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May 29, 2015 7:00 AM   Subscribe

 
I also quite like James Forman, Jr.'s take: The Society of Fugitives.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:01 AM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


The full review (second link) is very much worth reading for evidence of made-up stuff in her ethnography. My bet is that Goffman didn't commit a felony - but that she made up the attempted murder story too
posted by Bwithh at 7:07 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Being on the periphery of criminal behavior has long been a mainstay of ethnography. Geertz famously ran and hid with the rest of the crowd when the police broke up a Balinese cock fight they were at. It's been a while since I've read it, but I'm pretty sure Bourgois' In Search of Respect has him in the room at least when crack is being sold. Driving the car for what you know is aiming to be a murder though? That is beyond the pale. She wasn't just witnessing criminal behavior, she was actively taking part.
posted by Panjandrum at 7:23 AM on May 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


I was briefly involved in proposing a patient registry website, and was introduced to some of the complexity of properly anonymizing patient data. It's not enough to hide or change immediate details: it's necessary to anonymize clusters of related data to avoid identifying chains of inference.

So for Goffman, she can't just change names, she'd have to alter or gloss over incident details to avoid someone with local knowledge immediately spotting an incident whose participants he knows. What's the standard in academic publishing for this? Is it like anonymous sources in journalism where an outlet will allow a journalist to cite an anonymous source if someone else like their editor can independently verify the source? Did Goffman's advisors access the raw story and sign off on changing details that convey the essential truth of it?
posted by fatbird at 7:27 AM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


There's a third possibility re: the (obvious) fabrications -- her sources could have simply lied to her, or told her what she wanted to hear.

As for the attempted homicide: yeah, that's pretty damning. Either she made up the story, or she tried to murder somebody.

Even if true, however, she probably will never be charged with any kind of crime. She's rich, white and a Princeton grad, which means she would have to murder someone on camera in front of a dozen witnesses before a prosecutor would even think about convening a grand jury ... which incidentally proves her point.
posted by Avenger at 7:42 AM on May 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


I just read this this morning, and am not surprised to find it posted here. I read Goffman's book, and had serious gut-level doubts about lots of the stories. And, while I don't have a consistent issue with researchers breaking the law while in the field, I don't think driving a car around looking to shoot someone is ok.

Bourgois, yes, has done lots of legally questionable things in the field. But I believe those stories. Goffman's, to me, feel like Venkatesh's felt when I read them: faked, using a mishmash of real experiences and popular caricatures of the real world.
posted by still bill at 7:45 AM on May 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Alas, it is now too late to obtain any additional documentation, because Goffman shredded all of her field notes and disposed of her hard drive. Her reason, as she explained to the Philadelphia Inquirer, was to remove “the threat of being subpoenaed” for the identities of her subjects, many of whom had discussed or committed crimes in her presence.

Is this standard practice for this type of ethnography? I'd be really surprised if her IRB review did not include some policy for note-taking and preservation.
posted by Think_Long at 7:46 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Is this standard practice for this type of ethnography? I'd be really surprised if her IRB review did not include some policy for note-taking and preservation.
posted by Think_Long at 7:46 AM on May 29 [+] [!]


If I was an anthropology graduate advisor and one of my students said "Yeah I burned all my notes because we did some hella illegal shit and maybe tried to kill somebody" then the student and I would be having a very, very long talk about their future in the program.

The fact that this talk apparently didn't happen is itself troubling, and speaks to a kind of ethical paralysis in so many social science departments that we see these days.
posted by Avenger at 7:53 AM on May 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


The AAA's Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology covers something like an obstruction of justice scenario that's interesting to consider beside this case. See Case 3: Witness to Murder. That page has a number of other cases that I've found undergrads really enjoy talking about in anthro classes, and there are more cases here.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:53 AM on May 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


Some of those case studies are illustrative of why I had issues as an anthro major. Like, these embedded researchers forget that they are humans first, in service of some abstract benefit that their research could provide. Looking at that first one it's just . . . yeah, you give them the fucking malaria medicine! Why is this a question?

I know this is really basic 1001 level ethics arguing, but still. I don't feel like the social sciences have necessarily done enough to rise out of the power-imbalance of their colonial roots.
posted by Think_Long at 8:14 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


If I was an anthropology graduate advisor and one of my students said "Yeah I burned all my notes because we did some hella illegal shit and maybe tried to kill somebody" then the student and I would be having a very, very long talk about their future in the program.

