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

Imagine a World with No Sociology Department—It’s Easy if You Try

Last week as an April Fool’s Day post, the American Sociological Association announced the end of Sociology as a discipline here at For those of you not in on the joke, it didn’t happen. No one announced the end of Sociology as a discipline.

Having said that, I will admit to a brief bit of reverie imagining a world without Sociology Departments. And I think that the answer that followed was actually a bit accurate: Take out the Sociology Departments, and just maybe the Sociological approach/imagination would be strengthened across the academy as people with training in sociological theory, methods, and imagination would start teaching the “sociology” classes.

The fact of the matter is that, many other departments already “do” sociology. But they do it with teachers trained in their own disciplines, and not sociological theory or methods. The result is that people steeped in educational pedagogy and policy teach “Education and Society,” theologians teach “Religion and Society,” historians teach “Social History,” engineers teach “Technology and Society,” psychologists teach “Social Psychology,” business departments teach “Marketing,” English Departments teach “Critical Theory,” and so forth. All of it is just rewarmed sociology made by cooks from another kitchen.

Meanwhile, we try to mount the same courses in sociology, and no one takes them. Why? Because each department requires their own course for their majors—like sociology, they are control freaks when it comes to their own curriculum.   (And I haven’t even started to write about how sociological methods including survey research and qualitative methods permeate the academy far beyond the sociology department).

So imagine, poof, all those tenured deadwood sociologists like me would lose their department. The good news is that there are still plenty of classes to teach because sociology so successfully dominated the university curriculum during previous decades. Indeed, sociology departments are already excluded from teaching most of the sociology in the curriculum of most universities. Our curriculum is hijacked!

P.S. I have asked the same question of anthropology. Anthropology’s dominant paradigm for decades was culture—a concept that is so successful that most of the curriculum regarding culture is taught sans anthropological theory and method in every department except anthropology. There are classes on Education and Culture, Business Culture, Religion and Culture, and so forth. Such are the wages of success!

Originally posted April 10, 2015 at

Marx Channels Shakespeare on Money: Why the Lame Will Walk, the Ugly are Beautiful, and the Dishonest are Honest

Or, perhaps this post could be sub-titled, “Why Bill Gates can’t believe what anybody tells him,” simply because no one can really be honest around big money.

Or, as the young Karl Marx wrote in 1845:

That which is for me through the medium of money – that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) – that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has [In the manuscript: ‘is’. – Ed.] power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

Marx is in effect saying that money is the real brain creating what we believe to be good and bad. If it has money, it must be good. If someone does not have money, they must be bad in any world. Money though warps judgment by transforming what should be incapacities like dishonesty and stupidity into strengths to be ignored or even admired.  This is why the wealthy can go through life believing they are smarter than the rest of us, even if they are not.  They can even pay for grand projects which fail, but are not seen as failures. For one such example, see Ford projects like Fordlandia.EdselHenry Ford on Anti-semitism.  Henry Ford was also awarded a major medal (Order of the German Eagle) by Nazi Germany, and later have a US Postage stamp issued in his honor.  Nothing burnishes reputations for cleverness than simply being rich!

Marx cites Shakespeare (!) play “Timon of Athens” to conclude his point about the special powers of hard cold cash:

Shakespeare stresses especially two properties of money:

  1. is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.
  2. It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.


Karl Marx (1844) “The Power of Money” in the Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

Originally posted on, November 10, 2015.

Karl Marx’s View on Agency and What the Individual Can Do to Effect Social Change

Last Friday, I went to an Education conference to talk about my book Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child. It is a book which emphasizes that questions whether schools can change as fast as school reformers have often wish. The point is to explain that as bureaucracies, schools are embedded in persistent habitus, which resists changes, even of the most articulate and passionate reformers.

Somehow, this degenerated into a discussion of what social scientists call agency. “Agency” is a view that social science has a responsibility to empower students and others for change–however change is defined.  In other words, social science should give actors the intellectual tools to force change.  It is the idea that the smart and passionate people (such as those at the conference) can come together and bring desirable change—if the will is enough. Such reformers often quote the young Karl Marx who in 1845 wrote in “Theses on Feurbach” the following:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it

The quote is so influential, that in 1956 when Marx’ bod) was placed in a new tomb in Highgate Cemetery in England, the quote was one of two placed on his tomb. The quote is often used to justify the idea that social science can, should, and must be used bring about social change. For the woman at my session, this change was to be toward a more democratic schooling system. My book says something different though, in particular there are limits to what bureaucratic structures can achieve, particularly in the schools.  Somehow, I couldn’t persuade her that not all things were possible, even when good people were equipped by social science with better knowledge.

