Comment on Goffman’s survey, American Sociological Review rejection edition

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Peer Review, by Gary Night. https://flic.kr/p/c2WH2E

Background:

  • I reviewed Alice Goffman’s book, On The Run.
  • 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.” (The rule change is moving through the process.)
  • When her dissertation was released, I complained about the rationale for the delay.
  • My critique of the survey that was part of her research grew into a formal comment (PDF) submitted to American Sociological Review.

In this post I don’t have anything to add about Alice Goffman’s work. This is about what we can learn from this and other incidents to improve our social science and its contribution to the wider social discourse. As Goffman’s TED Talk passed 1 million views, we have had good conversations about replicability and transparency in research, and about ethics in ethnography. And of course about the impact of criminal justice system and over-policing on African Americans, the intended target of her work. This post is about how we deal with errors in our scholarly publishing.

My comment was rejected by the American Sociological Review.

You might not realize this, but unlike many scientific journals, except for “errata” notices, which are for typos and editing errors, ASR has no normal way of acknowledging or correcting errors in research. To my knowledge ASR has never retracted an article or published an editor’s note explaining how an article, or part of an article, is wrong. Instead, they publish Comments (and Replies). The Comments are submitted and reviewed anonymously by peer reviewers just like an article, and then if the Comment is accepted the original author responds (maybe followed by a rejoinder). It’s a cumbersome and often combative process, often mixing theoretical with methodological critiques. And it creates a very high hurdle to leap, and a long delay, before the journal can correct itself.

In this post I’ll briefly summarize my comment, then post the ASR editors’ decision letter and reviews.

Comment: Survey and ethnography

I wrote the comment about Goffman’s 2009 ASR article for accountability. The article turned out to be the first step toward a major book, so ASR played a gatekeeping role for a much wider reading audience, which is great. But then it should take responsibility to notify readers about errors in its pages.

My critique boiled down to these points:

  • The article describes the survey as including all households in the neighborhood, which is not the case, and used statistics from the survey to describe the neighborhood (its racial composition and rates of government assistance), which is not justified.
  • The survey includes some number (probably a lot) of men who did not live in the neighborhood, but who were described as “in residence” in the article, despite being “absent because they were in the military, at job training programs (like JobCorp), or away in jail, prison, drug rehab centers, or halfway houses.” There is no information about how or whether such men were contacted, or how the information about them was obtained (or how many in her sample were not actually “in residence”).
  • The survey results are incongruous with the description of the neighborhood in the text, and — when compared with data from other sources — describe an apparently anomalous social setting. She reported finding more than twice as many men (ages 18-30) per household as the Census Bureau reports from their American Community Survey of Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia (1.42 versus .60 per household). She reported that 39% of these men had warrants for violating probation or parole in the prior three years. Using some numbers from other sources on violation rates, that translates into between 65% and 79% of the young men in the neighborhood being on probation or parole — very high for a neighborhood described as “nice and quiet” and not “particularly dangerous or crime-ridden.”
  • None of this can be thoroughly evaluated because the reporting of the data and methodology for the survey were inadequate to replicate or even understand what was reported.

You can read my comment here in PDF. Since I aired it out on this blog before submitting it, making it about as anonymous as a lot of other peer-review submissions, I see no reason to shroud the process any further. The editors’ letter I received is signed by the current editors — Omar Lizardo, Rory McVeigh, and Sarah Mustillo — although I submitted the piece before they officially took over (the editors at the time of my submission were Larry W. Isaac and Holly J. McCammon). The reviewers are of course anonymous. My final comment is at the end.

ASR letter and reviews

Editors’ letter:

25-Aug-2015

Dear Prof. Cohen:

The reviews are in on your manuscript, “Survey and ethnography: Comment on Goffman’s ‘On the Run’.” After careful reading and consideration, we have decided not to accept your manuscript for publication in American Sociological Review (ASR).  Our decision is based on the reviewers’ comments, our reading of the manuscript, an overall assessment of the significance of the contribution of the manuscript to sociological knowledge, and an estimate of the likelihood of a successful revision.

As you will see, there was a range of opinions among the reviewers of your submission.  Reviewer 1 feels strongly that the comment should not be published, reviewer 3 feels strongly that it should be published, and reviewer 2 falls in between.  That reviewer sees merit in the criticisms but also suggests that the author’s arguments seem overstated in places and stray at times from discussion that is directly relevant to a critique of the original article’s alleged shortcomings.

