LettersO.O.P.S.Race

An Open Letter to Alice Goffman

Regarding her book, 'On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City'

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” ~ Lilla Watson

Dear Prof. Alice Goffman,

Before anything, before even introducing who we are or where we come from, it seemed vital to begin with a quote by a woman whose words set the tone for what we will address with you. Inspired by Lilla Watson, this open letter outlines concerns we hold about your most recently published book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (2014). Beyond your research and writing, our concerns speak to the longstanding race- and class-based problematics of research in fields of anthropology and sociology, within which we are also situated, and to those aspects of the politics of knowledge production more generally. We hope you take seriously what we have to say. We invite you to approach your research differently in the future.

With that, let us introduce ourselves. We are a small small group of students enrolled in Ethnographic and Qualitative Methods with Professor Jaskiran Dhillon at Eugene Lang College at the New School. Some of us are older, some younger. We are immigrants, we are locals; We are Global Studies majors, we are fashion students; We are Black, Latinx, white, and variants in between. We are writing to you because your book deeply unsettled us all. We are writing to you in hopes that you will consider our call for critical self-reflection and a greater charge to push beyond the scholarly status quo. We are writing this letter as an urgent call for a fundamental shift in knowledge production within the social science fields that have critically acclaimed your work. We — the next generation of scholars, artists and organizers — are writing this letter as a form of protest, as a call to action, as a collective refusal to follow in your footsteps.

We were assigned your book On the Run as homework to be read throughout the week — at home, or on the subway, or during between periods of extracurricular activities. When we first encountered it, we did not know it was a dangerous text. Our professor, Dr. Jaskiran Dhillon, had told us it was “a controversial read,” disputed by some. She chose not to expand upon who found your book objectionable or the reasons  why they might. She allowed us to arrive at our own conclusions independently.

That Wednesday morning when we met for class, the room sat differently. The air felt thicker, and the lights more fluorescent. We sat facing one another, momentarily shifting in our seats, collectively holding our breath. Nobody wanted to be the first to come out and say it: something, many things, about this text felt wrong.

Our professor posed the first series of questions.

Who is Alice Goffman? 

What do you know about why she wrote this book? 

What work does she think the book will do in the world? 

How does she position herself as a researcher in relation to the topic?

For a few minutes, we talked through these questions, but around the elephant in the room. Finally, someone murmured:

I don’t know if I trust her. 

Professor Dhillon pushed.

Why?

The room was sacred again as we spoke in waves, voicing the reasons for our discomfort, locating the roots of our skepticism and distrust in different passages of the book.

On the Run purports to provide an ethnographic “account of the prison boom and its more hidden practices of policing and surveillance as young people living in one relatively poor Black neighborhood in Philadelphia experience and understand them.” This effort at understanding lacks certain critical elements, however. The book’s meager 8-paged introduction does little to contextualize the content of On the Run within a larger history of black resistance and dispossession in Philadelphia. The author invokes the full use of the N-word repeatedly with no explicit discussion about her positionality vis-a-vis this word, her intentions behind using it, or any critical reflection on the larger implications of her usage.

What is the author’s positionality? 

A young white woman — the daughter of a renowned sociologist — wrote this book. She had grown up in one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest areas, earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Ivy League institutions. She admits she had “only a vague sense” of what the War on Drugs or the War on Crime were prior to undertaking her “project” (Goffman xvi).

What is at stake with this work?

Building from our places of unease and distrust, our professor urged us to grapple with that important question. Soon, we built a shared undertanding: this is a dangerous text — in more ways than one.

We identify your published, widely lauded, easily obtainable book as  dangerous, Prof. Goffman, because it divulges tactics that the subjects of your inquiry intentionally coded for surviving life under siege. On the Run holds the potential to directly harm the community in Philadelphia that you merely claim to “chronicle.” Your book, in effect, translates insider knowledge and decodes painfully developed survival strategies, allowing them to fall  into the hands of police and other state agents. And it does so in a manner that erases the pervasive structures of white supremacy and racial colonial capitalism that created the material conditions described above in the first place. You position your “findings” as “new,” largely ignoring decades-worth of Black scholarship that has taken up “fugitivity,” carceral logics, and militarized surveillance.

