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June 15, 2015

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anon

If only she had chosen to study the Piranha Brothers instead

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZkWL-XvO0U

nb

I like the idea of asking Duneier for a copy. Surely he kept the dissertation of such a favored student?

Scholar

There are a lot of us who are hungry for more information about Goffman and her work, but I think we're bound to be disappointed. I don't think Goffman, Duneier, etc., are going to respond to calls for transparency from a loose assortment of skeptical internet commenters. It's going to take a serious institutional inquiry from UW-Madison (something more than the quickie whitewash announced last month) or serious digging from an investigative reporter from a respectable print media outlet (The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance).

DC

"I have written several highly critical articles and blog posts about Alice Goffman’s book On the Run, pointing out that she described committing a crime in the course of the six years she spent observing the “6th Street Boys” in a struggling Philadelphia neighborhood"

Steve, the thing is, sociologists and anthropologists tend to approach this kind of issue from a philosophically different perspective than law faculty, who tend to be (unsurprisingly) very law-and-order focused. Many ethnographers would not have the same visceral reaction you've had to the idea that a researcher got involved in something that was potentially a crime, particularly one where nobody was actually hurt. TEthnographers frequently consider law not some overarching, primary mandate that supersedes everything else, but just one other aspect of normative cultural values, like customs, rituals, etc., to be examined.

You've obviously found something profoundly distasteful in this, but not everybody does. Particularly since we're talking about an area and population that have been profoundly ill-served by the law, and understandably feel less than loyal to it. If Goffman was in that milieu for that long, I can certainly see her understanding and adopting those values.

"Goffman, however, wants us to believe that the residents of 6th Street were collectively clamoring for gang members to perpetuate the violence, rather than insisting that they end it. In her fantastic retelling, the gang members themselves had no intention to keep shooting, but were goaded into a pretended show of force by their civilian neighbors."

I don't think it's so incredible. I think you also have to understand poor, violent inner-city neighborhoods are complicated societies (which is why an ethnography of one is important). "Civilian" isn't a good term to use; technically everyone there is a civilian unless they are in the military or police force. Young men involved in the violence are still part of that neighborhood, and rather than "civilians" and "gang members" there tends to be a continuum between self-identified gang members and their associates, friends, relatives, etc. Someone could be a "civilian" by your standards but still engage in violence, or support its use against someone who hurt them. More specifically, even an otherwise law-abiding resident might honestly want the cycle of violence to end overall, but support a specific act of retribution -- these aren't mutually exclusive things.

Former Editor

"Many ethnographers would not have the same visceral reaction you've had to the idea that a researcher got involved in something that was potentially a crime, particularly one where nobody was actually hurt. Ethnographers frequently consider law not some overarching, primary mandate that supersedes everything else, but just one other aspect of normative cultural values, like customs, rituals, etc., to be examined."

DC, thank you for acknowledging this. I've been following the conversation on Goffman's midnight drive for a while because, although I have no dog in the fight, the reaction of the ethnographic academy has struck me. The attitude you describe here troubles me. If the culture of the ethnographic academy is that its members are no more required to comply with laws as serious as those related to conspiracy to commit murder than they would be to comply with a norm related to dress or sexual activity then that may signal something profoundly amiss with the academy. Can you explain why a norm among ethnographers that would condone law-breaking of this type should acceptable to society at large?

HL

Hedge fund managers frequently consider law not some overarching, primary mandate that supersedes everything else, but just one other aspect of normative cultural values, like customs, rituals, etc., to be examined.

Oil industry executives frequently consider law not some overarching, primary mandate that supersedes everything else, but just one other aspect of normative cultural values, like customs, rituals, etc., to be examined.

K Street lobbyists frequently consider law not some overarching, primary mandate that supersedes everything else, but just one other aspect of normative cultural values, like customs, rituals, etc., to be examined.

The Koch brothers frequently consider law not some overarching, primary mandate that supersedes everything else, but just one other aspect of normative cultural values, like customs, rituals, etc., to be examined.

