Replication issues hit ethnography: did Goffman make up her book?

On the Run is the story of sociologist Alice Goffman’s six years of immersion in a struggling Philadelphia neighborhood, in which she tells the stories of the “routine stops, searches, raids, and beatings that young men navigate as they come of age.” The book was initially hailed as an ethnographic classic, but to me it raised red flags. Too many of the incidents seemed unlikely, based upon my own experience as a legal aid and criminal defense lawyer in similar neighborhoods. What’s more, I was stunned to read of an incident in which Goffman claimed to have participated in a plot to kill a rival gang member.

Consequently, I wrote a critical review of On the Run, pointing out these and other problems. I believe in the value of ethnography, and it is especially important to chronicle the lives of men and women who are otherwise marginalized and oppressed. But to be worthwhile, the stories must be accurate and reliable. And to be responsible, the ethnographer must draw a firm line between observation and criminality. It seemed to me that Goffman had failed on both fronts, and I said so.

Now she has written a response to my critique, and I am even less certain how much of the book is true. Goffman essentially admits that she embellished and exaggerated her account of a crucial episode, which should leave even the most sympathetic readers doubting her word.


offman objects to my efforts1 to verify stories in the book by consulting public defenders, prosecutors, and police officers, but how else was I to do it? She argues that my critique is based on a “hierarchy . . . of people at the top,” while disregarding “the claims and experiences of the people at the bottom,” but that is not so. I do not discount the lives and experiences of Goffman’s subjects, I simply question the accuracy and reliability of her own reports about them. It is important to hear from “people at the bottom,” as Goffman puts it, but we do not have to take her words on faith. Thus, I have attempted to obtain as much information as possible from available sources.

I would have been happy to interview Goffman’s subjects, but they are all pseudonymous. I would be pleased to review her field notes, but she has shredded them. I might at least be able to read her dissertation, but she has sequestered it.

Indeed, Goffman does not even name the hospitals or schools—which cannot possibly be confidential—where the alleged events occurred. If no one is allowed to get information from official sources—and I would hardly call public defenders “people at the top” of the criminal justice hierarchy—then we are stuck taking Goffman’s word for it, as she has made her book impossible to fact check. That is not how journalism, or responsible scholarship, is supposed to work.

Stephen By Stephen

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Professor and quant guy. Libertarian turned populist Republican. Trying to learn Japanese and play Spanish Baroque music on the ukulele.

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