On the Run: Sociology, Journalism or What?

When I first heard of Alice Goffman’s On the Run a year or so ago, it didn’t pass my personal ‘smell test’ so I ignored it. After all, my early training was as a journalist and my idea of what constitutes publishable research and information is based in that professional ethos. I was a nightside copyboy in the newsroom of The New York Times during Watergate and saw first-hand how strict one must be in filtering what becomes the news. Over the years, I have also learned how seductive good writing can be. Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass provide bad examples even today to journalists, making people in the field constantly aware that the story you tell has to be firmly grounded and vetted, no matter how skillful the telling. On the Run, by demanding that the reader simply trust the honesty of the writer on the basis of scholarly restrictions, made me turn away.

Goffman may be a perfectly fine scholar; I’m in no position to judge the worth of her work in that regard. Her field is different from mine and has its own benchmarks and requirements. On the other hand, from what I understand, her book contains a great deal not in the dissertation it is coming from. It is not simply a revised version for publication but something more.

As journalism, Goffman’s book has been shown to have serious problems—many of them, most charitably, coming from the conflation of two sets of standards, one pertaining to the ethnographic researcher bound by discipline-based methodologies and institutional review boards (IRB) for research concerning human subjects and the other to the journalism that the book, in its popular presentation, also purports to be. As I approached the book as journalism and not scholarship, this conflation made me turn away.

In a long piece, declared by some in the comments to be a ‘hit piece,’ Paul Campos takes Goffman to task for a number of weaknesses, most of them stemming from this conflation. His article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Alice Goffman’s Implausible Ethnography,” criticizes Goffman as a sociologist, as a journalist, and even as the teller of a plausible story. I think he tries a bit too hard, but he does make three significant points:

  1. The use of standards (anonymity and IRB requirements, in this case) of one field should never be used as an excuse for ignoring those of another (verifiability);
  2. Editors should never assume that previous academic vetting can suffice;
  3. There’s a limit to the effective use of the personal; the teller is not the tale and neither is the telling.

One of the biggest mistakes of Campos’s piece is highlighted in the sub-head: “’On the Run’ reveals the flaws of how sociology is sometimes produced, evaluated, and rewarded.” No. As even Campos points out, the book is not the dissertation. It is no longer the work of scholarship it is based on but has become a work of journalism in the mode made popular in the sixties by New Journalists Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, among others. It is as unfair to judge the field of sociology by this book as it would be to judge journalism by Goffman’s dissertation.

The mistake with the book itself was to allow the rules of one field to carry over when the work made the transition into another. The publisher knew the book was going to be presented as more than a scholarly tome and even encouraged its presentation as journalism. It was certainly taken that way. As Campos points out, the The New York Times Book Review calls it “a remarkable feat of reporting.”

The reviewer, Alex Kotlowitz, goes on to write, “The level of detail in this book and Goffman’s ability to understand her subjects’ motivations are astonishing — and riveting. Indeed, it’s a power of ‘On the Run’ that her insights and conclusions feel so honest to what she’s seen and heard.” That’s where he lost me, last year when I read the review: “feel so honest.” This, even when names have been changed and places disguised. It is not the job of a journalist to make something “feel” honest to a reader, for that requires playing to the reader’s preconceptions and predilections. It is, to some degree, giving the reader what she or he wants to hear. That’s the job for a writer of fiction, not a journalist, adding a third field to the ungainly conflation and providing my initial excuse for ignoring the book.

The job of the editor has gotten harder over the last generation or so. No Max Perkins can work his or her magic on any writer today. Writers have become much more powerful and editors correspondingly less so. Writer/scholars, in particular, are relied upon to know their fields. Vetting them becomes pro forma in most venues. The assumption is that there’s an honesty inherent in academia that outsiders—including editors—can rely upon. But—and here Campos quotes Kieran Healy—academia “is not set up to weed out liars.” Neither is journalism, certainly not when the liar is as good as Stephen Glass (I start my Introduction to Journalism course with the movie about him, Shattered Glass, for it shows how even the best fact-checking can be duped). No editor should ever assume the veracity of any manuscript, no matter the source. Claiming a necessary anonymity for academic reasons should never suffice in a journalistic environment.

What made me wince most in Campos’s piece are the quotes he picked out that are about Goffman herself. As a writer who likes to use personal experience as a part of his stories, I always worry that I am going too far, that I am making the story about me and not about the putative topic. When Goffman writes that she was “casing the classrooms in the Sociology Department, making a mental note of the TVs and computers I could steal if I ever needed cash in a hurry,” I wonder if she has any sense at all—which is unfair, I know, for I have not read the whole. Still, I have experienced culture shock a number of times in my life (moving to and from Asia, Africa and between rural and urban America) and know how it works—and that’s not it. Also, the vignette raises questions about Goffman’s activities in the neighborhood she was studying: did she really, as the passage implies, steal while she was there?

When I read Thompson’s Hells Angels in high school fifty years ago, I was sick of the narrator by the end of the book and happy when he got “stomped.” I wanted to read about the motorcycle gang and not about him. He distracted me from the topic and I always felt he was exaggerating—the opposite of how I viewed Wolfe’s telling in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test a couple of years later. Both books have stayed with me, though, and the power of the narrations and narrating characters is a part of that. Neither book purported to be scholarly, though, as Goffman does (even including a long “A Methodological Note”) and both were deliberately breaking journalistic conventions, which I don’t think Goffman is trying to do.

Goffman’s narrator, as depicted by Campos, becomes even more untrustworthy than Thompson was. That she would be called from Princeton to sit on a washing machine in Philadelphia and listen to a war council or that she served as a driver for someone either intent on murder or pretending to seem so (examples Campos gives) defies belief.

Though Goffman’s book may be based on excellent scholarship (as I said, I’ve no means to judge), it seems to be dubious journalism, at best. The unfortunate conflation at the heart of the book may be undermining what could be an excellent contribution to contemporary debate on the role of police in American communities, especially those heavily African-American, and on the impact of a heavily punitive justice system on American cities. As it is, no one can read it without wondering where the sociology stops and the journalism begins—or, as a result of that, where the two together stop and the fabulizing begins.

2 thoughts on “On the Run: Sociology, Journalism or What?

  1. First, you’re right. It’s not journalism, wasn’t meant as journalism, and represents a very different kind of scholarship. It is ethnography, which is the attempt to verbally represent the ethos of a people. Second, you’re also right about the self referentiality of the author in the book. I don’t like it either, I think it deviates from good ethnography, but it has recently gained a cachet, especially in sociology. Finally, I wrote my dissertation as an ethnography of a drug treatment center, and later turned it into a book. The book was not the dissertation–thank God!. The book was readable thanks to the deft editing of Michael Ames, director of Temple University Press at the time when editors still edited. I hope you and readers of this column will look at my more extended essay on my academia.edu site: https://www.academia.edu/13880505/An_Anti-Book_Review_of_Alice_Goffmans_On_the_Run_Updated

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