The New York Times Magazine on Alice Goffman

January 13, 2016
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The controversy surrounding Alice Goffman’s On the Run is nothing new—the book’s appearance was met with both laudatory curiosity and defensive criticism, from within and outside academic sociology. On the Run offers an ethnographic account based on Goffman’s work in the field—and the field happens to be a mixed-income, West Philadelphia neighborhood, whose largely African American residents lived their lives under the persistence presence of the cops, whose pervasive policing left Goffman’s subjects, the members of her community, caught in a web of presumed criminality. The elephant(s) in the room: how does a privileged white woman engage in this kind of (often passé) participant-observer research without constantly self-checking her positionality? How can this type of book—and its more sensational elements—be true to the word? Who has permission to write about whom? And what happens when these questions leave the back-and-forth behind the closed doors of the academy and bring up very real suggestions about legal culpability, fabrication, and the politics of representation?

In a long-form piece for the New York Times Magazine, Gideon Lewis-Kraus assesses Goffman’s predicament and how her personal experiences shaped several of the more controversial aspects of the book’s account. All the while, he traces the book’s emergence during a crucial (and heated) moment for the history of sociology, when data-driven analysis has bumped the hybrid reportage/qualitative ethnography favored by Goffman into the margins of social science, and considers how the events following its publication played out in the media—and what all of this might mean for Goffman’s own future (and those of her subjects, neighbors, peers) and that of her discipline.

Following this excerpt, you can read the piece in full here.

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But what her critics can’t imagine is that perhaps both of the accounts she has given are true at the same time — that this represents exactly the bridging of the social gap that so many observers find unbridgeable. From the immediate view of a participant, this was a manhunt; from the detached view of an observer, this was a ritual. The account in the book was that of Goffman the participant, who had become so enmeshed in this community that she felt the need for vengeance ‘‘in my bones.’’ The account Goffman provided in response to the felony accusation (which read as if dictated by a lawyer, which it might well have been) was written by Goffman the observer, the stranger to the community who can see that the reason these actors give for their behavior — revenge — is given by the powerless as an attempt to save face; that though this talk was important, it was talk all the same.

The problem of either-­or is one that is made perhaps inevitable by the metaphor of ‘‘immersion.’’ The anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom, who studies economic relationships, explained to me that it’s a metaphor her own field has long given up on. The metaphor asks us to imagine a researcher underwater — that is, imperiled, unreachable from above — who then returns to the sun and air, newly qualified to report on the darkness below because the experience has put a chill in her bones. This narrative of transformation is what strikes critics like Rios as so patronizing and self-­congratulatory. But Goffman herself never understood her work to be ‘‘immersive’’ in that way. The almost impossible challenge Goffman thus set before herself is the representation of both these views — of drive as manhunt and drive as ritual — in all their simultaneity.

Goffman could have covered herself by adding another paragraph of analysis, one that would have contextualized but also undercut the scene as the participants experienced it. Almost all of her early readers thought she should do that. It would have made her life easier. But she didn’t. This was a book about men whose entire lives — whose whole network of relationships — had been criminalized, and she did not hesitate to criminalize her own. She threw in her lot.

To read more about On the Run, click here.

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