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BBC Radio 4 - Thinking Allowed - Ethnography – What is it and why do we need it?
"‘You just want a holiday, don’t you?’

‘You just want a holiday, don’t you?’ – This is the not uncommon response from the uninitiated when one is embarking on a faraway ethnography project. It was in any event what a university employee asked me as I was setting off to conduct research on maritime migration into southern Europe – with first stop being, erm, the Spanish Canary Islands.

Aside from my unfortunate choice of initial destination, those who compare ethnography to a spot of vacationing do have a point: ethnographers in action can sometimes look distinctly like layabouts with too much time on their hands. You might spot them on a street corner, smoking with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells or pin-striped investment bankers, or catch them lazing about in a teahouse, a pub or a palm-fronded village. But as the ethnographers smoke their fags or sip their tea (or beer), what you don’t see is the mental gymnastics as they figure out how to enter the world of a street con artist, a body-builder or a stock broker. As one anthropologist once told a class of aspiring ethnographers, it’s all rather like being a teenager again: spending time trying to fit in and befriend perfect strangers.

Still, it can be good fun. Try it for yourself – a few minutes during your daily commute will do. Start off by observing other commuters stream past. How do they interact with each other, with the gates and the workers, and how can you tell them apart? Who is relaxed, who is stressed out, who glances anxiously about? Then join them in the rush: feel and sense what it’s like to be a commuter – the squash, the pushing, the rank armpits, the blinking smartphones and the freesheets held up as shields against intruding humanity. Observe it all. Sense it all. Then, finally, befriend those perfect strangers. Repeat next day. And the day after that. A year of this and you might be done and dusted.

Besides such ‘participant observation’, most of what ethnographers do is writing, writing, writing. Not just finished books or articles, but ‘field notes’ – scrawled into notebooks or typed on to a laptop, as I did when travelling the Euro-African borderlands on a quest to understand the interlocked worlds of undocumented migration and border controls. After a day volunteering in the migrant camp of Ceuta, a tiny Spanish enclave in North Africa – interpreting for the camp workers, answering migrants’ anxious questions, hanging about being generally useless – I’d rush home to type furiously on my wobbly Eee PC. As I travelled along clandestine African trails, I scrawled notes at the back of the bumpy four-wheel drives of Senegalese border police; and as I crossed the tall border fences surrounding Ceuta, the Spanish border guard accompanying me advised that I hide my notepad to avoid rousing suspicion among his Moroccan colleagues. It didn’t help much: next time I showed up a soldier waved his gun at me, but no matter. Weaving between camp life, border fences and surly soldiers was all in a day’s work – much as other ethnographers spend their time crouching among farmworkers in the fields, sneaking into the secret world of Wall Street or learning the art of sorcery on the edge of the Sahara.

Ethnography, then, is straying out of our comfort zone in order to understand another social world. It is a messy, fuzzy, tough and accident-prone line of business, as the young sociologist Alice Goffman realised when critics started tearing into her bestselling On the Run, a riveting ethnography about the causes and effects of constant police crackdowns in a poor black American neighbourhood. One journalist, frustrated with how Goffman had anonymised her data – and so made her text unverifiable – hit out at her methods, calling ethnography ‘an uncomfortable hybrid of impressionistic data gathering, soft-focus journalism with even a dash of creative writing’.

Besides their more valid concerns, some such critics of Goffman’s book were trying to read it as a piece of reportage that principally pointed a finger of blame. But ethnography is not a journalistic exposé. Rather than dig for killer facts, good ethnographers aim to uncover something deeper about how a society or subculture works – and it does so by changing perspective to that of the insider. We have to suspend disbelief and shift our gaze: what is the world really like when, during your every waking moment, you feel the police are out to get you? As Goffman took us into the street lives of young African Americans afraid to visit the hospital because they might get arrested, she conveyed to us these men’s view of the authorities, of the world and of their precarious place in it.

This understanding cannot come about through a social survey or a piece of investigative reporting alone. We have to stick around and listen, observe and participate, one awkward step at a time. It may be messy and imperfect, yet it opens up worlds that will otherwise remain locked to outsiders.

