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Did This Acclaimed Sociologist Drive the Getaway Car in a Murder Plot?

The questionable ethics of Alice Goffman's "On the Run"

Ricardo Barros

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. Originally issued by the University of Chicago Press, a paperback edition was recently issued by Picador, following a bidding war for the rights. 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 seem unlikely to have occurred as she describes them. One must try to keep an open mind about such things—especially regarding someone as obviously gifted 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.

On the Run is the story of the six years Goffman spent conducting an ethnographic study in a poor black community in West Philadelphia. Beginning in her sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania and continuing through her graduate work at Princeton, she observed a group of young men in a neighborhood she pseudonymously called 6th Street. Goffman eventually moved into an apartment in the neighborhood, sometimes taking in two of them as roommates, while she chronicled their lives, challenges and, most notably, their nearly endless interactions with the law on matters ranging from trivial to homicidal.

Goffman’s research subjects, whom she calls the 6th Street Boys, were almost constantly subject to arrest on outstanding warrants—for missing court dates or failing to pay fines and fees, for parole or probation violations, or, less often, because they were wanted for serious crimes. Consequently, they led lives of perpetual “dipping and dodging” in their attempts to sidestep even the most incidental contact with the police. Lacking official identification or burdened by past convictions, Goffman’s subjects could not obtain or hold steady jobs, and were forced into an underground economy of loans, barter, theft, and small-time drug dealing, simply as a matter of survival. Ever fearing arrest, they avoided such ordinary places as hospital emergency rooms, driver’s license facilities, and even their children’s schools.

None of that was sufficient to keep the law at bay. During just her first eighteen months on 6th Street, says Goffman, she saw police officers stop and search pedestrians or drivers “at least once a day.” She “watched young men running and hiding from the police on 111 occasions,” while also seeing officers “break down doors, search houses and question, arrest or chase people through houses fifty-two times.” She saw police helicopters overhead nine times, and on fourteen occasions she “watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks.” Her sympathies were with the arrestees and the fugitives, many of whom became her friends, and her mission, as she saw it, was to expose the “more hidden practices of policing and surveillance as young people living in one relatively poor Black neighborhood in Philadelphia experience and understand them.”

But how much did Goffman really understand herself?

As I detail in a longer version of this essay at The New Rambler, a number of episodes in On the Run strike me as highly implausible. But they pale in comparison to Goffman’s greatest problem, which involved her as an accomplice in the evident commission of a major felony. The last ten pages of On the Run are devoted to the murder of one of her closest 6th Street friends, whom she calls Chuck. In Goffman’s telling, Chuck was shot in the head in an ongoing “war” with the rival 4th Street Boys, dying several hours later in the hospital while she sat at his bedside.

A few days after the funeral, “the hunt was on to find the man who had killed Chuck,” whom the 6th Street Boys believed they could identify. Guns in hand, they drove around the city, looking for revenge. This time, Goffman did not merely take notes—on several nights, she volunteered to do the driving. Here is how she described it:

We started out around 3:00 a.m., with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he directed me around the area. We peered into dark houses and looked at license plates and car models as Mike spoke on the phone with others who had information about [the suspected killer’s] whereabouts.

One night, Mike thought he saw his target:

He tucked his gun in his jeans, got out of the car, and hid in the adjacent alleyway. I waited in the car with the engine running, ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside.

Fortunately, Mike decided that he had the wrong man, and nobody was shot that night. But what if Mike had gotten his man, or some other man, or if he had hit a bystander? The driver would have been just as culpable for the killing as the trigger man.

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.

To her credit, although in a rather disquieting way, Goffman does not claim that she did it for science.  “I did not get into the car with Mike because I wanted to learn firsthand about violence,” she wrote.  “I got into the car because . . . I wanted Chuck’s killer to die.” “Looking back,” she added, “I’m glad that I learned what it feels like to want a man to die—not simply to understand the desire for vengeance in others, but to feel it in my bones.” That might be a revelatory passage in a memoir, or a plot point in a sequel to The Departed, but it is an alarming confession from an ethnographer. 

