Committing Crimes during Fieldwork: Ethics, Ethnography, and “On The Run”

At this point the debate about Alice Goffman’s book On The Run looks something like this:

  1. Goffman writes a successful ethnography.

  2. Journalists are peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.

  3. Journalist verify that Goffman’s book is accurate.

  4. Journalists remain peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.

Although I’m sure no one feels this way, I think this is a success for everyone: Goffman is more or less vindicated, her discipline demonstrates it can withstand external scrutiny, and journalists do what they are supposed to do and take no one’s words for granted. In this clash of cultures, I think both sociology and journalism can walk away with their dignity intact.

There are still some outstanding issues, of course. One is Goffman’s claim that police checked hospital records looking for people to arrest — something I’d like to deal with later on. Here, I want to focus on the claim not that Goffman was inaccurate in her reportage, but that she broke the law during her fieldwork.

This criticism comes from law professor Steven Lubet. Having loved Goffman’s book, I thought it would be easy to dismiss Lubet’s critique — especially the part where Lubet asked a cop whether details of Goffman’s book were true and the cop is like: “No we never do that to black people” and I was like: “Well I’m glad we got to the bottom of that, since police accounts of their treatment of minorities is always 100% accurate.” But in fact Lubet’s piece is clearly written and carefully argued and I found it very convincing. That said, how much of a problem does it pose to Goffman’s book?

In the appendix to On The Run Goffman describes the death of one of her key informants, and driving around in a car with some guys with guns planning to kill his murders and take revenge. This, Lubet says, constitutes conspiracy to commit murder. But was Goffman’s actions unethical? What does it mean to commit a crime? And does answering these questions say anything new, interesting, and important about ethnography?

Clearly, it’s not prudent to confess to a crime in print. But is it unethical, in general, to break the law during fieldwork? I think the answer is, in general, no. I personally believe that one should follow the laws of the country where you live just on general principles. But there are many cases when anthropologists do fieldwork in places where the laws are clearly contrary their moral intuitions, and to accepted international standards. For instance, Goffman makes a compelling claim that her field site is one of these places.

There are also places where the law is an ass. Should an ethnobotanist not apprentice themselves to an herbalist because the herbalist doesn’t have a business license to put up a stall in the local market? What if no one in the market has ever had such a license? Here, the legal is simply removed from life on the ground. Equally, we can imagine situations where it is legal to do things that the fieldworker thinks is unethical — tapping phones, exploiting sex workers, polygyny, and so forth. Clearly these things don’t suddenly become carte blanche once you clear customs.

Legality and morality don’t always align. In situations where they don’t — which might even be most situations — fieldworkers need to use good judgment, professional ethics, and their own moral compass. Sometimes, making the right decision is hard, and sometimes, people will disagree with the recision you made. But that’s not an interesting theoretical problem. That’s just life.

Goffman’s case exemplifies well-known and standard dilemmas for field workers. Did she behave unethically, from a social science perspective? It’s a difficult call. That fact that some calls are difficult is not going to go away, and there’s no magic solution for making them easier. From my point of view, Goffman got angry, drove around, and nothing happened — it’s hard to get exercised about that.

To be sure, trying to make moral laws and trying to act ethically in the field are huge topics on which oceans of ink have been spilt. But rather than focus on the ethics of breaking the law in the field, I want to focus instead on the very concept of ‘breaking the law’ itself. The legal anthropologist in me feels that someone has broken the law when a judge has ruled that they have done so and the appeal process has concluded. That certainly hasn’t happened to Goffman.

Can we really be said to have ‘committed a crime’ when we do acts which someone suspects in the future would result in a ruling from judge? Thinkers on both the left and right (usually the extremes of both ends) have argued that the legal system is structured in such a way that we are all commit crimes every day. Or rather, that our ongoing social lives can be criminalized by state actors depending on their discretion, our subject position, and other factors. This is because laws are complex and loosely written, and because social life is ambiguous and can be narrated in more than one way. Also, it’s in the fundamental nature of legal hermeneutics that the fit between general principles and particular cases is always wobbly.

I’m not an expert in this field like Lubet is so perhaps some readers will tell me I’m wrong. But I think we need to be careful when we say ‘Goffman broke a law’. This makes it sound as if the law is clear, unambiguous, easy to apply, and Goffman broke it. But that’s not really how law works. So not only is not necessarily a mark against her ethically that she acted illegally, we need to understand that attributions of illegality are themselves part of a power-laden social process, not naturally given and stigmatizing facts.

Lubet’s review did two things: First, it accused her of a crime. Second, it cast doubt on the veracity of some of Goffman’s claims. You can’t really do the first thing thing and expect a response to the second. If you want someone to be forthcoming with details of their research, don’t lead with the felony charge. Goffman has lawyered up, which means that she will probably never talk about her fieldwork beyond what is already on the record — a move Lubet would surely recognize as in her best interests. But it does have a chilling effect on your interlocutor. If he and others have probed more collegially, we might have gotten more out of Goffman, rather than just a bunch of burned field notes.