I strongly suspect that she did this after she successfully defended her dissertation, and I also suspect that the anecdote about being an accessory to a felony was not in her dissertation at all.
posted by clockzero at 8:29 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


The fact that just being friends with people in a poor neighborhood directly leads to being an accomplice to felonies is a problem in itself. If the guy you socialize with after work is Bernie Madoff you're probably not going to go to jail for it, but if you hang out with a small scale drug dealer there's a lot better chance that a "random stop" is going to end up with you being charged along with the person who is directly committing crimes.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:32 AM on May 29, 2015 [12 favorites]


I can't help but feel that she's got more to worry about in having her work picked apart than in possibly facing consequences to admitting to conspiracy to murder, which also probably proves her point.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:41 AM on May 29, 2015


So for Goffman, she can't just change names, she'd have to alter or gloss over incident details to avoid someone with local knowledge immediately spotting an incident whose participants he knows. What's the standard in academic publishing for this?

Altering/glossing details for the sake of anonymity is standard. There's usually some sort of disclaimer stating if that has happened, if that's the case.

Is it like anonymous sources in journalism where an outlet will allow a journalist to cite an anonymous source if someone else like their editor can independently verify the source?

Nope. It's almost entirely based on trust, and something like you mentioned would be an egregious violation of research ethics: anonymity means that even the fact that you participated in the study is not public knowledge, and giving that knowledge to somebody *not* approved by your institution's IRB is a big no-no.

Did Goffman's advisors access the raw story and sign off on changing details that convey the essential truth of it?

No to the first part; yes to the second as that's standard practice, see above. Again, this is almost all entirely based on trust, which is standard in the social sciences/humanities. Usually this trust is deserved, but things can definitely quickly go wrong (e.g, see that retracted Science article. )
posted by damayanti at 9:26 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I remember reading and hearing interviews with her when she first started making the news. Honestly it was hard to shake the impression of a white girl who dresses up in hip-hop clothes, adopts a "Black-cent", raves about Nicki Minaj, and tries to learn how to twerk--then goes home to have dinner with Mom and Dad in an upscale surburban neighborhood. But the interviewer was just eating it up.
posted by schroedinger at 9:29 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


My cousin! Oh how cool, this is my cousin and she is going to help us end the war on the underclass and the war on drugs. Hi, Alice!

Everybody needs to go out and read On the Run.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:39 AM on May 29, 2015


Previous thread on Goffman's work

Very different vibe in that one.
posted by TedW at 9:49 AM on May 29, 2015


> I also quite like James Forman, Jr.'s take: The Society of Fugitives.

Thanks for the direct link, anotherpanacea. Since theatlantic.com did their massive site rebuild it's basically a dead and broken site for habitual noscript users. Hail and farewell, theatlantic.
posted by jfuller at 9:50 AM on May 29, 2015




I'm sorry, but, the more I read, the more I get a Shit That Didn't Happen vibe off that story. She just strikes me as conflating several archetypes (justice via revenge, outsider in the inner circle, good person gone renegade once again for justice) as a way to push her "street legitimacy". I also find the placement of the story in the book damning, as it strikes me as way too convenient for a climatic finale/climatic near-finale, where the once outsider has earned her bones and is now a part of the gang's inner rituals. I must also remark she doesn't strike me as anyone nearly stupid enough to tell such a story if it came anywhere near being true/real, because of the repercussions.

Of course, this is just my take.
posted by Samizdata at 10:51 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


My cousin! Oh how cool, this is my cousin and she is going to help us end the war on the underclass and the war on drugs. Hi, Alice!

Why don't you send her a link here? Metafilter would be happy to have her.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:37 AM on May 29, 2015


Here is an extremely detailed analysis of alleged inaccuracies in Goffman's book. I haven't read the entire document, but this discussion on a Reddit sociology forum convinces me that there are some valid issues raised.

I initially resisted the skeptical take, because Goffman's work seems important to me, but I'd be very interested in her response to some of the more substantive claims the validity of her writing.
posted by layceepee at 12:35 PM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Alas, it is now too late to obtain any additional documentation, because Goffman shredded all of her field notes and disposed of her hard drive.

Is this standard practice for this type of ethnography? I'd be really surprised if her IRB review did not include some policy for note-taking and preservation.

Difficult as it may make it to do "science," I rather suspect destruction of potentially incriminating field notes is almost an ethical requirement in and of itself in light of what happened to the Boston College Oral History Archive on the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
posted by Naberius at 12:56 PM on May 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


An anonymous pastebin? Hmm. I'm not saying that's discrediting, but it makes it difficult to read and circulate.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:16 PM on May 29, 2015


As I will explain below, Goffman appears to have participated in a serious felony in the course of her field work—a circumstance that seems to have escaped the notice of her teachers, her mentors, her publishers, her admirers, and even her critics.

