Alice Goffman’s On The Run: Ethnography in Action!

Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in America is about young African-American boys and men on the run from the police in Philadelphia. The situation is a product of the United States’ skyrocketing incarceration rates—in the poor undereducated black neighborhood Goffman studies, something like 10% of the young men are incarcerated at any one time. More are on probation and parole—in short everyone in the neighborhood is themselves enmeshed in the criminal justice system, or someone close to them is. The story told here is of what that prison boom does to one neighborhood whose young men filled the jails and prisons.

To understand how such a high incarceration rate effects a community, Goffman lived in the “6th Street” neighborhood for six years, first as an assignment for an undergraduate class at the University of Pennsylvania, later on her own, and finally as a graduate student at Princeton. In doing this, she wrestled with the emotional commitments of liking and empathizing with the people she lives and “studies,” while trying to sustain a “value free” distance of a social scientist. What becomes clear for her, as for many other great ethnographers, is that distance is not completely possible as she encounters what can be thought of as the “ethnographer’s dilemma.” If you are to empathize with your subjects, you come to appreciate them as human beings, irrespective of their personal foibles. Perhaps then the beauty of any good ethnography is in trying to span this divide, while never quite achieving it. Goffman does this.

More so than most “sociology” books, On the Run has tweaked the popular imagination via the news media. After all it is literally a cops and robbers story. There are chases through the neighborhoods, broken down doors, shootings, and drama, as two distrusting institutions—police and neighborhood—struggle over issues of violence, race, and legitimacy. And how did On the Run tweak the popular imagination? By telling the story of individual lives, particularly three anonymized brothers, Chuck, Reggie and Tim, and especially Mike’s friends Alex. The three boys grow up in a household with Miss Linda, their crack cocaine addicted mother, and a grandfather Mr. George who lives upstairs and owns the house. Goffman lives with the brothers off and on for six years, becoming part of their lives at home, on the streets, in their contacts with the police, jail, and prison.

Most dramatically one of Goffman’s key informants “Chuck” was murdered by a rival group in December 2007, during her fieldwork. Memorably, she gets swept up in the desire of Chuck’s friends and brothers for revenge, riding in a car of armed you men who were, depending on your interpretation, boasting they would seek revenge for Chuck’s death, or actually seeking to do it. Indeed this is the scene that has attracted the most scorn from law enforcement—the idea that Goffman was somehow an accessory to conspiracy to commit murder. But then this response is of course part of the story that Goffman is telling. The question behind this story is: Why is it that young men in this situation so quickly feel the need to personally avenge the murder of their friend, when most of us would depend on the police? How is it that the legitimacy of the police has eroded so much that much of the community turns a blind eye to such dangerous responses? The answer of course is that it happens because the 6th Street community does not trust the police to protect their very real right to justice, a situation that is the product of generations of inequality, and a decade or two of aggressive incarceration. In other words, it is the by-product of the sky high arrest and incarceration rates among black youth that is the product of those aggressive policing. A population that has watched neighbors (and themselves) be beat up, arrested, searched, prosecuted, and incarcerated is unlikely to trust the police force that is the very visible arm of this. It is what happens when the lives of young people are criminalized, and they are as a result outside the law.

But, the enduring value of Goffman’s book is the descriptions of what “The Art of Running” means not just for the police and people they are chasing, but the fabric of the segregated 6th street community. The cat and mouse game of policing and running drags the entire community into the “game,” whether they are committing crimes, or just living in the neighborhood. Violent police raids inevitably sweep “Clean People” into the web of aggressive law enforcement. After all the Clean People are the friends, siblings, parents, children, and classmates of those “On the Run.” The nature of such human entanglements are somehow seems to escape police proponents who do not see the consequences of aggressive policing and incarceration policies on such neighborhoods, whether a particular individual is committing a crime, or not.

Nowhere is this more evident in the rather silly issue that police advocates take with Goffman’s book, regarding how she observed the police using hospital visitor logs to hunt for people with outstanding warrants. A belief that such practices occur, means that men were less likely to visit pregnant girlfriends and in the hospital. Police advocates find fault with Goffman’s finding because the Philadelphia police claim to not have such a practice. From Goffman’s standpoint this is of course beside the point. Her point is that her informants believed it, and therefore respond it as if it were true. Certainly the aggressive police tactics, policies awarding police officers for arrests, and Goffman’s own observations lead me to believe that such things do happen. But, the very real message of the book is that the police are so distrusted on 6th Street that no denial via a critical book review is likely to change their minds. Police denials of a such practice via the New York Times or New Republic do not trump an anecdote from a neighbor or family member. The problem is that the police an illegitimate and distrusted force on 6th Street. And until the police deal with this issue, it does not really matter that they take issues with minor factual inaccuracies in On the Run.

Which leads to a second criticism of Goffman’s book. Much of this happens because the book lands outside traditional disciplinary boundaries—it is a work of journalism, criminology, social science, and ethnography, or not. Journalists feel justified in critiquing the book because it gets facts wrong. For example, Chuck is reported as killed in 2007, but then reappears alive again two years later. A fact-checker on a newspaper editorial desk would have presumably caught this.  And for that matter so should have Goffman, as well as the editors and proofreaders at the University of Chicago Press.