We wonder, who did you understand your intended audience to be, Prof. Goffman? It could not have been people from West Philadelphia. Not Mike, not Chuck, nor any of the other young men, women, and children from “6th Street” whom you wrote about but with whom you admittedly maintain minimal contact. Your book could not have aimed to benefit materially Black communities in Philadelphia, or similar ones throughout the larger country.

Did you write On the Run for people like yourself? For white researchers, scholars, and educators, to provide them a voyeuristic view into realities they never otherwise see? Did you ever consider that people such as these historically have (and continue to) ignore and perpetrate the very same violence against Black communities which you claim to bring to light?

You’ve been lauded as the  “brilliant fieldworker and smart analyst” whose book “should be required reading for everyone, including President Obama, Congress, and public officials throughout the nation.” This worries us deeply, Prof. Goffman. On the Run must not stand as a barometer for “good” ethnographic research, participant observation, and immersive scholarship. Christina Sharpe expressed similar sentiments in her 2014 critical analysis of On the Run for The New Inquiry, entitled “Black Life, Annotated”:

With its frisson of “authenticity,” On the Run may have a long and varied life ahead…shaping misperception and abetting black narrative and material subjection. I already know that this book will be chosen for First Year common reading programs and that all over the US, historically white colleges and universities with small black undergraduate faculty populations will read and then reproduce as truth On the Run’s ethics and methods; which is to say its relations and practices of power. In the neoliberal “engaged” university, On the Run is sure to be a primer for how to do immersive “urban” ethnography. And so continues, into the next generation, within and outside of the university, what Sylvia Wynter has called our black narratively condemned status. (Sharpe 11, 2014)

It is not something that other scholars should aim to emulate. As members of the next generation of ethnographers, sociologists, anthropologists and artistic knowledge producers, we cannot accept the status quo standards of the social sciences, as they are dictated and maintained by current structures of neoliberal white supremacy.

On the Run was published on April 4th, 2014, nearly a full year after three radical Black organizers — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — officially established the Black Lives Matter movement in July of 2013. This allowed you almost ten months to recraft this work, Prof. Goffman. Black Lives Matter might have inspired you to stop and think harder; to reach out to local organizations that serve communities like 6th Street in Philadelphia (organizations which remain entirely unmentioned throughout your book); to ask whether this book should be published as it then stood, rather than assuming that it should.

Did you conduct any additional research outside of your fieldwork to enhance your understanding of the historical and political contexts of Philadelphia and the carceral state? Did you establish lines of communication and accountability to 6th Street community members before and after the publication of your book? How did you obtain and maintain consent? How did you demonstrate a political commitment to the community?

Have you considered, Prof. Goffman, the price of your success may be the safety of the children, youth, and families of 6th Street? You entered their homes, their neighborhood, and their lives. They welcomed you because you were a ride, a couch upon which to sleep. You were white and wealthy, and foreign. You decoded and exposed the tactics they have been forced to create in order to survive amidst the carceral systems that continue to oppress and abuse them.

In closing, Prof. Goffman, we pose this question:  should you have ever attempted this book in the first place?

For us, the short answer is ‘no.’ The long answer — an affirmative answer — would require a deep and thorough consideration of whether it’s possible to formulate an ethical, anti-colonial model of ethnography suitable for a project of this nature.

It would require much more of the ethnographer. It would necessitate engagement with those who directly address the politics of knowledge production in the academy from an anti-colonial standpoint: Christina Sharpe, Aimee Meredith Cox, Sara AhmedLinda Tuhiwai-SmithAudra Simpson, and Sandy Grande, to name a few. And it would require a much more explicit code of ethics and transparency, as well as lines of reciprocal accountability so that the study might benefit “researched” people and communities, not only the author.

