development," in Emerging trol. These theories propose that people act
Problems in Social Psychology, ed. Muzafer Sherif
and M. 0. Wilson (Norman, Okla.: Institute of consistently because activity of some par-
Group Relations, 1957), pp. 29-53. ticular kind is regardedas right and proper
50p. cit., p. 521.
in their society or social group and because
deviations from this standard are punished.
6Howard S. Becker and James Carper, "The De-
velopment of Identification with an Occupation,"
People act consistently, therefore, because
Americani Journal of Sociology, LXI (January, it is morally wrong, practically inexpedient,
1956), 289-98. or both, to do otherwise.
34 THE AMERICANJOURNALOF SOCIOLOGY

Such a theory, however, has still to ex- forces the rules. This theory is quite gener-
plain consistently deviant behavior. Devi- ally accepted by sociologists but is just as
ance is often explainedby a circularprocess: generally criticized because it offers no rea-
a person who initially commits a minor in- sonable explanation of how people choose
fraction is increasingly alienated from nor- one from among the many audiences they
mal society, therefore commits increasingly can mentally summon to observe any given
serious infractions, and so on.7 Alternative- act.
ly, it is explained as the result of a process Other efforts to explain consistent lines of
of differentialassociation:8 the deviant has activity also meet criticism. Such activity is
associated more with people who think his sometimes explained by the presumed ex-
deviant act is proper than he has with those istence of universally accepted cultural val-
of the majority which thinks it is wrong. ues which inform and constrain behavior.
Again, deviance is explained by referenceto Thus a society is characterized by, let us
a conflict between cultural goals which all say, a stress on the value of affective neu-
membersof the society value and a sharp re- trality or the value of achievement; there-
striction of institutionally legitimate means fore, it is argued, people will consistently
for achieving them.;9 this explanation, choose in any situation that alternative
though, accounts only for the genesis of which allows expression of this value. Put
deviance and deals with the question of another way, individuals will choose alter-
consistency only by assuming continuous natives which are consistent with and logi-
presentation to the individual of the con- cally deducible from such a basic value
flict. Serious objections have been raised as position. Such a theory has difficulty, first
to the validity or area of applicability of all of all, in specifying what the basic values
these theories; none constitutes a complete of a society are; those theorists who hold
explanation of consistently deviant behav- that modern society is characteristically
ior.10 riddenwith value conflicts might claim such
The second problem associated with theo- difficulty will be chronic. Second, such a
ries based on the concept of social control, theory does not explain the process by which
the fact that people obey social rules even values, so conceived, affect behavior. It is
when no sanctions would follow an infrac- not likely, for instance, that people make
tion, has been dealt with by positing the logical deductions from value premises and
internalization or a generalized other which act on them.
constitutes the hidden audience that en- Explanations of consistent behavior are
sometimes imported from psychology or
7Talcott Parsons, The Social Systemn (Glencoe, psychoanalysis. They refer consistency of
Ill.: Free Press, 1951), pp. 249-325.
behavior to a stable structure of personal
'Albert K. Cohen, Alfred R. Lindesmith, and needs. They predicate that individuals have
Karl F. Schuessler (eds.), The Sutherland Papers
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956), stable needs and consistently act so as to
pp. 7-29. maximize the possibility of satisfying them.
9 Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social This kind of scheme is widely used in soci-
Structure (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1957), pp. 131- ology, either alone or in eclectic combina-
60. tion. But the explanationof behaviorby ref-
1
For somne questions about the Parsons and erence to needs not directly observableand,
Merton approaches see Albert K. Cohen, "The indeed, often inferred from the presence of
Study of Social Disorganiaztion and Deviant Be- the behavior they are supposed to explain
havior," in Sociology Today: Problems and Pros-
pects, ed. Robert K. Merton, Leonard Broom, and
often causes sociologists to feel queasy about
Leonard S. Cottrell, Jr. (New York: Basic Books, employing it.