Cisgendered white men frequently consider law not some overarching, primary mandate that supersedes everything else, but just one other aspect of normative cultural values, like customs, rituals, etc., to be examined.

DC

Former Editor, I think you're approaching it from the same ontological perspective at Steve, which is exactly which I'm arguing against; I don't think lawyers (and law professors) realize how much they tend to internalize certain beliefs about American law.

"If the culture of the ethnographic academy is that its members are no more required to comply with laws as serious as those related to conspiracy to commit murder than they would be to comply with a norm related to dress or sexual activity then that may signal something profoundly amiss with the academy"

This is kind of my point; you are starting with the position that conspiracy to commit murder (with no actual murder taking place) is automatically "serious," and thus failing to criticize it is a failing on the part of the ethnographic academy. But I assume as a general rule, you'd agree that committing a "serious crime" is not always an ethical lapse, right? I mean, if an ethnographer helped a member of a persecuted religious minority attend a religious service, despite the fact that both would be subject to a crime of blasphemy in the country in which it occurs, you wouldn't find it morally repugnant?

So fine, some might argue, that is an unjust criminal law while this is a just one. But take a step back, here. What makes conspiracy to commit murder with no actual murder committed so serious other than we've been told again and again, particularly in law school, that it is? None of the overt acts she committed, namely driving around, are illegal or more importantly hurt anyone. Nobody is, in fact, murdered. The "crime" committed was having a certain state of mind while performing completely legal activities. The American legal system strongly proscribes inchoate offenses but many other legal systems don't. I can easily imagine a just and effective legal system that requires actual physical or financial harm before recognizing something as a crime.

Finally, let's assume for the sake of argument that helping someone drive around and find someone to kill is a universally immoral thing to do that everyone, including ethnographers, should disclaim; the fact is ethnographers witness and even get involved with aspects of the cultures they study that they find distasteful, illegal, or abhorrent all the time. The idea is that the ethnographic mission is important enough that you put up with the individual crimes to gain a better understanding of the cultures you investigate.

Also, as a side note, Goffman's explanation that it wasn't a serious attempt but rather a performative act in order to meet cultural expectations is absolutely believable. It's just something you see in just about every culture, including ours; public performance to meet a cultural norm, even where the performance does not represent the actual intent (and oftentimes the witnesses themselves understand that it doesn't represent actual intent but rather public affirmation of societal expectations).

Bill

People make mistakes and errors of judgment. What I find distasteful in all of this is that Steve Lubet didn't just pick up the phone and call Alice Goffman and say "hey, I have found a couple of aspects of your book incredibly troubling" and talking about it and ways to resolve it not in the public limelight rather than opening her up to criminal liability and academic death.

Yet_another_lawyer

DC's entire comment is stunning, but I think this is the corker: "What makes conspiracy to commit murder with no actual murder committed so serious other than we've been told again and again, particularly in law school, that it is? "

Gee, I don't know. What makes conspiracy to commit murder with no actual murder committed so serious?

I mean, shouldn't the academy welcome all viewpoints, including that academics should drive around, aiding and abetting a murder plot?

Quick question DC: Would it also be okay for an academic to drive around the conspirators in a murder plot if they were actually successful, or does that cross the line? Can the academic pull the trigger, if it's solely for research purposes?

HL

From an outsider's perspective the argument seems to be that morality is relative and sometimes it is worth the bending the rules to know more about the subject.

If the logic of that statement was extended far enough we could justify anything, but fair enough. I get the point. Let us accept that.

Is this particular work worth bending the rules? Is it reliable enough to do so?

anon

Let's pause and think about HL's contribution, generalizing about and against "Cisgendered white men" ...

Wow. This isn't just some casual, uneducated heterophobic racist here. The fact that this sort of language slips so easily into the conversation is notable.

