My review of Alice Goffman’s On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City was posted today on The New Rambler Review (an online journal edited by Eric Posner, Adrian Vermeule, and Blakey Vermeule). As you will see, I am extremely critical of the book – especially on ethics issues – despite the raves from luminaries in the world of social science.
You can read the entire review here.
I have copied a few key paragraphs below, which will allow you to get an idea of the whole thing:
Alice Goffman’s widely acclaimed On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City has drawn more positive attention than almost any sociology book in recent years. The success of the book led to a lecture tour of at least twenty sociology departments and conferences. Her TED talk, which was often interrupted by applause, has had nearly 700,000 views. A careful reading of On the Run, however, leaves me with vexing questions about the author’s accuracy and reliability. There are just too many incidents that strike me as unlikely to have occurred as she describes them. One must try to keep an open mind about such things – especially regarding someone as obviously brilliant and dedicated as Goffman – so readers may disagree with me about the extent of her embellishments. In any event, there is a bigger problem. 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.
There is another reason for concern about the hospital story. Elsewhere in the book, Goffman explains that many of her subjects refused to seek medical attention, or visit sick or injured friends, for fear that their names would be run by the cops. While it is understandable that the police might check out the emergency room for patients with gunshot wounds, I believe it is an urban legend that they likewise screen all patients and visitors in every ward. I found no one else who ever heard of such a routine practice.
By validating the rumor, however, Goffman has now embedded it in ethnographic lore, and it could well be accepted as fact by sociology and social work majors. If repeated uncritically by future social workers in urban areas, this could have the ripple effect of further discouraging young African-American men from obtaining necessary medical care, which would be a shame.
Taking Goffman’s narrative at face value, one would have to conclude that her actions – driving around with an armed man, looking for somebody to kill – constituted conspiracy to commit murder under Pennsylvania law. In the language of the applicable statute, she agreed to aid another person “in the planning or commission” of a crime – in this case, murder. As with other “inchoate” crimes, the offense of conspiracy is completed simply by the agreement itself and the subsequent commission of a single “overt act” in furtherance of the crime, such as voluntarily driving the getaway car.
I sent the relevant paragraphs from On the Run to four current or former prosecutors with experience in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. Their unanimous opinion was that Goffman had committed a felony. A former prosecutor from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office was typical of the group. “She's flat out confessed to conspiring to commit murder and could be charged and convicted based on this account right now,” he said.
Medical students are taught to do no harm. Law students are instructed that they may not assist a client in the commission of a crime. The analog for ethnography students ought to be equally straightforward: if a subject asks you for help in a murder plot, just say no.
This review is part of a longer project on the ethics of ethnography.