Chris Blattman

“I fact checked Alice Goffman with her subjects”

That’s not the actual title of Jesse Singal’s latest article, but it is the URL, and I like it better.

Singal (the same journalist who tenaciously went after Lacour) summarizes the backstory extremely well, but here is my even shorter version: Goffman is a young sociologist who wrote one of the most interesting books last year on one of the most important subjects in America: the police state that black men live in. She was applauded, at least until the critics came out questioning her credibility and her field work.

Here’s Singal’s account of his fairly light fact-checking of the Goffman book:

There’s no delicate way to put this: I’d been wandering around the neighborhood I was pretty sure was “6th Street,” handing out photos of Goffman, asking anyone willing to talk to me if they remembered this small white girl who used to hang out with Chuck. (Also, I may or may not have been carrying a box of Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins that I offered to people in an attempt to appear more friendly.)

I hadn’t even known Goffman was in town at the time. And now, after an hour-long chat with “Miss Linda,” Chuck’s mom, in her home near 6th Street, and several beers with “Josh,” one of Chuck’s best friends and another character from the book, in an Irish sports bar in a different part of Philly, I was sitting across from Goffman herself, convinced that the basics of her book were legitimate, but plagued by remaining questions. These loose ends never got resolved, and over the next few days they led to further calls and texts and emails with Goffman, which in turn led me to two conclusions:

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.

Hat tip to Suresh Naidu.

My read, after an incomplete investigation of reading the book as well as the online attacks and defenses, plus talking to sociologist friends and colleagues, is pretty simple: this is a very good but flawed book, and in my mind the insights far outweigh the flaws in methodology and literary license. I hope a chastened and more experienced Goffman continues to punch out important work. I will read it with enthusiasm.

The attacks, meanwhile, were poorly researched, sometimes naive, and almost always unprofessional. I’ve been surprised by the carelessness and viciousness of the critiques of the book. No one owes Goffman anything, but I like a profession that holds its members to a higher standard, especially when going after a junior colleague.

I would be interested to hear sociologist colleagues react.

I suspect the book has one thing in common with most statistical papers I know: it massages the data a little to fit a cute story, and the result is more or less true. The main difference is that the more people read your book or paper, the more likely you get caught.

Thank goodness no one reads my papers…

12 Responses

  1. Well, if that is the case, then one cannot meaningfully go beyond “take my word” and fact and fiction are not capable of individuation in (at least certain institutional examples of) ethnography.

  2. IRBs can be very different from institution to institution. And in my own experience with ethnographic research, IRBs tend to require a great deal more in the way of anonymization for projects that are directly focused on eliciting information about illegal activity, like Goffman’s research was. I would not be at all surprised if Goffman destroyed notes at the behest of her IRB.

  3. The key issue — and it cannot be explained away — is the complete an near-immediate destruction of the data on which her stories are based.

    Even if Goffman can craft an explanation for this, the act pretty much sinks the scientific value of the research.

    I work with IRB’s at my UC school. I often study patients (e,g, samples of schizophrenics, personality disorder, and so on). Redaction of transcripts (when I do qualitative work) is essential and required. But what ALSO is required is keeping the original (redacted if necessary) data available for a minimum of 4-5 years. This practice of data storage enables others to mine the data for issues of previously unexamined relevance (a useful scientific courtesy), as well as serve as a way to (help — not foolproof as the Stapel, Smeesters and Sanna cases in social psychology have shown) establish that ther indeed is a factual basis for the author(s)’ insights.

    I realize Goffman’s work is a book and not a journal article. Maybe this affords her an excuse for obliteration of all her data. But if so, it, of practical necessity, renders her work more in the nature of fiction (perhaps based on a “true story” – as they like to say in the motion picture industry) than a scientific offering.

  4. The thing I found most interesting in the excellent Singal piece was the response of “Josh,” a character from the book who had lived in the neighborhood but who has since moved away and has a good job. Josh thinks some will read the book and say “This is the reason why we’re policing them every day, because none of them can stop breaking the law if they wanted to.” (Actually he comes across as pretty sympathetic to this view himself.)

    This is pretty much the same reaction that right-wing Heather MacDonald expressed in her City Journal review, found here:

    I haven’t read the book, but this gets at the core of what concerns me about Goffman as well. I never had any doubt that she did the research. And I understand that the method requires that she come to closely empathize with the characters. I understand that this is perhaps the only way to see the world from their point of view, which is valuable.

    But it means as well that we should realize that her larger policy conclusions will probably also come from that point of view. There is a built in tendency that will tend to excuse or obscure behavior that we should probably find reprehensible. We are encouraged to smugly conclude this as a case of black victims and evil police, when the reality is obviously more complicated. This probably already plays to the biases of Goffman’s audience.

    When liberal viewers watch her TED talk, maybe they should also be required to watch a TED talk from a researcher who has done a sympathetic ethnographic study of the police, and can represent things from the police point of view.

    (This is not to say that an ethnographic study of the police would end up defending police practices, it might have large areas of overlap with Goffman’s critique. I haven’t read “Cop in the Hood”… is it something like this? Is it good? I wonder what Moskos thinks of Goffman’s work.)

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