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June 09, 2015


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Enrique Luis-Garza

Powerful post, Steve. Thank you for it -- and for your dogged, measured, demanding review of Goffman's book. I've read the book, and I've read all of your responses to it (as well as Goffman's response to you). I'm glad you're trying to peer through the veils to see what's really there.

But a question: What's the end game here? Should the book be pulled? Relabeled as quasi-fiction? Should Goffman lose her new post in Madison? Should she just apologize? Where, in short, should this train be headed?


Also a thank you for this story. I'm looking forward to the next installment which I suppose will, among other things, shed light on Goffman's sudden cancellation of appearances and her deleted C.V.

As for the end game, should it turn out that Goffman fabricated major portions of the book. My take: the book would be rebranded in the same way as James Frey's, as essentially fiction. Her university might end up taking more severe action if any of the problems with the book are considered severe professional misconduct.


It took me 30 minutes of scrolling to find the comment you mention on the NYT piece--from "HSB" in San Francisco. It's hard not to think that it's Becker, who lives in San Fran, and is, as you state, a "world famous social scientist," the initials of which alone "would spill the beans." He is of course well within his right to say that he's not that HSB, but why be secretive on this point? Your story might be larger than Goffman--I'd say that it's valuable to continue to pull on the string if doing so reveals a culture of corruption.


As a sociologist who values ethnography, I'm sorry to say that ethnographers are thoroughly discrediting themselves on this. Compare the response of quantitative political scientists to Michael LaCour. No one in the discipline seems to care whether an acclaimed prize-winning work is fiction or non-fiction.


And let’s be clear – Goffman presents this scenario as fact, not merely as Tim’s own account.

It's hard for me to not suspect that something like this is really the root of many of the problems identified in the book. As anyone who deals with people involved with legal issues knows, the people involved very often do not really understand their own situations. (They may often misrepresent them so as to be more sympathetic, too, but we can leave that aside and still get much of the same answer.) It seems pretty possible to me that "Tim" didn't really know or understand what his legal situation was. But, he may have told Goffman what he thought it was, and she just reported that, not bothering to check to see if it could be right on her own. Something similar seems plausible in the hospital case. If this is right (and it's just speculation on my part) then it would explain how she got things seriously wrong in many places, but wasn't, strictly speaking, just "making things up". I would think it would show a seriously deficiency in care, and worry that this might come from, in part, a desire to take people at their word too much (a sort of misunderstood standpoint epistemology, perhaps) but it wouldn't be fraud, but some other sort of problem.

Sam Bagenstos


If it is Becker, as I assume, isn't it more charitable to posit, not a "culture of corruption," but that Becker reflexively defends the daughter of his old friend? Becker's contributions to the field are undeniably world-changing, but he's been retired for a while and is not much of an indicator of any particular culture in the field today, I would think.

overgeneralize much?

"As a sociologist who values ethnography, I'm sorry to say that ethnographers are thoroughly discrediting themselves on this. Compare the response of quantitative political scientists to Michael LaCour. No one in the discipline seems to care whether an acclaimed prize-winning work is fiction or non-fiction."

I'm in the field of sociology. I care, and I've spoken out against sloppy work. Not Goffman, though, because I'm neither an ethnographer, a criminologist, someone who studies race, or someone who studies urban sociology. (In fact, LaCour's area of quant political science is more similar to my area than Goffman's is to my area.)

Please don't paint everyone in the same discipline with the same brush. It's ... sloppy.


OK, let me rephrase this more precisely.

The two sustained critiques of this work come from outside the discipline, from an anonymous person who seems to be an amateur (not an advanced graduate student or professor in sociology), and from a legal scholar. They identified multiple internal inconsistencies in the research which had apparently escaped (i) the ASA dissertation prize committee, (ii) ASR reviewers, (iii) Chicago Press reviewers; (iv) the book's reviewer in Contemporary Sociology; (v) hiring committee at Wisconsin and perhaps other departments. Now those sociologists read the work in various incarnations, and we don't know whether the anomalies identified in the book were present. But surely it is fair to say that Goffman's research has been thoroughly scrutinised by "the discipline" (i.e. many leading sociologists within it) and has been judged very positively. It was outsiders who identified the problems.

(2) Since the problems were publicized several weeks ago, the Wisconsin's Department of Sociology has dismissed the anonymous critique. That's the total institutional response so far. There are some facts that could be readily ascertained (in a few days), for example whether it's standard practice for police to check the records of hospital visitors for people with outstanding warrants (or even whether this happens occasionally). But this hasn't been investigated by anyone, as far as we know.

Of course the majority of sociologists (like us) don't have the specific knowledge or the methodological expertise to weigh in publicly on this controversy. Just as the majority of political scientists aren't familiar with the survey data used by LaCour. But when anomalies were identified in the latter's work, he was challenged aggressively by his coauthor and by those in his department, and when he could not muster a defense (within days), he was completely discredited within the discipline. There was no equivalent of HSB taking his side.

So replace the hyperbolic "no one seems to care" with "sociologists who should be most concerned with the veracity of this research haven't publicly challenged the author to provide additional evidence to sustain her claims." It's notable that there is no ongoing investigation at Wisconsin.


It is troubling to see a young scholar getting beaten up like this, at the likely cost of reputation and career, but when trust-based systems are abused, the violator must be called out. Thank you for doing so. Also, somebody did a close read of that book and found much, much more that was troubling:

Concerned academic

I was struck by Lubet's reference to Goffman's "exceptionally loose regard for accuracy." To this end, something must said about her c.v. (which, perhaps not surprisingly, vanished from her web page last week).

