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


6 thoughts on “Alice Goffman’s On The Run: Ethnography in Action!

  1. “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.” This perfectly describes the role of the novel.

  2. SEATAF. I agree with you–which is why I mentioned Capote’s In Cold Blood in the blog. In fact often, the line between novel and non-fiction is quite amorphous. Non-fiction works, even the most scrupulously reported, are the result of a trajectory and narrative created by the author to tell whatever story they are trying to tell. (Even the driest and most technical chemistry papers are of this nature).

    But the broader question you are asking, I think, is where are at the boundaries between the Sociology/Anthropology, Journalism, and Literature Departments. I’m not sure where this line actually is–but find it endlessly interesting to wonder about. I wonder if Alice Goffman has the same question?

  3. ‘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. ‘

    But if feelings are being evoked in response to consequences, it’s important that the anecdotes about the consequences are accurate – otherwise, there is no point to doing such an ethnography. If what she has found contradicts conventional wisdom about the nature of those consequences or provides additional important details, then the book is a real contribution. But if she is relaying anecdotes of questionable veracity just to evoke feelings, she might as well have written an anthology of all the already existing horror stories of people who have been incarcerated.

    he problem here is that feelings are being evoked in response not to the abstraction ‘very real phenomena

    But feelings are evoked But isn’t one of the points of the book to delineate what the ‘real phenomena’ and their ‘consequences’?

  4. Yes and no. It is of course always much better to be precise and accurate in your descriptions of data. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how Goffman, her acquisition editor, copy editor, and proofreader missed the timeline problem in On the Run. Except that I can, because stupid errors have crept into every one of my books, too. I just published a book in April, and every time I pick it up, something new shouts out at me–and I hate this. The latest one was I found out that I put a really close colleague into the wrong university in the acknowledgment section. And that one I can’t blame on proofreaders or copy editors!

    The bigger question for me as a sociologist is about whether the generalizations you make on the basis of a story is, “Does this story help me think about an observed phenomenon more clearly?” In the case of On the Run, the book helps me think more clearly about any number of phenomenon, such as the consequences for the War on Drugs in urban areas, the costs of imprisonment to the families of prisoners, the consequences of de facto racial segregation, the presentation of self for researchers and a host of other issues she describes very well. If I were to find a summary topic for describing On the Run it would be the consequences of “virtual statelessness” a concept Mark Cooney developed about the consequences of not having a trusted policing force in a society. Virtual statelessness describes what happens when kin-groups try to seek justice on their own behalf. And for describing this problem, does it really matter if the death of Chuck is placed in the right year? Isn’t virtual statelessness also a very real phenomenon.

    When I was in grad school, one of my mentors asserted a counter-intuitive “You should never let the facts get in the way of a good theory.” He was pointing at studies like Max Weber’s “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” and Kai Erikson’s “Wayward Puritans.” It could of course also apply to Marx’s description of capitalism. All of these authors got a bunch of facts wrong, as historians and journalists gleefully point out. But does this mean that there is no utility to understanding the relationship between religious ideology and capitalism (Weber)? Or the fact that societies “need” deviance to mark out morality (Erikson and Durkheim)? Or that it matters whether you own the means of production, or are paid a wage (Marx)? All in my view still provide useful lenses for understanding society, and so does Alice Goffman. Even when some of the facts are wrong.

  5. Thank you — more balanced and nuanced discussion than I have seen elsewhere. But isn’t it ironic that, because of all the attention for the book, people have been able to identify the individuals? One of Goffman’s stated reasons for scrambling some facts was to assure anonymity. It may be impossible to do ethnography this way in the internet age.

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