The Fishiness of Alice Goffman

Today, Steven Lubet of the New Republic raised additional questions about the reliabiltiy of sociologist Alice Goffman’s acclaimed ethnography On the Run. Lubet builds on a series of criticisms he has previously made of the book; in earlier articles for the magazine, Lubet had pointed out that an incident Goffman describes, in which she accompanies her subjects on a mission to commit a murder (that ultimately did not take place), revealed Goffman to have engaged in massively unethical (and illegal) behavior. Following Goffman’s response, in which she downplayed the incident, suggesting that no murder was ever going to take place, Lubet took her to task for falsification. If the incident wasnt what she said it was, then why did she write what she did? As Lubet compellingly put it, Goffman was either a liar, unethical, or both.

Today Lubet attempts to adduce additional support for charges of fabrication. His new evidence is not especially strong. Lubet attempts to paint Goffman as having misrepresented the events surrounding the death of one of her subjects, a man named Chuck. Lubet makes two allegations: first, that Goffman said she was in the hospital room when Chuck died, even though police reports say she wasn’t. Second, that Goffman insisted that police “gave up the search” for Chuck’s killer, even though, in fact, two men were convicted for the crime.

Neither of these facts will undermine Goffman very much. For one thing, as far as the hospital room instance goes, while Lubet insists that “[t]his is not simply a matter of two differing recollections,” that’s precisely what it appears to be. The officers say they are certain there wasn’t a white female present. Goffman and Chuck’s mother say she was definitely there. In fact, if anything, this provides additional support for Goffman’s contention that the police were completely oblivious to her presence. Lubet wonders what motive the police would have to falsify their reports, but Goffman isn’t saying they falsified them, she’s saying they didn’t notice her. As to charge (2), it’s probably even weaker. The suspects were put on trial in 2012, five years after the incidents Goffman describes. Since both Lubet and the police admit the “case went cold” in 2007, it doesn’t seem an appalling mischaracterization for Goffman to have written that the police gave up.

The rest of Lubet’s article is a rehashing of his earlier attacks on Goffman. I think these are much stronger, though they, too, do not amount to falsification, they just amount to either falsification or unethical behavior. Unethical behavior seems the more likely, since, as Lubet says, Goffman had good reason to walk back the narrative after accusations that she had conspired to commit murder.

But I think Lubet is really missing some of the key questions about Alice Goffman’s work. It’s obvious he has it in for her, because he’s now published a series of three substantial articles picking her apart, eve as his evidence continues to get weaker. I think he’s coming at her work with a bias. I actually think a lot of hostility towards Goffman has been unnecessary and vindictive and likely (at least by some, not necessarily Lubet) sexist.

However, at the same time: On the Run has smelled incredibly fishy to me from the moment I first picked it up. I found it a very odd book, and several things about it didn’t make sense. So let me try to explain some of the things I think Alice Goffman needs to account for, and hasn’t.

1. Why did she burn her fieldnotes in order to avoid a subpoena?

Goffman admitted that she burned all of her fieldnotes. She says that’s standard practice for a sociologist. I can accept that. But she says she did so in order to avoid a subpoena, i.e. she destroyed them because they were evidence of the commission of crimes. If she was as willing to cooperate with police as she says, why was she destroying evidence? Why was she intentionally trying to derail a prosecution? How is this not the deliberate concealment of criminal acts?

2. What is with the “methodological note”?

The strangest part of Goffman’s book is her 50-page “methodological note,” which is really nothing of the kind. In fact, it’s a short autobiography. It’s a tale of how Goffman moved to the neighborhood she describes, what meeting the people was like, how things became hard for her, and how she balanced her life shuttling between a black Philadelphia neighborhood and graduate school at Princeton. It’s full of some very bizarre passages, perhaps chief among which is a segment about how she felt when she arrived at Princeton after her four years at the University of Pennsylvania. Describing her arrival, she writes as follows:

The first day, I caught myself casing the classrooms in the Sociology Department, making a mental note of the TVs and computers I could steal if I ever needed cash in a hurry. I got pulled over for making a U-turn, then got another ticket for parking a few inches outside some designated dotted line on the street that I hadn’t even noticed. The students and the even wealthier townies spoke strangely; their bodies moved in ways that I didn’t recognize. They smelled funny and laughed at jokes I didn’t understand. It’s one thing to feel uncomfortable in a community that is not your own. It’s another to feel that way among people who recognize you as one of them. I also began to realize how much I had missed by not living in the dorms or hanging out with the other undergrads during college. The Princeton students discussed indie rock bands– white people music, to me– and drank wine and imported beers I’d never heard of. They listened to iPods, and checked Facebook…Moreover I had missed cultural changes, such as no-carb diets and hipsters. Who were these white men in tight pants who spoke about their anxieties and feelings? They seemed so feminine, yet they dated women.

