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June 25, 2015


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Alan J Weisbard (Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin Law School)

One does wonder whether possible issues of confidentiality in the limited circulation dissertation, issues addressed more carefully in the subsequently published article and book, might offer an alternative explanation, one consistent with the statement that Professor Goffman is making modifications to the dissertation to protect that confidentiality as part of (or all of) her working "toward its release."
I would be cautious in concluding that adverse inferences should be drawn, at least at this point.

Steve L.

Agreed that there are other possibilities, as I noted in the post. However, the Princeton IRB process requires the advance adoption of a "coding system" to "protect against disclosure" of subjects' identities. It is fair to assume that such a coding system was in effect before the dissertation was submitted and approved by the Princeton committee.

Another damn sociologist

My concern with getting a copy of the dissertation from any scholar in this position is that most of the concerns raised by critics could simply be addressed through new edits. So unless there is an original and official copy on file somewhere, there's no way to know what claims were or weren't made in the thesis itself. (I'd be damn tempted to fix some things in my own dissertation if I knew thousands of people were suddenly going to be combing through it looking for mistakes. I think anyone would.)

I think that is one reason why, moving forward, doctoral students should not be allowed to permanently skip filing their dissertations, and professional orgs like ASA should insist that award-winning theses eventually be made available to anyone wanting to read them.


Should it matter at this point? I think you proved, and ethnographers/sociologists have confirmed, that your search for the "truth" is relevant in legal studies and preserving the power hierarchy or so, but is not the same in ethnography. She told a good story, it has an impact and was an authentic representation of some peoples' views. Next you'll probably say just because Rolling Stones's UVA rape story couldn't be "verified", the fact that we know frat bros are ritualistic rapists isn't true. The woman in RS says it was true, the reporter just reported, move along...

Doug Miller

Do the recent articles in Slate and New York Magazine change your views at all? As I understand it, AG admits there to changing some things on purpose. I agree with you that in the abstract the dissertation should be available, but if (as some assert) AG is following guidelines imposed upon her, then isn't this a problem with the guidelines, not her?

What is interesting to me is that, if we take the book as a piece of gonzo journalism, it looks both better and worse. It looks better because the story overall is important, and arguably, there was no way for her to get the story without promising anonymity AND participating in the lives of the subjects. (This is where journalism might overlap with "participant observer" ethnography.) And this includes committing some crimes. Some reporters believe so strongly in the importance of their work that they are willing to commit crimes to get the story. But they shouldn't then recant. And they should identify hearsay or else get to the bottom of a story, with or without the help of fact-checkers. Journalistic ethics, as I understand them, require that. (Although academic sociological ethics do not, apparently.) That is the way in which the book looks worse -- it doesn't meet journalistic standards.

The participant observer model is fascinating, and fascinatingly controversial. Consider just one instance, in which AG's father Erving Goffman essentially embedded himself in a large Washington D.C. mental hospital for a year (in the guise of an athletic or recreational administrator). The resulting book Asylums changed the way many people thought about mental hospitals and mental illness (although not perhaps in the way Goffman anticipated). But Erving Goffman himself was apparently famous for not disclosing his notes or ever agreeing to be interviewed. He would probably be pilloried today. But aren't we better off for him having written the book?

There is much more to say here, but I would just note, finally, that the adverse inference analogy doesn't really work, in the sense that, even though you are operating in the academic milieu, you are in essence accusing AG of a crime (or crimes). No adverse inference could normally be drawn in a criminal matter from her silence (although she may have opened the door, as litigators say, by offering her own explanation -- an explanation you reject).


Has someone done a sociological study of the bizarre behaviors, beliefs, customs and mores of American sociologists?

How could anyone have considered the "study" of these experiences, by a very, very young woman, seemingly with very little or no life experience, who may have become involved with her "subjects" in an number of inappropriate ways, perhaps, a "great" work worthy of any attention, leaving aside the amount of attention it is receiving here?

What benefit now of rewriting a dissertation to satisfy complaints? That is, seemingly, an admission that the dissertation failed in the first instance, if in fact it was subjected to any process, to meet proper standards, and also this may be a telling clue to the misplaced perspective of the "sociologists" who heaped so much praise upon it.

Unfortunately, a seemingly very admirable and promising young scholar is being pilloried basically because of the faults of her mentors, advisors, educators and judges. It is they who sanctioned all this, and likely, much, much more in the way of questionable, if not outright unethical conduct by many, many others.

It is the system that requires examination. The faults with the work in question, in the view of this casual observation, are established.


Question here. Is it possible to revise a dissertation after it's already been submitted and approved. Especially in a case like this where it's now four years later.



Apparently so.

Welcome to the world of 1984: words, ideas, truth itself, are infinitely flexible. The "dissertation" as it ever existed appears to have now disappeared down the memory hole. Again, one can't fault the author for this. It is the milieu in which she works that is, or should be accountable.

