“On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” by Alice Goffman
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City is a book by Alice Goffman that presents research on a Black neighborhood in Philadelphia. The book is based on stories told by locals, mostly a man named George Taylor, although it is a pseudonym, and the author’s personal experiences. Since its publishing in 2014, the research has been heavily criticized and faced accusations of inaccuracy.
To begin with, Goffman’s work has many inconsistencies which undermine its reliability. For example, Campos (2015) notices incorrect timelines, which are difficult to justify even by protecting anonymity. The book has episodes that do not seem true, such as her being interrogated by armed SWAT members instead of a detective and others (Campos, 2015). Although such details may not be obvious to a regular reader, they should be noticed by a scholar or a professional from a field related to the research.
The epistemological base to criticize Goffman is the way information was gathered. In other words, there is a lack of data that can be approved. In many cases, the readers have to believe Goffman’s words, and there is no way to check them (Campos, 2015). As for political commitments that affect the criticism, Campos (2015) notes that the book’s main idea is agreeable, which may be the reason why some scholars do not notice its’ inconsistencies. However, not much critique is based on the political ideas of the detractors.
Numerous experts expressed their doubts and tried to undermine Goffman’s search. For example, in the case of the episode with the interrogation mentioned above. In his article, Campos (2015) writes that he independently interviewed a lieutenant, and he claimed that it is highly unlikely SWAT members would interrogate someone. Another example concerns a survey that Goffman claims to have conducted with Chuck, one of the book’s characters. Philip Cohen, who conducted many similar types of research, says that it would take a lot of time and effort, not to mention the inconsistent result of the survey (Campos, 2015). The experts who criticized Goffman were qualified, and their concerns are quite credible since they have relevant experience and expertise to express their doubts regarding the book.
Another aspect that allows criticizing One the Run is the accusation of bias. Having spent several years in the 6th street neighborhood, Goffman, arguably, has become somewhat attached to the people there. Case in point, Campos (2015) notices that she did not express any kind of disapproval regarding crimes conducted by the locals and even confessed to helping them. This fact alone restrains her from conducting objective research.
Although Flicker’s article was written a decade before the publishing of One the Run, it provides some good insights into addressing inconsistent or implausible research findings. The article presents three possible strategies: “the cynic,” “the skeptic,” and “the seeker” (Flicker, 2004). The first one says not to trust implausible findings nor include them in research, the second says to be careful with inconsistent data, and the third says to include the results anyway (Flicker, 2004). A few aspects differentiate Flicker’s approach from the approach of Goffman’s detractors. Namely, Flickers considers that survey participants may make mistakes, but does not mention the responsibility of editors and other experts that supervise research.
To conclude, there is no reason to deny that One the Run raises important social issues regarding discrimination and violence in modern society. However, numerous inconsistencies in the book criticized by experts undermine the research, which significantly reduces its impact and meaning. This case highlights the significance of reliable data during similar research and the importance of critical thinking that allows noticing mistakes and inconsistencies.
Campos, P. (2015). “Alice Goffman’s implausible ethnography”. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Flicker, S. (2004). “Ask me no secrets, I’ll tell you no lies:” What happens when a respondent’s story makes no sense. The Qualitative Report, 9(3), 528-537.