There is a convention of “reflexivity” among ethnographers and certain other qualitative social scientists, in which the researcher is expected to include her “perspectives, positions, values and beliefs in manuscripts and other publications.” This is considered necessary for engagement in the “processes of self-awareness and self-criticism as an intrinsic feature of the research process.” Viewed in that context, Goffman’s reflection on her desire for “Chuck’s killer to die,” and her satisfaction with the experience, comprises a meaningful part of the whole story. But expressing bone-deep emotion is one thing, acting on it is quite another, and impulse control would seem to be an indispensable tool for the ethical ethnographer.

Lay people may not appreciate the finer points of conspiracy law, but Goffman’s advisors (not to mention the Princeton IRB) must surely have cautioned her against direct entanglement in major criminality. After all, we are not talking here about something as harmless as smoking weed with jazz musicians, a la Howard Becker. But even granting ignorance of the law, Goffman hardly reflects upon the profound wrongfulness—indeed, the grave immorality—of enabling a would-be hit man, much less her role in exposing innocent neighbors to the potential consequences of an escalating “war.” The failure of her stalking expeditions does not render them innocent from the start. “No harm, no foul” might be the implicit rule in basketball, but it is not the rule in criminal law—nor should it be in academics.

I did not set out to censure Goffman, and it gives me no pleasure to make these observations about such an accomplished young scholar. There is much of value in On the Run, especially as it reveals the terrible consequences of brutal and over-policing in minority neighborhoods. Like most others, I was impressed by the effusive early reviews in all of the top journals. But an essay in Slate by Dwayne Betts caused me to be skeptical when reading the book a few weeks ago, which turned into outright astonishment when I reached the account of her late-night vendetta rides. In my own field, I have seen too many young lawyers come to grief when they figured that the law, somehow, did not apply to them. Goffman made a similar, and much more dangerous, mistake. (As blameworthy as they are, embezzling lawyers do not set out to assassinate anyone).

Even so, I would not be writing this review if On the Run were an ordinary academic book with similar flaws. Unlike most other such books, however, On the Run promises to be very influential in academia and beyond, and it therefore demands closer attention. Given the rave reviews from social science luminaries such as Christopher Jencks and Alex Kotlowitz, future graduate students in ethnography are bound to see On the Run as a model for their own studies, and I understand that instructors are already assigning it in their courses. That could lead to much misfortune, if students uncritically emulate Goffman’s example.

Perhaps it takes a legal ethics professor to point out that participant-observers have no privilege to facilitate crimes of violence. Eminent sociologists appear to have considered Goffman’s offense—if they considered it at all—at worst an excusable misjudgment or perhaps a mere legal technicality. It was neither. Must it be repeated that she helped put lives at risk? Must it be pointed out that Goffman’s behavior was precisely of the sort that the conspiracy statute was written to deter?

Accepting her story exactly as Goffman tells it, she violated perhaps the most basic precept of scholarly (and personal) responsibility: She endangered at least one man’s life by joining a conspiracy, and she did it in the course of her Princeton field work. Quite understandably, the Ethics Code of the American Sociological Association does not directly address the possibility of attempted murder. Who would ever have contemplated intentional homicide as an issue for sociologists? But even under the Code’s relatively anodyne terms, Goffman dramatically failed to be “honest, fair, and respectful” toward the man she tried to help kill.

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 guiding principle for ethnography students ought to be equally straightforward: If a subject asks you for help in a murder plot, just say no. 

Update: A previous version of this article stated that Goffman is not “remorseful” about her role in the search for Chuck's killer. In her book, Goffman wrote, “But to go out looking for this man, in a car with someone holding a gun? At the time and certainly in retrospect, my desire for vengeance scared me, more than the shootings I’d witnessed, more even than my ongoing fears for Mike’s and Tim’s safety, and certainly more than any fears for my own.” Some readers might consider this a statement of remorse.