On the ropes (Goffman review)


First a short overview, then my comments.

Alice Goffman’s book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, is one of the major events in sociology of the last few years. How unusual is it for a book based on a sociology dissertation to get this treatment?

Cornel West endorsed it as “the best treatment I know of the wretched underside of neoliberal capitalist America.”  Writing in theNew York Times Book Review, Alex Kotlowitz said it was “a remarkable feat of reporting” with an “astonishing” level of detail and honesty.  The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell called it “extraordinary,” and Christopher Jencks, in the New York Review of Books, predicted that it would “become an ethnographic classic.”  Tim Newburn, a highly regarded criminologist at the London School of Economics, hailed On the Run as “gloriously readable” and “sociology at its best.”

On the other hand, the book has lots of critics — here’s James Forman in the Atlantic — who think Goffman’s research subjects aren’t representative of the poor Black communities she wants to describe. And then there’s the exploitation/privilege/outsider argument, summarized by Claude Fischer (I added the links):

A typical line of criticism charges that outsiders cannot accurately describe their subjects of study. For example, one highly circulated review of Goffman’s book, alarmed at her white privilege, describes the study as “theft,” abetting “fantasies of black pathology,” and possibly causing harm by revealing to police the tricks of hiding. “Inner city Philadelphia isn’t Alice Goffman’s home,” another reviewer writes, “and it’s not her job to turn it into a jungle that needs interpreting.” A Buzzfeed writer simply tweeted, “Ban outsider ethnographies.”


On the morals and ethics, I’m not going to draw conclusions, except to say that I agree Goffman was wrong to help try to find and kill the guy who killed her friend, if what she says is true.

On the social science, I also have a limited perspective, because I don’t really read the book as social science; I think it’s much more a sociological memoir — and I don’t mean that as a criticism of ethnography, to which I would not apply that label in general.

In fact, the book is least persuasive when she tries to be most dispassionate. On the issue of representativeness, for example, Goffman clearly is wrong when she writes:

Initially I assumed that Chuck, Mike, and their friends represented an outlying group of delinquents: the bad apples of the neighborhood. After all, some of them occasionally sold marijuana and crack cocaine to local customers, and sometimes they even got into violent gun battles. I grew to understand that many young men from 6th Street were at least intermittently earning money by selling drugs, and the criminal justice entanglements of Chuck and his friends were on a par with what many other unemployed young men in the neighborhood were experiencing.

That’s a non sequitur, with the typical slippery use of “many” (which I have probably fallen into myself). The fact is her entire project was shaped by the guy she initially fell in with, and his friends, and they were by any measure an “outlying group.” If you don’t see people who have multiple running gun battles as unusual, your perspective may be a little skewed.

Patrick Sharkey’s review puts their outlier status in the context of declining violent crime — including in Philadelphia’s most violent neighborhoods:

The decision to engage in violence can be thought of as a rational response to the pressures and threats that young men perceive in this environment. But the decision to fire a gun in public space is one that is now universally rejected by every segment of American society, and it is a decision that comes with clear, long-term consequences that are understood by all of the young men in the neighborhood that Goffman studies. … As callous as it sounds given the hardships faced by this young man and the lack of choices available to him in this situation, my sense is that most residents of the block where he chose to fire his weapon would consider attempted murder to be an appropriate charge and would have been happy if he were located by the police and sentenced to prison.

In a number of passages it’s impossible to differentiate what Goffman knows versus what she was told. When the facts are wrong, that’s unfortunate. For example, she writes, “By the time Chuck entered his senior year of high school in 2002, young women outnumbered young men in his classes by more than 2:1.” Was that his perspective? People are reliably bad at estimating group sizes. The actual ratio of women to men among Black 17-year-olds living below the poverty line and enrolled in school in Philadelphia was skewed, but only 1.65-to-1.

Nevertheless, her description of the many ways the incarceration empire impinges on the daily lives of poor Black people in Philadelphia is sometimes insightful and useful. I mostly agree with Goffman’s political description and conclusions about the injustices here, and if the book does some harm it also will do some good. I would be happy to see the volume come down in this discussion and for us to treat this is a regular book — despite the inordinate attention it gets outside of academia. It’s deeply flawed but it’s worth reading. Its systematic evidence is weak but it’s thought-provoking and offers lots of food for thought in research and policy debates. It’s well-written and its topic is important. I have nothing against her and look forward to what she will do next.

That said…

My extremely shallow expertise in qualitative research is unfortunately not balanced by a vast knowledge of survey research methods. But that is my relative strength here, and on that I’d like to register an objection to Goffman’s study — both the book and her 2009 article in American Sociological Review (official link here, Google for a free copy).

There is an understandable problem with reproducibility even in the best ethnographies. As evidence for her conclusions, I simply discount her ostensibly meticulous counting of events, like this:

In that same eighteen-month period, I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times. Nine times, police helicopters circled overhead and beamed searchlights onto local streets. I noted blocks taped off and traffic redirected as police searched for evidence— or, in police language, secured a crime scene— seventeen times. Fourteen times during my first eighteen months of near daily observation, I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks.

To me this just means “a lot.” First, there is no denominator. That is, no way to gauge how prevalent these events were compared with anything else. “A lot” is a fine metric for this kind of observation, because all the insights come from the details that follow, not from the recitation of frequencies. (There also is a frustrating lack of precision in these passages. Consider: “I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times.” What exactly happened 52 times? What do “and” and “or” mean in that sentence?) However, if you think of it as sociological memoir, those numbers mean something because they tell you about her evolving perspective and experience. Wow, I think, if I witnessed 14 police beatings first-hand that would really affect me.

That part of the study is not reproducible. But if you do a survey while you’re doing an ethnography, you’re still doing a survey. The survey is not an ethnography. That means you should (my opinion, not a rule) make available your instrument, methods employed, and the data. Goffman has said she destroyed her field notes so they couldn’t be subpoenaed, but I don’t see why that should apply to her survey data, which could have been stripped of identifying information and processed like any other survey with sensitive material. Unlike the recitation of event counts, the survey is potentially reproducible. She reports (a few) percentages. Other researchers could conceivably conduct similar research in a different place or time and draw useful comparisons; someone might even attempt to reproduce her survey just to see if they get the same result.

Let me back up. I can, without violating the copyright rules regarding quotation length, reproduce everything she wrote about the survey portion of her study. (The much remarked upon 50-page “methodological note” at the end of the book never mentions the survey.) Here I will compare what she said in ASR versus the book, not as a gotcha exercise but because there is so little information in either that the variation between the two may be informative.