As editors of the journal, we feel it is essential that we focus on the comment’s critique of the original ASR article (which was published in 2009), rather than the recently published book or controversy and debate that is not directly related to the submitted comment.  We must consider not only the merits of the arguments and evidence in the submitted comment, but also whether the comment is important enough to occupy space that could otherwise be used for publishing new research.  With these factors in mind, we feel that the main result that would come from publishing the comment would be that valuable space in the journal would be devoted to making a point that Goffman has already acknowledged elsewhere (that she did not employ probability sampling).

As the author of the comment acknowledges, there is actually very little discussion of, or use of, the survey data in Goffman’s article.   We feel that the crux of the argument (about the survey) rests on a single sentence found on page 342 of the original 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.”  The comment author is interpreting that to mean that Goffman is claiming she conducted scientific probability sampling (with all households in the defined space as the sampling frame).  It is important to note here that Goffman does not actually make that claim in the article.  It is something that some readers might infer.  But we are quite sure that many other readers simply assumed that this is based on nonprobability sampling or convenience sampling.  Goffman speaks of it as a survey she conducted when she was an undergraduate student with one of the young men from the neighborhood.  Given that description of the survey, we expect many readers assumed it was a convenience sample rather than a well-designed probability sample.  Would it have been better if Goffman had made that more explicit in the original article?  Yes.

In hindsight, it seems safe to say that most scholars (probably including Goffman) would say that the brief mentions of the survey data should have been excluded from the article.  In part, this is because the reported survey findings play such a minor role in the contribution that the paper aims to make.

We truly appreciate the opportunity to review your manuscript, and hope that you will continue to think of ASR for your future research.

Sincerely,

Omar Lizardo, Rory McVeigh, and Sarah Mustillo

Editors, American Sociological Review

Reviewer: 1

This paper seeks to provide a critique of the survey data employed in Goffman (2009).  Drawing on evidence from the American Community Survey, the author argues that data presented in Goffman (2009) about the community in which she conducted her ethnography is suspect.  The author draws attention to remarkably high numbers of men living in households (compared with estimates derived from ACS data) and what s/he calls an “extremely high number” of outstanding warrants reported by Goffman.  S/he raises the concern that Goffman (2009) did not provide readers with enough information about the survey and its methodology for them to independently evaluate its merits and thus, ultimately, calls into question the generalizability of Goffman’s survey results.

This paper joins a chorus of critiques of Goffman’s (2009) research and subsequent book.  This critique is novel in that the critique is focused on the survey aspect of the research rather than on Goffman’s persona or an expressed disbelief of or distaste for her research findings (although that could certainly be an implication of this critique).

I will not comment on the reliability, validity or generalizability of Goffman’s (2009) evidence, but I believe this paper is fundamentally flawed.  There are two key problems with this paper.  First the core argument of the paper (critique) is inadequately situated in relation to previous research and theory.  Second, the argument is insufficiently supported by empirical evidence.

The framing of the paper is not aligned with the core empirical aims of the paper.  I’m not exactly sure what to recommend here because it seems as if this is written for a more general audience and not a sociological one.  It strikes me as unusual, if not odd, to reference the popularity of a paper as a motivation for its critique.  Whether or not Goffman’s work is widely cited in sociological or other circles is irrelevant for this or any other critique of the work.  All social science research should be held to the same standards and each piece of scholarship should be evaluated on its own merits.

I would recommend that the author better align the framing of the paper with its empirical punchline.  In my reading the core criticism of this paper is that the Goffman (2009) has not provided sufficient information for someone to replicate or validate her results using existing survey data.  Although it may be less flashy, it seems more appropriate to frame the paper around how to evaluate social science research.  I’d advise the author to tone down the moralizing and discussion of ethics.  If one is to levy such a strong (and strongly worded) critique, one needs to root it firmly in established methods of social science.

