New York Times Magazine takes a deep dive into the work and life of Alice Goffman, writer of 'On the Run,' a book based on her field work in West Philadelphia. The story is a nuanced look at a complex topic:
The object of dispute was Goffman’s debut book, ‘‘On the Run,’’ which chronicles the social world of a group of young black men in a mixed-income neighborhood in West Philadelphia, some of them low-level drug dealers who live under constant threat of arrest and cycle in and out of prison. She began the project as a 20-year-old undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania; eventually she moved to be closer to the neighborhood, which in the book she calls ‘‘Sixth Street,’’ and even took in two of her subjects as roommates. While most ethnographic projects are completed over a year and a half, Goffman spent more than six years working in the neighborhood, which evolved from a field site into what she still basically considers her home. Her field notes, which she kept with obsessive fidelity — often transcribing hourslong conversations as they happened in real time — ran to thousands of pages. She had to spend more than a year chopping up and organizing these notes by theme for her book: the rituals of court dates and bail hearings; relationships with women and children; experiences of betrayal and abandonment. All those records had now been burned: Even before the controversy began, Goffman felt as though their ritual incineration was the only way she could protect her friend-informers from police scrutiny after her book was published...
Within her discipline, attitudes toward Goffman’s work were conflicted from the beginning. The American Sociological Association gave ‘‘On the Run’’ its Dissertation Award
, and many of Goffman’s peers came to feel as though she had been specially anointed by the discipline’s power elite — that she had been allowed, as the future public face of sociology, to operate by her own set of rules. As a qualitative researcher, Goffman paid relatively scant attention to the dominant mode of her data-preoccupied field, instead opting to work in a hybrid fashion, as something between a reporter and an academic. She has also mostly refused to play the kinds of political games that can constitute a large part of academic life, eschewing disciplinary jargon and citing the work of other scholars only when she felt like it.
Worse, perhaps, was Goffman’s fondness in her writing for what could seem like lurid detail. Some of the flourishes in ‘‘On the Run’’ were harmless or even felicitous — one character’s ‘‘morning routine of clothes ironing, hair care, body lotion and sneaker buffing’’ — but others seemed to play up her own peril or pander to audience expectations. In one scene, two white officers in SWAT gear break down a house door, ‘‘with guns strapped to the sides of their legs.’’ She continues, ‘‘The first officer in pointed a gun at me and asked who was in the house; he continued to point the gun toward me as he went up the stairs.’’ In another, Goffman writes that the house of a family ‘‘smelled of piss and vomit and stale cigarettes, and cockroaches roamed freely across the countertops and soiled living-room furniture.’’
Above all, what frustrated her critics was the fact that she was a well-off, expensively educated white woman who wrote about the lives of poor black men without expending a lot of time or energy on what the field refers to as ‘‘positionality’’ — in this case, on an accounting of her own privilege. Goffman identifies strongly and explicitly with the confident social scientists of previous generations, and if none of those figures felt as though they had to apologize for doing straightforward, readable work on marginalized or discredited populations, she didn’t see why she should have to. As another young professor told me, with the air of reverent exasperation that people use to talk about her, ‘‘Alice used a writing style that today you can’t really use in the social sciences.’’ He sighed and began to trail off. ‘‘In the past,’’ he said with some astonishment, ‘‘they really did write that way.’’ The book smacked, some sociologists argued, of a kind of swaggering adventurism that the discipline had long gotten over. Goffman became a proxy for old and unsettled arguments about ethnography that extended far beyond her own particular case. What is the continuing role of the qualitative in an era devoted to data? When the politics of representation have become so fraught, who gets to write about whom?
Original source: New York Times Magazine
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