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Ethnography on Trial

Alice Goffman's acclaimed book "On the Run" tells a compelling story. But can we trust it?

Vincent Cianni

Near the end of her acclaimed book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, the sociologist Alice Goffman recounts a heart-wrenching story. In the summer of 2007, her friend Chuck Taylor is shot in the head outside a Chinese takeout restaurant in Philadelphia and rushed to the hospital, the apparent victim of an ongoing gang rivalry. Goffman talks her way into the Neuro-Intensive Care Unit and keeps vigil, alone, outside Chuck’s room overnight.

She is there in the morning when Chuck’s heart stops and the nurses and doctors rush in and determine that nothing more can be done. She is sitting at Chuck’s bedside when his girlfriend Tanesha arrives and cries over Chuck’s lifeless body. And she is in the hospital room when the police show up to take statements for their investigation.

“Later, the detectives came in: three white guys in plain clothes. Hearing that I hadn’t been at the scene when Chuck was shot, they rolled right past me,” Goffman writes. “By this time I didn’t know exactly who’d killed Chuck, but I had a pretty good idea. We’d spent much of every day together in the months before he’d been shot, and I’d also been around for the previous war. I was thinking I certainly could’ve helped narrow it down for the police, if they’d bothered to ask me. But they didn’t.”

Goffman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her book chronicles six years she spent living and hanging out—during undergraduate and graduate school—in a poor-to-working class neighborhood of West Philadelphia that she calls 6th Street. She became close friends with a group of young black men there and witnessed their often unjust treatment at the hands of the police.

Taken as a whole, On the Run presents a powerful indictment of America’s criminal justice system. Since its publication last year, it has received widespread praise within the academic community and resonated strongly with the general public, particularly as events in Ferguson, Baltimore and other American cities have highlighted the problem of overly aggressive policing.

Yet Goffman’s book is also profoundly flawed. Rather than celebrating On the Run as a landmark text in sociology, readers should view it as a cautionary tale of what can happen when researchers confuse their own voices with their subjects, and arrange the facts to support a broader, even if admirable, agenda.

As a rule, ethnographers are required to keep the identities of the people they study confidential. Goffman told The New Republic that revealing the names of the residents of 6th Street would subject them to public scrutiny and harassment, and likely put them in professional and legal jeopardy. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, she said she shredded her notebooks and disposed of the hard drive on which she kept her files. “That was a nice day,” she told the paper, “when the threat of being subpoenaed for my field notes was gone.”

Goffman has also said that she deliberately altered facts in her book in order to protect the people she wrote about. The names she uses—Chuck, Tanesha, et al—are pseudonyms, as is the name of the neighborhood, 6th Street. Goffman also altered dates, locations, individual characteristics and other key details so that individuals could not be identified too readily through searches of public records.

But it is a fiction to say that Goffman’s efforts have successfully concealed her subjects. Goffman’s book provides anyone interested in the identity of her subjects ample ways to find their personal information. There were three 23-year-old black men killed by gunshots in Philadelphia in the summer of 2007; of the three, only one was outside of a Chinese restaurant. On a popular sociology message board, one poster noted that the first result in a simple Google search using four keywords from Goffman’s account of Chuck’s death links to a Philadelphia Inquirer report about the murder, including the victim’s real name. At least one other journalist, New York magazine’s Jesse Singal, has learned the identities of Goffman’s subjects and interviewed them. When reached by phone by The New Republic, Chuck’s mother said she did not want further attention and declined to comment on her son’s death or Goffman’s work, other than to say simply, “The book is true.”

Others may be able to connect the dots in this article and discover the identities of Goffman’s subjects, just as I and others have easily been able to do using Goffman’s book. I have agreed to withhold the names of the people in On the Run, after being requested by Goffman to do so, to protect their privacy. But Goffman’s argument that any piece of information that might lead back to one of her subjects should fall under her confidentiality agreement presents a false dilemma: The only certain way to keep her subjects’ names from re-appearing in the public record is to not ask questions about her work.