In ASR (passages excerpted across several pages of the article):

The five blocks known as 6th Street are 93 percent Black, according to a survey of residents that Chuck and I conducted in 2007. … Of the 217 households surveyed, roughly one fourth received housing vouchers. In all but two households, members reported receiving some type of government assistance in the past three years. … In the survey that Chuck and I conducted in 2007, of the 217 households that make up the 6th Street neighborhood, we found 308 men between the ages of 18 and 30 in residence. Of these men, 144 reported that they had a warrant issued for their arrest because of either delinquencies with court fines and fees or for failure to appear for a court date within the past three years. Also within the past three years, warrants had been issued to 119 men for technical violations of their probation or parole (e.g., drinking or breaking curfew).

The footnote to that last passage clarifies that “in residence” doesn’t really mean living there:

I counted men who lived in a house for three days a week or more (by their own estimates and in some cases, my knowledge) as members of the household. I included men who were absent because they were in the military, at job training programs (like JobCorp), or away in jail, prison, drug rehab centers, or halfway houses, if they expected to return to the house and had been living in the house before they went away.

From this we learn that the survey included 217 households — and also that those 217 households make up the entire 6th Street neighborhood (not its real name). That seems to imply a 100% response rate, because the 217 households surveyed corresponds to the 217 that “make up” the neighborhood. (That is an excellent response rate.) That is also important because of what comes next. If there were 217 households in the neighborhood, but she had only done interviews with, say, half of them, it would have been very surprising to find 308 men ages 18-30 living there. As it is, it’s extremely unlikely there were 308 men 18-30 living in all 217 households. The footnote says she included men who only lived there part time, or who were away for prison or other institutional spells. Frustratingly, it doesn’t say how many in the sample this applied to.

Here’s what tripped me up about that: 308 men 18-30 in 217 households is 1.4 per household — too many, I thought. So I looked at the 45 census tracts in West Philadelphia that are 75% Black or more (based on this map) in the 2005-2009 American Community Survey, and calculated the average number of men in that age range as .57 per household. (Actually I did the estimate for 18-29 because of how the data are published.) There is one tract with 1.04 men per household, but that’s an outlier. If she’s getting almost 2.5-times more than the average in her sample (1.4 versus .57), there must be a lot of missing men living in the neighborhoods not counted by the Census Bureau. Besides wondering if that’s accurate, you also ought to wonder who answered the questions about those men who weren’t actually residing in their residences.

The book’s version, unfortunately, doesn’t help clear that up:

In 2007 Chuck and I went door to door and conducted a household survey of the 6th Street neighborhood. We interviewed 308 men between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Of these young men, 144 reported that they had a warrant issued for their arrest because of either delinquencies with court fines and fees or failure to appear for a court date within the previous three years. For that same period, 119 men reported that they had been issued warrants for technical violations of their probation or parole (for example, drinking or breaking curfew).

This says they interviewed all 308 men, which seems like just an editing mistake. But then of the 144 who “reported that they had a warrant,” was that out of 308 or out of some smaller number of men whom they actually interviewed? Did someone else answer for the men who weren’t there?

Later in the book she describes the women she interviewed in the same survey:

In our 2007 household survey of the 6th Street neighborhood, 139 of 146 women reported that in the past three years, a partner, neighbor, or close male relative was either wanted by the police, serving a probation or parole sentence, going through a trial, living in a halfway house, or on house arrest. Of the women we interviewed, 67 percent said that during that same period, the police had pressured them to provide information about that person.

If she had limited the sample of women to the same age range as the men (which there’s no indication she did) then you would expect, based on the Black West Philadelphia census tracts, about 1.2 men for every woman, or about 250 women in the sample. However, if she included women of all ages, it should have been even more. Why are there only 146 women? Without any more information — and there is no more information in the book — it’s impossible to figure this out.

The last thing you might like to know if you wanted to pursue these very interesting and potentially important results, is what the survey instrument was like, and how it was administered. This was more than 450 people, a decent size survey, with good potential to yield useful results. We know they asked race, housing and other government assistance, warrant status (including the type of warrant) for the men, and criminal justice status for the partner/neighbor/relative (asked separately?) of the women. What strikes me as challenging here is asking these very sensitive questions and getting such a high response rate. Especially given all we learn from the book, knocking on doors and asking people if they have any warrants seems like it wouldn’t always be welcome. How long were the interviews? Did they make multiple visits when people weren’t home? So knowing how they did it would be very helpful for future work.

In the end, besides what we learn from On the Run itself, I hope we learn from the debate over it how we can better balance the need for protecting research subjects — while learning a lot from them — with the imperative to conduct research that is transparent, verifiable, and (as much as possible) reproducible.

ADDENDUM: The importance of the survey

The survey plays a very small part in the book and ASR article, only mentioned a few times, but it is important because it does offer a  hint of generalizability to her research. James Forman wrote in the Atlantic:

The fact that Goffman’s subjects have serious criminal histories impairs our ability to generalize from some of her findings. For example, her central characters are all wanted on warrants at one time or another, some of them repeatedly (Mike has 10 warrants altogether). To Goffman, this indicates that Philadelphia’s criminal-justice system issues too many warrants. But it may simply indicate that Mike and his friends are unusually criminally active.

Perhaps anticipating this challenge, Goffman extends her inquiry beyond the most criminally active members of the community. When she conducts a door-to-door survey of Sixth Street, she finds that about half the men there were wanted on warrants over a three-year period. This is astounding; no previous researcher has reported such a high concentration of fugitives living in one community. This raises questions that Goffman doesn’t answer with precision, but that I hope she and others will explore in the future: How many of these warrants were for failure to pay court costs—which should rarely if ever be imposed on poor people in the first place—versus something more serious, such as skipping a court date? Does fugitive status affect the lives of less criminally involved young men in the same ways it affects the lives of Mike and his friends? If it does, and if other communities harbor equally large proportions of fugitives, Goffman has discovered a profound social problem that deserves further research and a policy response.

The survey thus represents an important avenue for the book’s impact on future research.

ADDITIONAL ADDENDUM: Goffman’s response

In a statement on her website, Goffman responds to several of the recent criticisms. The first is that she participated in a conspiracy to commit murder. Her description there doesn’t change my impression of the scene she describes. But it is interesting for what it reveals about her sense of the men at the core of her story: Chuck and Mike. She writes:

In the months before he died, Chuck was actively working to preserve a precarious peace between his friends and a rival group living nearby. His sudden death was a devastating blow not only to his friends and family, but to the whole neighborhood. After Chuck was shot and killed, people in the neighborhood were putting a lot of pressure on Mike and on Chuck’s other friends to avenge his murder. It seemed that Chuck’s friends were expected to fulfill the neighborhood’s collective desire for retribution. Many of the residents were emphatic that justice should be served, and the man who killed Chuck must pay.