Ethnography is research on the slow boil – something that’s getting harder to justify at a time when our public debate increasingly favours the quick flash in the pan. Yet amid calls for more media soundbites, ready-made research metrics and pre-cooked policy ‘solutions’, this is precisely why we need it more than ever."
via:anne  2017  ethnography  rubenanderson  srg  slow  slowness  research  alicegoffman  sociology  anthropology 
december 2017 by robertogreco
That Goffman book: Is the next big publishing scandal about to break? - LA Times
"Sociologist Alice Goffman's book "On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City," drew fulsome praise upon its publication in 2014 and gave its youthful author a crossover reputation -- a TED talk, a speaking tour, possible TV and movie deals, trade paperback reprint.

A chronicle of the six years Goffman said she spent living in an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood interacting with its residents, "On the Run" also drew some criticism, mostly from other authors and academics who questioned her conclusions, motivations or understanding of the community she had described in such vivid detail. But these were treated as quibbles amid the flood of plaudits from sources such as Malcolm Gladwell and the New York Times. On the whole, the book, which grew out of Goffman's undergraduate project at the University of Pennsylvania, continued as her doctoral thesis at Princeton, was taken as a sharply observed account of how the police and judges confine the residents of black communities in a judicial web of criminality and despair.

Now Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern, has placed the issue of Goffman's methods and veracity back on the front burner. Goffman has answered his critique in a way that leaves him "even less certain how much of the book is true." Others, including Eugene Volokh of the Washington Post's Volokh Conspiracy law blog, have taken a closer look at "On the Run," and come away with similar doubts.

Goffman's publishers at the University of Chicago Press and Picador, and her current employers at the University of Wisconsin, have been largely silent or dismissive about the controversy. But the book, previously regarded as a landmark in urban ethnography, may be due for a reevaluation. And that's perilous ground.

Lubet's most serious charge is that Goffman, in one of the most dramatic episodes of "On the Run," appears to commit a felony. The episode comes at the very end of the book, and involves the aftermath of a shooting that claims the life of "Chuck," one of her neighbors, friends and subjects. (Every resident of the neighborhood in the book is identified only by a pseudonym, as is the community itself.)

Chuck's friends go on an armed hunt for his killer, on several occasions driven around by Goffman. "I volunteered," she writes. "We started out around 3:00 a.m., with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he directed me around the area." One night Mike thinks he's spotted his quarry. "He tucked his gun in his jeans, got out of the car, and hid in the adjacent alleyway. I waited in the car with the engine running, ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside." But it was the wrong man.

Lubet and other legal experts he consulted are unanimous in concluding that Goffman's actions "constituted conspiracy to commit murder under Pennsylvania law."

Volokh notes that practically speaking, the statute of limitations on any such felony has probably run. But he adds that the issue "isn’t whether a prosecution is likely to be launched on these facts ... but more broadly how such conduct should be reacted to even if no prosecution is brought."

Goffman's response is essentially: Well, it didn't really happen that way. "The summary account in the book does not include significant points that are relevant to the claim that I was engaged in a criminal conspiracy," she writes. "Most important, I had good reason to believe that this night would not end in violence or injury. ... Talk of retribution was just that: talk."

Lubet is properly unimpressed by this response. The book describes several night runs, not one. Violence already had occurred, so her confidence that it wouldn't be repeated was unwarranted. The possible outcome of the night rides is presented in the book as gunplay and death; in Goffman's response, it's merely "talk."

In any case, the supposed virtue of "On the Run" is that it's an uncompromising, you-are-there account of real events and real people. If Goffman is now conceding that this crucial episode was hype, what about the rest of the book?

Lubet raises other issues of veracity, and he's not alone. He and other commentators, including James Forman Jr. in the Atlantic, cast doubt on Goffman's description of police procedure. She writes that police routinely scan hospital logbooks for the names of visitors and patients, fishing for people who may be skipping warrants or parole; in one dramatic anecdote, a new mother named Donna pleads with the cops not to take her baby's father, Alex, out of her hospital room in handcuffs -- "Please don't take him away. ... Just let him stay with me tonight."

Forman polled civil rights attorneys and public defenders up and down the Eastern seaboard, and "couldn’t find a single person who knew of a case like Alex and Donna’s." Leaving aside the legal protections against divulging patient names or details to outsiders, it's hard to see how such a routine could count as an efficient use of police time.