HL

to anon: if you look at the official scholarship of sociologists and also unofficial but still valid scholarship of twitter sociologists (who are IN the field IN their communities and provide valuable first hand INsight) you'll see that it is a pervasive structural problem all around us that we simply cannot see or observe statistically. scholarship like goffman's is the only way we can learn more.

DC

I think HL hit upon a much clearer and more concise articulation of what I was trying to say.

I mean, you can certainly argue that American law _should_ override any other belief systems in its jurisdiction, or that in this specific case she stepped over a line and should be sanctioned for it, or that ethnographers should be compelled to obey the law no matter what their informants do; however, a lot of the discussion by legal academics does not make those arguments but rather just assumes that all these questions are settled and there can be no dispute.

I think Yet_another_lawyer's response is a perfect demonstration of what I'm trying to describe; this tendency to get caught up so firmly in one's worldview/weltanschauung/ontological framework/whatever you want to call it that you cannot recognize that other ones may exist, and incommensurate anger when part of that worldview is challenged. Note that Yet_another_lawyer doesn't actually answer my question. He/she repeats it in an unmodified form, with the implication it's so inherently obvious that there can be no legitimate dissent or difference of belief (there are certainly rationales behind the criminalization of inchoate offenses, but none are even offered) and implies that I am morally culpable in some what for asking it.

And as in many cases, anger also removes coherence. For example:

"Quick question DC: Would it also be okay for an academic to drive around the conspirators in a murder plot if they were actually successful, or does that cross the line? Can the academic pull the trigger, if it's solely for research purposes?"

I argue that perhaps X shouldn't be criminalized BECAUSE there's no actual harm.
He/she then asks me if X "cross[es] the line" into crime when there IS actual harm.

To quote a great line by Charles Babbage, "I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."

HL

These are good arguments against gun control and copyright protection as well. Tyft

Yet_another_lawyer

"I argue that perhaps X shouldn't be criminalized BECAUSE there's no actual harm.
He/she then asks me if X "cross[es] the line" into crime when there IS actual harm.

To quote a great line by Charles Babbage, "I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.""


Here's why (and why conspiracy is a crime by itself in the first place): The driver in a murder conspiracy had no way of knowing in advance whether her co-conspirator would actually murder someone. By participating in this activity, she made it more likely that somebody would die, and it is mere fortuity that her co-conspirator did not find the intended victim. Driving around someone who is hoping to find somebody to murder is generally considered a serious crime.

If your litmus test in that it's okay because "no harm" occurred, then can an academic drive around a rapist who is hoping to find somebody to abduct and rape? What about a pedophile hoping to find a kid to abduct? Assuming the rapist and pedophile are unsuccessful in finding a target, no harm has occurred.

If you consider this acceptable behavior, then our values are so different that there's no common ground to discuss. If you don't, then what exactly is the difference between murder and rape that makes it okay to be part of an unsuccessful conspiracy to commit murder, but not okay to be part of an unsuccessful conspiracy to commit rape?

HL

If there is no common ground, there is only conflict left. Remember folks: Leben ist Kampf. There comes a point in time where the fight goes beyond words and evolves into action.

Alex Reinert

DC,

I truly appreciate the insight you are providing here, and I generally am with you that our criminal justice system is overly punitive on many levels. But let me try to answer your normative question, and see what you think. Here are the reasons why conspiracy (or other inchoate crimes) are normatively bad and worth punishing:

1. Conspirators make it easier to commit the substantive crime of interest, either by actively encouraging the crime, providing the necessary tools to commit the crime, or suggesting that the crime is justified in someway. Thus, punishing conspiracy (whether harm occurs or not) may deter people from providing such assistance at the front end, before one knows whether the conspiracy will be successful. This, overall, may reduce harms even if it in the aprticular case no harm was likely to have occurred.

2. The difference between successful and unsuccessful conspiracies (or attempts) is often luck. If we agree that we can punish people who cause actual harm through a conspiracy, the distinction between punishing them and those who do not cause harm seems irrational.

