Here’s What’s in Alice Goffman’s Dissertation

Alice Goffman speaks at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, Session 9, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED
Photo: Bret Hartman/TED

Alice Goffman has some persistent critics. The University of Wisconsin sociologist and author of On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, which chronicles the lives and myriad legal entanglements of a group of young African-American men she became close with in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood, has faced a steady stream of accusations since early May, when an anonymous author sent a rambling, 60-page critique of her book to a large number of sociologists around the country, which accused Goffman of embellishing or fabricating numerous details (Wisconsin looked into it and decided it wasn’t worth investigating further). 

Shortly after that, Steven Lubet, a Northwestern University School of Law professor, emerged as Goffman’s biggest named critic, publishing several articles and blog posts in New Rambler ReviewThe New Republic, and the Faculty Lounge in which he challenged her on two fronts: first, that certain passages in On the Run pertaining to the legal system’s treatment of her subjects are far-fetched; second, that Goffman may have committed a crime during a section at the end of the book in which, following the murder of her close friend Chuck, she drives around an armed friend to help him look for “the shooter, the guys who were part of his crew, or women connected to them who might be able to provide a good lead.”

Last month I went to Philadelphia and was able to track down a few of Goffman’s subjects. The details two of them shared with me about their time with Goffman (the third didn’t want to talk) made it clear that the book is, at the very least, mostly true, though there are some remaining discrepancies that I’ll get to below. But both Lubet and countless anonymous online critics still seem convinced that there’s a scandal waiting to engulf On the Run, and one major reason why has to do with Goffman’s dissertation — namely, with the fact that, until recently, it wasn’t available for anybody to read.

Lubet has repeatedly tried to gain access to the document without success and views its unavailability as suspicious. In one post, he refers to “the extraordinary veil of secrecy that has been drawn across Goffman’s work.” In another, after noting that Goffman declined to furnish him with a copy, he writes that “one obvious implication of her non-authorization is that there is something especially sensitive or compromising in the dissertation.” “In a legal proceeding,” he continues, “Goffman’s continuing sequester would be the basis for an ‘adverse inference’ about the content of the dissertation … Her silence suggests, in the language of pattern jury instructions, that the account in the dissertation would be ‘unfavorable’ to her.”

Lubet writes with the carefulness of a longtime attorney — he’s quick to note, “Of course, this is not a legal proceeding.” Still, it’s clear from his multiple posts on the subject that Lubet thinks there’s a solid chance the dissertation will provide damning information about Goffman and her work.

It doesn’t. The document is now available in Princeton’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, and I went there on Friday to read it. Both the dissertation itself and the story of why it was embargoed in the first place will be disappointing for those who are still waiting for the Goffman affair to balloon into a story of true academic malfeasance.

For one thing, the circumstances of its embargoing just weren’t all that unusual. “The dissertation contained very sensitive material about people who were vulnerable to arrest and incarceration,” Goffman said in an email to Science of Us. “I wanted to think through the ethical and human subjects issues of making it available beyond the committee members and I wanted some time to go by between the actual events and a public reading. That felt safer for the people who had granted me permission to write about their lives, and for me, than publishing right away.”

Back in 2010, when Goffman requested the dissertation be embargoed, Princeton’s graduate school had no official policy about dissertation embargoing — rather, requests were simply evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Goffman “did request and, consistent with our general policy at the time, she was granted an embargo of her dissertation,” wrote Martin Mbugua, Princeton’s director of media relations, in an email. In 2012, the university adopted a formal policy: Authors can now request that a dissertation be embargoed and, if the required people approve this request, it can be embargoed for two years, plus another two years if the author requests a renewal. (Concerns about human subjects are actually just one reason dissertations are sometimes embargoed; it’s also quite common that an author will want to protect the research they’ve conducted for their dissertation until it can be released in book form, preventing rival researchers from poaching it, and that’s actually the focus of the Princeton policy.)

Now, in the wake of the controversy, Princeton has decided to un-embargo the document, and anyone can go to the Mudd Library and read it. The dissertation itself is a black hardcover book with “GOFFMAN/2010/REDACTED VERSION” embossed on the spine. All “redacted version” means is that throughout the document, a few names and places are blacked out and replaced with “Subject 4” or “Place 1,” for example, to help protect the subjects, leading to sentences like “Chuck’s mother [Subject 4] let Ant stay even after Chuck got locked up … ” (11) (In the book, “subject 4” is Miss Linda, whom I met when I went to Philadelphia.) Even when names of people and streets aren’t blacked out, they’re fictional, and as far as I could tell, Goffman used the same names in the dissertation and the book.