1959), pp. 461-74. For Sutherland's own critique In short, many sociologists are dissatis-
of the theory of differential association see Cohen, fied with current explanations of consistent
Lindesmith, and Schuessler (eds.), op. cit., pp. 30-
41. See also Foote, op. cit., p. 35. human behavior. In my view, use of the con-
NOTES ON THE CONCEPT OF COMMITMENT 35

cept of commitment in current sociology that people act as though they were com-
constitutes an attempt to solve the problem mitted. Used in this way, the concept has
of explaining consistent human behavior in the same flaws as those psychological theo-
a sociological way without the flaws often ries which explain behavior by referring to
attributed to the theories just reviewed. some unobservedstate of the actor's psyche,
The concept hints at a theory which would this state deduced from the occurrence of
do this, but it only hints; it does not deliver the event it is supposed to explain.
the theory full blown. Such a theory would To avoid this tautological sin, we must
contain a definition of the nature of acts or specify the characteristics of "being com-
states of commitment. It would specify the mitted" independent of the behavior com-
conditions under which commitments come mitment will serve to explain. Schelling, in
into being. It would indicate the conse- his analysis of the process of bargaining,"
quences for behavior of acts or states of furnishes a hypothetical example whose
commitment.In the remainderof this paper analysis may help us arrive at a characteri-
I considersome of these points, not attempt- zation of the elements of one of the mech-
ing to construct such a theory entire, but anisms that might be called "commitment."
giving a first approximation of answers to Suppose that you are bargaining to buy a
these questions. house; you offer sixteen thousand dollars,
In writing of these questions, I have but the seller insists on twenty thousand.
deliberately narrowedthe referent of "com- Now suppose that you offer your antagonist
mitment" to one specific social-psychologi- in the bargaining certified proof that you
cal mechanism, one of the mechanisms have bet a third party five thousand dollars
hinted at in the term. It should be clear that you will not pay more than sixteen
that this mechanism is not offered as the thousand dollars for the house. Your oppo-
only possible explanation of consistent hu- nent must admit defeat because you would
man behavior. The present analysis simply lose money by raising your bid; you have
undertakes to clarify the nature of one of a committedyourself to pay no more than you
family of related mechanisms operating to originally offered.
producethis result. This commitment has been achieved by
making a side bet. The committed person
has acted in such a way as to involve other
What kind of explanation of consistent interests of his, originally extraneous to the
human behavior lies implicit in the concept action he is engaged in, directly in that
of commitment? Clearly, the person is en- action. By his own actions prior to the final
visioned as having acted in such a way bargaining session he has staked something
("made a commitment") or being in such a of value to him, something originally unre-
state ("being committed") that he will now lated to his present line of action, on being
follow a consistent course. But, as the term consistent in his present behavior. The con-
is ordinarily used, the nature of this act or sequences of inconsistency will be so ex-
state of commitmentis not specified; it ap- pensive that inconsistency in his bargaining
pears to be regarded as either self-explana- stance is no longer a feasible alternative.
tory or intuitively understandable.If we use The major elements of commitment pre-
the concept in this way, the propositionthat sent themselves in this example. First, the
commitment produces consistent lines of
individual is in a position in which his deci-
activity is tautological, for commitment,
sioni with regard to some particular line of
whatever our intuitions about its independ-
ent existence, is in fact synonymouswith the action has consequences for other interests
committed behavior it is supposed to ex- "Thomas C. Schelling, "An Essay on Bargain-
plain. It is a hypothesizedevent or condition ing," American Economic Review, XLVI (June,
whose occurrence is inferred from the fact 1956), 281-306.
36 THE AMERICANJOURNALOF SOCIOLOGY
and activities not necessarily related to it.12 indexes with which to sort them out. But
Second, he has placed himself in that posi- the economic example shows us the skeleton
tion by his own prior actions. A third ele- we can look for beneath the flesh of more
ment is present, though so obvious as not complicated social processes.
to be apparent: the committed person must
be aware that he has made the side bet and III
must recognize that his decision in this case If we confined our use of commitment to
will have ramificationsbeyond it. The ele- those cases where individuals have deliber-
ment of recognition of the interest created ately made side bets, we would seldom bring
by one's prior action is a necessary com- it into our analyses of social phenomena.
ponent of commitmentbecause,even though What interests us is the possibility of using
one has such an interest, he will not act to it to explain situations where a person finds
implement it (will not act so as to win his that his involvement in social organization
side bet) unless he realizes it is necessary. has, in effect, made side bets for him and
Note that in this example commitment thus constrained his future activity. This
can be specified independent of the consist- occurs in several ways.
