Friday, June 19, 2015

Goffman's Tightrope

Two new articles add useful context to the debate about Alice Goffman’s On the Run. Together, they show just how narrow a path Goffman was walking between privacy and verifiability, and between scholarship and good writing. I will address the IRB issues in a separate post.

[Jesse Singal, “The Internet Accused Alice Goffman of Faking Details In Her Study of a Black Neighborhood. I Went to Philadelphia to Check,” Science of Us, June 18, 2015.; Leon Neyfakh, “The Ethics of Ethnography,” Slate, June 18, 2015.]

Jesse Singal of Science of Us tracked down some of Goffman’s Philadelphia informants, as well as Goffman herself. He finds that while Goffman’s “lack of precision in language” muddied some portions of her book, she “conducted some amazing ethnographic research, and her book is almost entirely true, not to mention quite important.”

Singal quotes Goffman’s adviser, Mitchell Duneier, on the realtime fact-checking that accompanied Goffman’s research.

During Goffman’s time at Princeton, he said, “There was a constant sending her back for more details, more facts, more interviews on a whole variety of different questions and issues” — sometimes, she would put folks from the neighborhood on speakerphone. A warrant officer from Philadelphia — a “brilliant one with vast knowledge” — also read a big chunk of Goffman’s research, and Duneier got dinner with him twice to talk about her work. This officer corrected some things, but mostly endorsed Goffman’s account, and Duneier is positive he read about the hospital arrests.

Meanwhile, Leon Neyfakh of Slate interviewed Goffman and several experts on ethnography, including Rena Lederman and Alice Dreger. (Your humble blogger is also quoted.)

Lederman offers a particularly helpful context. As Neyfakh paraphrases:

She pointed out that we don’t expect survey researchers—scholars who conduct studies on large sample populations and present quantitative generalizations based on a statistical analysis of data—to know or care about the names of the individuals they question to generate their findings. Why should ethnographers be held to a standard of naming names? Lederman suggested that it is ethnographers’ interest in developing qualitative generalizations—general truths—from the study of specific individuals that makes them similar to scholars whose work is more unambiguously recognizable as science.

Dreger is more skeptical, arguing that “If you want people to read for the big picture, then what you should write is the big picture. You should write, ‘These are the general things I observed, these are the patterns I observed,’ and not present it in the form of exquisite individual portraits as if those are true.”

The problem, of course, with such an approach is that it won’t have anywhere near the impact of a book like On the Run. Sociologist Katherine Newman has done brilliant research on the working poor, and won many honors within academia. But she lacks the profile of journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who writes on similar topics based on relatively superficial, impressionistic experiences.

Maybe the lesson is that Goffman needs to pick a lane. But that strikes me as a loss for everyone.

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