The "elites" in America seem to be steadily losing touch with reality and developing ever more ridiculous psychological contrivances to justify their often completely unmerited self regard. Anything less than glowing praise becomes "crazy"! AT least give the author here some credit for acting, as noted above, as most would under the circumstances.

But, her personal situation doesn't excuse the fact that the educated in modern American - in academia, the press, the courts, nearly elsewhere - have adopted an increasingly untenable ability to twist just about anything to justify, basically, themselves. Reputation, attention, etc. far outweigh the values of honesty, hard work, humility, and ethical conduct. In fact, one can almost here these clever adventurers snickering at the very idea of principles. How many clicks will "principles" garner?

Again, a dedicated sociologist truly needs to study this and other artifacts of this strange cul de sac in the academy. It was only the "subjects" of this piece of "sociology" who demonstrated any capacity for truth, insofar as can be determined from these blog posts and the referenced articles.


I wonder where most followers of Alice Goffman's work think she actually lived during her "study." It was not "in 6th street" despite her having encouraged that impression, despite The New York Times suggesting that that was the case. A careful review of her own methodological essay suggests, although it is not made explicit as she does not provide actual addresses, she lived at least 18 blocks away from that neighborhood. She only traveled into the neighborhood on various forays. This calls into question the nature of her "immersion" ethnography - which has been the backbone of the argument made by her defenders because it is suggested that someone who is immersed may have to bend the rules in order to stay close to her subjects. But it is not clear that she was really engaged in immersion and it is certainly not clear that that would have justified acting as the getaway driver in a proposed revenge hit - not once but a "few" times, to quote her own words.


'I wonder where most followers of Alice Goffman's work think she actually lived during her "study."'

If some plausible evidence is correct, she was, in fact, almost my neighbor, living about 2 blocks from me for a few years. (I moved to that neighborhood in Aug. 2002, while a grad student at Penn, and she apparently moved there in Oct. or so 2002.) If that's right, she significantly misrepresented the area, but in a way that is in some ways revealing. The area was thought by Penn undergrads, at the time, to be fairly dangerous and edgy. It was not, but that was the thought. She seems to have accepted and reported the thought as if it were true. This also seems to be what she did in many other cases (on what was believed to happen in hospitals, on what was believed to have happened in court to some of the participants, etc.) Now, these beliefs are themselves very interesting and sometimes important - if people _believe_ the police regularly check the names of people, including visitors, at hospitals, this will change their behavior, regardless of whether it's true or not. And, if Penn undergrads think a perfectly safe, mixed-income and mixed-race neighborhood is a dangerous one, it will change their behavior, too. But, it's a shame that we apparently didn't get a careful discussion of the beliefs and how they fit with reality, as opposed to a credulous acceptance of them.


Matt, Do you know how close your neighborhood was to "6th Street"?

Paul Horwitz

With respect, and notwithstanding my great admiration for much of your work on this issue, I think Doug Miller is right. There may well be (or ought to be) scholarly norms about making one's work public to everyone and about welcoming inquiries and interventions from seemingly adversarial scholars as well as seemingly supportive ones. And I am fully willing to credit your statement that you approach this matter as an academic rather than an advocate. (Although, despite my sharing your view that the distinction is meaningful, it certainly is the case that many academics can be advocacy-oriented in their work.) But I think the likeliest inference that one could draw is that she thinks of you, rightly or wrongly, as an advocate and simply does not want to assist you--especially if she thinks, again rightly or wrongly, that you will not fairly or expertly judge her work. Someone in a defense-minded position knows that the statement "if you did nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about and should show us everything" is hardly reassuring even to the genuinely innocent, who know that a prosecutorially minded person can make hay with large quantities of raw information, fairly or otherwise. Again, I think you have done much good work in pursuing this issue and I am not casting aspersions on it. But in this context--in which you have repeatedly written critically about her and she purports to find your criticisms wrong or misleading--I think the likeliest inference is indeed that she thinks you are an advocate on these issues, and/or distrusts your expertise or fairness, and does not want to cooperate with you. I think it is hasty in that context to suggest that her unwillingness to cooperate specifically with you is much of a basis for any further adverse inference. Of course none of this is meant as a defense of Goffman or her work. (Although, unlike one or two persistent commenters here, neither am I content to build inference upon inference, including the common but dangerous move of treating an earlier speculation as fact for purposes of building the next inference, until one's accusations grow more fevered than the available evidence as yet strongly justifies.)