Goffman may effectively have immunized herself and her book against second-guessing by cloaking all of her subjects behind pseudonyms and destroying her field notes -- a step she says she took to avoid being subpoenaed for the names of subjects she witnessed in criminal activity.

Certainly much of "On the Run" rings very true, and there's no disputing the vigor of its prose and the percipience of much of Goffman's observation. Authorities' exploitation of petty infractions to confine minorities in an endless cycle of fines and court dates and police harassment has been documented in many communities, including Ferguson, Mo. No one can follow news reports of police shootings and beatings of black residents of cities across America and doubt that much of what Goffman described does happen as a matter of course in the neighborhood she dubs "6th Street."

But accusations that she shaded the truth, or even fabricated episodes, are proliferating. Even before Lubet's broadside, an anonymous 63-page bill of particulars against "On the Run" was circulating online. The University of Wisconsin says it looked into the claims and found them to be "without merit."

Some in the sociological community have expressed uneasiness about Goffman's methods, and some in the black community are unhappy with her focus on criminality in 6th Street, arguing that it's an misleadingly narrow and stereotypical perspective on life in a black neighborhood that a sociologist should have recognized as far more various.

The concern implicitly raised by Lubet, scholar Christina Sharpe of Tufts, the poet Dwayne Betts, and other critics is that despite its status as a book likely to become a long-term anchor of ethnographic studies, "On the Run's" popularity and buzz have rendered it almost entirely exempted from validation and reexamination. That may be about to change."

[via: ]

[See also: “Accusations of Alice Goffman's Dishonesty” ]

[Previously: ]
alicegoffman  ethics  fabrication  academia  eugenevolokh  stevenlubet  jamesformanjr  sociology  methodology 
june 2015 by robertogreco
'The Wire' and the Realism Canard - The Awl
"Q: So I wonder what you think of Pam Newton's argument that one of the ways that The Wire is not true to life is that it downplays police corruption?

A: Truth is always from some subjective point of view. If you read David Simon's Homicide, which is one of the two books of non-fiction which feeds into the lore and the data of The Wire—Simon just loves those cops. He was like a twenty-four-year-old reporter who got to follow the cops around and go drinking with them, and I think that there are ways in which he is blind to things that were wrong with the police. But he knows a lot about the cops and their ways, and he knows a lot about the drug dealers and their ways. Because he did a year long study of both that was ethnography. And then he loves them—more than he loves the politicians, for example.

Q: You referred to David Simon's methods as ethnography, and I was thinking about Christina Sharpe's piece in The New Inquiry, where she talks about Alice Goffman's On the Run and the ethical issues raised by urban ethnography. Sharpe suggests for example that studying black people and policing black people are often part of a single continuum of control. Is The Wire a way of rationalizing and controlling and consuming the lives of certain black communities, in the interest of letting white people say, "I understand them now"?

A: I understand that criticism. And I certainly understand the criticism of the anthropologist, the journalist, the ethnographer, who goes to the foreign culture and tries to understand it, and then gets praised for their own marvelous understanding of that which would be beyond the pale if we didn't have that mediating white voice to present things. That's precisely what I think is less good about David Simon's journalism, and great about The Wire: The journalism is full of this kind of white interpretive voice that really does see an us and a them. The thing I quote from his early journalism, where he says, "The ants are here. The picnic is us," in that piece called "The Metal Men,” there it is: The ants are the people he's studying, the drug addicts, and "the picnic is us"—our houses in Baltimore, we propertied middle-class white people.

I think you're suggesting that there are ways in which The Wire has not totally divested itself of that voice, and you may be right. But it's done it better precisely because we lose David Simon's voice, and we get Bubbles, Colvin, everybody else. I would say that The Wire is more exempt from that criticism than most other works of the imagination that try to get into a culture of the other. There is a criticism of melodrama there that is well-founded, though; melodrama is what we're stuck with here."

"Q: We're stuck with melodrama because that's what The Wire is doing?