This surprises me, because I did not get the sense from the book that the gang rivalry Goffman described had motivated a collective conflict between entire neighborhoods. That contradicts the comment from Patrick Sharkey above, which speculates that most people in the neighborhood would have been glad to see the police arrest and incarcerate the people who conduct running gun battles in the street. Maybe Skarkey and I are victims of do-gooder liberal attitudes, and really there are neighborhoods in Philadelphia that see themselves at war with whole other neighborhoods and clamor for more shooting.

As an aside, I recently read Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, in which journalist Jill Leovy argues that poor Black communities are at once over-policed — as innocent people are harassed, violated, prosecuted, and incarcerated for minor (or no) offenses — and under-policed such that murderers in Black communities are much less likely to be arrested and convicted than are those who kill Whites. This latter neglect by police contributes to the real problem of violence because it encourages informal (violent) means of addressing conflict in the community. By Leovy’s reasoning, and Sharkey might agree, majorities of people in violent Black neighborhoods would like fewer drug users incarcerated, but more of the people like Mike and whoever killed Chuck incarcerated.

Of course, I don’t know the situation in the “6th Street” neighborhood. But it’s one thing for an activist or community leader to say, “Our neighborhood stands united!”, and another for a sociologist to speak of “the neighborhood’s collective desire.” The former may be effective politics, but the latter is likely an overly-simplified research conclusion.

Which brings me finally back to the issue of Goffman’s survey. In her response, Goffman says Chuck was actively working on neighborhood peace in the months before his death, which occurred in the summer of 2007. Remarkably, that is the same time that she and Chuck conducted their survey of all 217 households in the neighborhood, with a reported 454 interviews. The timing of the survey is not completely clear, but she wrote that it was in 2007. and in an interview she said the survey was in the summer (“Yeah, so we did this survey, Chuck and I, one summer. We interviewed the households in this four-block radius…”). So it’s either a head-scratching story or an incredibly impressive image: Chuck and Goffman conducting a door-to-door household survey at the same time that he’s negotiating a delicate gang truce, interviewing every single household in the neighborhood in the weeks leading up to Chuck’s death, gathering the information that would allow Goffman to in fact accurately speak of their “collective desire.”

47 thoughts on “On the ropes (Goffman review)

  1. “Here’s what tripped me up about that: 308 men 18-30 in 217 households is 1.4 per household — too many, I thought. So I looked at the 45 census tracts in West Philadelphia that are 75% Black or more (based on this map) in the 2005-2009 American Community Survey, and calculated the average number of men in that age range as .57 per household.”

    Here is a key misunderstanding. The ACS household refers to persons who are present all the time; in reality, the households in poor families consist of transient men and adolescents who are of schoolgoing age but do not attend school, or attend school sometimes, or present only for certain days. I can refer you to literature that differentiates between permanent men and transient men and the multiplier is always > 2. It is believed that the difference is to qualify the household for payment of government benefits; if more than 0 men are present in a household, the household has significant reductions in SNAP, Section 8A, and TANF payments.


    1. You are right that there are big differences in methods of defining (and measuring) household rosters. If Goffman used a very expansive definition — and was able to interview the men it identified (who are hard to reach, by her definition) — that could explain some or all of this, but we don’t have enough info to know. On the other hand, if she just interviewed 308 men from the neighborhood, it doesn’t really matter so much what household they live in, for the questions she’s asking — it could still be good data.


  2. I’ll admit I was skeptical of all the attention A. Goffmann received at first. Before reading it, I wondered if someone with a different last name would have been able to get as much press. A lot of this was jealousy on my part–the New York Times Book Review would never consider writing about my book–and envy–I don’t think I would want to spend that much time in the field even if I could. However, after reading it, and talking with her about it, I respect OTR most for the amount of work that went into it. Ethnography is a grind. Much of the work is mundane. And the accumulation of “rich” scenes (like watching somebody run from the cops) requires a lot of sitting around and doing nothing. Actually spending time with the population one is studying is something that very few authors of ASR pieces do, so I give her a lot of credit for that.

    As for the critiques:

    outsider ethnography:

    I can’t criticize her for being an outsider. I appreciate standpoint theory and I acknowledge that many things are hidden to outsiders and/or subject to misinterpretation. But, if we (as sociologists) can only study those who occupy the same standpoint, we might as well pack up shop. I understand the risks/implications of “studying down,” but this same line of reasoning also cordons off possibilities of “studying up,” too. Had she spent more time acknowledging and citing the pantheon of critical race scholars who have been making similar arguments for decades, I don’t think she would be getting as much push-back from the “ban outsider ethnography” proponents. As an aside, we invited her to campus, and she spent much more time acknowledging potential biases and the groundwork laid by other scholars in her talk than in the book. I tweeted a while back that, during her talk, she was “intersectionally-aware.” And I stand by that.

    lack of precision:

    I agree that words like “more” and “a lot” are imprecise. However, my defense of these broad characterizations is twofold.

    One, what is the difference between seeing a cop step on someone’s neck on your sidewalk 8 times or 9 times? I understand the quantitative distinction, but was is the qualitative distinction. Seeing it happen 6 or 7 or 8 or 9 or 10 times is seeing it “a lot.” I’ve certainly not seen a cop do that on my block–ever. I’ve seen it happen, just not where I live. And that is the point. What is “more or less routine” (see the vague language?) is very different from “never, not even once.”

    Two, there are some profound differences in epistemological assumptions between ethnographers and other quantitative methodologists. I don’t want to get into a big quant vs. qual battle, that’s been done before (the Jerolmack/Khan vs. Vaisey back and forth in SMR is a good example). But my position is that there are some things upon which we will not agree. The need for ethnographers to provide quantitative support for the their arguments is one of them I agree the survey data she reports in OTR is likely flawed and incorrect, I assume the reason for this is because some of it was collected when she was an undergraduate. To be honest, I wish she wouldn’t have included it at all. Or, just use ACS data and be done with it — no one is going to take her word over ACS data, anyway Could her survey methods have been better? Yes. But, if you are reading OTR for a primer on how to conduct surveys with a clipboard, you’re doing it wrong. Ethnographers trying to bolster their arguments with their own quantitative data usually end up disappointing both sides (which is what I think she did in this case).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “By the time Chuck entered his senior year of high school in 2002, young women outnumbered young men in his classes by more than 2:1.” Was that his perspective? People are reliably bad at estimating group sizes. The actual ratio of women to men among Black 17-year-olds living below the poverty line and enrolled in school in Philadelphia was skewed, but only 1.65-to-1.”

    2:1 is a very good round off for 1.65:1; did you expect him to say there were 3 men for 5 women in my class?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Presumably the fact that it could be an almost reasonable “round-off” for 1.65 is why she added “more than”. She doesn’t seem to have been content with stats that were plausibly connected to the actual stats.


