Truth, Truthiness, and Alice Goffman’s Dramatic Ethnography
How can we judge the validity of research in an academic discipline like anthropology?
If there is such a thing as a “celebrity” young scholar, Alice Goffman comes as close to that characterization as anyone in the social sciences or the humanities today. Her 2014 book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City was published to excellent reviews and was prominently featured on many print, digital, and broadcast outlets. This intimate examination of life among impoverished black youths in inner city Philadelphia was acclaimed for its insights into the violent and fearful environment which envelops such young people throughout their often truncated lives. Indeed, so well received was the original publication that it was issued in 2015 as a trade publication, a rare distinction for a scholarly book that was adapted from a doctoral dissertation.
But Alice Goffman has also become a celebrity in a less happy sense. Before too much time had elapsed, she was publicly attacked on two fronts. A legal scholar claimed that in her description of a car ride undertaken to catch and punish a presumed murderer of a man with whom she had become friendly, Goffman was actually committing a felony—accessory to attempted murder. Then, when Goffman responded that the car ride was not really destined for revenge, just for releasing tension, she was accused of distorting her data in order to weave a more tantalizing tale.
In a natural or physical science, critics or sympathizers would have asked for the “actual” data, so that one could determine how the incident-in-question had ”actually” transpired. Indeed, viewed through the lens of traditional a science like physics or biology, it should have been possible to ascertain the accuracy of all the facts, figures, statements, and vignettes in Goffman’s book. But when confronted with challenges to her accounts, Goffman readily responded that she had destroyed all of her records from the study in order to protect the identity of her subjects. Moreover, in this claim, she was supported by many—though by no means all—sociologists and anthropologists. These interpretive social scientists pointed out that one cannot carry out such studies unless one commits to protecting the identities of those who have been studied; indeed, it may not even be possible to obtain the necessary “human subjects approval” unless such disguising takes place. And so, in effect, both scientific colleagues and lay readers have to rely on the trustworthiness and truthfulness of the scholar.
I was reminded of a debate that took place over several years at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. My colleague and friend, Professor Elliot Eisner, argued vigorously that one should be able to submit a novel or some other work of art for a doctoral dissertation in education. I took the ‘con’ side. I said that we inevitably judge novels as works of art, and so there could be a beautifully executed novel that had little or no truth value, as well as a clumsily wrought novel that captured significant educational truths. “Leave novels to the novelist,” I insisted. ”Have doctoral students—future professors and professionals—do scientific (or philosophical or historical) dissertations.”
Those who trained Goffman vouched for her carefulness as a scholar. According to their testimony, she regularly reported to them what she was finding, and her dissertation was consistent with her reports-on-work-in-progress. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of her mentors. Yet they could scarcely claim anything else, without conceding that they had not adequately supervised her dissertation—and her professors at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania would hardly want to make that concession.
While Goffman, armed with a PhD, is a certified sociologist, her work seems better thought of as anthropology, or ethnography. Particularly in Britain, there is said to be a “tradition” of such scholars conveniently losing their field notes—well before there were human studies committees in place. And even if such field notes had been preserved in full, it would be very difficult for others to judge to what extent the thesis—or the book that grew out of it—took advantage of literary license or simply engaged in concealing revealing information about subjects. Also, ethnographers who visit the same area can fashion radically different portraits: anthropologist Derek Freeman accused his world-famous predecessor Margaret Mead of being duped by her subjects in the South Seas.
Does that mean that universities should not validate ethnographies as fulfilment of the requirements for a doctorate, unless they are as accurate as a news report or a documentary is supposed to be? The academy would be much the poorer if we were deprived of the works of such anthropologists as Bronislaw Malinowski or Clifford Geertz or Tanya Luhrmann, even if they have disguised identities of individuals or communities. Yet I don’t believe that a doctoral degree should be based completely on the perceived trustworthiness of the anthropologist-in-training.
I suggest two steps. First of all, the drafts of the dissertation should be read only by the candidate’s dissertation committee, and the committee should have access to the unadorned notes; the committee’s approval would constitute an assurance to the scholarly community that proper procedures have been followed and that the version of the dissertation that is made public captures the actual data satisfactorily. Second, consistent with the position I took in my debates with Elliot Eisner, the dissertation should make a theoretical or conceptual contribution to anthropology, and that contribution should be spelled out explicitly. Even if the ethnography tells a story so compelling that it deserves a Pulitzer Prize, it should be eligible for the prize in nonfiction—not the fiction prize.