That leads to the second, and perhaps even more fundamental, flaw.  If one is to levy such a strong (and strongly worded) critique, one needs to provide adequate empirical evidence to substantiate her/his claims.  Existing survey data from the ACS are not designed to address the kinds of questions Goffman engages in the paper and thus it is not appropriate for evaluating the reliability or validity of her survey research.  Numerous studies have established that large scale surveys like the ACS under-enumerate black men living in cities.  They fall into the “hard-to-reach” population that evade survey takers and census enumerators.  Survey researchers widely acknowledge this problem and Goffman’s research, rather than resolving the issue, raises important questions about the extent to which the criminal justice system may contribute to difficulties for conventional social science research data collection methods.  Perhaps the author can adopt a different, more scholarly, less authoritative, approach and turn the inconsistencies between her/his findings with the ACS and Goffman’s survey findings into a puzzle.  How can these two surveys generate such inconsistent findings?

Just like any survey, the ACS has many strengths.  But, the ACS is not well-suited to construct small area estimates of hard-to-reach populations.  The author’s attempt to do so is laudable but the simplicity of her/his analysis trivializes the difficultly in reaching some of the most disadvantaged segments of the population in conventional survey research.  It also trivializes one of the key insights of Goffman’s work and one that has been established previously and replicated by others: criminal justice contact fundamentally upends social relationships and living arrangements.

Furthermore, the ACS doesn’t ask any questions about criminal justice contact in a way that can help establish the validity of results for disadvantaged segments of the population who are most at-risk of criminal justice contact.  It is impossible to determine using the ACS how many men (or women) in the United States, Pennsylvania, or Philadelphia (or any neighborhood therein), have an outstanding warrant.  The ACS doesn’t ask about criminal justice contact, it doesn’t ask about outstanding warrants, and it isn’t designed to tap into the transient experiences of many people who have had criminal justice contact.  The author provides no data to evaluate the validity of Goffman’s claims about outstanding warrants.  Advancements in social science cannot be established from a “she said”, “he said” debate (e.g., FN 9-10).  That kind of argument risks a kind of intellectual policing that is antithetical to established standards of evaluating social science research.  That being said, someone should collect this evidence or at a minimum estimate, using indirect estimation methods, what fraction of different socio-demographic groups have outstanding warrants.

Although I believe that this paper is fundamentally flawed both in its framing and provision of evidence, I would like to encourage the author to replicate Goffman’s research.  That could involve an extended ethnography in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Philadelphia or another similar city.  That could also involve conducting a small area survey of a disadvantaged, predominantly black, neighborhood in a city with similar criminal justice policies and practices as Philadelphia in the period of Goffman’s study.  This kind of research is painstaking, time consuming, and sorely needed exactly because surveys like the ACS don’t – and can’t – adequately describe or explain social life among the most disadvantaged who are most likely to be missing from such surveys.

Reviewer: 2

I read this manuscript several times. It is more than a comment, it seems. It is 1) a critique of the description of survey methods in GASR and 2) a request for some action from ASR “to acknowledge errors when they occur.” The errors here have to do with Goffman’s description of survey methods in GASR, which the author describes in detail. This dual focus read as distracting at times. The manuscript would benefit from a more squarely focused critique of the description of survey methods in GASR.

Still, the author’s comment raises some valid concerns. The author’s primary concern is that the survey Goffman references in her 2009 ASR article is not described in enough detail to assess its accuracy or usefulness to a community of scholars. The author argues that some clarification is needed to properly understand the claims made in the book regarding the prevalence of men “on the run” and the degree to which the experience of the small group of men followed closely by Goffman is representative of most poor, Black men in segregated inner city communities. The author also cites a recent publication in which Goffman claims that the description provided in ASR is erroneous. If this is the case, it seems prudent for ASR to not only consider the author’s comments, but also to provide Goffman with an opportunity to correct the record.

I am not an expert in survey methods, but there are moments where the author’s interpretation of Goffman’s description seems overstated, which weakens the critique. For example, the author claims that Goffman is arguing that the entirety of the experience of the 6th Street crew is representative of the entire neighborhood, which is not necessarily what I gather from a close reading of GASR (although it may certainly be what has been taken up in popular discourse on the book). While there is overlap of the experience of being “on the run,” namely, your life is constrained in ways that it isn’t for those not on the run, it does appear that Goffman also uses the survey to describe a population that is distinct in important ways from the young men she followed on 6th street. The latter group has been “charged for more serious offenses like drugs and violent crimes,” she writes (this is the group that Sharkey argues might need to be “on the run”), while the larger group of men, whose information was gathered using survey data, were typically dealing with “more minor infractions”: “In the 6th Street neighborhood, a person was occasionally ‘on the run’ because he was a suspect in a shooting or robbery, but most people around 6th street had warrants out for far more minor infractions [emphasis mine].”