    2. What makes people think that every school in the city has 1.65 women per man? It’s an average. Chuck’s school certainly could have had a higher ratio.


  4. “If she had limited the sample of women to the same age range as the men (which there’s no indication she did) then you would expect, based on the Black West Philadelphia census tracts, about 1.2 men for every woman, or about 250 women in the sample. However, if she included women of all ages, it should have been even more. Why are there only 146 women? Without any more information — and there is no more information in the book — it’s impossible to figure this out”

    This is very easy to respond to. There were 217 households. She interviewed more than 217 females, since females are often the householders or female dependents. Men are often not the householders and are either transients or dependents. As such, the female householder or dependent is more cautious in responding to surveys. I am reading that paragraph again from the book, but it does not appear to say that 146 women only were interviewed; it appears that more were interviewed, but only 146 gave responses that had a yes/no or details. I can understand the caution of women i responding, as they had the most to lose in case the authorities went back on the notes and asked them about total household numbers. Elsewhere in the book, it was noted that women did not note support transient men who were living partly in the household.


  5. At the risk of being a complete jerk, I respond for the fourth and last (!) time. More than anything, the Goffman work has demonstrated the impact of technology on crime and policing. A combination of multiple databases (warrants, arrests, parole, fingerprints, state driving licenses, moving violations, and possible future DNA), technology advancements such as video cameras, have together, trapped a (should I even say this?) a less cognitive population in a quasi-confinement, in the name of crimefighting. If the population had a higher cognitive ability, they will use physical exit from the geographical area, or employment-based relocation,to exit this trap. However, the combination of immigration/globalization and the ability of cognitively-less gifted population has created a larger jail where they are completely trapped. This is my take-away from the Goffman study, not the minutiae of arguments about methods and accusations of racism.

    The ethnography that this work most closely reminds me is Chagnon’s Yamomami work!… take it any way you wish.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Phil, I generally agree with your comments, but I think that your assessment of the neighborhood sentiments here are pretty off-base given existing research. Take, for example, Andy Papachristos’ Murder by Structure article in AJS. He shows that retribution provides a strong motive for murder and that murder becomes a “gift” that gangs pass from one to another. Just as importantly, he shows how the relative status of gangs leads to higher or lower murder rates among groups; centralized gang structures with a strong single group at its center (the Latin Kings in his paper) perpetuate less violence than nearly-equally situated gangs (as is true among many of the South and West side Black gangs).

    In Philadelphia, and incidentally D.C., centralized gangs are relatively uncommon; instead, Philadelphia has “crews” that are geographically defined entities by different neighborhoods (like the 6th street boys). Without a very strong central gang with unrivaled status to enforce discipline, violence will likely be much higher and more “random” than in places like Chicago or L.A. The place-based definition of crews also means that there would likely be pressure from neighborhood residents to exact retribution. I don’t need to explain to you that a sentiment among a significant portion of the neighborhood, especially a portion of the neighborhood that the boys respect (like neighborhood O.G.s) would put pressure on the crew to revenge Chuck’s death.


    1. Thanks. I understand that the gangs are place-based (although I believe Chicago has a higher murder rate than Philly and LA has a network of local “crews”). But I don’t see how this follows: “The place-based definition of crews also means that there would likely be pressure from neighborhood residents to exact retribution.” I don’t see why violent gangs being locally-based would make regular residents support rather than oppose violence. Maybe I missed it, incidentally, but I don’t remember any evidence of regular people encouraging violence in the book, so this is an odd (unconvincing) way to introduce that.


      1. I don’t see why violent gangs being locally-based would make regular residents support rather than oppose violence.

        If by “regular” you mean what Elijah Anderson calls “decent,” then you and I probably agree except that I can also see a scenario in which decent folks oppose violence in general but want to see the murder of one of their own avenged. This would be even more likely to be true if one doesn’t trust the police and, given that this is the police department that responded to decent folks’ appeals to help by bombing a house and destroying their homes, I can imagine why many folks–even the decent ones–would not trust the police (nevermind the myriad smaller incidents that Goffman documents for which there is no evidence to suggest that she is making up).

        That said, let’s suppose your assumption is true and all of the decent folk want the violence to stop. It would not be impossible to imagine a small, but not negligible portion of residents, who sit somewhere between “street” and “decent” that want the boys to exact revenge. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the boys would feel pressure to avenge Chuck’s murder. I find this to be the likely scenario since Goffman writes “people in the neighborhood were putting a lot of pressure” rather than “the neighborhood.”

        On the idea that this should have been clearer in the book, I agree with the benefit of hindsight and not being forced to make the editorial decisions required in writing said book myself.


        1. Mike raises some good points, leading to a really great discussion. Here’s another thought to throw in the mix: We should remember that one of the so-defined “clean” people is Chuck and Reggie’s grandfather, who lives upstairs, and who also happens to have shot Reggie’s dad in the past (for abusing his daughter). What I want to suggest, then, is that Goffman’s sense of “the neighborhood’s sentiment” or even “people in the neighborhood,” (to draw on Mike’s distinction), is very much skewed toward people with feelings of retribution. My sense is that Sharkey is drawing on his own work and knowledge of communities that just want the violence to stop–a whole different set of “clean” people, so to speak. All that said, what could settle this debate is knowing what the “indoor guys”–the guys that just played video games and were only knowledgeable of Chuck and his crew from a distance–thought about all of this. They have no skin in the 4th St vs 6th St war other than wanting a safe place to play video games, and so their opinions might be the only ones in Goffman’s data that could speak directly to this point.


  7. “So it’s either a head-scratching story or an incredibly impressive image: Chuck and Goffman conducting a door-to-door household survey at the same time that he’s negotiating a delicate gang truce, interviewing every single household in the neighborhood in the weeks leading up to Chuck’s death”

    Not sure why this is so head scratching. Days are long. People do stuff at one time of day that may seem at odds with long term pressing matters, but this happens all the time. Consider the most tense, nerve-wracking period of your life. Maybe there were two weeks that you were grappling with a major family emergency. During that time, you still had to go grocery shopping. You still had to fold laundry. There were all sorts of everyday obligations that you had to do that, looking back, seem amazing that you were able to accomplish given all that was swirling around you.

    I remember one day of fieldwork when the agency I was studying was filled with staff totally distraught about the murder of one of the staff’s daughters. This was an incredibly tense and emotional time. You know what they did for one of those hours that day? Debate about where they should go get lunch. Looking back, it seems incredulous. But at the time, life was just unfolding.

    For all our flaws, humans have generally mastered the art of walking and chewing gum at the same time.


