Goffman dissertation followup

I previously reviewed Alice Goffman’s book On The Run, and wrote a critique of the survey that was part of that project (including a formal comment sent to American Sociological Review). Then I complained that her dissertation was not made public, despite being awarded the American Sociological Association’s dissertation prize. I proposed a rule change for the association, requiring that the winning dissertation be “publicly available through a suitable academic repository by the time of the ASA meeting at which the award is granted.”

Here’s a quick followup.


I was interested in Goffman’s 2010 dissertation because I thought it might have more information about the survey she conducted than the 2014 book did. When I inquired about the dissertation on June 4 of this year, Princeton’s director of media relations, Martin Mbugua, told me she “was granted an exemption from submitting her dissertation to the University Archives, so we do not have a copy of her dissertation in our collection.”

Jesse Singal at New York magazine reported yesterday that they now have the dissertation, and he’s read it. Not only does it not have more methodological information than the book, Singal reports, it actually has less, as the methodological appendix that’s in the book is not in the dissertation. In a saved-you-a-trip-to-Princeton email to me, Singal says the dissertation’s description of her survey is “basically identical” to what is in ASR. That speaks to my critique of her survey, which seems unaffected by the release of the dissertation. (I’m not in charge of dissertations at Princeton, so I’m not critiquing the dissertation anyway.)

With regard to the open-science-inspired rule change for ASA dissertation awards, Singal’s article just reinforces my desire to see the rule adopted. Mbugua told Singal that Princeton now allows up to two two-year embargo periods for PhD students who don’t want their dissertations publicly released. But why embargo it? I think most people do this because they don’t want to undermine their book deals. The need for this may be overstated, but it’s a thing. (Eric Schwartz who acquires sociology books for Columbia University Press, tweeted: “No problem. Book and dissertation are for different audiences.”)

Anyway, Singal quotes Goffman giving a quite different reason:

The dissertation contained very sensitive material about people who were vulnerable to arrest and incarceration. … I wanted to think through the ethical and human subjects issues of making it available beyond the committee members and I wanted some time to go by between the actual events and a public reading. That felt safer for the people who had granted me permission to write about their lives, and for me, than publishing right away.

Apart from the fact that this concern did not prevent Goffman from submitting her book to a reading by an awards committee — “beyond the [dissertation] committee members” — I do not find this very credible, and I don’t like that rationale. If it was wrong to release it in 2010 because it would endanger her subjects, then it was wrong to publish a book in 2014 with the same — actually, more — incriminating information. In fact, as we now know, identifying the individuals mentioned in the book was trivial using Google, and of course the police knew who they were anyway. By this rationale, I cannot understand why the dissertation would not be given to the library until 14 months after the book was published — or until three months after the commercial paperback edition was published. Oh, wait.

Look, if people want to embargo their dissertations for financial gain, and their elite private universities allow it, then so be it. But that doesn’t have to be ASA’s problem. We can add one small piece to that calculation: giving up the ASA Dissertation Award.

11 thoughts on “Goffman dissertation followup

  1. Dear Philip

    Glad you’re sticking with this. I’m a member of a book group at Berkeley. We all had reservations about whether this was science, and I, like others who have responded to you, had reservations about the ethics of the author/researcher, not in releasing the book, but in conducting her relationships with her research participants. Because of the ways that people are using findings from social science (on both right and left) it’s extremely important to be clear about what is opinion/reportage and what is research.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I see Phil Cowan gets us quickly back to the real issue (punching Goffman) rather than any actual concerns for open access.


  3. One (ok, somewhat tangential) issue this & earlier posts raise is how the wildly opposite norms of journalism and ethnographic research developed. How did that happen? Is it good? Is it time for us social scientists to rethink those norms with some input from journalism?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m sympathetic to your overall view, but I don’t understand parts of your argument here. Why do you find AG’s statement about the dissertation not credible? What motive would she have to lie about this part? It makes sense. And why do you say the information was discoverable through a “trivial Google” search? I think the New York Magazine guy actually spent a lot of time on this. There were lots of other people looking who didn’t find it.
    I do think there are problems with not doing more and better quantitative work. I read elsewhere that AG was excused from some quantitative methods requirements, which might explain that.

    Would you care to comment on her father’s methods and your view of participant observation as a method of research generally?


    1. My explanation above answers your question on why withhold the dissertation: “If it was wrong to release it in 2010 because it would endanger her subjects, then it was wrong to publish a book in 2014 with the same — actually, more — incriminating information.” The standard reason to embargo a dissertation is to protect a commercial book contract.

      On the “trivial Google search”: I did it. Jesse Singal did it. The necessary search is a few words and a news article on the first page of hits identifies Chuck and his family. He was a murder victim — this is not a secret thing.


      1. OK, I get that. I had assumed that some angry person would publish the details and names if they were that easy to find. In this sense, it may be very difficult to do much “underground” ethnography now, if part of that is confidentiality. What is possible now is only journalism. That is fine with me. But didn’t AG succeed in delaying things for four years? And wouldn’t the statute of limitations run on some stuff this crew was doing (or at least AG believed so, incorrectly)? I think some of what she has done is misguided, but help me see where she has lied. I certainly agree that giving an award for an unavailable document is silly, and embargos are sort of silly. As a side note to that, who holds the copyright to a dissertation?


        1. Live and learn, but she could have made it harder to identify them by changing more details. I don’t envy that task. Copyright on a dissertation is held by the creator, like anything else (unless transferred).


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