What we learned from your book, Prof. Goffman, is that your readers are also involved in various modes of knowledge production. Readers — especially those who are white like yourself — must engage closely with the critical questions raised above in relation to On the Run. And they must ask hard but essential questions of critical self-reflection in their own research. What is actually at stake for those involved or implicated in the work I’m doing? How does my own identity, lived experience, and positionality vis-a-vis the community or issue I’m studying influence what and how I am able to do the work? Where do my lines of accountability lie, and how can I honor them, both immediately and in the the long-term? How may I be reinscribing colonial relations of domination through this work? What are the anti-colonial methods that inform my approach to research?

Signed,

-The students of Eugene Lang College enrolled in Professor Jaskiran Dhillon’s Ethnographic & Qualitative Methods course, Global Studies Program, Spring 2018

Works Cited

Goffman, Alice (2014).  On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.

Sharpe, Christina (2014). “Black Life, Annotated.” The New Inquiry .

 

This post has been corrected. In the original letter it was asserted that Alice Goffman no longer maintains contact with her research participants. The corrected version asserts that Goffman maintains only minimal contact with her research participants. 

 

Also for you:

Students of Ethnographic & Qualitative Methods  Spring 2018, Eugene Lang College at the New School

  • Kerem Morgul

    Sadly, this letter makes me question the quality of the education the writers received in their ethnography class, for they make a series of claims about Goffman’s book (and her motives for writing it) without really backing them with reasons and evidence. In fact, the writers substantiate only one of their criticisms: the book’s introduction fails to provide sufficient contextual information about race relations in Philadelphia, because it is too short and it doesn’t adequately engage with the Black scholarship on fugitivity. The rest are a combination of pure speculation and outright falsehoods–not a sign of intellectual integrity.

    For example, the writers claim, without any evidence, that Goffman admits she longer maintains contact with the men, women, and children from the 6th Street. Well, the following quote is from the Epilogue:

    “I continue to see Aisha and some of her family when I return to Philadelphia, and also visit Alex and Mike, who now hold regular jobs and live with their children and partners. I stay in touch with Reggie and Tim by letter and through phone calls, as well as by the occasional trip upstate when I’m in the area. Reggie and Tim have been bored enough by their incarceration to ask how the book was coming along, so sometimes we talk about that. But more than that, I believe we remain tied to one another by times past, and by the memory of the men who are no longer with us” (pp.205-6).

    The Epilogue also answers some of the important questions raised by the writers. Makes me wonder how carefully they read the book.

    • Student Response

      Dear Mr. Morgul,

      We reject your claims that our critiques of Goffman’s On the Run are “pure speculation and outright falsehoods.” While we have modified our initial wording that suggested Goffman no longer maintained contact with the participants of her ‘research’ (which now reads: “maintain minimal contact”), we still believe that the quote you chose to highlight from the Epilogue warrants further questioning that aligns with many of our original points of critique but we will address one here: how is consent obtained and maintained? Just because Goffman may have spoken briefly about the “consent” she received from the participants of her project, her writing leaves much room for questioning how she obtained this consent and the blurred lines between her roles as a “chronicler”, friend, tutor, and adopted/god-sister, which she refers to herself as throughout the book (Goffman 220-221, 228).

      Finally, you question how carefully we read the book, and claim that the “Epilogue also answers some of the important questions” we raised. In fact the Epilogue of On The Run is only one page in full (pp. 207-208 in our versions) and is followed by Acknowledgements (209-211), and then Goffman’s Appendix: A Methodological Note (213-263), which seems to be the ‘Epilogue’ you were referring to. While Goffman does use this Appendix to discuss some of her own methods which remain absent throughout the body of the book itself, we disagree that this section adequately “answers” many of the questions we raise in our letter.

      We can assure you, Mr. Morgul, that we read and discussed the entirety of On the Run at length, both in and outside of our class, with extreme closeness and attention to detail. That said, we intentionally wrote this as an open letter so that it could be widely accessible to readers both within and outside of the academy. And it is explicitly informed by reading about anti-colonial approaches to knowledge production.