    1. Well, I did say “head scratching,” not impossible. But going grocery shopping or arguing about where to eat dinner is not the same as conducting 454 interviews. If it were 1/2 hour per household that’s more than 100 hours. Of course we don’t know how extensive the interviews were or how long it took to get people home at every single house in the neighborhood. It would be useful also if there had been some other discussion in the book about Chuck’s interest in her research project, which might help explain why he would make such a time commitment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree, its an impressive amount of time. And that is one of the things that I respect about the work. But, like I said, people get into a rhythm of everyday obligations that allows them to keep doing the same things over and over again (like Chuck hanging out with Alice every afternoon that summer, going door to door, and talking with people) in spite of the craziness swirling around them.

        I agree with your point about wanting to know more about Chuck’s motivations for doing the surveys/interviews, but I feel like that question was answered for me in other parts of the book when she talked about what they thought of her presence.


      2. I don’t see it as so head scratching after a little simple math. For one thing, unless I missed it, she doesn’t say she and Chuck did all of these interviews together. They may have split up the work, at least part of the time, with Chuck doing the interviews and reporting his numbers to Alice for recording and analyzing. Suppose they split the interviews 50/50 – that would be about 225 interviews apiece. If each interview took half an hour (which is probably high), that’s about 112 hours each, easily do-able in 3 or 4 weeks even when you’re doing other things in Alice’s case like, presumably, going to class.

        “If she’s getting almost 2.5-times more than the average in her sample (1.4 versus .57), there must be a lot of missing men living in the neighborhoods not counted by the Census Bureau.”

        I would suspect there are! Doesn’t it make sense that an actual resident of the neighborhood (Chuck), accompanied by a person (Alice) vouched for as trustworthy by that resident, got better data than US census takers? Quite possibly her credibility and known friendships in the neighborhood made up for the less-than-airtight quality of her research methodology. It would make sense, given how many of the men are fugitives, that someone trusted by neighborhood residents got higher reported numbers of men living in these households than were reported to government officials. Naturally if someone is on the run from the law, and being protected by family members, those family members are not going to report these men to census takers! They’ll just pretend the person doesn’t exist, or say he moved to California. That’s the ones who don’t just slam the door on a census taker in the first place. (Figuratively or literally.)


  8. “Consider: ‘I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times.’ What exactly happened 52 times? What do ‘and’ and ‘or’ mean in that sentence?)”

    I don’t see what’s imprecise or confusing about that … I would take “and” and “or” to mean exactly what they mean in standard American English in which case what she is reporting is precisely quantified. So is “what exactly happened.” Of course, data like these are not “reproducible” – it was HER experience, events that happened on particular dates and times, events that SHE witnessed which aren’t going to be repeated precisely ever again in the world (unless perhaps the theory of the multiverse is proven correct and all events happen multiple other possible ways in other universes and we will eventually have metrics to quantify these as well?).

    So, her report says that exactly 52 times during the period she kept records (also precisely specified, 18 months – can’t recall exactly but I think the dates are given too, a little earlier in the text), she witnessed events in which (52 times) police broke down a door, searched a house, AND then did one, but not necessarily all, of the things following the OR. That reading follows from the meaning of the words “and” and “or.”

    So, on not every one of those 52 occasions did they end up arresting or chasing someone – presumably because sometimes, the person they were looking for was not there. But on some of those 52 occasions they arrested the person, if he was there, and on at least some of those 52 occasions, the person was there but he fled and they chased him.

    The point of this piece of data was the number of times police pounded on and then kicked in doors looking for suspects. It seems hard to believe anyone could miss this point. Has YOUR home, or that of anyone close to you, or any neighbor on your street, been burst into by police 52 times in the past 18 months? The exact number of times the person the police were looking for turned out to be on the scene, i.e., the outcome of each of these police intrusions, is irrelevant.

    It is also correctly interpreted that on EVERY one of the 52 occasions, they questioned someone. This stands to reason since, given that these were events she actually witnessed, we know that at least one person was present to be questioned, or else she couldn’t have witnessed the events. Police don’t break down doors and burst into houses and then NOT ask questions of whomever they find in the house. This reading of her report is painfully obvious. This is why the “or” comes after “questioned” and “arrested.” Sometimes the person was not there to arrest.

    Again, I do not see lack of clarity here – I see a high level of precision.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you think this data could be independently verified against data in the Philly PD? Of course, not. Yes, in my upper class neighborhood, police “break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times” a ONE month. not in 18 months. How’s that? Find the slippery word? – “question”. My local PD gives out an average of 80 moving violations a month. Each one of those involves “questioning” drivers. There aren’t any doors broken down, but since I’ve just shown that the author didn’t say there were any or provides any information to independently verify anything she writes, both our experiences are equally valid.


      1. Again though, if you parse the grammar of the sentence and the meaning of the words “and” and “or,” your reading of the sentence is not supported. The meaning of those words, and their placement in the sentence, matter. Read it again.


        1. I understand, I should be more precise. Do you think the events, descriptions and data noted in her book can or should be able to be independently verified against police blotter reports? Having read the 62 page anonymous criticism at soc job rumors, someone spent the time I haven’t or her book editor should have to verify whether she could have seen what she said SHE saw (as opposed to reporting what others saw)


          1. Either you truly don’t understand, or you’re abandoning your original argument and making a new one. I’ll try answering both.

            First, what I replied to was Dr. Cohen’s questions about what the sentence from the Goffman book regarding the “52 times I saw police … etc.” actually described. He said that it was not precise, he wondered “what actually happened,” and questioned what “and” and “or” in the sentence meant. In fact the sentence parses precisely, and the meaning of the “and” and the “or” are not opaque, they’re common words with straightforward meanings, and their position in the sentence makes clear what she said happened.

            The second question we seem to be discussing is whether the events she described actually happened, which surely we agree is a separate question from whether her explication of the numbers of events she witnessed was clear and precise. If you are really asking THAT question, why not just say so in the first place, rather than write about police stopping drivers for running traffic lights and acting as if that counts in the same category as police kicking in doors of houses and questioning (OR chasing or arresting someone). If you really understood my answer to the first question – i.e., what Goffman originally wrote – you wouldn’t have given the irrelevant example. (Again, “questioning” comes after the “and” and before the “or.” If you read the sentence with this in mind, it will be apparent that because the breaking down doors and searching houses comes before the “and,” she is saying THESE things happened 52 times. Traffic stops for moving violations are not similar to breaking down doors and searching houses, so no, the police activity in your neighborhood is not comparable.