A: No. We're stuck with melodrama because it's what the culture does. It is our lingua franca of popular entertaining culture. These are the stories that we tell ourselves, in the broadest sense. Melodrama is limited; all it can do is point out these discrepancies in justice. There is a little democratic impasse that is inherent to melodrama. And yes, you can get ironic in melodrama—there are ways to handle it, but it is a limit. We want to identify and identify with the people to whom injustice is done. The only problem with that is that can end up being the white people in Birth of a Nation. Melodrama does not have a progressive ideology necessarily.

Q: In Birth of a Nation you identify with the Klan as the victims of injustice?

A: Yes, it's the former slaveowners who are oppressed by the former slaves. So that's the limit of melodrama. But I think it's important to identify the works that move us, and that grab us so well, as melodrama, and then study the way it operates. Rather than to always say, it's not melodrama, it's real, it's true. Or, Simon's way of doing it, which is to say it's tragedy.

Q: So would you identify ethnography as a kind of melodrama?

A: That's a good question. I think in many cases it is. Why do you become an ethnographer? It's because you want to understand disappearing cultures. I know that's a simplification. But you want to go travel to the Amazon and learn the language of the people who are disappearing because their culture cannot operate in this world. That kind of salvage ethnography is a kind of melodrama—“I'm going to do something to save them”—and that saving comes through a kind of understanding of the meaning and the logic of that culture."
thewire  davidsimon  2014  noahberlatsky  ethnography  alicegoffman  ethics  christinasharpe  lindawilliams  film  television  melodrama  pamnewton 
september 2014 by robertogreco
Black Life, Annotated – The New Inquiry
[See also this list of further reading:
'To Supplement Dr. Christina Sharpe’s essay, Black Life, Annotated, TNI asked Sharpe to create a syllabus for further reading on the subject and she graciously obliged, with help from Mariame Kaba and Dr. Tamara Nopper." ]

"When Goffman starts her PhD program at Princeton she confesses to experiencing culture shock. She has been living in another world and so she no longer gets the cultural cues and references of her Princeton peers — hipsters, music, current events, witty email banter, Facebook, and iPods. She has, during her six years living on 6th Street, confined herself to the media and entertainments of the young men at the center of the study. I take Goffman’s accounts of alienation both in and after her immersion in life on 6th Street at face value, though she presumably had access (or the license to refuse access) to current events, email, witty banter, and iPods in the time she spends away from 6th Street with her family.

In light of the ways that she is disoriented by her temporary foray, we ought to reassess the relationship between Goffman and her primary subjects — only one of whom has a high school diploma and most of whom have rarely, if ever, ventured far from 6th Street. Goffman can make jumps that are ontologically impossible for subjects of her book. Even Josh, the one young man who leaves to attend college, ends up back on 6th Street and unemployed for two years after graduation because of his deep connections to people in the community. For Goffman, though, “the prospect of graduate school became [her] lifeline.” The structural division widens: In the interview with Jennifer Schuessler, Goffman recalls wondering if she could afford to be arrested: “They said that with a felony record, I couldn’t teach at a public university. For a second I thought, ‘Should I take this job?’” But, as the interviewer tells us, Goffman chose the job over jail. No other 6th Street resident who appears in the book has such a choice. (And this is not a matter of class. Recall the studies that show that white men who are high school dropouts or who have a record are more likely to be hired than black men with no record and a college degree.)

In her “Appendix: A Methodological Note,” Goffman addresses questions of method, consent, and how she “negotiated her privilege while conducting fieldwork.” Never fear: Goffman owns that “white privilege” and informs us that she had “more privilege than whiteness and wealth: my father was a prominent sociologist and fieldworker [Erving Goffman]“ and her mother and adopted father are also “professors and devoted fieldworkers.” She writes that wealth, education, the family business of ethnography “perhaps” “may have” given her “the confidence and the resources to embark on this research as an undergraduate.” And “perhaps my background, and the extra knowledge and confidence it gave me, also contributed to professors encouraging the work and devoting their time so freely to my education.”