Social scientists (including me) are critical because of the lack of reference to systematic data and theory. It is evident from Goffman’s acknowledgments that she had access to the very highest levels of contemporary American sociology, yet the book is lacking systematic data analysis (quantitative or qualitative), or references to the social theories of sociologists who have described crime, law enforcement, discourse analysis, or identity management. This book has a wealth of examples and anecdotes to fill in the theoretical conclusions that could be drawn from the excellent ethnographic descriptions.

So the book is not a work of journalism or social science. But, what the book is though is a work of Ethnography. But it is not a conventional academic ethnography with references to Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, William Julius Wilson, or even W.E.B. DuBois who himself also did ethnography in Philadelphia’s African-American communities over 100 years ago. Rather On the Run is written in a tradition that emphasizes story-telling, and which engages popular audiences. In this respect, it is much more in the tradition of Alex Kotlowitz books There are No Children Here, and The Other Side of the River, and Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gangleader for a Day. Or, perhaps even to go one step further, Truman Capote’s well-known novel In Cold Blood.

The strength of such books is not in their scientific techniques, the strict time-line, or even a factual question like did a police officer ever check hospital visiting records against a list of outstanding warrants. Rather it is in the capacity to evoke feelings about very real phenomena, which in Goffman’s case are the consequences of America’s prison boom on communities like 6th Street.  In some ways, I think that the greatest problem is that there is no obvious disciplinary home for such work—it sort of fits in Sociology, Anthropology, Journalism, and Communications. We need departments of ethnography to handle this very real and valuable approach to social critique.

Originally Posted at 9/9/2015


“It’s the State Pen, not Penn State” Three Professors Go to Prison!

Every once in a awhile, I get to write an excited blog because after some years, a new book is published. Or rather a book I wrote is published! This is one of these blogs. The pretentiously titled Vocational Prison Education in the United States by Andy Dick, Bill Rich, and Tony Waters is now available for your reading pleasure! The title not quite catch your attention? Well ok, here is what we really wanted to call it: Three Professors Go To Prison. Our publisher, who knows about things like marketing $100.00 books to academic libraries, insisted the former title was better. And they got their way. Now you can do us a big favor by making sure that your library buys the book, and you read it. To convince you that it is worth reading, a couple of the “vignettes” which describe our experiences behind the walls of California’s prisons are linked below.

One reason the publisher chose such a boring title is that the origin of the book is in fact pretty boring. In 2008, the three of us, all professors at California State University, Chico, were hired by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to evaluate the vocational education courses they started in 2007 with a half billion bucks signed off by California’s Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger who has a tough guy movie persona, also has the heart of a Austrian youth who himself went through vocational training at in Europe at a young age. As Califrornia’s governor, he wanted to nurture criminals into following a better path—by training them for the job market. This is all fine, and still a little boring. But what made a seemingly boring project really interesting for three geeky professors was that we would have unusual access to inmates, teachers, correctional officers, and prison administrators. (At least that was the cock-n-bull tale we told ourselves. To be honest, we were probably just pretentious).

So for three years Andy, Bill, and I were in and out of California’s prisons, watching the programs we were evaluating crumble under the weight of first the Great Recession, and then a US Supreme Court decision which noted that the conditions in California’s over-crowded prisons were in fact cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional.

I know what you are thinking. Why is a stupid report about vocational education of any relevance to anybody when the prisons were in financial free fall, and an instrument of mass cruelty to boot? Anyway, if you weren’t thinking that, we were. And to be honest, the hard-working vocational teachers, correctional officers, and prison administrators were probably wondering the same thing. They put their hearts into Governor Schwarzenegger dream, while trying to maintain the day-to-day reality of their life in a prison on which the justice system was placing demands to rehabilitate, punish, protect the public, and ensure security all at the same time   And thus this book which is really about the contradictions in nurturing human minds through education, in a place that is designed to punish the human mind. As one wise prison officer reminded us, “This is the state pen, not Penn State.”

So yes, this is a book about writing a report. But the back story is indeed interesting, and in a lot of respects what gives the book legs. Here are some short extracts:

Chapter 2 Applied Research in California’s Prisons
Chapter 7 Sunglasses
Chapter 14 Educators only Whisper in a Custody World

Like I wrote above, please ask your library to order a copy!


Originally posted at January 8, 2016

“Cooling Out” the Victims of the Grad School Pyramid System

     Those who say “That’s life” should understand that there is nothing natural about a system that kills the spirit of large numbers of people by first putting them in a position where they need opportunity, then promising them virtually unlimited opportunity and finally making them losers. Jeff Schmidt. Disciplined Minds (Kindle Locations 3045-3047).


