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August 17, 2015


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The following comment was posted on Legal Ethics Forum, and I thought it would be interesting to readers here:

My view said...

My take on this is as follows. Goffman and the ethnography field are fully entitled to insist that their field's view on ethics precludes them from providing the sort of information that would allow fact-checking. However, that means that the truth-value of their untested claims for other fields, such as law and policy, is essentially zero. If Goffman wants her work to have effect in policy debates and courtrooms, rather than just on anthropology syllabi, then she should have to play by policy/legal rules -- which hold that a researcher's assurances are not enough, and that propositions cannot be accepted as true unless they're independently testable.

Elizabeth Mertz

Steve raises an interesting but disturbing point. Researchers are required to take steps to protect their subjects, with federal granting agencies imposing ever-more stringent requirements and IRBs raising ever-higher hurdles. There are important reasons, both intellectual and ethical, to protect the process by which researchers are able to obtain accurate information on delicate yet important social processes. Although Steve is pointing to some possible inaccuracies in Goffman's account, we also know that the basic outline of her finding has been verified by a journalist (who did take care to observe the governing norms surrounding subject confidentiality). I truly wish that instead of repeating the points he's already made over and over, Steve would turn his attention to some of the larger structural ethical issues that affect entire disciplines' ethical positions -- and which have been pointed out repeatedly to him in posts from others. (Of course, we'd expect a legal advocate to do simply stick to his guns, never shifting position, and discarding any arguments to the contrary -- but here we're trying to engage in scholarly discussions, where I'd think a willingness to shift in response to new information, or to mull over gray areas, would be deemed an asset. I hope I'm not pointing to a difference between legal and social science reasoning here!)

So, a challenge, Steve: if you must write any more on this topic, could you do so without repeating anything that you've already said (and multiple times)? And could you give some thought to some information on social science ethics at a broader level (rather than talking any more about one fieldworker's case)? One concern I shared with you is just that attention to headlines is not going to yield any kind of serious inquiry into social science ethics (and I've now sent you a long list of readings just as a starter on RA bill will follow!).

So, really, rather than simply take one side or the other on this question of derivative ethics, how about some recognition that this is very troubled territory. What protection should be given someone who's given confidential information with full assurance of protection (let's say, whether they had an abortion, or how they voted in the last election)? Do we just throw up our hands and say -- too bad, chump, next time you won't respond to a survey or questionnaire or fieldworker's question? Does that serve our greater societal interest? Is it ethical in all senses of the word? (Really???) I doubt many of us will trust any quick one-sided answer to this. But I certainly think that academics should owe some kind of duty to the ethical system that governs research undertaken in universities -- not just the people doing the initial research, but also anyone trying to check on the prior research. And actually, I think this is an area that IRBs and federal regulations might do well to think about (as opposed to some of the more time-consuming, completely irrelevant paper-pushing with which researchers are forced to concern themselves).

Just a thought.

Steve L.

It is hard to know quite what to make of this comment, given its many contradictions. If the "ethical norm" is to avoid naming people, no one has ever violated it with regard to Goffman's subjects – so why are we even talking about it? If it is to avoid even learning their identities, as Mertz seems to argue, then her favored reporter (Jesse Singal, of New York Magazine, who located the people before I did) violated the norm himself, although Mertz does not seem to care.

Mertz's position, in any case, in extreme and untenable: Because some subjects might conceivably be hurt by re-investigation, she argues, no re-investigation must ever occur. But don't worry, because we can trust ethnographers to get it right in the name of “greater societal interest.” Police departments make the same argument about their confidential informants -- who are at least as important to law enforcement as ethnography is to social processes -- and we all know where that leads.

In any case, Mertz has not acknowledged that I have indeed attended to a "larger structural" ethics issue in social science -- which is the complete lack of critical attention that has been paid to the misinformation (to put it as gently as possible) and criminal conduct in On The Run. Mertz herself brushes these off only as "possible inaccuracies," which she evidently deems unworthy of much concern. After all, the "basic outline" has been confirmed, so why worry about the truth of the details?