And this is exactly where Goffman’s and ethnography’s methodology departs from the standards of inquiry in criminal investigations (which I am familiar with from my 10 years as a criminal and juvenile defender in Northwestern’s legal clinic), journalism, and the social sciences: The ethnographer’s pledge to protect her subjects does not simply make independent inquiry difficult, it actively insists that independent inquiry never take place. Thus, ethnography depends on an extraordinary degree of trust in the ethnographer. Yet scrutiny of Goffman’s work reveals that such reliance on her as the sole arbiter of fact would be misplaced.

The real story of Chuck’s death and its aftermath differs from Goffman’s account in significant ways, and these differences call into question the reliability of much of her narrative. Indeed, it turns out that she was not fully candid even with her grad school mentors and advisers. By attempting to wall off her subjects with a grant of anonymity, she cuts them off from the rest of the world, fashioning in her book a miniature reality that is ultimately more about its creator than her subjects.

Shortly after midnight on July 22, 2007, according to investigation reports I obtained, police officers responded to a call over the radio that a man had been shot on the corner of 54th and Arlington Streets, in the Wynnefield neighborhood of West Philadelphia. When they arrived at the scene, they found Chuck lying on his back on the pavement outside the Hong Kong Restaurant, with a bullet wound to his forehead.

A crowd had gathered. Chuck’s teenage brother was holding the wounded man in his arms, his white T-shirt covered in blood. Paramedics eventually arrived, loading Chuck into an ambulance and rushing him to Jefferson Hospital in Center City. Doctors there pronounced him dead at 6:22 a.m.

To that point, Goffman’s version closely mirrors the police account of events. The Chinese restaurant in West Philadelphia, the head wound, the younger brother at the scene, the victim’s age and race, the downtown hospital, and the time of death all match. According to police reports, Chuck’s girlfriend was in his hospital room when detectives arrived in the morning, as she was in Goffman’s version. And another friend of Chuck’s was there as well.

But one person who wasn’t in the hospital room when the detectives arrived, according to the police reports, was Alice Goffman. Detective Francis Mullen, one of the lead investigators on the case that day, told me that they would have recorded the name, race, and gender of anyone who was in the hospital room—as they did for other individuals.         

“I am 100 percent certain there was NOT a white female” there, he said in an email.

Goffman is adamant that she was by Chuck’s bedside when the detectives arrived. Asked about this discrepancy, Goffman said, “They were definitely in the room, and they were asking Chuck’s girlfriend questions while I was in the room. And they didn’t ask me any questions or say anything to me.”

Goffman said she does not know why the police ignored her. “Did they think I was medical personnel? A social worker? A distant friend of the family? How much did race or class or gender play a role? I don’t know,” she wrote in a follow-up email.

I do not question Goffman’s presence at the hospital that night. In her recent interview with New York magazine, Chuck’s mother said, “When my son got killed, she was at the hospital before me, you know what I mean?” Goffman’s account describes much coming and going, both in and out of Chuck’s room, and we know that she never spoke to the detectives (of whom the police reports state there were two, not three, as Goffman says). The relevant question, however, is whether, as Goffman writes in her book, the detectives were aware of her presence and nonetheless “rolled right past” her without bothering to ask her anything.

This is a pivotal moment in Goffman’s narrative, framing the moral calculations behind both her and the police’s subsequent decisions. Goffman presents herself as ready and willing to help the police find Chuck’s killer, if only they had asked for her assistance. But the police, in her telling, were not interested in conducting a thorough investigation.

This is not simply a matter of two differing recollections. The police investigation is documented in their contemporaneous reports, which mention other people but not anyone fitting Goffman’s description. In the past, Goffman has argued that accounts from the police and other official sources are given too much credit, while the accounts of everyday citizens—particularly people of color—are discounted. The question here, however, is not whether the police are generally more credible than the citizens they are policing. It’s whether Goffman’s specific version of events is reliable. If the police had actually encountered Goffman in the hospital room—and especially if they had asked about her, as Goffman claims in On the Run—what reason could they have had to falsify their reports? No one in 2007 anticipated that the investigation would some day be the subject of a book. 