So, as I read it (I’ve also read the book), there are two groups: one “on the run” as a consequence of serious offenses and others “on the run” as a consequence of minor infractions. The consequence of being “on the run” is similar, even if the reason one is “on the run” varies.

The questions that remain are questions of prevalence and generalizability. The author asks: How many men in the neighborhood are “on the run” (for any reason)? How similar is this neighborhood to other neighborhoods? Answers to this question do rely on an accurate description of survey methods and data, as the author suggests.

This leads us to the most pressing and clearly argued question from the author: What is the survey population? Is it 1) “people around 6th Street” who also reside in the 6th Street neighborhood (of which, based on Goffman’s definition of in residence, are distributed across 217 distinct households in the neighborhood, however the neighborhood is defined e.g., 5 blocks or 6 blocks) or 2) the entirety of the neighborhood, which is made up of 217 households. It appears from the explanation from Goffman cited by the author that it is the former (“of the 217 households we interviewed,” which should probably read, of the 308 men we interviewed, all of whom reside in the neighborhood (based on Goffman’s definition of residence), 144 had a warrant…). Either way, the author makes a strong case for the need for clarification of this point.

The author goes on to explain the consequences of not accurately distinguishing among the two possibilities described above (or some other), but it seems like a good first step would be to request a clarification (the author could do this directly) and to allow more space than is allowed in a newspaper article to provide the type of explanation that could address the concerns of the author.

Is this the purpose of the comment? Or is the purpose of the comment merely to place a critique on record?  The primary objective is not entirely clear in the present manuscript.

The author’s comment is strong enough to encourage ASR to think through possibilities for correcting the record. As a critique of the survey methods, the comment would benefit from more focus. The comment could also do a better job of contextualizing or comparing/contrasting the use of survey methods in GASR with other ethnographic studies that incorporate survey methods (at the moment such references appear in footnotes).

Reviewer: 3

This comment exposes major errors in the survey methodology for Goffman’s article.  One major flaw is that the goffman article describes the survey as inclusive of all households in the neighborhood but later, in press interviews, discloses that it is not representative of all households in the neighborhood.  Another flaw that the author exposes is goffman’s data and methodological reporting not being up to par to sociological standards.  Finally, the author argues that the data from the survey does not match the ethnographic data.

Overall, I agree with the authors assertions that the survey component is flawed.  This is an important point because the article claims a large component of its substance from the survey instrument.  The survey helped goffman to bolster generalizability , and arguably, garner worthiness of publication in ASR.  If the massive errors in the survey had been exposed early on it is possible that ASR might have held back on publishing this article.

I am in agreement that ASR should correct the error highlighted on page 4 that the data set is not of the entire neighborhood but of random households/individuals given the survey in an informal way and that the sampling strategy should be described.  Goffman should aknowledge that this was a non-representative convenience sample, used for bolstering field observations.  It would follow then that the survey component of the ASR article would have to be rendered invalid and that only the field data in the article should be taken at face value.  Goffman should also be asked to provide a commentary on her survey methodology.

The author points out some compelling anomalies from the goffman survey and general social survey data and other representative data.  At best, goffman made serious mistakes with the survey and needs to be asked to show those mistakes and her survey methodology or she made up some of the data in the survey and appropriate action must be taken by ASR.  I agree with the authors final assessment, that the survey results be disregarded and the article be republished without mention of such results or with mention of the results albeit showing all of its errors and demonstrating the survey methodology.

My response

Regular readers can probably imagine my long, overblown, hyperventilating response to Reviewer 1, so I’ll just leave that to your imagination. On the bottom line, I disagree with the editors’ decision, but I can’t really blame them. Would it really be worth some number of pages in the journal, plus a reply and rejoinder, to hash this out? Within the constraints of the ASR format, maybe the pages aren’t worth it. And the result would not have been a definitive statement anyway, but rather just another debate among sociologists.