      • Kerem Morgul

        Thank you for your polite reply, but I find your modification as problematic as your original wording. In the original letter, you falsely claimed that Goffman no longer maintains contact with the people from the 6th street. Now you claim that she maintains only minimal contact with them. What’s more, you attribute this claim to Goffman herself. How do you know she maintains only minimal contact with her research participants? Where and when did she admit that? The paragraph I quoted from the Epilogue does not support your “minimal contact” claim. By contrast, it suggests that there is more than minimal contact as well as an emotional bond between Goffman and the people from the 6th Street. But you insist on portraying Goffman as someone who basically cut her ties with her research participants as soon as she got what she wanted from them. I don’t think this is honest. And honesty is a key ethical principle, too.

        I really think that you ask some very important questions in your letter–questions that should be asked about any sociological study of this kind. In our methods course, we use Goffman’s book to have a discussion around these same questions. The power relationship between the researcher and her research participants lies at the heart of these discussions. The problem in your open letter is that most of your answers are based on unfounded assumptions rather than careful reasoning and convincing evidence.

        I sincerely hope that this public conversation will encourage you to be more critical about your own thinking, writing, and research practices as much as your letter encourages others to be critical about theirs.

        All the best!

        Kerem

  • Jocelyn Viterna

    I applaud critical reading in any context, but with every new letter or article excoriating Alice Goffman, I am always left to wonder this: why, in a field full of so-called “cowboy ethnographers,” is it always/only Alice Goffman who gets singled out for these multiple and harsh critiques? Why is it the woman ethnographer who takes 100% of the heat? In a class on ethnography, would it not be more useful to apply that critical eye to the field of urban ethnography in general, thinking about how to support its strengths and reform its problematic aspects? What is it about a white cis-woman ethnographer who enters a black community that draws such need for public castigation, while white cis-men ethnographers who do the same never seem to generate the same outrage? If your goal with this email is to initiate a transformation in how ethnography is done, I suggest it would be much more powerful to cite multiple instances of problematic ethnography across multiple authors, to show a trend, and then to propose better alternatives for scholars. But instead, you chose to single out Alice Goffman. As such, you implicitly suggest to your audience that it’s not a problem that ethnographers in general need to confront, but rather it’s only a problem of Alice. Is it your aim to transform problematic ethnographic practices, or is it your aim to punish Goffman? I hope you are willing to turn the same critical eye you used against Goffman to evaluate your own motives in writing this letter, and to ask why you were so willing to call out Goffman, but not others in her field.

    • iirightii

      Sounds like you appreciate critical analysis but only if done your way.

    • Student Response

      Dear Mx. Viterna,

      Thank you for your comments. We feel it necessary to respond to some of the points you bring up, which we agree are important to address. Your first few questions ask why we chose to “single out Goffman” instead of posing a larger critique to “the field of urban ethnography in general.” In fact, as we state in the first paragraph of our letter, our critiques of Goffman do rest within these larger and necessary critiques of anthropology, sociology and various other fields of knowledge production, and one of the overarching aims of the letter is to illustrate how the problematics of Goffman’s methods/work are in fact enabled by the larger structural issues engrained in the ethnographic status quo, which Christina Sharpe also pointedly addresses when she writes “Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City is the latest installment in a sociological tradition that subjects black life to scholarly scrutiny” (Sharpe 2, 2014). In order to ground these broader critiques, we chose to locate our own critiques within Goffman’s book and work—not to personally castigate or “punish” her, as you suggest—because we feel that the amount of praise and widespread acclaim her book has received does give it a kind of power that warrants further scrutiny and questioning. That said, we are also fully aware of the gendered dynamics of critique in play, and yet they are also highly racialized; our intention was not to critique Goffman’s character or personhood, rather to question the dangerous work her book does in exposing black life under siege without including a larger critique of the systemic frameworks that created such conditions in the first place. We also believe that as a cis-white female ethnographer, Goffman represents a tradition of white scholarly fetishization of Black life that yes, is most common among cis-white male scholars, but is also not something that white femme scholars are exempt from.

