Sociologist Alice Goffman Pilloried for Her Pioneering Research

High-Stakes Battle to Tell The Truth of Black Lives and Police Terror

by Raymond Lotta | Editor's Note added August 8, 2017, first published July 6, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |



Editor’s Note
In 2014, Alice Goffman, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, published On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. The book chronicles the life experiences of young Black men terrorized by the police and legal system. They are “on the run” from criminal charges stemming from unpaid fines and missed court appearances linked to petty offenses. This is valuable research that sheds important light on and powerfully indicts a little-known aspect of the New Jim Crow. But no sooner had the book been published than Goffman was subjected to vicious character assassination—for supposedly sloppy research, abetting gang activity, and having the “arrogance” to think that she as a white woman could substantively address conditions of Black people.

Now there is another round of vicious attacks on Goffman. She was recently appointed a visiting professor at Pomona College in California. This was met by protests by some students, faculty, and others. The same baseless charges about the integrity of her research methods have been leveled—much of this in a letter from “anonymous” critics. And, once again, Goffman is being accused of “voyeurism” and “profiting” as a white woman from the lived experiences of Black people. This is toxic nonsense. Goffman’s work is marked by rigor and empathy. She has stood with the struggles against racist police murder and brutality. And at a time when the fascist Trump/Pence Regime is dead-set on “making America white again” and when progressive and radical professors are under mounting attack—it is unconscionable and borders on the insane to target someone like Alice Goffman.

In response to this new wave of attacks, we are reposting a review by Raymond Lotta of the book and the controversy surrounding it.


Alice Goffman is a young white sociologist who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her 2014 book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City is a vivid study of a Black neighborhood in Philadelphia where “police helicopters circle overhead, police cameras monitor passers-by, and police routinely stop, search, and arrest people in the streets.” Goffman shows how police profiling, beatings, harassment, and tracking of residents have created “communities of suspects and fugitives”—where huge numbers of young Black men are, literally, “on the run” from police and legal authority.

On the Run by Alice Goffman

The New York Times chose On the Run as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2014. Cornel West described it as “the best treatment I know of the wretched underside of neo-liberal capitalist America.” Goffman has spoken at universities, and a prominently featured online talk has attracted over 940,000 views. An interview with Goffman can be read here.

Let it be said clearly: Alice Goffman has done a great service in bringing to light and to broader public attention the misery, horror, and heartbreak of African-American community life in an era of mass incarceration and police terror. Her reporting has humanized, and expressed deep empathy for, young Black men whom the system has demonized as “thugs”—while presenting a damning portrait of the police and the courts.

But there is a battle over this book. In the last few months, a series of vindictive critiques has attempted to discredit Goffman. Her professional ethics and research methods have been impugned on the Internet. Accusations of academic fraud hang in the air, and Goffman’s academic reputation and career are threatened. Things took a disturbing and ominous turn with the publication of an article in the May 27 issue of the New Republic titled “Did This Acclaimed Sociologist Drive the Getaway Car in a Murder Plot?”

This is more than an academic debate. Certain forces in and outside of academia are making allegations of professional misconduct to take down a scholar who has revealed uncomfortable truths about American society.

We have seen attempts in recent years to hound, discredit, and quash scholars who have written radical critiques of U.S. history... who have spoken out against the U.S. role in the world and U.S. war crimes... who have condemned Zionism. There is an ongoing fight to defend dissent and critical thinking in the university—and in society.

The attacks on Alice Goffman and her work are coming not just at any time but in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore... when the cry “Black lives matter!” reverberates with political and moral urgency... and as society is being split open over the question of whether police terror must be stopped.

Let it be said clearly: The efforts to discredit Alice Goffman represent a serious assault on critical thinking at a critical time in U.S. society. She must be defended.

What It Means to Be “On the Run”

On the Run is based on a doctoral dissertation Goffman wrote at Princeton University. Earlier, from 2002 until 2007, she had conducted fieldwork in a poor, mostly Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia to which she gave the fictional name “6th Street.” It is a neighborhood that has, as is so typical of the inner-city over the last 40 years, seen jobs vanish with de-industrialization and the global outsourcing of production. 6th Street is a place where young Black men have few opportunities for legal employment, and where many can only survive through the underground and illegal drug economy.

Goffman had originally set out to focus on ghetto residents charged with felonies, hauled off to jail, and then released—who become second-class citizens, as described in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She wanted to trace the effects on the social fabric of the entire community.

