Alice Goffman’s book has created some controversy not only because of her concerns about over-policing and mass incarceration, but because of her research methods and decisions. She began the project as an undergraduate in an urban ethnography class. An urban ethnographer studies a city much as an anthropologist would study a native village, using participant observation to share people’s lives–learning their language, studying their traditions, understanding their beliefs, and so forth. For Goffman it meant living in a black Philadelphia neighborhood, hanging out with her main informant “Mike” and his friends (she also took him in as a roommate for a time), and observing their many interactions with the police and the courts.
Readers who have never attempted such a thing may have trouble appreciating the difficulty of the task. It means maintaining a delicate balance between participating and observing, becoming an insider and remaining a detached observer. One has to participate authentically enough to be accepted and trusted, but retain enough detachment to ask questions insiders might not ask, take voluminous field notes, and interpret what one observes in the light of a broader sociological perspective. There is also an ethical challenge: maintaining one’s own moral compass rather than thoughtlessly conforming to the expectations of one’s subjects.
Becoming accepted into an urban subculture can be every bit as challenging as immersing oneself in a foreign culture. At first, Goffman had trouble understanding what her subjects were talking about, since they were referencing experiences she hadn’t had, using words in unfamiliar ways. In order to hang out with them, she had not only to learn their language, but also to construct a role for herself within their world. She had to distinguish the things she would do, like drive guys places or visit them in jail, from the things she wouldn’t, like smoke dope or become romantically involved with her subjects. As a privileged white female, she couldn’t entirely play the role of an underprivileged black male, but in many situations she could act almost as if she were such a person.
In this vein, Goffman describes how she handled the issue of gender. As a participant observer of primarily male subjects, she didn’t want to play a conventional female role, since “the world of women was a separate sphere from the life of the street.” Her solution was to present a more ambiguous image:
Though I came to 6th Street as a young blond woman, my body, speech, clothing, and general personality marked me as somewhat strange and unappealing. After spending a few months with Mike and his friends, I moved even further away from their ideals of beauty or femininity, in part as a strategy to conduct the fieldwork, and in part because I was, as a participant observer, adopting their male attitudes, dress, habits, and even language.
Goffman was so successful immersing herself in the world of 6th Street that she began to have some problems with the other side of her life, the life of a sociology student. She was missing appointments with professors and getting failing grades in some classes. Her close association with men on the run was also bringing her under suspicion by the police, who sometimes threatened to arrest her “for harboring fugitives, or interfering with an arrest, or holding drugs in the apartment.” Goffman doesn’t try to establish whether or not her behavior would actually justify such accusations, but she does remark that “the likelihood that I’d soon go to prison seemed about equal to the chance I would make it to graduate school.” In fact, however, she managed to save her academic career by gaining early acceptance to Princeton.
While in graduate school, Goffman continued to live in Philadelphia but commute two or three times a week to Princeton. She reports experiencing a kind of reverse culture shock when she had to adapt to the world of graduate school after living so long around 6th Street. Because she had come to share the black male’s fear of the police, she found herself uncomfortable with any white man who looked young and fit enough to be a cop. She also reports some confusion about her gender and sexual identities: “After spending six years in a Black neighborhood, hanging out with young men, I’d come to feel almost asexual. During college, I dated no one; I’d sometimes feel surprise when a mirror returned the image of a young woman.”
Goffman ends her methodological appendix with her most troubling suggestion, that she may have been damaged by some of her experiences. When Mike’s close friend Chuck was murdered, she acknowledges that she wanted Chuck’s killer to die, although she also says that “at the time and certainly in retrospect, my desire for vengeance scared me.” Goffman is hardly alone in having experienced such a desire, but as a participant observer she was in a position to act on it. On one occasion when Mike went looking for Chuck’s killer with a gun, she drove him. And when Mike got out to confront the possible killer, “I waited in the car with the engine running, ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside.” Fortunately, Mike decided he didn’t have the right man, or Goffman could easily have wound up being an accessory to murder.
Some reviewers seem eager to discredit the whole book on ethical grounds, condemning Goffman as well as the people she studied. But maybe that is another way of dissociating ourselves from a social scene whose dangers repel us. The alternative is once again to learn how easily ordinary people can get caught up in bad behavior if they find themselves in bad situations. Goffman’s larger point remains valid, that many social forces and policies have contributed to making those bad situations what they are. For me, she is a courageous young woman who sacrificed a lot in order to bridge a racial divide and enhance understanding of a social problem.