What else could they have done? Maybe it would have been better if the editors could simply append a note to the article advising readers that the survey is not accurately described, and cautioning against interpreting it as representative — with a link to the comment online somewhere explaining the problem. (Even so of course Goffman should have a chance to respond, and so on.)

It’s just wrong that now the editors acknowledge there is something wrong in their journal — although we seem to disagree about how serious the problem is — but no one is going to formally notify the future readers of the article. That seems like bad scholarly communication. I’ve said from the beginning that there’s no need for a high-volume conversation about this, or attack on anyone’s integrity or motives. There are important things in this research, and it’s also highly flawed. Acknowledge the errors — so they don’t compound — and move on.

This incident can help us learn lessons with implications up and down the publishing system. Here are a couple. At the level of social science research reporting: don’t publish survey results data without sufficient methodological documentation — let’s have the instrument and protocol, the code, and access to the data. At the system level of publishing, why do we still have journals with cost-defined page limits? Because for-profit publishing is more important than scholarly communication. The sooner we get out from under that 19th-century habit the better.

12 Comments

Filed under Me @ work

12 responses to “Comment on Goffman’s survey, American Sociological Review rejection edition

  1. I’m speaking to one detail, not the larger point. You find rates of being “on paper” of 75% of young men in that neighborhood to be implausible. My own calculations for Black men in their late 20s in 2006 using Wisconsin DOC records and populations figures is that 35% of Wisconsin’s Black men in their late 20s were either in prison(14%) or on paper (21%), and that in Dane County (where Madison is) the estimate is 47% (15% in prison, 32% on paper). Given these numbers, which I think are pretty solid and are for state-wide or county-wide populations, not just one neighborhood, an estimate that a large majority of young Black men in a “bad” neighborhood are on paper or have warrants out does not seem so outlandish to me. Especially as my numbers are DOC supervision only, i.e. after adjudication, and do not include outstanding warrants.

    Your larger point about the lack of channels for fixing errors in published articles is a valid one.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Than you. That number is indeed possible. But note that her sample is said to include people in prison, who I think would not be on probation or parole, so the rate would have to be even higher for those who are not. Of course, we are just speculating — the breakdown of probation and parole by residential status is information she could have provided (and maybe still could), so there is little point in trying to figure it out in the dark.

      Like

    • Anony for this

      Isn’t one of the points that “6th Street” is not a particularly bad neighborhood? Also, I agree that the paper should not have been accepted without more detail on all methodologies used. Not to derail but if, as she now claims, the years etc were changed for confidentiality reasons, the very fact of her doing so should have been noted in her methodology (in the book and article)

      Like

      • “not particularly bad” isn’t the same as “affluent” or “good.” But I was making the assumption that the neighborhood was below average, even if “not particularly bad,” and that certainly could be wrong.

        Like

  2. cwalken

    Why not take your critique to SocSci? Their format seems well suited to reply and rejoinder you think is needed to hash this out.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. vijay

    There is an (unofficial) investigation by Paul Campos, and he summarized it in a 11,000 line critique in the chronicle of higher education http://chronicle.com/article/Alice-Goffmans-Implausible-/232491/, but I do not think it is peer reviewed. Some of your concerns are reflected there.

    Like

  4. I noticed this from one of the referee reports: “If one is to levy such a strong (and strongly worded) critique, one needs to provide adequate empirical evidence to substantiate her/his claims.”

    This is the crux. If Goffman (say) submits an article with a strong and unsubstantiated claim, then it should not get published. But if such a flawed paper manages to get through the review process, then suddenly the burden of proof becomes much higher. It’s not enough to point out that she is making a strong and unsubstantiated claim. You not only need to show that her claim is unsubstantiated, you need to show it is wrong. This is a much higher bar.

    I had the exact same experience in my own unsuccessful attempt to publish a criticism of a paper in the ASR. And I think it’s a big problem, the idea that once something is published, it is taken to have some sort of inertia so that methodological flaws are brushed aside.

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. sbk

    Having been (and still being) an editor for several psychological journals, I find the editorial decision most distressing. The proper response (in my opinion), given the mixed reviewer comments, the current interest (both positive and negative) in the merits and demerits of the critiqued work and the relevance for questions of method, would have been revise and resubmit.

    Oh well, social science on the march.

    Like

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