            So, as to corroborating her report of specific incidents versus the police blotter, Goffman has been clear that she destroyed her notes to avoid the possibility of their being subpoenaed in court cases. So no, there’s no chance of what you suggest, because it obviously involves actual names and locations and dates, and she’s not going to do it and she made absolutely certain no one else would ever be able to do so, either, and she did it to protect her subjects, the very first and absolute ethical rule in her field. Everyone knows there’s no way on God’s green earth any of her subjects would ever have agreed to talk to her for 5 minutes, let alone let her live with them, observe them for six years, and write a book about them, if she had not managed to persuade them of her rock solid dedication to not reveal their identities. Those of you suggesting she break that trust – you can’t be serious. Does it raise ethical questions regarding her duties as a citizen, i.e., was she morally obligated on certain occasions to notify the police when she knew of crimes or the whereabouts of wanted criminals? Perhaps so – probably so. However, her project would have been over the minute she made such a decision. It’s hard to see how the kind of data she gathered – flawed though it may be – could conceivably ever be collected in any other fashion (i.e., this version of participant observation/immersion, which cannot be done if your subjects don’t trust you).

            She also says elsewhere that when she took her present job, she had to consider whether taking the risk of going to prison was a good option career-wise, and she understandably decided against that option.

            TLDR? You asked, “Do you think the events, descriptions and data noted in her book can or should be able to be independently verified against police blotter reports?” The answer: No. If that were possible, her research would never have been conducted in the first place; the subjects would not have agreed. Or else, she’d have to violate their trust after the fact.

            P.S. If you think a book editor should have done this type of sleuthing, you have a quaint idea of what book editors do.


          2. P.S. “Having read the 62 page anonymous criticism at soc job rumors”

            Well, I have NOT read that document, and I can’t say it sounds enticing. The words “anonymous” and the name of the forum “soc job rumors” pretty much says it all.


  9. http://pastebin.com/NttQqPXj

    Her sources were not anonymous according to this analysis.

    It also raises questions about whether she did what she said she did in her book. Did she live in the neighborhood she said she did, for how long? 3 months, or 6 years? Details that might not matter, but this topic is too important to be buried under a goosed-up story.


  10. Whew. I don’t have time to go through that whole document on the spot, and if I did my own replies would be unreadably long, but I’ll take it in chunks over the next few days. (Trying to hold my nose over the extreme stench of sour grapes.)

    So, the first complaint: she states that at Alex’s request, she did not “include him in fieldnotes”; then, as the book was “nearing completion,” he requested to be included after all. This strikes the “guest” author of the post as suspicious. It seems ordinary to me. You can fault her for misspeaking, I suppose – though it makes the sour grapes pretty obvious – but the likely scenario is that she did “include” him in field notes in the sense that she wrote down things he said, or noted the overall gist of his contributions or comments in certain situations, with the intention (which she followed through on) to redact them in preparing published materials unless/until he changed his mind on this. That might mean she misspoke when she made it sound like she never included him in the first place. She probably meant she intended to exclude any material directly about him from publication. The field notes have no significance to anyone or anything unless they see publication (or inclusion in an academic paper).

    A little common sense suggests that it’s impossible to record events and conversations in which a particular person figures in an important way, and yet leave that particular person out of one’s notes. It would be like recording one end of a telephone conversation – it’s not plausible she did this. She would have had to exclude every conversation he had with anyone, and many stories then she could not have recorded at all. I suspect she did not view herself as responsible to avoid note taking at any event or situation in which Alex was even present; she recorded events and conversations in the only way possible for the event to later be intelligible, intending to redact one person’s contributions later if the material was being prepared for publication.
    I think to a working ethnographer this is pretty obvious.

    The fact that some of his materials were included in articles published before the dissertation is irrelevant. “Guest” commenter seems to assume that if Alex did not want to be included in the book, he also did not want to be included in articles. That doesn’t follow at all. Many people see writing a book as a really big thing; a few articles in sociology journals aren’t going to be read by very many people, but the type of book she was aiming to write – and did write – would, it was to be hoped, receive a lot of public attention. Alex wasn’t dumb. Also, he may have explicitly changed his mind earlier regarding use of his material in articles submitted to scholarly journals, and after reading the articles himself, become more comfortable with the idea of including them in the book. Perhaps since she made him anonymous in the articles, he then trusted her to maintain his anonymity in the book. In other words, he thought the journal articles were no big deal, and when he read them and saw how he was presented, he became comfortable with their inclusion in the book. (Though the way she tells the story, it sounds more like, he was initially suspicious of her and her whole project, and after knowing her for several years, his suspicions faded and he then didn’t want to be left out of the project. It is quite reasonable and a normally human thing, to change one’s mind on a topic such as this over time, or to be inconsistent in one’s feelings or statements about it.)

    Things like “yawning, nodding, laughing” obviously include some measure of poetic license – trying to capture the basic attitudes and moods of an event or conversation, and present it in readable form. Narrative is the central component of ethnography. You can’t write one portraying people like robots speaking lines with no human emotion, gestures, or mannerisms, or exclude all mention of body language. But ethnographies are not documentary films. In an ethnography these details cannot be wholly literal unless they are transcribed from a video (actually, even then, because the observer’s own biases come into play in what they transcribe, and you can be sure a few nods and yawns will be omitted, added in the wrong place, etc. – video lies, too.). In any event, field notes are generally in this regard a bit of a pastiche – you can call it “embellishing” or even “fabricating” if you wish but her observations don’t seem different from most ethnographies in this regard. Remember, this is PARTICIPANT observation. You can’t truly participate in a conversation if you are writing down things like “He nodded,” or “He yawned” literally millisecond by millisecond. This sort of thing, you’re going to have to reconstruct as you write it up later. You might recall, or have noted, that so-and-so was sleepy, so you have him yawn a couple of times through the conversation. Or you captured the fact that this person agreed with that person – that was the gist of the conversation. So you have one of them nodding occasionally while the other one speaks. Like life. It doesn’t matter EXACTLY when he yawned or nodded and you’d be paralyzed if you tried to get every yawn or nod in the first place. Any writer knows this. Reports such as this would never be published according to “guest’s” strictures.

    So no, I am not troubled that even though she agreed not to “include Alex in fieldnotes,” when he later changed his mind regarding his inclusion in the project, she felt free to have him nod or yawn in conversations prepared for publication years later.

    Good grief.

    This flimsy and trivial argument makes the author’s intent to discredit Goffman clear.

    “Ms. Goffman ‘had to write a dissertation’ (pg. 205) in 2008, received a dissertation writing fellowship for 2009, and defended her dissertation in 2010, so was ‘the book’ really nearing completion as far back as 2008, when she submitted the article, with Alex quotations in it, to the Journal?”

    LOL. Have you ever written a book? Yep, for something published in 2010, 2008 is “nearing completion.”

    Come on, it is obvious this is splitting hairs for purposes of personal grievance.

