Alice Goffman and the Future of Ethnography

06/15/2015 11:13 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

When scholars attract widespread public attention the news coverage about them and their works, which is often incomplete and filled with misconceptions, is not usually good. So it is with the public controversy about Alice Goffman's much-discussed book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Consider Marc Parry's recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, "Conflict Over Sociologist's Narrative Puts Spotlight on Ethnography." Here's some of what Mr. Parry wrote:

Late last month, what began as a book review in an obscure publication blew up into a major controversy that tarnished sociology's most-buzzed-about young star. At issue: whether the sociologist, Alice Goffman, had participated in a felony while researching her ethnographic study of young black men caught up in the criminal-justice system.

That claim brought Ms. Goffman back into the news, but the backlash against her had been building for months. Journalists and scholars had acclaimed her 2014 book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, as an ethnographic masterwork, transforming a press-shy junior scholar into a TED-talking celebrity. But discussion of Ms. Goffman's book soon took on a more cutting tone, as reviewers questioned the accuracy of her portrayal of black life, the soundness of her methods, and the possibility that her book might harm its subjects.

The dust-up reveals anxieties that go beyond the censure of Ms. Goffman, opening a fresh debate over longstanding dilemmas of ethnographic research: the ethical boundaries of fieldwork, the tension between data transparency and subjects' privacy, and the reliability of one ethnographer's subjective account of a social world. Some sociologists worry that the controversy may put a chill on sensitive fieldwork. Others fear that it could damage the credibility of ethnography at a time when sociologists are being exhorted to get more involved in public debates.

It is curious that Mr. Parry didn't reach out for anthropological commentary on the ethical, textual and methodological issues that Goffman's ethnography evokes. In so doing he ignored generations of anthropological debate about the whys and wherefores of doing ethnography--debates about ethics, transparency, the mix of narrative and analysis as well as the complexities of doing--or not doing-- "native" ethnography. In contrast to sociology, the practice of ethnography is the foundation of anthropological research and, as I see it, the centerpiece of anthropology. Ethnography is the fertile soil from which our comprehension of the human condition emerges. It is the basis for our contribution to public debate about important social and political issues like racism, income inequality, and climate change.

It is only fitting, then, to add some anthropological reflections to what has been largely a sociological and legal discussion of the Goffman kerfuffle.

After almost 40 years in the ethnographic trenches, it is clear to me that doing any kind of ethnography is a very messy business. When ethnographers set out to describe social relationships among a group of people, they must also build a complex web of relations between themselves and their subjects. Those relations are never straightforward. No matter where ethnographers might be--West Philadelphia, Indonesia, Brazil or West Africa--the emotional texture of those relationships invariably shapes the kinds of information that gets exchanged as well as the nature of the text that ethnographers eventually write. In ethnography the personal and the professional are never separate, meaning that good ethnography is not likely to consist of bloodless prose. Put another away, doing ethnography, like living life, involves love and hate, fidelity and betrayal, and courage and fear. Sometimes ethnographic experience brings us to face to face with issues of life and death--the real stuff of the human condition.

Those relationships, as I can attest from my own research among sorcerers in the Republic of Niger and among West African immigrants in New York City, sometimes create ethical dilemmas that no research design, no theoretical argument or no set of ethical guidelines can easily resolve. Like all scientific endeavors, ethnography involves a set of interpretations the contours of which are shaped by personal disposition, theoretical and methodological training and the inter-subjective dynamics of the ethnographic setting, which consists of an ever-changing matrix of social relations and events that taxes our cultural desire to transform social chaos into some semblance of social order.

Confronted by emotionally taxing events ethnographers are sometimes compelled to write against the disciplinary grain, invoking in their works the raw emotions of fieldwork. Ethnographic works that stray from the textual norm invariably draw varying degrees of trenchant critique. As in On the Run, against-the-grain ethnographers tell troubling stories and attempt to link those stories to larger social issues like the strained relations that exist between the police and African American men, or the sometimes violent acts that sorcerers enact against members of their own communities.

When ethnographers skillfully recount these kinds of stories, they usually open themselves to the world of their subjects, to the scrutiny of their colleagues and, of course, to the curiosities of their readers. In doing so, they expose their human vulnerability. They make mistakes, discuss their errors of judgment and express their fears and misgivings. Such vulnerability, which is an important aspect of Alice Goffman's book, creates connections between the writer and the reader--the kind of connection that compels the reader to turn the page, pay attention, think a new thought or even feel a new feeling.

But can we trust ethnographic accounts? Can ethnographers get "it" right? Given the infinite complexities of the social laboratory "the quest for certainty," as the philosopher John Dewey put it, is an illusion. If ethnographers cannot provide a perfect, scientifically verifiable representation of reality, how can anyone judge the contribution of an ethnographic work? This question, which has been raised by some of Goffman's critics, fails to fully appreciate the aim of ethnography.

The great power of ethnography lies in its capacity to describe places and people such that readers come to know something about life in Philadelphia's African American neighborhoods or to learn something about about the struggles of rural Songhay people living on the desiccated steppes of the West African Sahel, or to discover Eveny nomads who herd reindeer in the frozen expanses of Siberia. Description of these places and peoples leads not to eternal truth, but to what late philosopher Richard Rorty called, "edifying conversations," conversations that increase cross-cultural awareness in an increasingly integrated world.

It is not easy to write a book about gut-wrenching ethnographic experience. On the Run, we should remember, is Alice Goffman's first work. It is a gripping description of social life of young African American men in one Philadelphia neighborhood--a aspect of social life about which most Americans have limited, if any knowledge. Tangled in the web of that neighborhood's social relations, Goffman wrote On the Run through the lens of her own experience. Like any ethnography, especially a first book, On the Run has flaws that should be discussed.

Do these flaws diminish its ethnographic contribution?

The real test of an ethnography work is whether it has legs. If it does,it becomes a text that remains open to the world. If it doesn't have legs, an ethnographic, work, like so many academic texts, quickly fades into obscurity. Having witnessed many similar kinds of book controversies over the years, my suspicion is that hot debate about On The Run will eventually become a cool discussion that will lead to insights that will reinforce the power of ethnography to shape future public discussion.

As for Alice Goffman, I look forward to her next book.