Monday, February 19, 2024


Sociology is easily described as making sure you realize there is a forest when you analyze the trees, on the scale of understanding a society. This leads to you having to understand both scales, but you don't miss that there is a forest, nor do you miss that there are trees. Forest research is easy (in countries like the US) — there are often statistics for public access and myriad other data collection methods that explain the big picture. Researching trees is harder, especially when those trees are humans. You have to convince each tree to speak with you, and even when they do, they could be lying. 

Ethnographic research tries to solve this dilemma. Ethnographers immerse themselves in social setting they are studying, gain trust with the subjects, and try to best understand their perspectives, behaviors, and interactions within their cultural and social contexts. Ethnographic research is lauded in many sociological settings — it is very challenging, and researchers who can do it successfully are very talented and can extract incredibly valuable insight. 

In my Urban Inequality class, we read Forrest Stuart's book, Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy. It is about young men in South Side Chicago who try to make a living off of drill music. The implications of the book is that gang violence is trumped up by musicians trying to make the best of dire circumstances. 

Alice Goffman was another one of these talented ethnographers. Born to Erving Goffman, a notable 20th-century sociologist, she came to do deep research on underserved populations to try to better understand them. Her first book, based off of her dissertation (as is typical) was called On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, a book about over-policing, poverty, and incarceration experienced by young black men and their families in Northern Philadelphia. My sociology professor told us about the book in class. The book is incredibly gripping — Goffman writes master prose, and the book keeps the reader fully focused throughout. Goffman really goes deep. She becomes enmeshed with a group of gang members, who call themselves the 6th Street Boys, following them and other members of their community around their every day lives. 

At the end of her book, Goffman includes perhaps the most insane ethnography epilogue (New Republic) of all times. One of the affilitates of the 6th Street Boys, Chuck, had been shot and killed by a rival, and they needed to avenge him by killing someone back. Goffman is deep in the group. They trust her very deeply, and assume she is just one of them. They discuss the roles in the plot to avenge Chuck. One of them will have the gun, the other keep lookout, and someone has to drive. Goffman is the driver. 

When they get to the target scene, one of the affiliates sees someone he thinks is his target. He tells Goffman to stay with the car, and goes to avenge Chuck. He discovers he has the wrong guy, and doesn't kill him. But still. Goffman was going to drive the getaway car, and not only that, but published that she was going to drive the getaway car in a murder plot! From the earlier New Republic article:

To her credit, although in a rather disquieting way, Goffman does not claim that she did it for science.  “I did not get into the car with Mike because I wanted to learn firsthand about violence,” she wrote.  “I got into the car because . . . I wanted Chuck’s killer to die.” “Looking back,” she added, “I’m glad that I learned what it feels like to want a man to die—not simply to understand the desire for vengeance in others, but to feel it in my bones.” That might be a revelatory passage in a memoir, or a plot point in a sequel to The Departed, but it is an alarming confession from an ethnographer. 

The book instantaneously became controversial. Some were astonished — Goffman had done it. She had truly "gone native," integrated with the group she is researching. Some were appalled — Goffman was either about to do or was doing a felony! Legal scholars were shocked. Goffman had probably broken the law. An anonymous person published a 32,000 word essay on Pastebin accusing her of academic dishonesty, and that much of her book was made up. And it seems, to some extent, that her book perhaps was partially made up. Non-anonymous researchers bring up the same points. 

Goffman is an interesting researcher, although, perhaps no longer. She was denied tenure from the University of Wisconsin in 2019, although this may be due to the years long drama ensuing from her book that prevented her from conducting any more novel research. Her sociology appealed to a large contingency of people, who were fascinated by the research of other groups like what Goffman did. Another story about Goffman, recounted by my professor, is from her time as a Robert Wood Johnson fellow at the University of Michigan. She did a study of poor Black people in the East Side of Detroit, where people live in abject poverty and atrocious conditions. In presentations, she would describe the desperation these people were in, that they would eat pigeons just to get by. 

But Goffman's style brought up questions for me that I had for the other book we read in class. There are ethical dilemmas to doing fieldwork in dangerous areas with crime-affiliated people. That is not my problem though. My problem is that I understand that research like this is valuable — but why is it valuable? Stuart's book concludes with this idea that we need to create positive channels for artists like the people he profiles to have an outlet for their creative energy. His policy proposals to the issues he brings up in his book are best described as laughable, While Stuart’s book was a great read, I found myself continually searching for some instructive nature the book could add to the policy debate. The real thing that the book highlights is that the model right now doesn’t work. The solution will certainly require forceful desegregation of Chicago — taking a brush and completely blurring the North / South divide. People don’t choose gang life because they are inherently thugs. Being a driller seemed to those in the book to be the best option, and it very well could have been. They are geographically locked out of the economy, boxed in by other gangs, and continuously failed by all their institutions. Education, government, police. To stop gangs would require to stop poverty. Stopping poverty won’t be solved just by giving drillers a booth at the local community center.

Goffman is a more extreme example. What information does her book give us? What does it tell us about society? Her book seems orientalist, almost, as if she is researching some extraterrestrial beings. And to those sitting in the ivory towers of prestigious private universities, poor people in North Philly may as well be extraterrestrial. Are we researching people in North Philadelphia because we think they are cool? Or are we researching them to figure out how to improve the world? 

If the point of sociology is to look at the world as if it were a snow globe that you could shake and play on repeat, I want nothing to do with it. I am interested in a sociology that considers its place as one that understands and informs. To me, it does not seem like we need to dive deep into the psyche of a criminal to ultimately find out that criminals are criminals and do criminal activity. Sociology isn't a Ripley's Believe It Or Not. The point should be to make a difference — not just point out that one exists.