On the other hand, Goffman’s account of being ignored by the police was written years after the fact (according to her adviser at Princeton, the hospital episode was not included in her 2010 dissertation, and Goffman explained to New York magazine that it was “added after the dissertation”). Perhaps the detectives did not notice her, or perhaps she somehow avoided them, but the actual record of events does not support her narrative of police indifference.

The discrepancies grow more significant following Chuck’s death. In On the Run, Goffman implies that the police quickly gave up on their investigation, leaving the community no choice but to seek justice on its own. “After most of the extra cops had left the neighborhood, the hunt was on to find the man who had killed Chuck,” she writes. “Many knew the man’s name and the guys he hung out with.”

In reality, however, the police did not abandon the investigation. On July 28, 2007, six days after Chuck’s murder, detectives interviewed an eyewitness who said there had in fact been two shooters, whom he identified as Sikwa Steel and Michael Rudd. This witness said that Steel and Rudd had fired a total of five or six shots at Chuck, a description that was consistent with the five spent cartridge casings police had recovered at the scene. And on December 19, 2007, detectives interviewed a second eyewitness who also identified the two men as the shooters.

A page from police interview notes. Detectives interviewed an eyewitness to Chuck’s shooting, who identified two men as the shooters.

At that point, the case went cold. “Back when the incident occurred, the case was submitted for an arrest warrant, but there was not enough evidence to satisfy our district attorney to approve an arrest warrant,” said Detective John Verrecchio, who handled the conclusion of the murder investigation. “Steel was brought in several times for questioning,” over the next several years, Verrecchio said, “but never cooperated.” Finally, he said, “In 2012, we re-examined this case to see what we could do to reach the district attorney’s threshold for an arrest warrant.” The police re-interviewed a key witness and were able to substantiate certain facts surrounding the case. Rudd and Steel were arrested and charged with Chuck’s murder on July 31, 2012. They were tried and convicted by a jury on January 21, 2014, and sentenced to long terms in prison. The case is now on appeal.

Goffman’s book was first published on May 1, 2014, followed by a trade paperback edition on April 7, 2015. Although she has been in close contact with Chuck’s family in the years following his murder, she has never mentioned publicly the years-long police investigation or the arrests and convictions of Rudd and Steel. 

Goffman said she didn’t mention these events in her book because she had already turned in her manuscript, and also because she was protecting her sources. “There wasn’t time to include this ruling, even if I’d wanted to, which I did not,” she wrote in an email. “Any mention of this trial or conviction would have provided more details about the events than I would have felt comfortable with given the conditions of subject anonymity. And my goal here wasn’t to describe the crime and its legal aftermath—the goal was to explain what Chuck’s death meant for his family and community during the years I knew them, and for me personally.”

That may well be true, although the arrests occurred almost two years before publication. And acknowledging the efforts of law enforcement to solve the case would also contradict one of the main themes of her book, in which the police and prosecutors oppress but do not really serve the 6th Street community. 

On the Run ends with Goffman’s dramatic account of the hunt for Chuck’s killer. The 6th Street Boys amassed guns and spent many nights driving around looking for the shooter and the members of his crew. The leader of the hunting expedition was Goffman’s friend Mike, who had been released from prison only six weeks earlier. And Goffman herself was no mere spectator.

“On a few of these nights, Mike had nobody to ride along with him, so I volunteered,” Goffman writes in the book. “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 4th Street Boys’ whereabouts.”

She did this, Goffman writes, not because she wanted to learn firsthand about violence, but because she “wanted Chuck’s killer to die.” She writes that, “Looking back, 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.”