    “I am afraid these stories don’t seem likely to have happened”

    These stories seem very likely to me to have happened.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ll take this on while I’m here: “Did she live in the neighborhood she said she did, for how long? 3 months, or 6 years? Details that might not matter, but this topic is too important to be buried under a goosed-up story.”

    I don’t know if you know the area. I’ve lived in Philadelphia for almost 30 years. I do not know on what grounds you question how long she lived in the area, but I can tell you two things: it would have been very easy, while she was an undergraduate at Penn, to live in the neighborhood described and yet easily get to classes, and participate in other aspects of undergraduate life at Penn. Penn is at the edge of a large section of the city that contains many neighborhoods like the one Goffman describes. Quite a few Penn students live at this “edge,” some actually over the edge, depending on how you define it, which is obviously subjective anyway. It sounds like she went a little farther west than most, but she’s definitely not the only one. (Rents get lower as you go farther west of Penn.) This is very easy walking or bus or trolley distance from campus, and it’s a 5- or 10-minute drive, possibly a little more depending on whether you’re trying to park on the street or have a parking pass somewhere.

    Also, of course, how you define “living” somewhere is not really such a straightforward thing, so if you are looking for details to trip her up on, I can see why this appeals. She may have said she “lived” out in West Philly, which she obviously did, yet for some portion of that period also had a dorm room at Penn, so where did she “really” live? She may have described herself as “living” at both places at different times in an inconsistent way, because the definition of where she “lived” probably really isn’t black and white. It’s possible that Penn as an institution may have considered her officially “living on campus” even during periods when she was spending most of her time, including sleeping, at “Sixth Street.”

    I dunno, maybe that’s something someone else with time on their hands can check into, the way people are apparently trying to line up the incidents she described with Philly police blotters. I’m surprised no one’s contacted Penn to find out what dates she officially “lived” there.

    I can also tell you that if you live in Philadelphia it is not at all difficult to work in Princeton. Many people do this, and I’ve done it. It’s about an hour’s drive if you can avoid rush hour, in which case it may be an hour and a half, or worse when traffic is snarled, which is admittedly frequent. But if you only have to go up a couple of days a week, this is quite do-able. And if you are a grad student you probably do not have to report somewhere at 8 a.m., so she would likely have tried to make the drive during off-peak rush hours. There may be ambiguity there as well without it indicating anything nefarious – there may well have been times she technically “lived” at Princeton, yet usually slept in West Philly, and vice versa. From the way she describes her activities, she obviously spent a long period going back and forth at intervals, and I would not blink an eye over where she said she “lived” at various times. Looking for supposed “inconsistencies” there just indicates you don’t know what you’re talking about. Though I suppose if you hire a private investigator you could probably find ammunition of this sort against her (dates of leases, or something).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I lived in the neighborhood. Walnut Hill, where she lived is several miles from Wynnefield. It is also, not ANYTHING, like she described in her book. She made it anonymous not to protect identities but because it allowed her to write more freely and indulge HER beliefs about the issues facing urban Philadelphia. Read what she wrote about the women of 6th street and see where her biases are.

      All this BS about making things anonymous but when one reporter from NYC can spend one day in Philly and track down some of her subjects is embarrassing. Makes the hospital story particularly unbelievable, because it HUP she is talking about … or Lankenau. No way she saw 3 separate men arrested in a maternity ward for minor warrant violations the same night. And the book quotes a police officer admitted to her that this is the case to her! Such BS, only believable to people who don’t get to hospitals much, which sadly is not the case for me.


  12. Okay: 19 year olds in public school; and Philadelphia juvenile court:

    The comments about non-family members not being allowed in Juvenile Court strike me as very naïve, similar to the suggestion to “call the school district” to determine whether a 19 year old can enter the public schools in Philly. A charitable interpretation is that this person doesn’t know much about Philly. Did the critic miss that Alice was often introduced as Mike’s sister? Does the critic think that they religiously check ID’s in juvenile court, or even if they did, that Alice would have been asked to somehow prove she was someone’s sister? (I feel confident in saying they are more concerned with keeping weapons out than keeping out the likes of Alice Goffman.)

    It is also naïve to interpret that because someone said they were told they couldn’t enroll in the public school at 19, this is therefore the policy of the district; or that this is what someone at the district told the person; or that any of the subjects reported on had in recent memory – or ever – contacted the district to ask this question. (There are about half a dozen other possibilities here that I can think of, but that’s good enough to indicate that this criticism of Goffman is specious.) What does the critic think an ethnography consists of? It doesn’t usually mean taking the word of enormous bureaucracies regarding laws, rules and regulations, to interpret the behavior or understanding of subjects, or understanding of subjects’ thoughts or beliefs. It is also not typical to assume – or to think one’s readers are so naïve as to assume – that the information that subjects provide on these topics is accurate. We are in the realm of public understanding or misunderstanding, rumors, gossip, subjective experience, community beliefs, etc. – i.e.: the realm of ethnography.

    I can tell you that Philadelphia’s public school system, the 8th largest in the country, is – putting it mildly – complex – byzantine. Of course, they’ve got a lot of rules, many which ostensibly bind all schools in the entire district. But there are also virtually endless permutations in the way different schools do things, and in their freedom to follow their own rules, officially or otherwise. Charters, cyber charters, privately managed public schools, magnet schools, “selective admission schools” etc. – each is a separate world. It would be interesting to trace back where this subject got this information, what particular school he may have tried to enroll in, etc. It’s a reasonable point to raise in responding to Goffman, but it hardly suggests she was making stuff up. Another possibility is Goffman, or her informant, or her informant’s informant … confused the rule for public schools with Archdiocese schools, which for generations have functioned as de facto public schools in parts of Philadelphia. It’s also possible that a school cannot kick out a student just because he’s 19, but can set a cut-off for a new student to enter a particular school. It may be that one can enroll, but not necessarily in one’s first choice of school – one might be offered a transfer to a more geographically distant school. It’s also likely there are rule variations regarding special needs students, or different permutations of the regulations if the student has ever had an IEP. It could also be that the subject was misinformed by someone at the school on purpose, because they considered him undesirable (and, for all the many reasons Goffman reports, putting it bluntly they know he isn’t going to sue them). It could be that a certain disciplinary history, or a police record, gives a school greater leeway, officially or otherwise. I could go on …

    You could argue that it would have been good if Goffman had called the school district with this question, but there’s no reason to believe that if she did, the answer she received would have been any more enlightening, or any more helpful to readers – or conformed more closely to reality on the ground – than what she’d already been told by her subjects. Still, it’s a valid criticism, that she did not clarify this, or possibly didn’t understand it herself.