ent activity which is its consequence. The A person sometimes finds that he has
side bet not to pay more and the additional made side bets constraining his present ac-
interest this creates in sticking to the orig- tivity because the existence of generalized
inal offered price occur independent of the cultural expectations provides penalties for
fact of refusing to pay more. Were we to those who violate them. One such expecta-
interview this clever bargainer before the tion operatesin the area of work. People feel
final bargaining session, he presumably that a man ought not to change his job too
would tell us that he understoodhis interests often and that one who does is erratic and
could now be served only by paying no more. untrustworthy. Two months after taking a
Thus, whenever we propose commitment job a man is offereda job he regardsas much
as an explanationof consistency in behavior, superior but finds that he has, on the side,
we must have independent observations of bet his reputation for trustworthinesson not
the major components in such a proposi- moving again for a period of a year and
tion: (1) prior actions of the person staking regretfully turns the job down. His decision
some originally extraneous interest on his about the new job is constrainedby his hav-
following a consistent line of activity; (2) ing moved two months prior and his knowl-
a recognition by him of the involvement of edge that, however attractive the new job,
this originally extraneous interest in his the penalty in the form of a reputation for
present activity; and (3) the resulting con- being erratic and unstable will be severe if
sistent line of activity. he takes it. The existence of generalizedcul-
We cannot, of course, often expect social tural expectations about the behavior of re-
life to be of the classic simplicity of this sponsible adult males has combinedwith his
economic example. Rather, interests, side recent move to stake his personal reputa-
bets and acts of commitment, and conse- tion, nominally extraneous to the decision
quent behavior will seem confounded and about the new job, on that decision.
irremediablymixed, and it will requirecon- A person often finds that side bets have
siderable ingenuity to devise appropriate been made for him by the operation of im-
personalbureaucraticarrangements.To take
12 So far, the definition of commitment
proposed a simple instance, a man who wishes to
here parallels that of Abramson et al. (op. cit., p. leave his current job may find that, because
16): "Committed lines are those lines of action the of the rules governing the firm's pension
actor feels obligated to pursue by force of penalty
* . . .Committed lines ... are sequences of action fund, he is unable to leave without losing a
with penalities and costs so arranged as to guaran- considerable sum of money he has in that
their selection." fund. Any decision about the new job in-
NOTES ON THE CONCEPT OF COMMITMENT 37

volves a financial side bet the pension fund think, locate the crucial action which has
has placed for him by its rules. created the commitment in the person's
The situation of the Chicagoschoolteach- acquiescence to the system, in his agreeing
er presents a somewhat more complicated to work underthe bureaucraticrules in force.
system of side bets made by the operation By doing this, he has placed all the bets
of bureaucraticarrangements.Teachers pre- which are given in the structure of that sys-
fer to teach middle-class children. To do so, tem, even though he does not become aware
they must be assigned to a school containing of it until faced with an important decision.
such children. Teachers can request assign- Side bets constrainingbehavior also come
ment to as many as ten different schools; into existence through the process of indi-
assignments are made, as openings occur, vidual adjustment to social positions. A per-
to the teacher whose request for a given son may so alter his patterns of activity in
school is of longest standing. New teachers the process of conforming to the require-
are assigned to schools for which there are ments for one social position that he unfits
no requests, the lower-classschools teachers himself for other positions he might have
like least. The desirable schools have the access to. In so doing, he has staked the
longest list of requests outstanding, while ease of performance in the position on re-
less desirable schools have correspondingly mainingwhere he is. To return to our earlier
shorter lists. The teacher in the lower-class example, some Chicagoschoolteacherschose
school who desires to transfer must, in pick- to remain in a lower-class school for the
ing out the ten schools she will request, take lengthy period necessary to reach the top of
into account the side bets the operation of the list for a very desirable middle-class
the bureaucratic transfer system has made school. When the opportunity to make the
for her. The most important such bet has to move came, they found that they no longer
do with time. If she selects one of the most desired to move because they had so ad-
desirable schools, she finds that she has lost justed their style of teaching to the problems
a bet about the time it will take her to get of dealing with lower-class children that
out of her present position, for it takes a they could not contemplate the radical
long time to reach the top of the list for one changes necessary to teach middle-class
of these schools. She can instead choose a children. They had, for instance, learned to
less desirable school (but better than her discipline children in ways objectionable to
present situation) into which she can move middle-class parents and become accus-
more quickly, thus winning the side bet on tomed to teaching standards too low for a
time. This system of bets constraining her middle-class school.'4 They had, in short,
transfer requests has been made in advance bet the ease of performanceof their job on
by the bureaucraticrules governingrequests remainingwhere they were and in this sense
for transfer.13 were committed to stay.
One might ask in what sense the person's Goffman's analysis of face-to-face inter-
prior actions have made a side bet in these action'5 suggests another way side bets are
two instances. How has he, by his own act, made through the operation of social proc-
placed himself in a position where his deci- esses. He notes that persons present to their
sion on a new job or request for transfer fellows in any sequence of interaction an
involves these other considerations?Is it not image of themselves they may or may not
rather the case that he has had no part in be able to live up to. Having once claimed
it, being constrainedby forces entirely out- to be a certain kind of person, they find it
side himself? We can without sophistry, I necessary to act, so far as possible, in an
"3For a fuller account of the operation of this 14 Ibid., pp. 473-75.
system see Howard S. Becker, "The Career of the
Chicago Public Schoolteacher," American Journal '6Erving Goffman, "On Face-Work," Psychiatry,
of Sociology, LVII (March, 1952), 470-77. XVIII (August. 1955), 213-31.
