Alice Goffman has posted a response to my review of On the Run, and I have replied in The New Republic. Here are the first few paragraphs my TNR article, which includes a link to Goffman's response.
On the Run is the story of sociologist Alice Goffman’s six years of immersion in a struggling Philadelphia neighborhood, in which she tells the stories of the “routine stops, searches, raids, and beatings that young men navigate as they come of age.” The book was initially hailed as an ethnographic classic, but to me it raised red flags. Too many of the incidents seemed unlikely, based upon my own experience as a legal aid and criminal defense lawyer in similar neighborhoods. What’s more, I was stunned to read of an incident in which Goffman claimed to have participated in a plot to kill a rival gang member.
Consequently, I wrote a critical review of On the Run, pointing out these and other problems. I believe in the value of ethnography, and it is especially important to chronicle the lives of men and women who are otherwise marginalized and oppressed. But to be worthwhile, the stories must be accurate and reliable. And to be responsible, the ethnographer must draw a firm line between observation and criminality. It seemed to me that Goffman had failed on both fronts, and I said so.
Now she has written a response to my critique, and I am even less certain how much of the book is true. Goffman essentially admits that she embellished and exaggerated her account of a crucial episode, which should leave even the most sympathetic readers doubting her word.