The author thinks he's the only person who has noticed this? Good grief.
posted by desuetude at 1:26 PM on May 29, 2015


Ha, pastebin totally doesn't make my chan radar go off or anything.
posted by Yowser at 1:47 PM on May 29, 2015


I read a good chunk of the pastebin thing.

It's a really odd document, because it's like 50-50 unhinged and totally grounded. Some of the criticisms in it are very very easy to explain away in the mind of anyone who has done or even read much ethnographic sociology. But, some of it is much more damning, like the issues with the Alex quotations. Either way, the author of that document definitely appears to have something going on beyond an honest desire to 'get to the bottom' of Goffman's stories.

But, I must say, there's a lot of noise coming from my gut telling me to not accept her stories as they're told: When I read the book my bullshit detectors were buzzing the entire time. She definitely almost assisted in a killing (or lied about doing that, depending on what rings true to you). She was sloppy in explaining a pretty important and fundamental part of her method that has serious ethical implications. She was incapable of anonymizing her notes and other data--any of it, it seems--to the extent that it all had to be destroyed.

And none of that is even getting into the totally valid and as-yet mostly unheard critiques that are based on entirely academic issues, and that assume complete honesty on Goffman's part.

So yeah, my take away is that I'm putting her book and ASR article in the same stack as Venkatesh's stuff: too problematic to take seriously, despite containing what are undoubtedly some very real truths. There's plenty of less-lauded work out there that can get a reader to the same places Goffman gets, so I'll stick with that stuff.
posted by still bill at 1:57 PM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you're looking for an alternative to Goffman, let me recommend Vesla Weaver's essays: Political Consequences of the Carceral State (with Amy Lerman) and Frontlash.

Weaver is friends with Goffman and cites the ASR piece in the first essay and the book version in her book with Lerman, Arresting Citizenship, but Weaver's work stands on its own (and on its own data.)

This perhaps suggests the way that Goffman will be used: as an easy cite for powerful imagery and anecdotes to represent a mass of data or more neutral interviews.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:15 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


The fact that just being friends with people in a poor neighborhood directly leads to being an accomplice to felonies is a problem in itself. If the guy you socialize with after work is Bernie Madoff you're probably not going to go to jail for it, but if you hang out with a small scale drug dealer there's a lot better chance that a "random stop" is going to end up with you being charged along with the person who is directly committing crimes.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:32 AM on May 29 [7 favorites +] [!]


From the article:
"To her credit, although in a rather disquieting way, Goffman does not claim that she did it for science. “I did not get into the car with Mike because I wanted to learn firsthand about violence,” she wrote. “I got into the car because . . . I wanted Chuck’s killer to die.” “Looking back,” she added, “I’m glad that I learned what it feels like to want a man to die—not simply to understand the desire for vengeance in others, but to feel it in my bones.” "

The equivalent in the Madoff hypothetical would be if the ethnographer not only tagged along with Madoff when he pitched his Ponzi scheme to victims but had a go at selling it themselves because they wanted to authentically feel what it means to con someone.
posted by Bwithh at 3:12 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


still bill, Are there critical reviews of Venkatesh's book in the same vein? Or is he Teflon?
I'm just curious
posted by Bwithh at 3:13 PM on May 29, 2015


Difficult as it may make it to do "science," I rather suspect destruction of potentially incriminating field notes is almost an ethical requirement in and of itself in light of what happened to the Boston College Oral History Archive on the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

That's a bit different as Boston College went ahead with this despite legal advice warning them against it. They incorrectly told the participants that their non-anonymized personal testimonial records would be safely private until after their deaths.

This doesn't meet academic informed consent standards, and in any case an ethnographer should be able to retain detailed anonymized notes of fieldwork even after destroying anything which identifies at-risk people.
posted by Bwithh at 3:24 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


You know, it's interesting, but I don't know of any similarly exhaustive criticisms of Venkatesh. I'm sure they're out there, but his gang book is so transparently bullshit that I think most sociology and criminology people I know never even bothered taking it seriously.
posted by still bill at 3:37 PM on May 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


from April 2014: When newly minted Ph.D.s go on the job market, they usually have questions about the teaching load, research money and tenure prospects.

Alice Goffman, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had another query, too: Would she be allowed to get arrested and go to prison?