      In your comments, you also question our goals in writing this open letter. We specifically chose to address this directly to Goffman and write it in the form of an open letter—rather than a scholarly essay which systematically critiques ethnography and proposes ‘solutions’—because it remains important to question the power of On the Run and what it represents for how the upcoming generation of ethnographers are being taught. Thus, we were using Goffman’s work to critique these larger structures which we realize are the fundamental, systemic issues, not that Goffman as an individual is the problem, but rather what her work represents and gives clearance to.

      Toward the end of your response, you ask us to “evaluate your own motives in writing this letter, and to ask why you were so willing to call out Goffman, but not others in her field.” In fact, we do implicate ourselves—and other people involved in fields of knowledge production—in the same questions we are asking of Goffman in the closing paragraph of our letter. As the next generation, we are overwhelmingly aware of our own complicities in and ranging relationalities to the same structures that enabled Goffman’s work to be produced and praised in the first place. We wrote this letter as a collective refusal to continue accepting this problematic status quo, and to add student voice to the existing critiques of Goffman’s book which we maintain are important and necessary, and have also been taken up by students from other universities, such as students at Pomona College who mobilized to push back against Goffman’s invitation to their school as a visiting professor in 2017: https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/students-oppose-pomona-colleges-hiring-of-alice-goffman/117939.

      Thank you.

      • The Centrist

        “Alice Goffman’s On the Run is the best treatment I know of the wretched underside of neoliberal capitalist America… a poignant portrait of our fellow citizens who struggle to preserve their sanity and dignity” -Cornel West

        If one of the most prominent critics of systemic racism in the United States can look beyond the color of Goffman’s skin, why can’t you?

  • Baltika

    What is the evidence that Dr. Goffman’s work has actually placed anyone in danger? No such evidence is presented in this letter.

    • iirightii

      Would you really be satisfied? I suspect that any “evidence” presented would be met with the same degree of skepticism. The “demand for evidence” (in the face of evidence) is starting to ring hollow. In other contexts, we see many video examples of Black people experiencing extrajudicial murder only to have that be me with debate and reframing of what is seen.

      • Baltika

        You’re saying no one should bother showing evidence. I’m sure you don’t believe this though. You wouldn’t seriously advise people experiencing racist policing and considering pulling out their phone cameras to not bother because the footage will “only be met with debate and reframing.”

        • iirightii

          No. I said what I said.

          • Baltika

            “Don’t bother videorecording police brutality” — is that your actual position?

          • iirightii

            I said what I said not what you want me to say.

          • The Centrist

            Yes, and Goffman said what she said, not what you want her to say.

          • iirightii

            Where is my commentary on Goffman? What was it that I wanted her to say? I will wait for that…

          • Baltika

            I know what you said. I’m pointing out what I see as a problem in what you said.

          • iirightii

            No, you are being defensive.

          • Baltika

            Are you one of the students? If so, I really hope your professors are teaching you that this type of engagement, where you’re basically gaslighting me rather than confronting the points I’m raising, is not going to help you achieve any of your goals in life, including political goals. I hope they’re teaching you that it’s a good thing to present evidence, even if opponents do indeed have a frustrating habit of brushing off the evidence.

          • iirightii

            But you are not raising any points, only telling me what I am supposed to say. Raise some points and I am happy to debate.

          • Baltika

            I’ve raised the point that the letter asserts that Dr. Goffman’s book has placed people in danger, but it offers no evidence that this is so. You questioned whether I’d be satisfied even if I saw the evidence. I took this to mean you deemed it unnecessary for the letter writers to show evidence. In context, that is what your position above appears to indicate. If I misunderstood you, the good-faith response from you would be to say, “no that’s not what I meant, let me clarify.” A debate could probably happen, but it cannot happen unless you provide that clarification. The fact that we’ve gone back and forth 5 or 6 times and this hasn’t happened yet signals to me that I’m being gaslit by someone who isn’t in fact “happy to debate.”