Inside, the contents of the 197 double-spaced pages track closely to the corresponding sections from On the Run. There are some differences, though — most notable, in light of Lubet’s questions, is the absence of the concluding section of the book, in which Goffman talks about driving around, looking for Chuck’s killers or people who might know them.

In an email, Goffman explained that much of her dissertation research focused on her early years on 6th Street, rather than the period around Chuck’s death in 2007. Well before she submitted her dissertation, she was under contract to write the book that would become On the Run for the University of Chicago Press, which meant that she knew all along that plenty of her material would go into the book but not her dissertation. “There were chapters I knew I wanted for the book that didn’t make it into the dissertation, which I think is pretty typical,” she explained. “Two of the chapters in the book were added after the dissertation, as well as the appendix [containing the late-night-ride passages]. The appendix alone took around eight months, because I went back to all the field notes and reconstructed how I’d met people and what the experience was like at different points. I also collected virtually all the questions I’d ever gotten on methods in Q&As during talks and tried to answer them in the appendix, in a kind of narrative style.”

Even though Goffman’s dissertation doesn’t provide much new information to someone who has already read On the Run, one footnote — number 20 on page 61 — did jump out at me. It comes in the context of Goffman writing about the number of times she witnessed residents of 6th Street flee after being stopped by the police, versus times she heard stories about these chases but didn’t see them firsthand.

It’s important not to accept all these stories at face value, she writes:

I heard recounted far more chases than I observed, but could not use these narratives as data. From comparing my observations of chases to people’s descriptions of the same incidents retold after the fact, I concluded that most accounts of police chases are grossly exaggerated … There is also considerable bias in which cases are reported or retold. Specifically, there is a bias to report and retell chases that involve known people, that end in the person getting taken into custody, and that involve elaborate attempts to get away. Thus, if I used accounts of chases as data, I would conclude that most chases involve quite Herculean and theatrical efforts to get away, and that the police are typically able to overcome them. From my observations of chases, this is not the case. Most flights do not involve the police following at all, or close enough behind to even call it a chase. And most chases I observed did not involve mean leaping over police vehicles, running through strangers’ houses, or plowing their cars through blockades. Third, most ended successfully, from the point of view of the man being chased. That is, in most cases of chases, the man gets away in a quite mundane way, because the officer runs slower, or gives up faster. Accounts of chases are interesting in their own right, but not good data for our present purpose, which is to describe how men actually go about running from the police.

This is striking in light of Lubet’s skepticism on two of Goffman’s claims: that Philadelphia police regularly rounded up black men with outstanding warrants at hospitals, identifying them from visitor lists; and that Chuck’s youngest brother, Tim, was arrested, charged, and put on probation simply for having ridden in a stolen car, despite having been only 11 years old at the time of the offense. Lubet’s skepticism seems well-founded, at least based on independent reporting Science of Us conducted for the story last month — a longtime Philadelphia public defender said he found the Tim story extremely unlikely, while employees at a hospital called out by Goffman said they’d never heard of a broad rounding-up of men with warrants.

Given that there’s no evidence Goffman lied or intentionally embellished in On the Run, the most likely explanation for these discrepancies is that she simply didn’t heed her own advice about credulously echoing sources’ stories; it might be that important details about how these events unfolded got lost along the way. Harold Pollack, a crime and public-health researcher at the University of Chicago, told Science of Us in an email that it’s not unusual for this sort of fuzzing to occur in the chaotic, confusing world in which low-income people navigate the criminal-justice system. “Anyone who has researched or worked with severely vulnerable or criminal-justice-involved populations will encounter terrific material that — upon inspection — turns out to be embellished, incomplete, one-sided, undermined by human mistakes, or simply untrue,” he said. “Readers place unusual trust in ethnographers to be judicious and critical narrators, to scrutinize their materials, and to indicate how material should be interpreted. Readers should know whether and how the scholar has attempted to verify the anecdotes he or she reports.”

Goffman told me last month that she didn’t have access to fact-checkers when her book was being published; it’s clear how mistakes like this could slip in. Still, it’s absolutely legitimate to criticize her for including details that seem unlikely, at least until new evidence emerges. But the other charges that have been bouncing around about Goffman — the ones about wholesale fabrication, about a “veil of secrecy” that’s easily explained by standard research procedures — are starting to sound a little shrill.