And Mertz mentions the Glock ride not at all. (Must I repeat myself? Trying to kill somebody is far more dangerous to subjects than investigating a few of their real identities.)

So am I the one sticking to his guns? Or, to extend the Western metaphor, are the ethnographic wagons circling?

Mertz closes with the even more extreme suggestion that IRB authority and federal regulations should be extended to cover re-investigation by third parties. I trust this is not a mainstream view within the social sciences, as it is truly chilling. Turf protection is the antithesis of truth seeking.


Professor Lubet, thank you. One exasperating quality of people with strong opinions but poor reasoning skills is that their arguments are so rife with non-sequiturs and obscurantism that it's nearly impossible to refute them. Truth matters. Richard Evans, Alan Sokal, and others are fighting the good fight against putting "truth" in quotes and pretending it's novel to do so. Your tenacity in joining their efforts is appreciated.

Concerned Scholar

Something very strange is going on here. Steven Lubet isn't saying there are "possible inaccuracies" in On the Run. He's claiming, quite explicitly, that Alice Goffman outright fabricated at least one incident she claimed to have witnessed herself. If this charge is true, the veracity of the entire book is called into question, since if an author is willing to invent something like that, who knows what else in the book may have been either seriously exaggerated or made up altogether, especially since no one at Princeton or Chicago seems to have checked Goffman's work?

Mertz, who is a colleague of Goffman's, is understandably eager to turn the discussion to a broader inquiry into the ethics of maintaining or breaching subject confidentiality. While that is an interesting general topic, the question Lubet is posing is considerably more specific: is Alice Goffman abusing confidentiality norms to help cover up her own alleged academic misconduct? Does Mertz consider that an improper topic of investigation? Her response here implies that she does, apparently on basis of the claim that the "basic outline" of On the Run has been "verified" (The "basic outlines" of Stephen Glass's and Jayson Blair's fabricated articles were also "verified," in that the things in those articles that hadn't been made up were true).

Elizabeth Mertz

Ah, sadly the wagons circle in all directions. Clearly there are different norms and attitudes here (as can be seen in the discussion on the popular anthropological blog Savage Minds, and in numerous backchannel discussions I've had with social scientists on this debate.) The advice I keep getting is not to bother, as nothing I say will make a difference in this roiled and tendentious kind of discussion. I am with some regret concluding that, in this case, they are correct. I have ended my involvement in this back-and-forth with a backchannel plea to Steve (who I also have counted as a colleague) to give some of the larger questions some thought as he moves into his research on social science ethics.

Doug Richmond

What "norms" or "attitudes" accommodate fraud and academic dishonesty, which Goffman arguably appears to have engaged in?


A "plea" to give "some of the larger questions some thought"? Lubet is quite clearly giving a large question some thought. Namely this: If the standards for truth in ethnography are entirely different from those of many fields--if its assertions are not subject to any sort of review that would be considered mandatory in journalism, law, or hard science--then why should it be allowed to play any role in the shaping of policy?


Steve, I have completely agreed with you up to (and including) this point, but I am wondering what else is left to prove with Goffman? The book already is toast, at this point.


Circling the wagons? That seem to be exactly what Prof. Mertz is doing. As an ethnographer (full, ivy, doing work outside of the US), I take the AG case very seriously, because it is a direct attack on where I live. I respect and appreciate Lubet's efforts, and hope they continue. If he repeats himself, it is partly because Mertz tries to shift the debate, again and again. Instead of offering Lubet advice from above, perhaps Mertz ought to spend some time evaluating AG's book, in light of the standards that ethnographers are under a duty to meet. If AG, Mertz, and her dwindling number of defenders do not have some very good responses to these issues (and so far, AG has shown that she does not) then she has a lot to answer for ... not to Lubet, but to the qualitative/ethnography community. It is devastating that such a wide number of individual and institutional gatekeepers are implicated in this mess ... from which AG, with her prizes, booking agent, contracts and fees, has profited. I hope ethnographers and sociologists, more generally, will circle the wagons to defend well-established principles, rather than our friends, as Mertz appears to be doing.

Pete North

Replication and falsification are not possible in the social sciences.

Hope that helps.

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