This article from New York Times Magazine is about the years since Alice Goffman—daughter of famed sociologist Erving Goffman—published her ethnographic account of life in a crimogenic community.
I’ve read Goffman’s book and it is a solid accounting of life within such a community, as I have come to know having also lived within such communities.
This article from the NYT is excellent.
Before the morning last September when I joined her at Newark Airport, I had met Alice Goffman only twice. But in the previous months, amid a widening controversy both inside and outside the academy over her research, she and I had developed a regular email correspondence, and she greeted me at the gate as if I were an old friend. A 34-year-old untenured professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Goffman had just begun a year of leave at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which she hoped she might use to escape her critics and get back to work. Now, though, she was returning to Madison for a four-day visit, to deliver a lecture and catch up with her graduate students.
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.
At the gate in Newark, Goffman unshouldered a bulky zippered tote bag. ‘‘I’m so happy,’’ she said with visible and somewhat exaggerated relief, ‘‘that I didn’t give you this to take through security yourself.’’ Over the course of our correspondence, I had asked her from time to time if she had any book artifacts that escaped destruction. In this tote was some material she had forgotten about: unpaid bills, bail receipts, letters from prison and a few extant fragments of hastily scrawled in situ field notes. But it wasn’t until the security line that she remembered what the tote probably once held, memorabilia from her time on Sixth Street: bullets, spent casings, containers for drugs. She passed safely through the scanner in a state of agitation, not about the risk she took but by how blithely she was treated by T.S.A. agents.
‘‘And who did they stop?’’ she said. ‘‘Not me and my bag of contrabandy stuff, but a young man with brown skin. I tried to exchange a look of solidarity with him, but he wouldn’t look at me. Compare that to the interactions I’ve had at this airport — people smiling at me, holding the door for me. You don’t think, as a white person, about how your whole day is boosted by people affirming your dignity all day long. This isn’t news. But it is stuff that, for me, at the beginning. …’’ She didn’t finish the sentence.
When the University of Chicago Press published ‘‘On the Run’’ in 2014, it was met with a level of mainstream attention — profiles, reviews, interviews — that many sociologists told me they had never witnessed for a first book in their field. Malcolm Gladwell called the work ‘‘extraordinary,’’ and in The New York Review of Books, Christopher Jencks hailed it as an ‘‘ethnographic classic.’’ Despite the many years it took Goffman to finish the book, its timing turned out to be propitious: The work of scholars like Michelle Alexander had turned America’s staggering incarceration rates, especially for black men, into one of the very few territories of shared bipartisan concern. In the year after publication, Goffman did 32 public speaking appearances, including a TED talk. But by the time that TED talk received its millionth view, a rancorous backlash to the book had begun.
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.’’