But as Goffman carried out her research, she came in contact with a population of non-felons—people with low-level warrants for unpaid court fees, failure to make child support, traffic fines, etc.—who are terrorized by, and terrified of, the police. They are routinely stopped and searched. Minor offenses that might go unpunished in white and middle-class neighborhoods lead to arrests—and nearly half of those taken into custody in “6th Street” are for technical violations like drinking while on probation. Arrests for possession of drugs result in criminal records that bar people from jobs.

Goffman saw a situation in which young Black men in particular spend an inordinate amount of time at court or probation hearings that grind away at their lives. Meanwhile, court fees and fines snowball. But without jobs, it is impossible to clear this debt. So people skip court dates, and often turn to criminal activity (!) to pay off fees and fines.

Alice Goffman: How we're priming some kids for college — and others for prison

Goffman began to put together a picture and synthesized an understanding of a growing “fugitive” sub-class that, in her words, is “arrestable on sight.” The police hunt these “fugitives” down. They go after friends and loved ones of those whom they suspect of shielding fugitives: raiding homes, pressuring women to inform on male partners or family members—or to cooperate in some fashion—and often charging the uncooperative with minor or contrived offenses.

Goffman conveys the personal and emotional toll of being “on the run.” She tells, movingly, of young men with legal problems who cannot attend the births of their children at hospitals, or who avoid the funerals of their friends (or go at great risk), because the police are watching. She tells, shockingly, of hospital janitors who commandeer medical supplies to fix the broken arms of those fearing arrest in hospitals.

This is vital research.

Fieldwork Among the Oppressed

Goffman’s approach was to immerse herself in the lives of her subjects. Among social scientists, her methods of research and inquiry are called “participation observation.” The researcher gets to know a social world qualitatively from within.

What made Goffman’s fieldwork difficult and risky was that she was studying an area of social life—the Black community—that the system views and treats as criminal through and through. (In one police raid that Goffman documents, she herself was handcuffed.)

To carry out her study, Goffman had to win the trust of individuals in a community under constant police surveillance. And exactly because young Black men have been criminalized and because illegal activity is so much a part of the oppressed and impoverished state of the Black community, she had to take certain measures to protect the identities of her subjects, who could be incriminated by her descriptions. So she changed and scrambled various details of what she was chronicling.

Intellectual Work in Charged Times

There are times when important intellectual work interacts with the larger political, social, and ideological terrain in an impactful way. The New Jim Crow is one such book. And On the Run has contributed further understanding of the ways that the system criminalizes young Black people—and the kinds of conditions that underlie the outrage and outpourings against police murder and terror of the last year. Goffman has observed, “The stuff I’m saying—it looks a lot like what people have been reporting from Ferguson, from New York, from Baltimore.” And she has spoken out against the police acting like an occupying force in the Black community.

Goffman’s work has been welcomed in many quarters. It has also been targeted for attack. There are forces that view Goffman’s work, and the significant public hearing it has gotten, as toxic. Various “critiques” have set out to discredit Goffman and, by implication, the mounting social indictment of police murder and terror. These attacks have focused on the veracity of her scholarship and her professional ethics.

A secondary line of attack—by way of "identity politics"—has been to rule Goffman's work out of order simply because she is white: "how dare a white person go into the Black community and conduct such research and analysis." This is as petty as it is poisonous. Here a crucial story needs to be told, and Goffman has done major work. Are her findings right or wrong? They are right. Does her truth telling about a savage injustice need to be heard? Yes, yes, yes.

Attacks Based on Bogus Accusations

The takedown efforts against On the Run began with an unsigned and highly vitriolic critique that was emailed to hundreds of sociologists—including to members of the sociology departments at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, where Goffman had earned her degrees, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she now teaches. Goffman was accused of lying about where she resided in Philadelphia, of botching up the ages of some of her subjects, of inconsistencies in the number of funerals she said she attended, and so forth. The author of the critique called for an investigation of professional misconduct.

Now, there is a standard of transparency in research requiring that experimental or research data be made available for inspection. But given the sensitivity of the subject Goffman was studying, that standard is not applicable as would normally be the case. Further, the allegations against Goffman, and the demand that she provide all her data, have put her in a difficult position. As she explained, “I don’t want to call attention to a document [the critique] that possibly identifies people in the book in a way that I had worked hard not to do.”