          • iirightii

            This is where we part ways and will differ significantly. I believe strongly in emic knowledge and perspective. Although I have a PhD from a top university, I grew up in similar environments and have family members that still live in similar environments. While you or others might assume that Goffman developed an emic or near-emic perspective, that will never be true. Where is the evidence for that? And the notion that insider knowledge is only legitimate when it meets the standards of those from the outside is absurd. Many Black people, even those in the academy know rules in Black communities that some will never understand. For example, while it might seem reasonable to report a crime in your neighborhood, it is true in some neighborhoods and in some circumstances that the same police will expose you back to the neighborhood in order to get you hurt or killed. I don’t need to provide you with evidence to justify that being true. If you truly understood these contexts, you would come to know it. But it appears that you would prefer to sit firmly on your demands for evidence that fit your worldview. I reject that demand.

          • Baltika

            I don’t assume that Goffman adopts an emic perspective. She always presents herself as an outsider who is trying to understand a situation which is very much external to her lived experience. And what is wrong with that? I can certainly see good reasons to have insider research, but I can see good reasons to have outsider research too. Both have their own types of pitfalls. Outsiders can be prone to stepping on tripwires without realizing it. Insiders can be prone to navel-gazing. If I were to accuse an insider account of navel-gazing, I would provide evidence of navel-gazing. Similarly, critics of Goffman who feel that her outsider account steps on tripwires, and that she was insufficiently cautious and protecting her subjects, ought to provide evidence that is so. Her being an outsider does not in and of itself constitute evidence.

          • iirightii

            You asked for evidence that no one was put in danger. My response was that insider knowledge trumps “evidence” for consumption purposes.

            What is wrong that, you ask? Well, maybe Black people, in particular, are a little exhausted with researchers who know very little to nothing about Black people and Black life trying to document their lives. Maybe some things don’t need to be shared with the academy. Also, if Black folks know that she put other Black folks in danger, why do you feel the need to debate that and browbeat it to death to your satisfaction? Why do we always have to do what you want on your terms? You are mired in a set of demands and expectations that says your standards for evidence and your definitions of knowledge are the only legitimate versions. I don’t accept that. Apparently the seminar students do not as well. Good for them, I say.

            I am sure you have Youtube. You may be familiar with a video called Color of Fear. Track it down and watch a clip from Victor. Enough said.

          • Baltika

            Neither you nor the letter authors speak for all black people. Lots of black reviewers and other people of color have given high praise to Goffman’s work. The fact that one person (you) happens to be personally sick of white academics writing about black people does not strike me as a valid argument for Goffman’s type of sociological research to discontinue. I mean, you can state how you personally feel, but don’t expect that to persuade anybody.

            And I still don’t see why insider knowledge trumps evidence. Don’t you see how dangerous this logic is? The elders of Salem claimed that a handful of women were witches, and rather than present evidence they invoked their “insider knowledge.” Their “emic” knowledge was deemed sufficient, so the women were all murdered by the state.

          • iirightii

            Never claimed to speak for all Black people. And you know full well that it is more than one person (me). There is a long history of Black academics writing from my perspective. But your tendency is to be dismissive. Who are you speaking for? You are one person. So, why should we be swayed by your argument?

            As you say, “you don’t see.” I think that speaks volumes. It cuts right to the heart of the matter. You want to comment on knowledge that you do not understand. As I noted earlier, you want it your way and only your way. No need to further engage. Your posts up to now only reveal what many of us already know.

          • Baltika

            If you already know that most people need evidence to be convinced of something they’re starting out as skeptical of, and your aim is to convince them, why don’t you provide the evidence? Step outside yourself for a second. If we were to select 100 people across the surface of the earth at random and show them this exchange, how many do you suppose would conclude that the real reason you won’t bring up evidence is because you don’t have any, and the reason you don’t have any is because nobody has any, because the accusation isn’t true?