38 THE AMERICANJOURNALOF SOCIOLOGY
appropriate way. If one claims implicitly, day life-stake increasingly more valuable
in presenting himself to others, to be truth- things on continuing a consistent line of
ful, he cannot allow himself to be caught in behavior, although the person hardly real-
a lie and is in this way committed to truth- izes this is happening. It is only when some
telling. Goffman points out that the rules event changes the situation so as to endan-
governing face-to-face interaction are such ger those side bets that the person under-
that others will ordinarily help one preserve stands what he will lose if he changes his
the front he has put forward ("save face"). line of activity. The person who contributes
Nevertheless, a person will often find his a small amount of each paycheck to a non-
activity constrainedby the kind of front he transferablepension fund which eventually
has earlierpresentedin interaction; he finds becomes sizable provides an apposite illus-
he has bet his appearance as a responsible tration of this process; he might willingly
participant in interaction on continuing a lose any single contribution but not the
line of activity congruent with that front. total accumulated over a period of years.
This review of the social mechanisms If this is the case with commitment by
through which persons make side bets ex- default, we might conjecture that it is also
traneous to a particularline of activity that true of commitments resulting from con-
nevertheless later constrain that activity is scious decisions. Decisions do not of them-
not exhaustive. It serves only to point the selves result in consistent lines of action, for
direction for empirical study of side-bet they are frequently changed. But some deci-
mechanisms, in the course of which a more sions do produce consistent behavior. We
definitive classification might be made. can perhaps account for this variety of out-
comes of decisions by the proposition that
IV only those decisions bolsteredby the making
of sizable side bets will produce consistent
As some of our examples indicate, com-
behavior. Decisions not supported by such
mitments are not necessarilymade concious-
side bets will lack staying power, crumpling
ly and deliberately. Some commitments do
in the face of opposition or fading away to
result from consciotusdecisions, but others
be replacedby other essentially meaningless
arise crescively; the person becomes aware
decisions until a commitment based on side
that he is committed only at some point of
bets stabilizes behavior.16
change and seems to have made the commit-
We might also note that a consistent line
ment without realizing it. By examining
of activity will often be based on more than
cases of both kinds, we may get some hints
one kind of side bet; several kinds of things
toward a theory of the genesis of commit-
valuable to the person may be staked on a
ments.
particularline of activity. For instance, the
Such a theory might start with the ob-
man who hesitates to take a new job may be
servation that the commitment made with-
deterred by a complex of side bets: the
out realization that it is being made-what
financialloss connected with a pension fund
might be termed the "commitment by de-
he would lose if he moved; the loss of
fault"-arises through a series of acts no
seniority and "connections" in his present
one of which is crucial but which, taken
firm which promise quick advance if he
together, constitute for the actor a series of
stays; the loss of ease in doing his work
side bets of such magnitude that he finds because of his success in adjusting to the
himself unwilling to lose them. Each of the
trivial acts in such a series is, so to speak, "The preceding paragraphs are adapted from
a small brick in a wall which eventually Howard S. Becker, "The Implications of Research
on Occupational Careers for a Model of Household
grows to such a height the person can no Decision Making," in Consumer Behavior, Vol. IV:
longer climb it. The ordinary routines of Models of Household Decision Making, ed. Nelson
living-the daily recurringevents of every- Foote (forthcoming).