One of the best parts of Jeff Schmidt’s analysis of graduate school he borrows from Erving Goffman who in 1951 published an article about con men, and how they get their mark to go away by blaming themselves. What happens is this. A con man gets a mark to make a “pretend” bet on a fixed card game. The mark agrees, only because it is “just for fun,” and puts down $60. A group watches. The mark of course loses the “pretend bet” at which point the con man says that he has now won the $60. Someone in the audience agrees that the con man has won fair and square. A heated argument ensues with the observers, and the con man finally agrees to return $20, which those in the crowd agree is fair. The mark walks away $40 poorer, and perhaps even feels a bit of triumph at getting $20 back. Most importantly he does not even consider going to the police, because he has been “cooled out” by the process of he con. The con man and his confederates from the crowd of course split the $40.

But Schmidt is not writing about card games, he is writing about graduate school in general, and the qualifying exam in particular. He is looking at PhD programs which graduate 30 or 40 students for every 100 students admitted to the program, and asking how it is that the system gets those 60 or 70 to leave quietly, blaming themselves for their own personal “failure.” “I was just not meant to be a sociologist or anthropologist they tell themselves, and their family.” But is it really a personal failure when a 60-7)5 failure rate is engineered into a system?

So what does “cooling out” have to do with PhD. programs? Schmidt says the qualifying exam system works the same way as the con game, and solves the problem of too many disgruntled “marks” walking away blaming the system. The grad school con game is conducted, Schmidt says, at the level of the qualifying exam, a year or two into most PhD programs. The exam is a torture administered across several days, in which you write, and write, and write what you think an anonymous committee of professors wants you to write. Notably, you don’t write what you want to write about your discipline, or propose new solutions to old problems. Rather you try to tell the committee what they want to hear; the implicit question is, is the candidate aligned with what has happened in the department/discipline before, and are they ready to support that status quo. The exam is then “graded,” which means you pass or you don’t, without any explanation—it is all secret. In other words the qualifying examination is the ultimate expression of power, where those who have the power judge you the graduate student without external accountability. It is strictly thumbs up or down. Schmidt actually was able to penetrate one of the committees “grading” the tests, and found out that there was indeed favoritism played in how the exams were scored—personal relationships mattered as what was written. To keep the recipients quiet, and the pyramid scheme going, PhD programs issue a “terminal Master’s degree” for your troubles, after having derailed the student from the golden track to a doctorate.

…the colleges have become one of the pyramidal system’s main tools for cooling out people’s “unrealistic” career ambitions. They do it on a massive scale, yet by necessity conceal the fact that that is what they are doing. (Kindle Location 3053)

In other words, it is the “cooling out” that the con men pulled on their mark. Schmidt argues that cooling out is a built in part of the broader education system. Indeed, Schmidt’s best example is not of grad school, but the community college system which peddles the false consciousness of a “transfer” plan to a four year BA degree, a transfer which only a very low percentage will actually ever make—most estimates are in the 10-15% range.

The process of cooling out students’ high educational and career expectations begins, of course, long before college. Grades from high school teachers and advice from counselors have an effect, but it is easy to base your hopes and plans on the thought that these people are underestimating you. Their reactions to you have always been very subjective, after all, and so perhaps their professional assessments, too, contain errors of judgment due to misimpressions, personality conflicts, personal prejudices and so on. But then comes the big aptitude test, and a few weeks later when you open the envelope and look at your scores you feel like you really are looking at a true picture of yourself. SAT and ACT scores have a powerful impact on the self-images of students, and those whose self-images are hit hard lower their expectations. They may not even apply to the colleges that they most want to attend.  Kindle Locations 3055-3060).


In other words, the system of education is a selection system that relies on “cooling out,” just like in the con game. It is hidden behind ideology, and an acquiescence by the powerless students. It patterns itself by class, race, gender, and other taken-for-granted assumptions about the excellence of the pre-existing system. Or, as Julie Withers told me, the metaphor I often heard growing up “the cream rises to the top,” is also about color—it’s indeed the white stuff that seemingly effortlessly and justly rises to the top! Funny how such ideologies do indeed work for getting the losers in the game to question themselves, rather than the overall fairness of the stratification system.

“Cooling out” after grad school, means that the system expects the victim to go quietly into the night, blaming themselves rather than a system designed to foil the expectations of the majority of the people it holds promises to. After all the qualifying exam, admissions process, etc., is “objective,” just like the SAT. The anonymous SAT does not reflect values of the test-makers, so why would the qualifying exams of grad school? Except of course this is not true. Tests inherently reflect the values of the status quo, and the need to reproduce the status quo which the existing system always wants to protect, especially against the potential usurpers making their way up through graduate school.

In other words, it is the same phenomenon used by the con man who cheated the mark out of $40. The system wears you down—you can take only so much insult, low grades, anonymous brick-brats, and criticism before admitting that maybe “they” are right. Maybe I am just not “up to snuff,” and the brown-nosers to your right and to your left are really just smarter than you.

Which brings me to what is Schmidt’s sardonic and perhaps unintended conclusion: Brown-nosing really works!


Schmidt, Jeff (2000). Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives. Kindle Edition

Goffman, Erving “On Cooling the Mark Out,” Psychiatry, vol. 15, no. 4 (November 1952), pp. 451-463.

Originally Published August 2015 at