          • iirightii

            1. As I said, in matters of race, no amount of evidence is convincing enough. We see that now. We have seen it historically. The demand for “evidence” on “my” terms is part of the process of denial. If you had any knowledge or any experience in those contexts, you would know and understand the norms and knowledge that make it dangerous to reveal what Goffman reveals. Clearly, you do not know. And you engage in denial and defensiveness to cover up your lack of knowledge. Despite what you think, not all of your “demands” are legitimate. I think you are using “evidence” as a cover for denial.

            2. You are clearly an outsider. If you were not, you would respect the knowledge of insiders who know what puts people in danger and what does not. You want to define what is evidence and knowledge from your limited point of view. This seems to be what the students are arguing; outsiders want to commodify insider knowledges and norms or totally dismiss them in service to the academy.

            3. I did not make the claim that Goffman’s book is bad. And your characterization of my statements is false. My original comment was about your statement regarding evidence. I reject your demands and your insistence on dismissing what insiders know in deference to what you prefer.

            4. As a Black man, I always have to step outside myself. For you to insist on that as another demand is part of the insult that students are getting at. The real problem is that yo do not want to step outside of yourself. You have shown no willingness to do that. Every reply demonstrates your inertia, and an implied suggestion that I must be wrong and you must be correct. You insist on telling a Black scholar who knows the scholarly terrain very well that my knowledge does not meet your threshold. Well, I reject your demand.

            I previously stated that I have a PhD. What I didn’t say was that I also conduct ethnographic studies; author of 4 scholarly books and many refereed articles. I have knowledge of what evidence means in this work. I also have first-hand knowledge of the issues that can put Black people in danger. I respect the fact that some knowledge does not need to be shared with the academy.

            This will be my last reply. I am gaining very little from the exchange. I see no need to continue an exchange with someone who does not have knowledge of the topic in the first place.

    • Student Response

      The aim in positioning Goffman’s book as a dangerous text was not meant to literally cite instances of “danger” that have resulted from its publishing and widespread circulation, rather it is to raise serious questions about this book set against the pervasive and rampant anti-Black violence that has existed since the inception of America. This work decodes innovative and painfully built tactics for surviving Black life under siege and carceral state violence without contextualizing such tactics within both the histories of oppression that necessitate such survival tactics, or the decades-long and active modes of resistance and organizing currently being employed by Black communities such as the one Goffman “chronicles”. By way of existing as an easily obtainable and widely praised book, we argue that state agents (such as police, which Goffman herself sympathizes with in the book (Goffman 202-203)) have increased access to these kinds of decoded survival tactics, information which could be used against the very Black communities and individuals which Goffman writes about. This act has the very real potential to increase l harm in these communities. One only has to pay attention to the news, every single day, to see how Black communities are consistently impacted by police violence.

      • Baltika

        The open letter comes across as being opposed to research about oppressed communities’ practices of resistance and evasion. According to the letter’s logic, nobody should research how workers in different industries coordinate strikes with each other, because the ownership class might use that information against workers. Nobody should research the tunnel system of the Viet Cong, which is key to understanding how this anti-imperialist struggle succeeded, because in the future an empire could potentially use that information to prevent such guerrilla tunnels from getting built. Nobody should research the suffragettes and how they succeeded, because in the future a patriarchal society could use that information preventatively, to suppress women’s rights.

        The letter writers interpreted Goffman’s book as pro-police. And, I don’t have a position about whether this interpretation is fair or unfair. But I do remember that when the book came out, it had many detractors on the right, who interpreted the book in the exact opposite way — as an anti-police polemic. I can find you links from 2015 if you want. These right-wing critics of the book seized upon the fact that Dr. Goffman heavily anonymized the research, so as to suggest that she’d made all the research up, or fabricated it. Again, I can send you links about this controversy. The NYT ultimately intervened, went to her research site, and validated that the research was quite real. Of course, the reason Dr. Goffman heavily anonymized the research was to protect her research subjects and keep them out of danger, which is the responsible thing for a social scientist to do. If the letter authors are claiming her efforts to keep the research subjects safe have failed, it’s their responsibility to provide evidence that this is so.