So I changed the point, and started to quote Marx, but not from his 1845 writings, or even from the Manifesto of the Communist Party written in 1848 in which he insisted a worker’s rebellion was imminent. Rather, I inartfully tried to quote from the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” which Marx published in 1852. Unlike in his earlier writings, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” was about disappointments, and why revolutionary change is so difficult. What had of course happened between 1845 when Marx wrote about change, and 1848 when Marx predicted revolution in Europe, was that the conservative bourgeois capitalists had won elections in France and elsewhere.  These elections effectively announced the end of the revolutionary era described in “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” in 1848. Big oops, and so Marx had some explaining to do. So here is what the contrite Marx wrote in “The 18th Brumaire” after his revolutionary dreams were dashed, at least for the time being:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.


And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the [French] Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the [French] Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.


In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

But not recalling something as intimate as your mother tongue is tough.  How many people truly do it?  Very very few.  How many societies forget the habitus of the past?  Equally few.  As someone who has learned new languages, I know that the last section is particularly true. I can never really drop my American English ways of thinking and translating, even if I am generating the most articulate Thai I can conjure. And after 28 years of living in the United States and speaking English fluently, my wife still finds herself reverting to German rhetorical styles, which only have after 28 years have come to recognize as such. In the same way, our schools do not forget the mistakes of old, and repeat them, always waiting for past practices to no longer be recalled.

In the same way, the old ancient habits of our first grade teachers, wonderful though they were, push against the efforts of reformers to introduce revolutionize themselves. For example, the habitus that my own first grade teacher, Mrs. Skagen, who was born in 1912 and herself went to first grade 1918-1919, modeled for me in 1964-1965, still influence me today. And indirectly I suppose that Mrs. Skagen’s first grade teacher, born perhaps during the American Civil War (1861-1865), or shortly after, are one of the sources of what she did to me. I have a hard time imagining that what Mrs. Skagen passed on to me, or what her teacher passed on to her is a “nightmare” as Marx put it, but still it gives life to the difficult tasks agents of change confront. Or as Marx gloomily put it:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

   I guess that what this also means is that I do not believe with the young Marx, that the only point of philosophy, social science, and learning is to change the world. Sometimes it is just to understand the world. And that is a noble enough task!

    I just wish that at that conference I had been as articulate as Marx was, or for that matter, Mrs. Skagen!

Originally posted at on October 15, 2015.  Modified and edited September 9, 2016.

Does the Chinese Government Fund PhD Dissertation in Christian Theology???

I have been staying in Germany the last few weeks, hanging around academic types. Two that I came across were Chinese PhD students are studying at German Schools of Theology. Christian theology. One is trying to figure out the nature of Eschatology in a Chinese context. Eschatology is about the what happens to people after death, judgment, and final destiny (it is true—I just checked the dictionary). The other dissertation is a historical thesis about the nature of tolerance and intolerance in Augsburg, Germany in 1520-1530. This latter one uses source material in archaic German, and medieval Latin—and the article I looked at was of course written in English.

What is bemusing, I think, is that both students are funded by Chinese government funds. And of course the Chinese government is run by the Chinese Communist Party which seems to be stretching quite broadly into funding the humanities, even as the US pulls back into STEM. And so life goes on. I hope that both students do really well in their studies and are able to use what they are learning in their careers in China.

Batman and George Orwell Philosophize, or is it best to be a wimp and a fool, or just a fool?

     Colonial Burma has a strange hold on the colonial British imagination—it is a remote and exotic place where the British were not very successful in holding sway. And the place it emerges occasionally is in the inability of the west to “understand” the east. Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler in the film Batman Returns (2008) had some experience in colonial Burma which sheds some light on how the British might have thought about their imperial adventure there. Indeed, he is even able to relate it to he problem of The Joker, a maniacal character who savaged Wayne’s own Gotham City.

Bruce Wayne: “I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.”

Alfred Pennyworth: “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them. You hammered them to the point of desperation. And, in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”

Bruce Wayne: “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.”

Alfred Pennyworth: “With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But, in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.”

Bruce Wayne: “So why steal them?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. …”

Bruce Wayne: “The bandit, in the forest in Burma, did you catch him?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “Yes.”

Bruce Wayne: “How?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “We burned the forest down.”

I picked this exchange out of a Thomas Friedman column, in which he advocates intervention in Arab states which are “decent,” but oddly concludes that outsiders can indeed use their military power to intervene in such circumstances. This is an odd conclusion, because what Alfred is saying, I think, is that the danger of massive over-reaction (burning the forest down), can be a disproportionate response to an evil, which only makes the evil worse.