One night, Goffman is at the wheel when Mike thinks he sees one of the 4th Street Boys walk into a Chinese restaurant. Mike “tucked his gun in his jeans, got out of the car, and hid in the adjacent alleyway,” Goffman writes. “I waited in the car with the engine running ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside.”

These events constitute a conspiracy to commit murder under Pennsylvania law. Goffman agreed to assist in the commission of a crime, and she engaged in multiple “overt acts” in furtherance of the scheme. If the night really unfolded the way Goffman describes it in her book, then she committed a felony.

Goffman has defended herself by asserting new facts that dramatically alter her narrative. In a response posted on her University of Wisconsin website earlier this year, Goffman writes that the manhunt was actually all a charade, a mourning ritual intended only to satisfy the “neighborhood’s collective desire for retribution.” While the name of Chuck’s killer was well known, “it was common knowledge in the neighborhood” that he “had fled,” she now states. The repeated nighttime searches were really just play acting. In her revised version, “Talk of retribution was just that: talk.”

But if it was all just a performance, why did she omit that crucial information from the book itself? Why did she instead tell us in such gripping detail that Mike kept his hand on his Glock during the drive and tucked the gun into his jeans as he lay in wait for the suspected 4th Street Boy? Why write about sitting in the car with the engine running, ready to speed off, if Goffman really believed there would be no violence?

I cannot really fault Goffman for changing her story about the events of those nights, given that the account in On the Run unequivocally implicates her in a felony—less serious because no one was shot, but no less criminal because the manhunt failed. And even if it had not been a crime, it was no less unethical and immoral to have risked the lives of her potential target and any innocent bystanders. 

By belatedly absolving herself of participating in a murder plot, however, Goffman has admitted to another failing: putting drama ahead of the truth. She is asking readers to trust her. But how can we trust her if she has altered her story in ways that go well beyond simple anonymization?

The facts surrounding Chuck’s murder investigation have similarly troubling implications. In the days, weeks and years following his death, Goffman never shared any information with the police that might have helped them solve the case. This despite the fact that she, by her own admission, had a good idea of who the shooter was. Many of her friends, she writes in the book, “knew the man’s name and the guys he hung out with.”

A “no snitching” ethos, however, appears evident from the moment the police arrived at the scene of Chuck’s shooting. According to the police reports, Chuck’s brother was at the scene but ran away from the police and had to be chased for blocks before he could be interviewed. At the hospital, a friend of Chuck’s repeatedly interfered with the police’s attempts to interview Chuck’s girlfriend.

Alice Goffman at a Philadelphia correctional facility in 2014.
Ricardo Barros

When detectives approached the young woman, a man “walked over to her and wanted her to leave the hospital,” the police report states. “The male was instructed 3 different times to step back while we talked.” Later, in Chuck’s hospital room, the detectives continued to interview Chuck’s girlfriend, but she “refused to talk any further” when the same guy entered the room.

Goffman herself seems to have embraced this code of silence. Detective Verrecchio and Assistant District Attorney Geoffrey MacArthur, who prosecuted Rudd and Steel, told me that Goffman never came forward with any information regarding the murder. 

While there is ordinarily no legal duty for members of the public to help authorities investigate a crime, Goffman’s actions also implicate the ethical standards of academic sociology, which appear to lack much clarity or precision. 

Ethnographers have long granted themselves permission to study and even engage in certain crimes, all in the name of participant observation. Howard Becker famously smoked weed with jazz musicians, and even the revered Clifford Geertz attended an illegal Balinese cockfight. But how far does that latitude extend? Goffman did not respond to my questions about her decision not to assist the police or the guidelines she followed for her research. But she has told the Inquirer, “In some ways, I didn’t go far enough. The facts of my identity prevented me from going there. I didn’t get arrested and convicted and go to prison. Maybe that will be my next field of study—if I can pull it off without losing my job.”