      • Kerem Morgul

        I know this response was not written to me, but I’d like to comment on it because it provides another example of what I referred to as unfounded assumptions or false accusations in my original post. Here you claim, in passing, that Prof. Goffman sympathizes with the police. There is nothing at all to support this claim in the section you’ve cited. That section is simply about the complex relationship between the police and the community. Moreover, there are several paragraphs in the book that directly contradicts your claim. For instance:

        “Above everything, I feared white men. Not all white men: white American men who were relatively fit, under the age of fifty, with short hair. I avoided the younger white male faculty at all costs. On some level, I knew they weren’t cops, they probably wouldn’t beat me or insult me, but I could not escape the sweat or the pounding in my chest when they approached. Office hours were out—I couldn’t be in a room alone with them. When I had to pass them in the hallways, I could feel my heart racing, like I was getting ready to run. Very few professors of color were in the Sociology Department at the time, so for advising I stuck to women, non-American men, and men who had accents or who were otherwise far outside the cop mold” (pp.247-8).

        Needless to say, such falsehoods and unsubstantiated claims cast shadow on your motives and undermine your efforts to initiate a serious and productive debate about the race-, gender-, and class-based power dynamics in sociological research practices.

  • Iddo Tavory

    I am truly troubled by this text. Goffman not only wrote the most important ethnography of poverty and policing in the last decade, but was also deeply enmeshed with the people she wrote of. She was not putting anyone in any danger. She was, however, shedding light on what it means to live under this new regime of surveillance: from the most banal moments, to the most dramatic. I can see few political projects that are more important today.

    Positionality is important, yes. But over 10 years of research and of being enmeshed in people’s lives, one’s “position” becomes more complicate than the writers of this letter seem willing to contemplate. And yes, echoing Viterna, although I truly do not think this was the students’ intent, the overall attack on Goffman smacks of sexism of the worst kind. In a world of male ethnographers who do work that is only fraction as deep or important, she is the one who is attacked. bravo.

    • Baltika

      The positionality issue is definitely important, and Goffman’s gender is a large part of what makes it so important. I think Goffman’s right and left wing critics have been suspicious that she used her sexuality (maybe without meaning to) as a young, pretty white woman with high socioeconomic status in a lower income black neighborhood to gain friendships and informant networks. Using sexuality and charisma as a research tool is potentially valid, but it’s also potentially destabilizing for the communities being researched. It’s a complex issue which ought to be addressed in the open. However, *neither* right nor left wing critics have been willing to articulate such concerns out loud, probably because the sentiment somewhat smacks of anti-miscegenation. The critics have preferred instead to suggest that her work was made up (that was the 2015 right wing line of attack), or to suggest that her work left her research subjects in danger (exemplified here, and totally unsubstantiated). I wish critics would just say what they’re actually thinking. BTW I say this as a defender of Goffman’s work and critic of this letter (see my comments below).

      • Tenured_Radical

        But it’s also so sexist to presume that this is what Goffman was doing for ten years — flirting with her informants — particularly after a century of male anthropologists sexualizing fieldwork? Esther Newton has an excellent article about this.

        • Baltika

          Yes I agree the presumption is sexist. That’s why it’s important the critics’ real concerns (or what I suspect are the critics’ real concerns) get aired.

  • The Centrist

    One of the things this discussion has made apparent is how one’s “positionality” is not just one factor considered when critiquing a text, but too often the decisive factor as it becomes but a euphemism for race, gender or political ideology; if the critic of a work is deemed to be “right-wing,” the critique is automatically considered suspect, driven as it is by ideology; if the author is “white,” he/she can’t be trusted; yet if the critique is aimed at a ” female,” its automatically “sexist.” If the author is a “white male,” however, it’s open-season; and on and on…

    What really happens in the process is that legitimate observations of how “positionality” impacts ethnographic practice devolve into an obsession with labels that are in turn tossed about carelessly. This makes it difficult to consider a work based on its substance, and brings in to play a load of assumptions and doctrinal convictions that displace logic and evidence. Like the pages of a book, labels are paper thin, and often so are the criticisms levied on their basis.

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