As Dan points out, Prof. Jack Katz has written a thoughtful defense of Alice Goffman, and I encourage everyone to read it (here). [UPDATE: It turns out that Katz is a co-editor of the University of Chicago Press series that published Goffman's book, per this article in the New York Times.]
It should come as no surprise, however, that I think Katz got it wrong. In particular, I think he seriously misunderstood the facts and misinterpreted the situation, as I explain below.
"I am afraid that this point, that the messiness of the line between posturing and practice is at the essence of the phenomenon, won’t be heard in this context and will probably add to the strength of those who would damn her and outlaw this kind of immersion research…."
The question is not about bravado, however, but behavior. Three men had already been killed in what Goffman calls the 4th Street War, so an armed manhunt – driving around at night, pistol in hand, looking for rival gang members – must be taken as something seriously more than “bravado.” Specifically, Goffman wrote:
"We started out around 3:00 a.m., with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he directed me around the area. We peered into dark houses and looked at license plates and car models as Mike spoke on the phone with others who had information about [their quarry's] whereabouts. "
I have no interest in banning immersion research, but I think it is pretty reasonable to draw the line at facilitating a shooting. Here is what Sudhir Venkatesh said about that in Gang Leader for a Day:
“If I became aware of a plan to physically harm somebody, I was obliged to tell the police . . . . It wasn’t as if I had any intention of joining the gang in an actual drive-by shooting . . . but since I could get in trouble just for driving around with them while they talked about shooting somebody, I had to rethink my approach.”
Seems quite sensible, and unlikely to cause any damage to immersion research. Too bad Goffman did not follow his example.
"[W]hen conspiracy laws alone are the only formula available for prosecution, the abuse potential should remain the first and central concern."
Nobody is suggesting prosecuting Goffman now, but only that her active participation in a murder plot should be recognized for what it was.
But let me pose a question for Prof. Katz. What if the police encountered a bunch of Klansmen in a car full of Molotov cocktails, casing an African-American church? Would it be okay to arrest them for conspiracy to commit arson, or would the cops have to wait for the actual torching? I think the answer is obvious. Conspiracies themselves are dangerous, which is why they are illegal. You can provide your own examples: Neo-Nazis and a synagogue; extremists and an abortion clinic; animal rights activists and a university laboratory? In each case it is legitimate – and far from an “abuse” – to arrest people following the first “overt act,” without waiting for the planned violence to occur. A gang murder is no different, and I trust Prof. Katz would counsel his graduate students that it would be a crime to drive the car.
"To take actions that usually are histrionic as presumptive grounds for an accusation, much less an official charge, would be a great way to crush this ethnographic fieldwork on 'the other side.'”
Let me repeat: I did not criticize Goffman for anything involving only histrionics. Rather, I pointed out that she helped to search for a man to kill. In her own words, she “wanted him to die.” Three men had already been murdered in the gang war, and Goffman characterized her own participation as part of the “third round.” Her current claim of “just talk,” raised for the first time in her response, directly contradicts the version in her book. In On the Run, she wrote “Many knew the man’s name and the guys he hung out with [and they went] looking for the shooter, the guys who were part of his crew, or women connected to them who might be able to provide a good lead.” In other words, much more than histrionics.