Had Alfred been on his toes though, he might have gone on to recommend the short story of his colleague in the Burman colonial service, Eric Blair a.k.a. George Orwell, to Bruce Wayne and Friedman. “Shooting an Elephant” is part of Orwell’s memoir of colonial Burma, where he was once a colonial officer developing a skepticism about the imperial project. A domesticated elephant had come into its period of “must,” and began to wreak havoc in the town, killing a low-status man. But when Orwell arrived with his big gun, the elephant’s period of must had passed, and it was placidly browsing, as elephants will do. Orwell (or his character) must make a decision. Does he shoot the peaceful elephant as the crowd expects, or does he let it browse—since it is no longer dangerous to anyone.

As the representative of British colonial power, Orwell, is widely despised by the crowd—he recalls:

I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter.

But the crowd wants blood revenge taken on the poor elephant. And besides if it is killed, they can take the meat.

So if Orwell shoots the elephant, he will satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd, but continue to be despised for killing the valuable property of a local mahout. If he lets the elephant go, the crowd will think him a coward, and still despise him. So the choice of the young Orwell is, do I shoot and be hated, or do I not shoot and be hated? By shooting the elephant, he is symbolically burning down the forest and therefore making a fool of himself. By not shooting the elephant, he is being both a wimp, and in his own word, a fool.  Some choice.

So what does he do and why?  No spoiler alert, you will have to read the brief original essay yourself to find out.  I will note though that Orwell himself noted that there was a division of opinion about what to do among the Europeans:

Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said [it was right to shoot the elephant], the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.

But isn’t this the same choice that Alfred Pennypacker presented to The Dark Knight? Both burning down the forest and shooting the elephant may satisfy immediate short-term needs, but are they really in the longer-term interest of anyone?

Originally posted at on February 11, 2016

Asking How Many Children Your Mother Has is a Complicated Survey Question!

I am teaching a Population class here in Chico, California, this semester. Sometime during the class, I generally  ask students about how many children there are in their families, and what their own fertility intentions are.  To avoid the complications of the modern family, divorce, remarriage, and so forth, I break it into three questions, which are:

1)  How many children does your mother have?

2)  How many children does your mother’s mother have?

3)  How many children do you intend to have?

Framing it this way has up to now kept the classroom discussion relatively precise, and on track.  In keeping with the traditions of population science, framing the question keeps things relatively biological–which is appropriate in this type of class.  Until now–when I was again reminded that definitions are always generated from a broader social context.

Anyway, about three days after this semester’s class, I had an apologetic Saudi student come to my office.  He had written on his (anonymous) survey that his mother had nine children.

Him: “I’m sorry that I lied on your question—I really come from a family of 29 children.”

Me: “So your father has more than one wife?”

Him: “Yes, I have four mothers.”

Me: “So you didn’t lie, since I had asked only about your own mother.”

Him: “Yes I did lie, and I’m sorry for it; my mother gave birth to nine children, but she of course has 29 children.”

Me: “No, you didn’t lie because your mother has nine children.”

Him: “Yes, I did lie, my mother has 29 children…”

It went back and forth in a friendly way for a few minutes, both of us somehow satisfied. He told me about his home in Saudi Arabia.  His father died a couple of years ago, but his mothers were still living there.  He had a great deal of affection for his siblings, or course, who he remembers as being a rambunctious lot.

I think it took me about four days to realize that despite the friendly conversation, we were still talking past each other with respect to the definition of what “mother,” “wife,” and probably “father” is.  Not to mention the relationship between “giving birth,” and being a “mother.”  Next time I give this survey I will have to think things through a bit more carefully!

Originally posted November 2013

The Connection between Crime and Immigration: A Complicated but not Conflicted Issue

This blog was originally posted in 2010.  However, the issues raised I think are timeless.  “Debates” about crime and immigration reappear it the presses around the world periodically, usually without much context.  Rather a person who happens to be an immigrant is caught doing a crime, and then inferences is made to all members of a group.  The fact of the matter though is that immigrants tend to be ore law-abiding than native born populations.  This is a settled fact among people who study crime and immigration.  For those who do not, they need to be reminded now and then, that immigrant populations tend to be more law abiding than foreign born.  Anyway, here is my post from 2010.

My first book was based on my Ph.D. dissertation, and called Crime and Immigrant Youth (Sage 1999). I of course really like it when people read it, even though it is becoming dated.  In this context, I read the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) new “Backgrounder” called Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Conflicted Issue by Steven Camarota and Jessica Vaughan in November 2009 with interest.  This paper has since received wide exposure in the popular press.  In it the authors claimed to do a comprehensive review of the literature on immigration and crime, and pronounce that there would be startling new conclusions about the relationship, i.e. that immigrants were likely to be more criminal than the native born.  But then I read deeper.  Despite claiming to be a review of academic and policy literature, they did not refer to that which disagreed with their assumption that crime and immigration are tightly tied together. And indeed, their conclusions were predictable for an advocacy organization that explicitly indicates that it favors a “low-immigrant vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.” So even though their report actually develops new data, it did so with one goal in mind: Demonstrating that immigrants are more criminal than the rest of us.  It is with this conclusion that I take exception.