More than discomfort and awkwardness, I feared the hordes of white people. They crowded around me and moved in groups. I skipped the graduate college’s orientation to avoid what I expected would be large numbers of white people gathered together in a small space… Above everything, I feared white men. Not all white men: white American men who were relatively fit, under the age of fifty, with short hair. I avoided the younger white male faculty at all costs. On some level, I knew they weren’t cops, they probably wouldn’t beat me or insult me, but I could not escape the sweat or the pounding in my chest when they approached. 

The methodological note ends with the climactic story of the attempted murder. The very last paragraph of the note (and therefore the book) begins: “Looking back, I’m glad that I learned what it feels like to want a man to die…”

Now bear in mind, this is all billed as some kind of methodological note! And throughout the book, many of us who were gripped by the depth of her access to a criminal gang in a poor black neighborhood might have been quite eager for such a note. After all, at the end, one has so many questions: How on earth did she produce such a book? Why did these guys trust her? How did she put everything together, what were her methods of ensuring accuracy? But we get none of that. Instead, we get drama, which for a section ostensibly about the dusty mechanics of academic research, is downright odd.

I quote the above passage because it struck me on first reading, and still does, as incredibly strange. Bear in mind that Goffman had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, another Ivy League school, after working with an esteemed sociologist on a senior thesis that had gotten her a book deal. She says that when she was there, she lived off-campus and didn’t hang out with people. Fair enough. But the idea that a University of Pennsylvania graduate, raised by professor parents, who went to a prestigious private school, was somehow baffled by the existence of the iPod, is downright unbelievable. I mean, certainly she may have isolated herself. But for a wealthy double Ivy-leaguer to be looking for TVs to steal in case she needed extra cash is hard to believe.

Nor does her “fear of white people” passsage pass the smell test. She says she was terrified at the white hordes she encountered at Princeton, as if she’d never even set foot on the Penn campus during her entire four years there. And she says she was afraid of and carefully avoided white men, despite her Princeton advisor being a white man, and multiple white men being acknowledged for their supervision in the acknowledgments. (As if trying to forestall this criticism, Goffman adds numerous qualifications: white men with accents were okay, so were those over fifty, or fat ones, or ones with lots of hair. But everyone else was terrifying.) She suggests that while “on some level” she knew they weren’t cops, she still feared they would beat her. (On some level? Has any male sociologist, of any age, ever been mistakable for a cop?) But why would she have this fear? Since she wasn’t actually black, had she been at risk of being beaten by cops at any point during her research?

This brings me to what I think is truly an unexplained part of Goffman’s research, something that should have constituted a very large part of the methodological note, but instead took up hardly any of it:

3. Who did any of the people in the book really think she was?

This is what I really can’t understand. Goffman barely describes her interactions with police. But she must have stuck out like a sore thumb. This is where Lubet is onto something, even if his own evidence is not as persuasive as I’d like. It’s not just the hospital room scene, which could be explained. It’s the fact that she spends years in this neighborhood seemingly without having any relationship with police. But that’s bizarre. They must have wondered what she was doing there, she must have talked to them a lot. Surely! Did they realize she was a sociologist? And if that’s the case, why was more pressure not brought against her to testify against her subjects? Goffman witnessed scads of crimes, and yet apart from a single interrogation, seems to have been relatively let alone by prosecutors and police. This despite the fact that a federal case was being built against one of her subjects. Why wasn’t she called to testify? Why weren’t her notes subpoenaed? She may have been invisible to police in the hospital room, but how was she invisible to them every single moment of every single day that she was openly hanging around with notorious local criminals?

