Alice Goffman’s recent book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, her firsthand account of young black men in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia, has garnered rave reviews in high places and by high authorities, from Cornel West to Malcolm Gladwell. Goffman portrays urban fugitives effectively excluded from the job market, who hustle and deal drugs for money, move from apartment to apartment and relationship to relationship, do their best to evade jail, and are picked up by the police even when they try to live clean. Goffman’s depth of research, the vividness of her writing, and the drama and brutal tragedy of the stories she tells—“enough street-level detail to fill a season of The Wire,” the New York Times reviewer writes—have compelled widespread attention.
But alongside the praise has also come significant criticism, including at the annual meeting of her fellow sociologists this past August. Ethnographer Victor Rios charged Goffman with a bait and switch: she promised an exposé of how the police state ruined the lives of young black men, but she delivered instead lurid tales of criminality and violence. One observer of the meeting blogged, “A large crowd turned out for [the Author-Meets-Critics session], many attendees were looking for the opportunity to criticize the book and its author. The hostility was undeniable.”
Heated response to this genre of scholarship—call it “slum ethnography”—is as old as the genre itself. Its roots reach back generations, when American slums were predominantly Irish, Italian, and Jewish. Many turn-of-the-nineteenth-century investigators were muckraking reformers who sought to shame the middle class into action with depictions of miserable immigrant quarters. Despite their good intentions, they drew criticism, and would draw much more today—for condescension, sensationalism, and ethnic stereotyping. Twentieth-century researchers joined these reformist impulses to an emerging science of urban poverty. They produced classic studies such as The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929), Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum (1943), and The Social Order of the Slum (1968). These titles are signs of the times: today no scholar would use “slum” to name a book about American cities.
Immersive ethnographies, which gather data through “participant observation,” seem by their nature to elicit bitter arguments. However realistic their accounts, researchers inevitably return from the field with idiosyncratic observations shaped by who they are, how they entered the community, what they were allowed to see, and what they could understand. In the 1980s, for instance, anthropologist Derek Freeman fiercely challenged Margaret Mead’s famous description of easy teenage sexuality in 1920s Samoa, a description that fueled arguments about sexual liberation in America. Mead had been fooled, had fallen for jokes, Freeman argued, stirring up a major brouhaha in the field.
Given the personal nature of ethnographic research—some contemporary practitioners, influenced by postmodernism, claim it can only be, like impressionist art, subjective—it is no wonder that ethnographers have reputations as particularly tough critics of one another. Mix in poverty, race, crime, and police, and it is hardly surprising that slum ethnographies are controversial.
A typical line of criticism charges that outsiders cannot accurately describe their subjects of study. For example, one highly circulated review of Goffman’s book, alarmed at her white privilege, describes the study as “theft,” abetting “fantasies of black pathology,” and possibly causing harm by revealing to police the tricks of hiding. “Inner city Philadelphia isn’t Alice Goffman’s home,” another reviewer writes, “and it’s not her job to turn it into a jungle that needs interpreting.” A Buzzfeed writer simply tweeted, “Ban outsider ethnographies.” William Foote Whyte, author of Street Corner Society, which most sociologists consider a model of good ethnographic methodology, was also accused of exploitation. He could not understand the locals of Boston’s North End, a critic said, because he was not Italian.
But it is not hard to see what is wrong with this line of criticism. Surely ethnography cannot be an exclusively insider affair. Should we leave it to rich Wall Street wheeler-dealers to study their own social world? Insiders are constrained both in how they see themselves and in how they can present their realities. At worst, insider accounts can become what the sociologist Herbert Gans calls an “autoethnography” of the author.
A deeper concern about the genre is representativeness. Slum ethnographers dwell on street life and young people, which are more accessible to outsider researchers—who are typically young themselves—than is life behind closed doors, where most of it occurs. Few studies—Martín Sánchez-Jankowski’s account of impoverished neighborhoods is an important exception—take systematic observations. On this point, a Slate reviewer of On the Run wrote, “I’ll say what should be obvious, but isn’t: most young black men are not committing armed robberies and burglaries.” Perhaps Goffman would reply that she is not trying to extrapolate from street life. Still, there is a concern that she slanders the wider community by underrepresenting it. In contrast, Gans’s Urban Villagers (1982) is notable for being set not on the street but in Italian-American kitchens, and both Ulf Hanerz’s and Elijah Anderson’s black ghetto ethnographies stress that most residents are what locals call “decent” folk rather than “street” folk.
Sensationalism, another kind of misrepresentation, also afflicts this genre. Yet how much attention would the accounts get if they simply described the ho-hum of daily life? As social reformers learned in the nineteenth century, the “pornography of pain” can mobilize middle-class sympathy.
A further line of criticism concerns observer intervention. Whyte regretted having helped rig a local election. Ethnographers frequently trade practical help—organizational and financial—for access. And in settings such as Goffman’s, investigators often face the dilemma of whether to step in and stop a crime, especially a violent one. The ethical issues are complex. And there is always the risk—since attention must be paid and books must be sold—of voyeurism.
The deepest and most contentious issue with slum ethnographies, though, is their wider moral implications. Goffman describes men shunning their children for fear of getting arrested if they show up in locations where police are likely to look for them. In their book Making Ends Meet (1997), Katheryn Edin and Laura Lein describe welfare recipients earning money under the table to get by. Will readers interpret these as stories of good people placed in bad circumstances that sometimes force them into bad behavior? Or will readers see bad people acting badly? Few critics put the issue so crudely, but there is a strong temptation to draw such a moral lesson.
Many researchers begin with reform or muckraking instincts: they intend to expose and blame the circumstances. Other researchers may not see themselves as activists but still believe that professional ethics require that they protect the reputations of the people who have let them into their lives. Therefore they smooth rough edges, clean up stories, and cast the best light. Some argue that ethnographers should show their writing to the people they study and even give them veto power over publication. (Whyte followed that policy for a later book and found it vetoed.) Indeed, some researchers have discovered that people whom they thought they had described sympathetically nonetheless felt betrayed or denigrated, even when their identities had been masked. By contrast, ethnographers who instead adopt a more scientific, just-the-facts-ma’am approach face criticism that their writing leads readers, especially those already so disposed, to blame the victim. On this view, simply recounting observations, without properly framing them for the reader, only stigmatizes already-vulnerable people.
The stakes in slum ethnography, then, are great, and its practitioners are probably always going to be subject to criticism. Nonetheless, it is work that must be done. Firsthand observation provides insights and inspirations other methods cannot, even if the observer ends up whiplashed as a result.