    (If you don’t believe me, I suggest you try contacting the School District of Philadelphia about, well, anything. There’s another ethnography waiting to happen … I mean the bureaucratic, administrative aspect of the school district, which is its own world, separate from the wildly varying “cultures” in the hundreds of schools that make up the district.)

    Okay, moving along. Maybe in the next set of criticisms I’ll find something that actually makes me worry that Goffman was just making stuff up.


  13. Ha, was Sixth Street 4 blocks or 5?

    Honestly, I’m not going to bother with that. It may be a reasonable, even pointed criticism of Goffman in terms of research methodology, but it does not make me fear she made up stories.

    Plainly, there is not a “real” boundary to that neighborhood, or to any other. Boundaries are particularly fluid in areas where many people – kind of the point of Goffman’s overall account – do not have permanent addresses, often leave their “real” homes to stay at their girlfriend’s or their grandma’s, or to sleep in their cars. I suspect it was difficult to define an area of study because her subjects just insisted in their pesky way on refusing to stay in a pre-determined 4- or 5-block range.

    What does the critic think should have happened when one of the subjects “went upstate,” i.e. to prison for a time? Should they have been written out at that point, because they no longer lived in the “Sixth Street neighborhood”?

    Get a grip, it doesn’t matter if her “defined” sphere of study was 4 blocks or 5.


  14. Reflecting further on the 4- or 5-block question, trying to put myself in her shoes in her efforts to clarify her methodology, she probably had to re-think this question a number of times over the course of several years, and it is probably reflected differently in her notes from different periods of time, or in different academic papers. It’s a question that ideally should have been resolved in the book … but as anyone who’s written a book or worked for a publisher in preparing a book knows, typically lotsa things that should ideally get clarified before press, don’t.


  15. Ok, so I’ve now read the garbled and poorly written complaints regarding exactly where she lived in West Philly. Taking them on point by point would be to give credit to the complainer’s rather unsavory mode of attack of Dr. Goffman, so I won’t. The complainer already has no credibility with me given the flimsy and sometimes embarrassingly stupid complaints I’ve already pursued.

    The answer is simple in any event: Ok, so maybe she signed at least at an apartment in a relatively nice part of West Philly or University City at some points – I have no desire to try to figure out EXACTLY where she lived – what are you guys doing, driving by it to gawk, or to check the exact mileage from Sixth Street? but how is it that critics cannot comprehend that if she were to tell you EXACTLY where she is referring to when she describes her neighborhood, that we get right back to the question of preserving subjects’ identities? Can people not grasp that SHE IS NOT GOING TO TELL YOU the address of the apartment she was living at/renting/sharing/sometimes crashing at etc.? Can people not grasp that not all these arrangements were official or legal, so therefore, no, dude, she is not going to reveal the address? That this is the logical reason there may be some distortions, if you try to nail down street addresses and correlate them with dates on the calendar? And that this type of “research” into her activities is itself unethical?

    Is it so hard to understand, also, that she grew up nearby, probably had a lot of family and friends nearby, had parents who were Penn professors? As with the dopey questions about the school district, I don’t find it hard to imagine various scenarios where her parents perhaps rented her an apartment so she would have somewhere to retreat to for her safety, or that it could have really been a boyfriend’s apartment even if her name was on the lease, or that she had an “official” address for purposes of school registration that differed from where she was actually spending most of her time … or, again, any of about a dozen other scenarios that come readily to mind that don’t sum up to, “Goffman invented all this.”


    1. Look, it makes a difference whether she really lived there. She claims to be doing ethnography via immersion. Did she or did she not immerse herself? I did my fieldwork in a developing country during a war. It damn sure made a difference whether or not I was there. And I have to think every academic who has engaged in similar fieldwork cares about this, too.


      1. Sure it matters. But none of the digging up of dirt seems to have actually suggested she DIDN’T live there. You’re missing the point, none of the folks playing at private investigator seem to have found anything other than unrelated pieces of data that show more that they don’t actually know the neighborhoods involved, or have reasoned poorly or not at all on what their data supposedly show. None of it really calls into question her claims to have “lived” with her subjects in a very real sense. No competent ethnographer should confuse details like whose name is on what lease for what dates, with where she “lived.” Unless she is a pathological liar of monstrous proportions, all of their Gotcha! moments have easily understandable explanations.


        1. She was introduced at the British Sociological Association plenary as having “lived in 6th street.” When she got up to speak she did nothing to correct this statement yet this is nowhere near correct as far as one can tell from her methodological appendix. She seems to have lived at least 18 blocks from that neighborhood by her own words (a “few blocks” away from one subject’s house which was itself fifteen blocks from 6th street). If one believes the anonymous critic she lived even further away at one point as she moved deeper into the diverse university area.

          As you likely know, in a densely populated urban environment even a few blocks can be the difference between night and day. There are other similar descriptions (in The New York Times, for example) where the reader or observer is left with the unambiguous view that she literally lived in the same place as the people she was studying. It does appear that some of the people she was studying came to live with her for a brief period – but that means they have actually left the environment under study.

          Now, all of the above could be wrong but it is a fairly reached conclusion based on what she has publicly stated and written. If it is wrong then all she has to do is clarify where she actually lived and for how long. Perhaps she did that in her (apparently missing) dissertation but cannot or will not share the details. But why the mystery?


          1. This is just beyond ridiculous, it’s clearly personal and not worth point-by-point replies. I don’t understand how someone who’s READ her book would conclude she didn’t live there. Did you miss all the occasions where she was plainly present at, say 2 in the morning, or awoken when something violent was happening? You honestly believe she’s lying or inventing all those scenarios? You don’t respond to a single word of what I wrote explaining why she might have distorted exact locations. Why is it hard to understand that she is NOT going to “share the details” – she promised these people anonymity.

            ” the reader or observer is left with the unambiguous view that she literally lived in the same place as the people she was studying.”

            Yes, of course the reader is “left with that impression” – the most likely explanation being because she did live there.


          2. I assure you it’s not personal and you have no reason to suggest otherwise. I had never heard of this woman before this broke and could not care less about her or her work. I DO care about the integrity of qualitative research in the social sciences (having engaged in such research for several decades) and I remain very concerned about the impact this situation will have on that kind of work for many thousands of others. I understand that a process is underway inside the ASA to force disclosure of her dissertation. Perhaps that will confirm what she says in the book – that she lived in an entirely different neighborhood than the one she writes about.

            Liked by 1 person

        2. We can now just call it Wynnefield and Walnut Hill. The data is out publicly. Walnut Hill is nothing like she described in the book – it is a mixed race, mixed income neighborhood. Wynnefield is a rougher neighborhood, though right next to St. Joe’s University. Why she felt the need to embellish how rough Walnut Hill was is her decision, but I think it tried to make her ethnography feel more cowboy/jungle book-like, facts be damned.


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s