At this point the debate about Alice Goffman’s book On The Run looks something like this:
- Goffman writes a successful ethnography.
- Journalists are peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.
Journalist verify that Goffman’s book is accurate.
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.