Philadelphia native Alice Goffman says more people have probably read the appendix of her hit book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” than the actual meat of it.
That’s because many are now a little more than curious about her research notes and methods after several episodes in book on the lives of low-income black men in an unnamed Philadelphia neighborhood are being fiercely debated.
A 60-page online takedown of her book written anonymously alleges gaping factual holes and questions whether Goffman embellished scenes for dramatic effect.
Goffman said some skeptics might be motivated to attack her because they feel uncomfortable about how police interact with residents in many neighborhoods.
“It’s shocking and upsetting to many, many Americans, and I think a kind of first reaction that people have to these reports to my book — but also to the Justice Department reports that are coming out around the country — is that this must not be happening,” Goffman said. “And I think wrestling with that and coming to terms with how our justice system actually operates is a good thing.”
Goffman, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said she welcomes skeptics to take her to task.
“I think the way to fact-check something like this is partly to see, well, does a book like this happen only in Philadelphia? Well, no, if you read the Justice Department report on Ferguson, Missouri, if you read the reports that are coming out of Baltimore, the kinds of policing and court practices in Philadelphia are extremely similar to those reports,” she said.
“Another way to fact-check an ethnography, especially one of considerable length, is that there’s a long kind of trail of people and events that show how the book was put together,” she said. “I’ve been talking about this research and sharing this research with people for the past 10 years.”
But reinterview her subjects? That’s off the table, she said, as she’s hiding their names and precise neighborhood. To be sure, some Web sleuthing on the crimes she describes turns up stories on police reports with a striking similarity to the ones that appear in her book.
A detailed critique
Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet, the lightning rod in the backlash against Hoffman, published a detailed critique in which he says that she could have been prosecuted for a felony.
In one scene in her book, she’s driving a getaway car in what could have been a revenge killing. It never happened, but Lubet contends it “constituted conspiracy to commit murder under Pennsylvania law.”
In response, Goffman wrote that “talk of retribution was just that: talk,” but Lubet said she’s now backing away from the getaway car scene.
The episode has led to many others to question how true Goffman’s book is to reality, but she said she’s not worried.
“Three or four typos in the book of the 60 pages that the anonymous person wrote were genuine errors in the putting together of the manuscript, and they will be corrected in the next version, and they were very minor,” she said. “I stand by the book.”
Field notes destroyed
Princeton, where she completed her graduate work, requires researchers to keep their field notes for three years after publication, she said. After that time, she decided it was a safer bet to dispose of the notes so authorities couldn’t subpoena information on her subjects, who were shielded with fake names.
The subjects in her book, she said, are people on the wrong side of the law, adding that it was her responsibility to make an extra effort to shield them.
“They are arrestable on site in some cases,” Goffman said. “I was extremely careful about protecting the identities of the people I was writing about.”
“For me, it was very important to make sure that the field notes would not become something that a prosecutor, or anybody, a reporter, anybody, can use to identity the people in the book for legal reasons or any kind of public scrutiny.”
But doesn’t that kill evidence she could’ve pointed to now while she’s under siege by naysayers?
“So if somebody wanted to fact-check the field work, they could talk to many, many professors at Penn who I talked to about the field work as I was doing it, professors at Princeton, people I presented the work to at conferences, including people who have met some of the people in the book and interviewed them, including my adviser,” she said.
Other claims in her book are now the subject of heavy criticism, including one describing how Philadelphia hospitals vet patients for outstanding warrants, something that deters criminals from seeking medical treatment.
Officials have denied it, but Goffman said that doesn’t mean it never happens.
“In a way, it’s good to be challenged on these things because then more evidence comes out,” she said. “And the fact of people getting arrested in American hospitals is a real thing happening in American life. It’s good for that to be become a matter of public attention and for it to be recognized more than it is.”
When her book came out last year, it won plaudits both for its earnestness and the access Goffman gained in her six-years observation. She expounded on the research during a TED Talk that has been viewed more than 800,000 times.
The current moment presents a bump in her stride, but she thinks the disbelievers will eventually fade away.
“At this point, the book has been scrutinized and picked over by a lot of people who really don’t like what I’m saying for various reasons, and it’s held up to all that,” she said. “So I feel pretty confident in it at this point.”