By Dr. Marciene Mattleman
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Alice Goffman spent years researching fugitives sought by the police, describing how the criminal justice system influenced their community, often with costly effects. Goffman is the daughter of Irving Goffman, one of the great figures in American sociology, who taught at Penn.
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City studies one community’s interactions with the police and courts of Philadelphia. The book was published in 2014 by University of Chicago Press.
Although hailed as a brilliant look at a disadvantaged community under surveillance, critics have challenged its use of ethnographic methods – studying a community by participating in its activities, trying to understand the world from its point of view.
In Goffman’s case, living with wanted young men, her methods have provoked critical questions in academic and public arenas: How do you protect the privacy of people, especially fugitives or relatives of fugitives? What to do if you witness criminal activity?
How does an ethnographer in these circumstances show the reliability of her analysis?