Nevertheless, Goffman concludes that, “none of these advantages seemed to translate into … situational dominance, or at least not very often.” And most alarmingly and myopically, “In many situations, my lack of knowledge put me at the bottom of the social hierarchy. I hung out on 6th Street at the pleasure of Mike and Chuck along with their friends and neighbors and family. They knew exactly what I was doing and what I had on the line; whether I got to stay or go was entirely up to them.” Obscured here are not only what we might concede to be Goffman’s pleasures but the pleasures to be had by the reader of this text in, what Joy James elsewhere identifies as, such work’s “appeal to the ‘moral conscience’ of the dominant culture.” And rather than “white privilege” and “situational dominance,” we should be talking about ontology, captivity, white supremacy, and antiblackness.

On the Run raises no alarms for most readers precisely because it is sociology as usual as it is done in “urban” communities. The New York Times interview tells us that her thesis “advised by the noted ethnographer Elijah Anderson, won her a book contract from the University of Chicago probably the first based on undergraduate research the publisher has ever signed.” (A book contract for an undergraduate thesis!) Alex Kotlowitz in an otherwise admiring review does raise important questions about Goffman’s “über-version of immersion journalism.” Among them he writes: “Goffman at times makes rather sweeping statements or offers up the occasional anecdote, mostly relating to law enforcement, without an indication of the source.” This work raises profound ethical questions. And by ethical questions, I mean questions of power. “I am interested in ethics,” says Frank Wilderson, “which is to say that I am interested in explaining relations of power.”"

"While Newburn bemoans the dampening effect of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and the increasing regulation of academic research, those protocols were put in place to try to decrease the possibility that certain populations would be made vulnerable to “imaginative and risky work.” Let me be very clear. I do not think that following proper protocols is the answer or even an answer; the IRB process itself is already completely structured by these ways of framing and seeing. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the risks Goffman’s presence posed to her subjects — increased attention by the police, undue stress on personal lives etc. I am concerned that there is no IRB protocol on file for her undergraduate thesis at the University of Pennsylvania. And while the Princeton IRB protocol on file may be backdated to include the research Goffman did as an undergraduate, that’s an exceptional procedure. I am concerned, but not surprised, that critics have overwhelmingly embraced this book as it abets fantasies of black pathology.

Indeed, Goffman displays a certain sympathy for and with the police:
This justifiable anger [toward the police] does not mean that we should view the police as bad people or their actions as driven by racist or otherwise malevolent motives. The police are in an impossible position: they are essentially the only governmental body tasked with addressing the significant social problems of able-bodied young men in the jobless ghetto, and with only the powers of intimidation and arrest to do so. Many in law enforcement recognize that poverty, unemployment, and the drugs and violence that accompany them are social problems that cannot be solved by arresting people. But the police and the courts are not equipped with social solutions. They are equipped with handcuffs and jail time.

That this is a cynical conclusion or a craven one becomes even clearer alongside Betts’s critique of her unsubstantiated and “unsettling claims about Philadelphia police practices” and Frank Wilderson’s argument that, “violence … precedes and exceeds blacks.” Put another way, what Goffman describes as the bind of police having “only” the “powers of intimidation” and “arrest” accounts neither for the entirety of the apparatus aimed at corralling black life nor for the violence that she witnesses as foundational and not mere examples of conflicts in civil society between the police and the black subjects whom “they are charged to protect.” Rather, what this book fails to grasp and what much of sociology cannot account for even as it reproduces its logic is that the violence everywhere and everyday enacted by the state on black people is the grammar that articulates the “carceral continuum of black life.” All black life, on the street and on the page.

So, the black communities of 4th and 6th Street continue to be laboratories in which Goffman and other student and faculty researchers at the University of Pennsylvania do field work. With its frisson of “authenticity,” On the Run may have a long and varied life ahead ( mini-series? feature film?) shaping misperception and abetting black narrative and material subjection. I already know that this book will be chosen for First Year common reading programs and that all over the US, historically white colleges and universities with small black undergraduate and faculty populations will read and then reproduce as truth On the Run’s ethics and methods; which is to say its relations and practices of power. In the neoliberal “engaged” university, On the Run is sure to be a primer for how to do immersive “urban” ethnography. And so continues, into the next generation, within and outside of the university, what Sylvia Wynter has called our black narratively condemned status."
christinasharpe  alicegoffman  2014  ethics  ethnography  blacklife  power  sociology  privilege  academia  research  neoliberalismmariamekaba  tamaranopper 
august 2014 by robertogreco

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