I think I’ve written and thrown away three separate posts on the Alice Goffman debate trying to find something to say that people will find interesting. I personally don’t find the case to be very interesting, or to speak to core issues of what ethnography is or should be. In my opinion, the takeaway is: Goffman wrote a remarkable book at a remarkably young age, like all books it has some problems, and it is bearing an absolutely incredible amount of scrutiny fairly well. She did hard fieldwork and had to make hard choices writing her ethnography, and some people disagree with those choices. But that’s not an interesting theoretical problem. That’s just life.
For me the most interesting part of it is watching journalists run up against issues of anonymity and academic ethics for the first time and try to come to terms with it. I think its important to push back against the idea that ‘ethnography’ is suspect as a form of knowledge because it anonymizes identities and makes them “all but impossible to fact check”. An article by Leon Neyfakh making basically this claim appeared, embarrassingly enough, on the same day as an article by Jesse Singal which did fact check ing them. Singal — clearly an anthropologist at heart — walked around the neighborhood where Goffman did fieldwork handing out donuts until he fell in with the people she writes about in the book. What is at stake in this debate? Ultimately, I think the discomfort that some feel with Goffman’s book is that it forces them to think about issues of generalization, particularity, and anonymity in a way they haven’t before. Welcome, journalists, to the world of social science theory and ethics! We have been dealing with these issues for some time!
The idea that ‘ethnography’ is less empirical, true, or relevant than ‘journalism’ or ‘chemistry’ because it automatically anonymizes its sources is incorrect. In fact, there is no such thing as a single genre called ‘ethnography’. We can see this clearly in Neyfakh’s piece — the experts he interviews profess a wide range of opinions about anonymizing the people you study with. In sum, opinions on anonymization vary widely within the academic community.
They vary across time as well. Anthropologists have a long history of naming names. Sometimes this is because we view our interviewees as teachers or partners. In other cases it because we viewed them as so removed from the world of anthropology that they would never meet our readers, and so what did it matter?
On the other hand, anthropologists have also written purely fictional accounts, as as the 1922 volume American Indian Life. Here, entire people are made up. The goal is to provide a sense of what typical Indian life was like, but to do so by telling a compelling (and made up) story.
And we’ve tried everything in between: composite characters based on a mashup of different people, transcribed autobiographies that are not fact-checked at all, theoretical critique in the form of epic poetry, dance based on initiations we’ve undergone and more.
So ‘ethnography’ is a fundamentally experimental genre, or perhaps a loose assemblage of genres, not a single thing that can be blamed for Goffman’s success or failure, let alone used to condemn a field or discipline. In fact, as Neyfakh’s article makes clear, many of the issues surrounding anonymization were foisted on ethnographers by the IRB process, and are thus exogenous to ethnography itself.
Neyfakh makes an important and valid point to protest that the power of Goffman’s book comes from the particular biographies of the lives she narrates. To argue that the importance of the book comes from the general patterns of social life it generates, but to sell the reader on these patterns with biographical particularities does constitute a bit of a bait and switch.
But at the end of the day, her decision to write in this way is not a result of the general professional standards of ethnography, but because of the particular nature of her field site and her personal choices a writer. I think it was a legitimate choice, and I think Goffman’s book is a good read with solid ethnography and important lessons about race and policing in the United States. But it was a difficult one, one that no doubt left Goffman unhappy because her respondents could be identified, but also one that left journalists unhappy because they couldn’t be identified enough (at least, not without donuts). Which just goes to show that the Goffman debate is at heart not about problems of ethnography as a discipline, but about the fact that hard choices are hard, there’s no easy way to make them, and someone will always have preferred you make a different one.