3. If we only punish people who cause harm, law enforcement officials who do their jobs well by preventing crime before it happens will be left with no one to punish. Again, if you think that punishment plays (or can be justified by playing) a role in deterrence, then this seems to be a perverse outcome.

Now, this does not mean we should punish unsuccessful conspiracies (or attempts) the same as successful ones. After all, there may be justifications for treating them differently in terms of how much we punish them. But I think there are cogent arguments for treating conspiracies to murder as subject to society's condemnation and punishment.

As to your observation that ethnographers "witness and even get involved with aspects of the cultures they study that they find distasteful, illegal, or abhorrent all the time," I guess that is an empirical claim. I do not know the field well enough to know if it is an accurate claim, but let's say I trust you that it is. If that is the case, shouldn't ethnographers take that on straightforwardly and explain why they do so and what the value of doing so is? And shouldn't they also defend what lines they think are ok to cross? I would guess that had a young man been killed on the night in question (and had an ethnographer been "involved with" that killing), the fact that ethnographers "get involved" with illegal acts *all the time* would be of small solace. Your point may be, "that did not happen here," which is fair enough on one level, but still does not actually engage with the question of who gets to decide when the line is crossed and who bears the cost of that decision.

anon

At this stage of the discussion it is no longer just a question of whether she committed a crime or not but whether she actually carried out the fieldwork in the manner she describes. There have been serious doubts raised about her credibility not least of which are the contradictory stories she has told about the allegations Steve raises.

With respect to those I assume she got good legal advice - take the risk of losing your career to help minimize the risk you might be prosecuted for a felony. If her most recent statement makes it at least arguable that she did not get into the driver's seat with a potential gun toting murderer in order to help him find a potential target (something she said explicitly was the case in her book) it nonetheless suggests that she may have been less than truthful about other aspects of her work.

The detailed critique posted on paste-bin (http://pastebin.com/BzN4t0VU) raises a serious concern that she might not have even lived in the area she says she lived in or at least not with the level of immersion she claims. This may not seem terribly significant to many people but I think it gets to the heart of the matter.

The backbone of the defense her supporters raise is that she was engaged in something called "immersion" ethnography which carries with it the risk that she might have to get very close to her subjects, even dangerously close. Therefore we should cut her some slack with respect to that risk. As someone who has carried out fieldwork in risky situations (a war zone; in a country under martial law; etc.) I get it.

But that makes it all the more crucial that, in fact, you did "immerse" yourself as described.

Unfortunately, the University of Wisconsin has dismissed these claims with a brief statement suggesting, incorrectly, that they are a matter of academic debate. No, that is not the case. It can be a matter of academic debate if two researchers come to different conclusions regarding similar subject matter. But both researchers have to have actually carried out the research. And it is very different to carry out research from outside an area than inside it.

It is not even clear how UW was able to conclude that this vital question was not at issue. If they had the material available to the paste-bin anonymous critic, then it is fairly conclusive that she did not immerse herself or did not do so in quite the manner she states in the book. In that case they reached an incorrect conclusion. If they have other data about her location during the research then they have an obligation to share it publicly. Since they are a public university a public records request might make sense if they are not willing to release it on their own.

One would think that Goffman herself would be more than willing to bend over backward to provide substantiation for this central question, among others. Until and unless she responds with substance rather than with a patronizing quotations from a close colleague of her late father her career is likely to stall, and justly so.

HL

Crazy theory trigger warning.

The reason I'm interested in this is because it fits in with a theory of mine that a good portion of our political and life narrative is "flame" and propaganda. I've come to expect our media to lie to me, but at least they have an understandable motive of profit behind their behavior.

If this "reliability gap" is also in our academic institutions then how do we determine what is reliably accurate information or not. Is there any way to really investigate this without stepping on so many toes that it makes it impossible. Can a layman trust these institutions without verifying them?

Yet_another_lawyer

Anon, that pastebin has been deleted. Is there a mirror?

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