On the Run from the Unequal City — and Academic Stardom

on the run blurry

Of all the disciplines in the humanities, sociology is particularly well-poised to provide the academy and policy makers with appropriately timed, persuasively human, and powerful scholarship that can carve out space for informed debate in the public square. Sociologists thus occupy a special place in shaping and reshaping the nature of public debate. Alice Goffman, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and daughter of sociologists Erving Goffman and Gillian Sankoff, takes up her discipline’s special role of informing Americans in her book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, the culmination of six years the author spent studying a poor, predominately African American community in Philadelphia.

In On the Run, Goffman does not just recount the stories of men and women that were at one point ‘on the run’ from the law enforcement officials in Philadelphia. Rather, she uses the lives of her subjects to lift American debates about mass incarceration, police practices and brutality, and racial biases out of the relatively inconsequential realm of political posturing and punditry and place them, rightfully, in the gritty realm of human experience. In so doing, Goffman goes beyond the barriers that typically constrain the debates and conversations centered around these issues, namely: social scientists’ dissimilar datasets, drastically different interpretations of the war on crime and the causes of the prison population boom that began in the 1970s, and, most importantly, the otherworldly distance between the narratives in these debates and the lived experiences of those most affected by them. Such is the special power of good sociological scholarship.

Through dedication and goodwill, Goffman’s presence in her subjects’ lives is refined from that of an odd researcher into that of a reliable friend. More than her dedication to scholarship, Goffman’s dedication to stewarding her relationships with her subjects, the “6th Street Boys,” as she calls them, is responsible for the tour de force that is On the Run. Indeed, Goffman’s dedication to individuals and relationships defines the study. Building these relationships was neither easy nor the product of some serendipitous encounter with eager subjects, and the barriers between Goffman and her subjects resurface throughout the study.

Race was one such barrier. The sight of Goffman, a white academic, hanging around a predominately black neighborhood in Philadelphia produced and revealed tensions within the community of study and with the police. The latter reared its ugly face many a time in the form of Philadelphia police insulting and sexually harassing Goffman for spending her time with black men. Nevertheless, Goffman is nuanced in her analysis of the police: a group of often well-meaning individuals she proclaims to be in the “impossible position” of being “essentially the only governmental body charged with addressing the significant social problems of able-bodied men in the jobless ghetto, and with only the power of intimidation and arrest to do so” (203).

Written for both academic and popular audiences, On the Run is appealing because Goffman does not just present her own research as irrefutable fact—she seamlessly blends other sources of quantitative and qualitative data into the stories of her subjects, her friends. From the opening lines of On the Run, which point out the increase in imprisoned Americans from an early and mid-twentieth century rate of one in every thousand (1/1,000) to an early 2000s rate of 1 in every 107 (1/107) (xiii), to its interpretation of vagrancy statues and systems of oppression such as Jim Crow, Goffman’s arguments avoid self-reinforcement and tautology. This strategy transforms On the Run from a well-researched study of fugitive life in Philadelphia into a compelling indictment of America’s prison system, its strategies for policing criminal activity, and the cycles of poverty and oppression produced therefrom.

The circuitous, confusing barrage of court hearings, prison sentences, and petty fines that follow from police involvement is explained in great deal by Goffman, and this labyrinth of legal traumas is reconstructed for readers through the experiences of the book’s subjects. So common in the lives of those “on the run,” Goffman reminds her readers, quoting Howard Becker, that “it’s virtually impossible for people to take special notice of something or someone they see day in and day out” (235). Goffman’s work sheds light on these issues.

Academia and the public saw On the Run in these terms, and they praised it and the author. Goffman’s book was featured in an episode of NPR’s “Here & Now,” reviewed positively in many prominent outlets like The Washington Post. It brought Goffman academic acclaim and public fame, leading to a both a university lecture series and a popular TED talk.

Soon enough, though, the headlines turned against Goffman. In 2015, The New Republic ran an article entitled “Did This Acclaimed Sociologist Drive the Getaway Car in a Murder Plot?” Many critics found certain episodes in Goffman’s study implausible, but many more found this searing question—the possibility that the author was an accomplice to a serious felony—to be devastating.

This was a big deal. Though I was only a lowly first-year history student at the time this controversy erupted, I clearly remember “The Trials of Alice Goffman,” as The New York Times put it, creeping into university classrooms and discussions I had with professors during office hours. The question of her complicity in a felony aside (and that’s a big thing to put aside), students at Pomona College alleged and grumbled that Goffman’s book was guilty of “hypercriminaliz[ing]” black men and “hypersexualize[ing]” black women. Coupled with her odd, intensely personal research methods, Goffman’s destruction of records central to the study allow it to dodge what is perhaps the most demanding of the standards in sociology: the author’s honesty. Critics cried “urban legend” at Goffman’s depiction of some police activity; in The Atlantic, a law professor at Yale wrote that he was “astonished” by Goffman’s claim that Philly police patrolled maternity wards looking for parole violators, and politely questioning this claim in the statement, “I had never heard of such a thing.”

These criticisms are concerning. Yet, one cannot ignore the possibility that sociology itself—a discipline whose conventions entail anonymizing subjects and changing any detail that could lead back to them—produces complicated, cloudy studies. More importantly, Goffman has faced-off with some serious sexism. Most notably, professors at her institution insinuated that she was sleeping with her subjects; police, Goffman notes at various points in On the Run, did the same.

All this is to say that On the Run and its author, initially received like royalty, were later defenestrated from the castle window. The criticisms of Goffman and her first book, many of which were hardly resolved, will likely haunt her for the remainder of her career, lingering in colleagues’ minds, reemerging at crucial moments in committees considering applications and proposals from Goffman. On the Run will cast a shadow on up-and-coming academics, serving as an example of innovative but treacherous research; it will roam universities as a ghost whose silhouette, barely noticeable, will frighten scholars and students enough by conveying the thought of “academic misconduct.” Whether or not this is fair, it is true. This truth should be punishment enough for Goffman, who will certainly have a long career ahead of her—there is no need to further degrade On the Run, a valuable book criticisms withstanding, and its author.

Indeed, On the Run is ultimately a remarkable and important book, a damning tract that is also a call-to-action. “‘On the Run’ is, first and foremost, a remarkable feat of reporting,” wrote Alex Kotlowitz’s in The New York Times, and it is. Despite some discrepancies and factual errors, Goffman’s book is a cogent, informative, and worthwhile read. It draws from a rich and heady intellectual tradition—that of sociology—but often it reads like long-form reportage and is notable for its measured tone and clear language, both of which broaden the table and pull up a seat for lay readers.

Finally, Goffman’s is a book that refuses to simple sit on the stacks, collecting dust in the shelves of academe, asking only for scholarly critique and engagement. On the Run was written about an issue of importance to the public—the people that far too often are seen as the subjects, rather than the benefactors of, scholarship—not a solely a select group of specialists. Messy as this kind of scholarship is, as the critics of Goffman can attest, it is worthwhile.

Jacob Bruggeman is an honors student in his fourth year at Miami University with majors in history and political science, and a combined BA–MA program in political science. Jacob was recently honored for his research as one of fifteen national recipients of the Gilder Lehrman History Scholar award, and he is one of two Joanna Jackson Goldman Scholars at Miami. Next Fall he will begin coursework for a MPhil in Economic and Social History at Cambridge University.