This question applies not only to her relationships with police, but to her relationship with the Sixth Street Boys. Goffman spends a large portion of the methodological note discussing how she got to know the boys; how she made her connections, how they became comfortable with her, etc. But she spends very little of it talking about how her identity as a sociologist manifested itself. What did they think of all her notes, considering that they must of known she was collecting evidence that could be subpoenaed and used against them? How did they know she wouldn’t inform on them? What did she think would happen if she was compelled to testify? There’s no “sociologist’s privilege” in a court of law, whereby you can keep secret the crimes of those you have been conducting an ethnography on. So what’s going on here? There may be answers to those questions, but why on earth would they not be in the methodological note? That’s what I can’t understand. I don’t understand why she didn’t even address the question of the extent to which she interacted with prosecutors and cops, and to which the potential for her testifying against the boys came up.

Thus, I do think Steven Lubet is onto something. One of the reasons I have been slightly disappointed in his articles is that I think they get close to revealing an important flaw, without quite getting there. I think Lubet and I probably feel exactly the same way: there’s something that just doesn’t feel right about many parts of Goffman’s book. It’s hard to prove, but the story just doesn’t quite make sense. It doesn’t make sense that Goffman, well-educated and wealthy, suddenly starts fearing white people and casing the Princeton sociology department. (I also think, by the way, that given her background it doesn’t make sense that she says she first learned of the existence of mass incarceration when she arrived at Princeton. After all, she was at that very moment under contract to write a book about the effects of mass incarceration on young black men. But others have told me that they find this believable, as the prison system was not discussed as much in academia during these years.) It doesn’t make sense to me that Goffman was never called to testify, that cops never interacted with her, and that she never thought to write about why this was in her methodology section. It doesn’t make sense to me why these boys, so adept at evading the law, were so willing to have all of their crimes written down by a stranger. It’s all very dubious. And it’s also true that Goffman has proven a willingness to change her story; her response to Lubet changes the facts of her story about the revenge-killing plot, meaning that she can’t be trusted for truthful explanations of things.

It’s possible that we will never see anything to further damage the reputation of On the Run, beyond the evidence already provided by Lubet (and James Forman). The investigation by Jesse Singal in New York magazine largely confirmed her work. Singal also recently rebutted Lubet’s charge that Goffman’s dissertation contains explosive secrets. My lingering doubts, and Lubet’s, might be completely ill-founded. And again, I’m not discounting the possibility that latent sexism (or, alternatively, disdain for Goffman’s academic superstar status) may cause a heightened sense of skepticism. It’s important to question one’s potential for bias.

But I do think that the writing of On the Run naturally invites a raised eyebrow. I think passages like the one I quoted are almost certainly embellished in order to provide a more compelling “fish out of water” narrative. I think if the methodological note had been more thorough, and the book more carefully organized to provide timelines and sources, we might possibly have been spared a lot of this ugly public trial over the book. I think this debate reveals an almost unavoidable problem in the present-day practice of ethnography, as Leon Neyfakh of Slate pointed out last month. There is a large amount of trust involved: professors trusting researchers, researchers trusting subjects, despite the existence of strong incentives not to tell the truth (which seems, if we’re being honest, like a recipe for disaster.) Dissertation committees do not fact-check like magazines do. A rogue sociologist could theoretically get away with large amounts of fabrication, because it’s simply so difficult to go back and source a lot of anonymized statements based on incinerated fieldnotes. If there was more rigorous documentation required of this kind of work, we might not need to have its veracity adjudicated in the pages of the New Republic. Then again, such documentation requirements could also prevent people from being able to carry out this kind of work. Some might think it worth it to have to trust the author, if you end up with something as compelling as On the Run. I am not sure I share that belief.

Partly this may again come from my personal opinions on the substantive merits of the book. I should confess: there are reasons I don’t like On the Run. I think, if true, it’s an incredibly impressive piece of research, but I think it plays into stereotypes about young criminal black men, and does little to accomplish its stated purpose of exploring the damaging effects of mass incarceration. I don’t think it tells us much, and I think it’s mostly a sensationalist cops-and-robbers story. I was particularly perturbed by a passage in which Goffman cites the presence of cockroaches in a home as evidence toward the conclusion that the inhabitant was an unfit mother. (p.14) The woman may have been, or may not have been, but I’ve had cockroaches before, and I suspect nobody would use that to impugn my potential parenting abilities, since I’m not black. I thought it was a very telling passage, and it turned me off the book from the start.

There’s no real evidence Alice Goffman is the kind of fabricator and deceiver that her (often incredibly vicious) want to make her out to be. Nevertheless, I can understand why the effort to probe her book continues. Whether it’s just because of the way she chose to write it, or because of something deeper, there’s just something that doesn’t feel quite right about On the Run.