NOTES ON THE CONCEPT OF COMMITMENT 39

particularconditions of his present job; the associated with occupational groups or po-
loss of ease in domestic living consequent litical parties, also provide sets of valuables
on having to move his household; and so on. with which side bets can be made. These
esoteric systems of value must be discov-
V ered if the commitments of group members
For a complete understanding of a per- are to be understood. For instance, the pro-
son's commitments we need one more ele- fessional dance musician achieves job secu-
ment: an analysis of the system of values rity by becoming known as a dependable
or, perhaps better, valuables with which man to a large group of emnployingband-
bets can be made in the world he lives in. leaders and to an even larger group of mu-
What kinds of things are conventionally sicians who are not leaders but will recom-
wanted, what losses feared? What are the mend him for jobs they hear about. The
good things of life whose continued enjoy- dependable man is, among other things, a
ment can be staked on continuing to follow man who will take any job offered him un-
a consistent line of action? less he is already engaged; by doing this, he
Some systems of value permeatean entire shows that he will not let a leader who needs
society. To recur to Schelling's example of a vital man down. His reputation for not
the canny house-buyer, economic commit- letting leaders down has economic value to
ments are possible only within the confines him, for leaders who believe in that reputa-
of a system of property, money, and ex- tion will keep him working. When he is of-
change. A side bet of five thousand dollars fered a job that he does not, for whatever
has meaning only where money is conven- reason, want, he finds himself committed to
tionally valued. taking it anyway; by failing to do so, he
However, it is important to recognizethat would lose the reputation for dependability
many sets of valuable things have value and the consequent steady supply of jobs
only within subcultural groups in a society the value system of the music business has
and that many side bets producing commit- bet for him on his consistency in always
mlent are made within systems of value of taking whatever job is offered.18
limited provenience. Regional, ethnic, and In short, to understandcommitmentsful-
social class subcultures all provide raw ma- ly, we must discover the system-sof value
terial for side bets peculiar to those sharing within which the mechanismsand processes
in the culture, as do the variants of these described earlier operate. By so doing, we
related to differing age and sex statuses. A understandnot only how side bets are made
middle-class girl can find herself committed but the kind of counterswith which they can
to a consistently chaste line of behavior by be made; in fact, it is likely that we cannot
the sizable side bet of her reputation that fully penetrate the former without under-
middle-classculture attaches to virginity for standing the latter.
females. A girl who is a member of a social VI
class where virginity is less valued could not
be committed in this way; and, except for a The conception of commitment I have
few puritanical enclaves in our society, boys been proposing has certain disadvantages
cannot acquire commitmentsof this kind at for empirical and theoretical work. In the
all, for male virginity has little value, and first place, many of the difficulties faced in
no side bet of any magnitude could be made using other theories remainunresolved.Peo-
with it.A7 ple often have conflicting commitments,
More limited subcultures, such as those 18
An earlier and somewhat different account of
dance musicians' job security can be found in
17 I hasten to say that this illustration is hypo- Howard S. Becker, "Some Contingencies of the
thetical; I do not know the facts of the differential Professional Dance Musician's Career," Human
distribution of evaluations of chastity. Organization, XII (Spring, 1953), 22-26.
40 THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY

and the theory proposed here offers no an- fortunately, we cannot make our concepts
swer to the question of how people choose precise and at the same time keep the full
between the commitments they have ac- range of evocative meaning they have ac-
quired when such conflicts are activated. quired in ordinary discourse.
Problems like this do not magically disap- These disadvantages, serious as they are,
pear on the introduction of a new concept. must be weighed against the advantagesthat
Furthermore, the limited conception of use of the concept confers. First, the idea of
commitment I have suggested covers a lim- the side bet allows us to specify the elements
ited area. Many kinds of consistent behav- of commitment independently of the con-
ior will probably prove unexplainablein its sistent line of behavior they are used to ac-
terms. This is as it should be, for analytic count for and thus avoid tautology. Though
precision comes through the breaking-down it may not always be easy to find empirical
of global categories into more limited and indicators of the side bets constrainingpeo-
homogenous classificatory types. However, ple's activity, side bets and consistent activ-
the concept of commitment has been made ity are in principle distinguishable, and we
to cover such a wide range of phenomenain are thus able to avoid a commondifficultyin
ordinary discourse that confusion may arise the use of the concepts.
from trying to limit its use. This difficulty Beyond this, the conception of commit-
should be met by clarifying analytically the ment I have sketched gives us the theoretical
several mechanisms that have been sub- tools for assimilating the common-senseno-
sumed under commitment, the conditions tion that people often follow lines of activity
under which they operate, and the ways for reasons quite extraneous to the activity
they may be distinguished from one anoth- itself. While we are all aware of this fact,
er.'9 It seems convenient to retain "com- we have no conceptual language which al-
mitment" to refer to the specific mecha- lows us to put this insight to work in our
nism of constraint of behavior through pre- research and theory. The concept of com-
viously placed side bets and use such terms mitment furnishes the requisite terms. In
as "involvement," "attachment," "voca- addition, it outlines the mechanisms by
tion," "obligation," and so on, to refer to which past actions link extraneous interests
related but distinguishablephenomena.Un- to a line of activity.
19 See Stone, op. cit., and Erving Goffman, "Role COMMUNITY STUDIES, INC.
Distance" (unpublished paper). KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI