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Alice Goffman, ethics, and advising

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

A few years ago, as a graduate student at USC, I visited the American Sociological Association’s website. A name grabbed my attention. “Goffman,” I thought, “She can’t be related to the Goffman.” Alice Goffman, as it turns out, is the daughter of renowned sociologist Erving Goffman. I hurried to Google. She received her Ph.D. from Princeton. She conducted ethnographic research. She won ASA’s dissertation of the year. And, she became an Assistant Professor at Wisconsin.

So, here we are a few years later. This spring, she published On the Run, an account of her dissertation research. She is embroiled in a scandal (or witch hunt, depending on your perspective). At the center of the controversy is a scene in which the “rogue sociologist” drives a young man around the neighborhood in order to avenge a friend’s murder. The man has a gun and wants to use it. Reviewer Steven Lubet noted that the researcher, by driving the car, engaged in conspiracy to commit murder according to Pennsylvania statute. Goffman denies it, claiming the ride was about catharsis, not murder. I believe her; however, the case isn’t simple. As my lawyer wife has reminded me before a few trips to collect data, ignorance of the law is not a defense. In other words, if I am arrested while conducting a participant observation with a teenager selling drugs on a street corner, I can’t say, “But officer, in the name of science, I’m a researcher!” 

Several academics have commented about the tricky and contextual nature of ethics and ethnography. For an informed discussion, see anthropologist Paul Stoller’s take in the Huffington Post. I could go on about the book and design, but I will save that for another time. I read the ethnography. I was underwhelmed. The focus—the impact of surveillance and over-policing on black men in low-income neighborhoods—is important and necessary. However, agreeing with Patrick Sharkey’s observation, the argument lacks empirical support. She often presents statements without evidence.

Although she received high praise—the front- and back-cover include blurbs, which verge on unctuous, from superstars like Cornel West, Carol Stack, Elijah Anderson, and Malcolm Gladwell—it’s still dissertation research. That does not absolve a researcher from creating a sound research design and upholding high ethical standards. But, a number of conditions—including quality mentoring and prolonged engagement with scholarship and practice—are necessary to become a skilled qualitative researcher. One study does not an expert make. She deserves the benefit of the doubt, at least until proven otherwise.

I assume Alice Goffman is well-meaning and didn’t willfully commit conspiracy to commit murder. I know she is an early career faculty member and has the right to learn and improve. I also know that research is subjective. It depends on countless factors, including research experience and researcher / participant positionality. Critics who assert that there is an objective roadmap about how to conduct and judge research (and that Goffman ripped it up) are wrong. Last, I assume that Goffman has a lot of important scholarship ahead of her. I look forward to reading it.

Research rarely receives so much attention or stimulates so much dialogue. Conversations about ethics and research are important. So too are exchanges about two of the most pressing policy issues in our country: the increase of concentrated poverty and its negative effects. So far, discussions have focused on whether or not Goffman messed up. I get the sense that a number of people would rather vilify her than engage in productive dialogue about underlying issues, like how we train scholars to conduct ethical research; how social position influences factors such as who conducts research and where; and, how we develop policies to improve pathways from school to career, not school to prison. That’s unfortunate.

As a postscript, last week, The Chronicle published a comprehensive review of the case. At the end of the article, the author includes a surprise detail:

Ms. Goffman’s graduate-school adviser at Princeton, Mitchell Duneier, also defends her work — mostly. She crossed an ethical line in the episode that Mr. Lubet argues was a crime, Mr. Duneier says, and she left herself open to criticism with her thin discussion of it in her text. But he vouches for the credibility of her book. One reason is that he has met some of her subjects himself.

While Ms. Goffman was working on the dissertation that she would ultimately develop into On the Run, Mr. Duneier conducted independent interviews with some of her subjects. Ethnographers, in his view, should identify the people and places in their studies when possible. The sensitivity of Ms. Goffman’s research made that standard of transparency impossible, Mr. Duneier says. So, while he trusted Ms. Goffman, he also took steps to ensure his own comfort with her story. "I feel confident in the research that I supervised as an adviser and that our committee approved at Princeton," he says.

Just as ethics and quality of research are inextricably linked, the care, time, and expertise of an advisor is critical to the training of his or her advisee. Mitch Duneier—an accomplished Princeton professor, the skilled ethnographer who wrote Slim’s Table and Sidewalk, and an extremely busy person, I’m sure—took the time to interview his advisee’s participants in order to ensure the quality of her research. Think about that for a moment.

Update: Steven Lubet wrote a follow-up article.