I find it hard to be critical of Goffman as an ethnographer. It was clearly grueling, exhausting work that took years and years. Commenters often fail to note that it was also her first fieldwork, begun as an undergraduate, and it’s remarkably strong for novice work. I personally felt like it was a bit derivative — why read On The Run when you could read Sidewalk? — but clearly that’s quibbling. More substantively, I would say this: Goffman’s book is ultimately about how young black men interact with the legal system — a relationship that is made of two parts. Although Goffman does dip into the lives of wardens, lawyers, and police officers, On The Run essentially gives us only one half of this this interaction. I respect her choices, understand her position, and appreciate her book. But if Goffman was more familiar with the life of the law her book — and perhaps her actions — would have been written to more robustly withstood some of the criticism now being made against it.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

5 thoughts on “Committing Crimes during Fieldwork: Ethics, Ethnography, and “On The Run”

  1. I would add one thing, which is not a directly a comment on On The Run or the Lubet-Goffman dust up, but is somewhat related.

    Part of informed consent should include informing subjects of the researcher’s position on legal requirements. If, for example, the researcher is expected to disclose certain behaviors to police or other authorities (as is the case with many IRB-approved projects), then subjects should take that into account when deciding how much to open up to the researcher.

  2. First, I haven’t read the book yet (my copy is in the mail), but I have read the controversy/discussion around it, and it’s been both interesting, and equally disheartening. It seems a lot of the critique about Goffman’s methods has come from areas that aren’t familiar with ethnography as a method, so are critiquing her based on their own values about what quantifies proper scholarship. I’ve done some fieldwork in a hospital setting and that has led to some ethical problems in itself, possibly ones where I too could have been charged had things turned out slightly different (though I chose not to include the specific event in my field notes in discussion with my supervisor, out of a desire to protect my interlocutors and myself if the worst was to happen). Could she have glossed over the episode completely, of course, but in what I interpret as a desire to be honest to not only herself, but the readers, and the community she is representing, chose to include a very difficult situation in order to fully disclose what life is like. As ethnographers, we expect (for the most part), for our interlocutors to be as honest and truthful as they can in their lives with us, should we not aspire to those same demands in our own work? The other point, is that while it is easy for us to look on this and say, ‘oh, she did a bad bad thing’, we need to remember the context, she had been living with these friends for years, they were like family to her, until we have been in that situation it is hard to remark on what we would do. Myself, I have been in a situation similar, and remember quite clearly the thoughts that went through my head in those terrible and tense few minutes, so I have no reservations of her actions on that day.

  3. I struggle with ethnography, because I want to trust that the honesty and diligence of the person whose research I am reading is at the highest possible standard. With OTR, my initial read was “wow”, she was in the middle of it. All the time.

    Changing names, dates, timelines, locations, etc. to protect the anonymity of her subjects seemed to have been a disaster in this book. Reporters (and one anonymous web critic) figured out relatively easily who her subjects were and started to expose where her changed timeline/dates/locations shaded her stories, ie Wynnefield neighborhood vs. Walnut Hill and what the demographics of the two neighborhoods really are.

    The hospital story is false, and the longer she and ethnographers try to defend it, the sillier they will look. She didn’t see one father arrested in a maternity ward for an outstanding warrant. She saw THREE. The same night. But won’t say the name of the hospital because she wants to protect her subjects now ruined anonymity.

    I understand the pressure to make a story with more sizzle, but she could have easily kept all her unbelievable stories in there, by just saying “chuck saw”, “mike saw”, etc..

    Billypenn has the best review of the book:

    “Goffman, whose book could just as feasibly have been subtitled “A White Penn Girl’s Journey to Black and Back” says that by the time she moved on to Princeton she had become so black that “The first day, I caught myself casing the classrooms in the Sociology Department, making a mental note of the TVs and computers I could steal if I ever needed cash in a hurry.” She goes on to say how hard it was to assimilate back into wealthy whiteness.

    Let’s review that: Goffman claims to have become so black, she was always looking for shit to steal. That’s blackness, and West Philly, to Alice Goffman. ”

  4. “we need to be careful when we say ‘Goffman broke a law”

    No we don’t. I’m not a lawyer, but helping someone trying kill someone goes against a lot of “laws”, not just civil and religious. I really wonder what the alter-Alice Goffman hanging out with the “4th street” boys would have thought about AG’s armed revenge ride. No doubt the 4th street boys have their own loved ones killed, jailed, lost and “on the run” that AG didn’t bond with.

    And in any event, even Lubet concedes there is zero chance of anyone ever charging her with a crime, considering there are no witnesses, no evidence of a crime, only the printed words of a book filled with inaccuracies.

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