The noted ethnographer Gary Alan Fine, who teaches at Northwestern, told me that reporting a crime, including murder, depends on “whether there is a sense that the community would wish this speculation shared with the police, and how that would affect the research.” Under that approach, Goffman’s non-cooperation with detectives would appear to be acceptable, so long as she was embedded in a “no snitching” neighborhood. “We believe that learning about a community serves a valuable civic purpose that, while it doesn’t override everything, overrides a lot if there is no certainty and no legal requirement,” Fine said.

UCLA’s Jack Katz, a coeditor of Goffman’s book series at the University of Chicago Press, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that urban field researchers often find themselves in ethically fraught situations, but usually do not mention it in their books. In that light, the only “ethical line she crossed, in a way, was honesty,” he told the paper.

In sharp contrast, César Ayala, a sociology professor at UCLA, was adamant in his disapproval. “I do NOT think it is ethical to withhold information in a murder investigation,” he wrote to me in an email, “just as I do not think it is ethical to drive the car in a conspiracy to commit murder.” Those who claim otherwise, he continued, “are sending a message to graduate students that this type of research behavior is acceptable.”

When ethnographers embark upon research projects that may involve danger or criminality, the institutions overseeing their work need to establish ground rules for their conduct. For example, Sudhir Venkatesh, who studied Chicago drug gangs for his 2008 book Gang Leader for a Day, wrote in his book that he had been instructed to tell the police about any plan to physically harm somebody. During the project, he told me in an email, he had been put in touch with lawyers and had kept his University of Chicago advisers “in the loop” when he learned about criminal or questionable events.

That did not happen at Princeton, where Goffman earned her PhD. Mitchell Duneier, a Princeton sociology professor who was Goffman’s dissertation adviser, told me that the events surrounding Chuck’s death and the subsequent hunt for the 4th Street Boys “were not known to me or other members of the dissertation committee until Dr. Goffman’s book was written.” And while he has expressed confidence in the aspects of the research that he actually supervised, Duneier told the Chronicle of Higher Education, and reiterated to me, that Goffman had crossed an ethical line by participating in the search for Chuck’s killer.

“Chuck’s death and the surrounding events were not part of my dissertation research,” Goffman said. “At the time of his death, I was under contract with Chicago for a book, which I was working on independent from my writing the dissertation for Princeton.”

Regrettably, Duneier has not been joined by the other elders of ethnography in criticizing Goffman. The publication of On the Run was greeted by effusive praise from social science luminaries such as Christopher Jencks of Harvard and Tim Newburn of the London School of Economics, but not one of Goffman’s enthusiastic reviewers has yet publicly disavowed her troubling behavior. The unfortunate lesson for future graduate students seems clear: Don’t worry about getting too close to your subjects and don’t worry about morally compromising situations, as long as you craft a compellingly told story.

While there is always some ambiguity in moral choices, a high-profile case such as Goffman’s provides an opportunity to draw bright lines. What should an ethnographer do when asked to participate in a murder plot? When do the police need to be informed about the perpetrators of a homicide?

These do not strike me as difficult questions. Disdaining the police in favor of vigilantism is not ethically responsible behavior. And it certainly falls below the standard of conduct that should be expected of scholarly researchers. “Not for nothing,” Detective Verrecchio told me, “but if this alleged female witness had information back in 2007, this case may have been cleared much quicker if she had come forward.” 

Absent a legal privilege, as exists in law, medicine, or religious confession, it is wrong to watch a murderer go free, even if snitching violates the code of the street. Even journalists protect only those sources to whom they have expressly promised confidentiality, which obviously would not apply to Chuck’s killers, with whom Goffman had no relationship at all. 

Meanwhile, the two men convicted of Chuck’s murder, Michael Rudd and Sikwa Steel, are in prison awaiting the outcome of their appeals. If they are truly guilty as charged, then Goffman’s non-cooperation with law enforcement may have been partially responsible for keeping them at large for over five years. If they turn out to be innocent, however, then her refusal to help identify the real killers has contributed to a miscarriage of justice. Even at this late date, Goffman ought to tell us which is which.