I also think Matt has made a significant point (and, commendably, he's done so much more briefly than I can manage). I am surprised that I haven't seen more discussion on this specific point; indeed, it's one that you yourself might want to pursue further, inasmuch as it is especially relevant both to some of your points about possible fact-checking failures in her work and to the last few paragraphs of her initial response to you. One may criticize the absence of sufficient ethical norms in ethnography (I will not; it's not my field and I don't have enough knowledge to do so) without drawing the conclusion that ethnography itself is a useless field. Even where the ethnography doesn't include enough checking of the underlying facts, it can potentially be useful as a study of the perceptions of a particular community. That alone can be useful, in a limited but important sense, in evaluating some policy affecting that community. But it seems to me that Goffman's *policy prescriptions,* which she hardly shies from making, also often assume the truth of some of the perceptions of her subjects. If one's study is limited to perceptions, then the policy recommendations that follow ought to be limited to that as well; for all one with this base of information knows, the proper response is not to halt particular police policies, which may (or may not) be useful in themselves, but to engage in more effective education or propagandizing of that community. But Goffman's policy prescriptions go far beyond that, in a way that assumes not only that the subject community *perceives* the criminal justice system in deleterious ways, but that the criminal justice system is *actually doing* what her subjects say, and should therefore be substantively reformed. And the generalized "evidence" she points to in defense of her factual assumptions and policy recommendations--her "look at the headlines" response--is, as you correctly and eloquently pointed out, more of an appeal to "truthiness" than an appeal to meaningful evidence, and certainly goes beyond any evidence she gathered herself.

I'm going out on a limb slightly in making the next statement, although not much of one: Without speaking too specifically to ethnography, I don't think this kind of move--making policy recommendations that go well beyond one's own expertise or one's own information base and that, not surprisingly, are consistent with one's political passions or with the current state of conventional wisdom on an issue--is all that rare in the academy. If Goffman had limited her policy recommendations to matters of perception only, and conceded modestly that, given the limitations of her own evidence, the perception issue and its solution might simply be one of public relations and nothing more--it is unlikely her book would have made as big a general splash, inasmuch as her passions and prescriptions are in line with the political and policy views of the more high-circulation media that spotlighted her book. Moreover, in even raising the possibility that no reform other than better education or PR by the police was needed, she no doubt would have picked up a new set of enemies in her own field. Similarly, if she had written wholly dispassionately and made no policy recommendations at all, I doubt the book would have gotten as much attention. But, unless she fact-checked her larger claims, she had no business qua expert in making policy recommendations--let alone doing so as fiercely as she has--that turned on anything other than the perceptions of the community that she studied. This is, I think, not an uncommon sin in the social sciences, or in legal studies either: providing an interesting factual (or legal, or economic, or what have you) investigation and analysis, and then drawing from it policy recommendations, often on a highly politically salient issue, that go well beyond the evidence or the particular expertise involved.

Goffman's recommendations were very timely given their relevance to a high-profile issue that engages many peoples' passions; that gave her work extra public attention and praise. They are consistent with the priors of plenty of academics; that also helped increase her book's readership and fame. And both her larger factual assumptions and her policy recommendations may be right, for all I know. But they were not within the limitations of her methodological approach. Her policy expertise here was that of an ethnologist reporting on perception, not a roving expert on criminal justice policy in poor urban communities of color. Absent fact-checking, and much more besides, a study based on perceptions must limit its conclusions to matters of perception. Hers were not--and her defense of her work continues to appeal to those recommendations, and their popularity in the community that forms her audience. For all I know, this sort of tendency may be especially common in ethnography, at least on politically salient communities and issues, or in sociology more generally. If so, however, the tendency is, alas, hardly unique to those fields.

Steve L.

I do not disagree with most of what you said, Paul, and I believe I made (or tried to make) some of those points in the OP. The sequester of the dissertation means something -- it began in 2010 and continues to date -- but I do not know what it is.

Concerning ethnography as a field, all I can say is: Watch this space for further developments.


"Do you know how close your neighborhood was to "6th Street"?"

If the accounts of where "6th Street" is supposed to be are right, it's about 2-2.5 miles from where I (and, apparently she) lived - about a 10-15 drive, depending on traffic. Both are generally "West Philly", though the term is used less for the "6th St." area in my experience. It's not a great area (and was likely worse in the early 2000's - that's true for most of Philadelphia) but not awful. I've been in the area a number of times, though never for very extended periods. I do not think that most people would think of the area where Goffman seemed to have lived and the "6th St." area as being in the same neighborhood. I certainly would not. But they are in the same very general part of the city.

Dave Garrow

*If* Princeton in 2002, 2003 etc. was producing any sort of University Directory, I'd think IDing what Ms. Goffman's exact address was in West Philly is readily answerable. Old university directories have helped me in my work!