The old version contained at least one dubious item: she claimed to have been "Associate Editor" of the journal Punishment & Society from 2013-present. Actually, Ester Massa of the University of Bologna is the Associate Editor of that journal. Goffman is merely listed as one of 40+ people on the "International Associate Editorial Board." These are vastly different roles, and Goffman should not be attempting to take credit for the more difficult one.

In my opinion, there are several other stretches of this type on her c.v. Of course, we all know that c.v. padding is not uncommon, and there could be plausible/innocent explanations for it. However, I mention them because they are factual claims made by Goffman that -- unlike large portions of her book -- we can easily check against publicly-available sources. Even this minimal scrutiny does not reflect well on her commitment to accuracy.


You told us that your next post would be about the extraordinary veil of secrecy, but instaed we've gotten the Grateful Dead and hospital visitor lists! Remove the veil!


I am a former academic who works now with primarily low income families in Philadelphia. I read the Anonymous criticisms of this book and they have me very concerned. As that author says, the neighborhood is easily identified as a small corner of Wynnfield, Phila.. I drive through that area regularly, see clients in that area in their homes, and visit schools there. Of the neighborhoods I frequent in Phila., it is not close to being the most worrisome in terms of crime and safety (I am a petite white woman). Even though I am in what is considered "less safe" Philly neighborhoods on an almost daily basis, I have yet to see anything similar to what Goffman apparently saw from visiting this neighborhood a few times a week (see Anon's notes -- she did not live in the neighborhood she studied.). That is I have not seen anyone fleeing the police, and I have not seen anyone stopped and frisked. I have had clients who have gone to prison, and have had juvenile clients whose parents or other relatives have gone to prison. Goffman's descriptions of the day-to-day lives of people in this neighborhood does not ring true, or if it is true, must not be representative of the general population.

When scientists begin mixing up fact and fiction for the sake of publicity, the entire scientific endeavor is put at risk.

Finally, a word on ethics. As Anon points out, there should have been IRB approval for her undergraduate observational work, including signed informed consent of all adult participants and assent of all juveniles. At the very least, for any formal surveys there should have been an IRB, informed consent, and retention of de-identified records/data. The IRB protocols should have had explicit direction on how data would be retained, or if was to be destroyed, when that would occur. The survey data, at the very least, should be available to be shared with other researchers upon request. Shame on Penn and Princeton for not requiring this.


"the neighborhood is easily identified as a small corner of Wynnfield, Phila."

Interesting. I've spent a modest amount of time in that neighborhood, and had some friends in grad school (around the same time Goffman would have been at Penn) who lived in a part of it. I had assumed, from the way she made things sound, that she had been in North Philly. (For people who don't know, North Philly is generally the roughest part of the city. The neighborhood here is in West Philly.) The area is nicer now than when I lived not far away in West Philly. I lived there around the time that Goffman would have been at Penn. During this period, all of West Philly (including that area) was getting better, but was still noticeably not great. (One thing about Philadelphia is that areas can change quickly, block to block, so it's hard to know for sure what the particular streets she was interested in were like from a general impression of the area.) But, it's also worth noting that, at this time, Penn undergrads typically had a seriously mistaken view as to how dangerous the area was. (I don't know if this applied to Goffman, of course.) There was a general belief that you should not go west of 40th st. (I lived on 44th, and had several grad school friends who lived much further west than that, so knew this was an obviously wrong belief.) But, this is far from the worst area in Philadelphia, and even at the time wasn't, to people who are not overly protected in life, especially scary or wild.

One thing that makes the area seem more depressing is that is has (especially along Lancaster Ave.) many old, once grand buildings and homes that are now in poor shape. You can tell that it was once much nicer, and this makes the place seem worse than it actually is, in some ways.

(I can add that, in the two years I lived in West Philly, I did see police helicopters with search lights a handful of times. How many I can't say, but I did see them. Much more common, though, were "life flight" copters going to the Penn hospital. I've seen some police copters with search lights in the area I live in now, Mt. Airy, too, though, so don't put too much importance on it.)


I am so disappointed by journalists and sociologists who try to frame this Goffman affair as some kind of special case of ethnography or criminology research. Looking at Goffman's response alone and how she very selectively presents quotes to back up her claim in such a misleading way, leads me to believe the problem has little to do with "dangerous research" or "urban ethnography," but a simple ability to make a sound argument, which Goffman seems to lack.

Goffman's argument in her response is:
[The story is true that 11-year-old Tim was convicted of receiving stolen property and placed on three years of probation, for being a passenger in a stolen car]

And what does she offer as two supporting pieces of evidence?
1) A lawyer's blog whose client was charged with receiving stolen property for riding in a stolen car by police BUT (as Goffman omits) the DA dismissed the charge:

2) A case where a guy (Sanders) sued the City of Philadelphia, for wrongful detention and other stuff because he was a passenger of a stolen vehicle, searched by police, charged with guns and drugs possession, then those charges were dismissed because they found the arrest unjustified:

These two cases in no way back up Goffman's argument, and if anything, they undermine that Tim's story as Goffman reports it. Of course, no one will know for sure if Tim's story as a particular case was true or not (or how representative the case is) but the problem for the readers and academics is: why does Goffman present these two very strange cases as if they help with her argument, when they clearly do not?

That makes me question her credibility or intellect. First, "intellect": does she really not know these two pieces of evidence do not help her case? Or, second "credibility": she knows that they do not help, but is willfully using them very selectively, thinking most people (including academics and journalists) will not bother to check them carefully and she can get away with her argument.

I do not know which is the case, but either way, it is deeply problematic.

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