“They said that with a felony record, I couldn’t teach at a public university,” she recalled recently. “For a second I thought, ‘Should I take this job?’ ”

posted by Bwithh at 3:42 PM on May 29, 2015


It's sort of weird that people are portraying this as if Goffman doesn't get that she morally compromised herself by driving a getaway car for a potential murder. The reason she tells the story is to be open about the fact that she had crossed into territory she didn't want to be in. "Perhaps Chuck's death had broken something inside me. I stopped seeing the man who shot him as a man who, like the men I knew, was jobless and trying to make it at the bottom rung of a shrinking drug trade while dodging the police. I didn't care whether this man had believed his life was threatened... I simply wanted him to pay for what he'd done, for what he'd taken away from us... my desire for vengeance scared me, more than the shootings I'd witnessed, more even than my ongoing fears for Mike's and Tim's safety, and certainly more than any fears for my own."

Does that sound like someone trying to create the impression that her participation is an unfortunately necessary part of her scientific, objective observation? No. It's somebody saying, these people were my friends, I tried to be as much of a scientist as I could, I didn't always succeed, here is where it broke for me.

I would describe her book as unusually frank about the way objectivity in ethnography is constantly in a crisis of compromise.

(Disclosure: Goffman works at the same university as I do. I have met her, though I wouldn't say I know her personally.)
posted by escabeche at 4:28 PM on May 29, 2015 [8 favorites]


It does sound like a nice, juicy dramatic climax for the inevitable movie.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:48 PM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Charlemagne In Sweatpants: "It does sound like a nice, juicy dramatic climax for the inevitable movie."

points at you like Rod Steiger triumphantly points in Mars Attacks.

Plus, if there's a legal case, albeit unsuccessful, imagine the awesome PR for the book and movie... Instant "street" cred...
posted by Samizdata at 7:50 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Academic research on people who have active arrest warrants? Is there an accessible record on the review process before this was given the green light? My mind is kind of boggling. I suppose there is a dissertation committee somewhere that is clueless enough to sign off on this but there have to be some kind of regulations, don't there? Were they funded by tax money?
posted by bukvich at 7:53 AM on May 30, 2015


You know, it's interesting, but I don't know of any similarly exhaustive criticisms of Venkatesh. I'm sure they're out there, but his gang book is so transparently bullshit that I think most sociology and criminology people I know never even bothered taking it seriously.

Yeah, pretty much. I saw him at a conference a few years ago, and was sorely tempted to ask him if he felt worse about his charlatanism or the fact that his arguable betrayals of the community he worked in might have gotten people killed, but I couldn't get through the thick crowd of sycophantic NYU grad students who were throwing rose petals before his every stride.
posted by clockzero at 11:02 AM on May 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I was at a conference where he had given a talk the day before, and there were a lot of really eager people still reeling from it, going on about how great and brave he was. It amazes me, because his stuff is so obviously fake that it's like I'm taking crazy pills when I talk to people who buy it, or even who don't instantly recognize it as fiction. There's a 2008 episode of This American Life (Building a Better Mousetrap, episode 366) in which he reads his story about an illegal ammo salesman in Chicago, and it's just so alarmingly fake that it drove me nuts to hear it passed off and accepted as real. Worst of all, his writing is usually clunky (although it is, admittedly, sometimes not clunky and really great and compelling), so it's not even like that's an excuse.
posted by still bill at 1:05 PM on May 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, considering the way American ethnology continues to circle its wagons around Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, of all transparently fraudulent texts, I guess that's not surprising.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:19 AM on May 31, 2015


Here is Goffman's response to Lubet, for any who care to read it.
posted by black_lizard at 6:10 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]






i really hope that this book is not completely shredded as factual because a very staunch libertarian on my facebook just wrote a stunning piece on how this book has changed his thinking. He even called out that other conservatives and libertarians who think that people in poor areas just need to "try harder" and have made their own bad decisions that got them there, those conservatives and libertarians need to read this book.

he said he isn't even finished yet but that an initial story about two young men ending up in a kafka-esque scenario with the law really opened his eyes, along with the recent info on Kaleif.

he was arguing with some other libertarians using rhetoric i never expected to hear from him.

i really hope that everything in that book as true as could possibly be and was only changed in order to protect people.
posted by sio42 at 7:00 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


We have met the unreliable narrator, and he is us.

Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author
p. 96
posted by bukvich at 7:55 AM on June 12, 2015


Jesse Singal personally fact-checked Goffman's book with some of its subjects. His conclusion?

Alice Goffman conducted some amazing ethnographic research, and her book is almost entirely true, not to mention quite important.

Alice Goffman is going to have a really hard time defending herself from her fiercest critics.

posted by Cash4Lead at 8:54 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


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