Indeed, to protect her research subjects (including against potential criminal prosecution), she destroyed pertinent files on her hard drive. This disclosure was pounced upon by detractors as evidence of irresponsible scholarship. Utter nonsense. As we will see, Goffman conducted scrupulous research that had oversight and review.

One factual claim in particular that has been sharply contested by Goffman’s critics is her account of police monitoring of a Philadelphia hospital. The detractors say there is no evidence of police officers checking on visitors to hospitals and running names through criminal databases in order to make arrests. The implication is a) the police do not mistreat people in the way that Goffman says she is documenting; and b) she is guilty of fabrication.

Goffman’s academic advisor at Penn, the noted sociologist Elijah Anderson, saw Goffman’s actual field notes. He also conducted interviews with two of her subjects. He has vouched for what she observed in hospitals. Goffman’s dissertation advisor at Princeton, Michael Duneier, met her on a weekly basis about some of her findings and also examined field notes. He too conducted independent interviews with some of the people Goffman interviewed and profiled, including a warrant officer of the Philadelphia Police Department. Duneier stands by Goffman’s research.

Philly Magazine researched the matter and concluded, “It is verifiable [that] people in the U.S. have been arrested at hospitals, even ones for children.” Of course, the bigger question is, what kind of society turns hospitals, which are supposed to be safe spaces, into zones of fear?

In the face of the various charges leveled against On the Run, the University of Wisconsin at Madison convened a panel to review the claims of misconduct. It found them “to be without merit.”

Outrageous Allegation with Potentially Chilling Consequences... for Research and Dissent

But no sooner had this inquiry been closed than another and highly dangerous accusation was hurled at Goffman. Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University, published an article that was subsequently excerpted in the New Republic and recklessly headlined, “Did This Acclaimed Sociologist Drive the Getaway Car in a Murder Plot?” Goffman was now declared to be a criminal accomplice!

Here is the back-story. Goffman’s research focused on two young men, Chuck and Mike (fictional names). She became close to and hung with them, and got to know others in their circles and in the neighborhood. Chuck had been trying to maintain a truce of sorts between his friends and a rival gang. Sadly, he was shot and killed. Chuck’s friends and others in the neighborhood began calling for payback. But Goffman has explained that this talk of retribution was just that: talk.

In the weeks following Chuck’s death, as Goffman further explained, his friends would drive around, “ostensibly looking for Chuck’s killer. But these drives, like the talk of the residents, also came to nothing. This was so because it was common knowledge that Chuck’s killer had fled right after the shooting...the drives seemed to satisfy the feelings of anger and pain...”

One night when no one else would join Mike, Goffman drove with him. Steven Lubet has seized on this incident. In his New Republic takedown piece against Goffman, he alleges with prosecutorial zeal that under Pennsylvania law, Goffman “agreed to aid another person ‘in the planning or commission’ of a crime—in this case murder.” Say what?

Goffman has answered this incredibly unethical and sensationalistic accusation (and, to be clear, no charges have been filed against her). She has explained that while she felt ambivalent about going on the ride—she knew that these rides were not about carrying out acts of violence. They were cathartic. People were working out their anger and grief. The rides were a form of mourning.

Jack Katz, a sociologist at UCLA, has written in defense of Goffman. He has also spoken to some of the high stakes, for social science and for society, bound up with this kind of fieldwork, and with Goffman’s study in particular:

The line between bravado and committed intent is handled as a binary in the law; but the messiness of that distinction is the very crux of a “badass” way of life.... As a citizen, as well as in my career as a sociologist, I’m concerned about interventions in this discussion [of Goffman’s work] that might embrace the flexibility of “conspiracy” and aiding and abetting laws to shut down descriptions of social life that many readers will take as resources for criticizing the government. (Washington Post, emphasis added)


The ferocity of the attack on On the Run must be understood in the context of the growing awareness of and resistance to the epidemic of police brutality and murder against Black and Latino people. A new generation is rising up with a new spirit of defiance. Alice Goffman’s study provides important and timely insights into some of the conditions underlying the just anger, the fury, and the rebellion. And it is indeed a “resource for criticizing the government.”

The attempts to discredit Goffman come at a time when the question of stopping police terror is growing in urgency, and as a line is being drawn in society: which side are you on?

Alice Goffman has righteously stood by her work. Anyone who wants the truth of police terror to be told, and anyone who values dissent and critical thinking, should stand with her.


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