Doug Miller

I've now read that a primary rule of sociological study is the protection of subjects (including their identity, if necessary). This would trump other rules. Goffman has suggested that the dissertation must be further purged of potentially identifying material before it can be released generally. This in turn suggests that dissertations can be the equivalent of documents filed in court under seal, where important interests outweigh complete transparency. This is surprising (especially when the dissertation wins national awards), but I suppose there is an argument for it. Any revisions OTHER than those would seem to render the process farcical (unless Goffman wants to release both dissertation 2.0 and dissertation 3.0 -- with 1.0 being the version originally filed, and still kept out of view). And I would think Goffman's advisors have a duty to weigh in on this.

The author of the New York Magazine piece has penetrated the screen. Others will no doubt do so, given the interest in this matter and the resources now available. Indeed, it may be that ethnography with hidden identities is impossible in the internet age.

Academic review boards should probably have at least one lawyer on them, if anyone cares about whether a crime has been committed. I think that it never occurred to Goffman that she may have committed a crime or that the book may describe a crime -- or else she didn't care, but appears to care now, which is a possibility. She deserved a heads up on that, I think.

As for Goffman's policy prescriptions, I see very few of those in the book itself (and only in one small part of the book, as I read it). And even these may have not have been in the dissertation. I gather that she indeed has not shied away from making those in her public speeches, and others have been quick to make them, purportedly based upon her work. But it's an interesting aspect of the case. As Paul Horwitz says, the policy prescriptions undercut the value of the book to some extent -- although I suppose some book editors would have strongly pushed for them to be included. (Again, I'm guessing here, quite obviously.)

As for ethnographers doing ethnographic studies of themselves, perhaps they are supposed to be doing that all the time, as part of the self-reflection that should be a feature of scholarship. Interestingly, Erving Goffman's first wife, an upper class woman from Boston, did her thesis in the early 50s on a group of upper class young women from Boston. But when a student of Goffman's proposed a study of the student's own, huge, upcoming society wedding, Goffman replied that "only a schmuck studies himself." Or something very close to that. (See the work of Dmitri Shalin, and the Erving Goffman Archive hosted at UNLV.)


I say the following as someone who is NOT sympathetic to Goffman:

At this point, why on earth would she share the dissertation with SL? From her perspective, it can only lead to further criticism, accusations of fraud/incompetence, etc. There's really no good result for her, is there?


Thank you, Matt, that accords with what I have pieced together from her book and the online discussions. The vagueness of her descriptions and her unwillingness to clarify where she did live even when she is introduced as having lived in the 6th Street neighborhood is striking. It should be contrasted for example with the very specific manner in which other ethnographers describe with specificity where they lived and how they obtained their data.

It is significant because I think she has misled readers and followers of her work into thinking she did, in fact, immerse herself in that neighborhood. I think it is possible to do a study of an area you do not live in but commuting to that area is not the same as "immersion ethnography."

This also undermines the major defense of her crossing the line and engaging in the effort to revenge the death of Chuck with the gun toting Mike.

This makes release of the original dissertation, presumably filed with her department at Princeton, all the more important. Her committee - which included prominent figures like Cornell West - had to sign off on her methodology.

Doug Miller

Polisci: The question of where she was living is very important (although she has implied that she changed some facts on that to protect identities). And as I said above, her advisors should weigh in here. But I thought the major defense of her driving Mike around is that she cared deeply for Chuck. As I understand it, she now says they were all working out their grief and somehow acting as a voice of the neighborhood or something, but that seems subsidiary. Her major defense is her feeling for Chuck. Did you not find that part of the book sincere or believable? Isn't that completely independent of where she was living? Granted, it is not her *legal* defense to the charge of conspiracy to commit murder. That seems to be that she didn't really intend for Mike to shoot anybody. But what is the connection there -- that she was unlikely to feel like serving any "community" purpose or feeling if she didn't actually live there? I may not believe her factually about her intent, but I don't see how living there or not living there is anything except tangential on that point.


Well, her explanation now is apparently no longer available on her website so I cannot revisit it. But her book makes her motive crystal clear. She wanted Chuck's killer dead and she was more than willing to help Mike find that individual so that Mike could shoot him. She even credits her sense of dedication to this task for leading her to realize that she had gotten in too deep and should go to graduate school. Lucky her.

Aside from what she wrote herself in the book, some in the sociology community have been attempting to argue that "facts" look differently to ethnographers than to lawyers. And that given her need to get close to her subjects she may have had to bend the rules. But it now appears she commuted to her target neighborhood from more than two miles away - a significant distance in a dense urban setting.

So the relativism being laid out by some would seem to collapse.

As for her feelings for Chuck, I do not doubt that that could have influenced her as I am sure the Tsarnaev brothers feelings for Chechnya influenced them. They were still engaged in a criminal act. I don't think her feelings for Chuck mitigate her behavior.

And keep in mind she did not go out and do this once in anger but a "few" times. She had time to stop and reconsider. She chose to repeat her behavior.

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