In fact much data much more data about the negative correlation between immigrants themselves and crime than the report lets on (the citations below are just a small indication), which consistently indicate that immigrants themselves, except for crimes caused by immigration itself (e.g. violating immigration laws), tend to have lower rates of crime than the native born. The academic literature is also clear on another point: Immigrants are more likely to seek employment mowing our lawns, staffing our restaurants, cleaning our houses, and staff our factories than they are to commit crime. In fact, such populations by themselves tend to have lower arrest rates than native-born US citizens.  But this is indeed an over-simplification of the relationship, too.

Indeed, immigrants have such low rates of crime that one major researcher has proposed that a way to calm cities down would be to introduce new immigrants.  And while admitting more immigrants might work to bring crime in the short-run, I don’t think that this is the whole story either. The reason for this paradox is that immigrant populations are self-selected for behavior, and age, all conditions which mitigate against the impulsive behavior which most commonly lands people in American lock-ups.  In particular, criminal behavior and arrest is strongly related with age   and gender.  Males from about 15-22 years old have the highest frequency of theft, assault, drug use, etc., as anyone who has ever survived an American high school knows.  The average age for arriving immigrants, be they legal or illegal is in the late twenties.  So in many respects, it is not all that surprising that crime rates among them are lower than the general population.

What is more, immigrants are a self-selected lot, in the sense that those who leave home tend to be self-starters, energetic risk takers, better educated and more compliant than their less-energetic cousins who stay home. This is why scholars like Rumbaut (2009), Sampson (2008), Matthew T. Lee et al (2001), and my own book (Waters 1999) typically demonstrate that immigrants themselves are more law-abiding than native populations. This is one reason why immigrants are often a good deal for receiving countries like the United States.  Another country pays the costs of raising and educating them, they show up in the receiving country, and immediately get to work.

But this belies another problem with immigrant populations, which is that they do sometimes have a “second generation” crime problem.  This issue is unfortunately avoided in the Camarota and Vaughan’s report.  The fact though is that immigrant communities in which birth rates are high, and which are impoverished and centered inner cities, often develop gangs of their own.  This happens when the males born in the US (or who arrived as small children) hit the 15-22 year old age group. When this happens a strain emerges between some immigrant boys who do poorly in schools, and immigrant parents who are unable to control them in the context of the United States’ inner cities.  In this context, parents and youth alike are often isolated from America’s mainstream society.  This occurs because the parents are isolated in the impoverished immigrant community, while the youth are isolated as a result of marginalization at school, their own behavior, and ultimately the response of the justice system.  Notably this is not a behavior brought from home countries, but developed in the context of American cities.  Their cousins who remained behind in the rural areas of the third world do not have the same problem.  The really odd thing though is that in these same American-born families, the brothers or sisters or the errant boys are often doing particularly well—many become the paradigmatic immigrant valedictorian whose accomplishments are justifiably celebrated by organizations like CIS.

The problem of course is that immigrant success stories and crime stories are often inseparable, and as a result, are not particularly responsive to pat formulas relying on legal restrictions, and blanket deportation policies that CIS advocates. But, irrespective of what CIS writes about data being “conflicted,” there is indeed some clarity in how crime emerges in immigrant communities: It arises from the conditions of American cities.  And dealing with the conditions of American cities as they affect impoverished immigrant communities is the best way to deal with the waves of crime that do predictably occur, leading to more victims and arrests.  Acknowledging the complexity of such issues is what providing a good welcome to immigrants should involve.


Tony Waters (1999) Crime and Immigrant Youth. Thousand Oaks: Sage

Matthew T. Lee, Ramiro Martinez, and Richard Rosenfeld (2001) Does Immigration Increase Homicide?  Negative Evidence from Three Border Cities.  Sociological Quarterly

Graham C. Ousey, and Charis E. Kubrin (2009) “Exploring the Connection between Immigration and Violent Crime Rates in U. S. Cities, 1980-2000.” Social Problems, August 2009.  56(3):447-473.

Ruben Rumbaut (2009) “Undocumented Immigration and Rates of Crime and Imprisonment: Popular Myths and Empirical Studies,” at

Robert J. Sampson (2008) Rethinking Crime and Immigration, Contexts Volume 7.