Black Lives Matter To Human Research–Lessons From ‘On The Run’


By Michele Goodwin

In her recent publication, On The Run, University of Wisconsin sociology professor, Alice Goffman writes about embedded research from 2002-2007 in a “ghetto” community she names 6th Street (located in Philadelphia).  The African American residents of this community are mostly poor and tethered to the  criminal justice system as parolees, on probation, and in and out of jail.  Goffman’s human research subjects comprised the jailed, imprisoned, and minors–IRBs generally describe these populations as “vulnerable.”

On The Run is hailed as original, creative, and transgressive because of Goffman’s lengthy stay in such a descriptively chilling, dangerous, and Black neighborhood–where frequent gun battles teach kids to dive for cover, the women are teen mothers or crack addicted, and law enforcement incessantly polices the community. Indeed, she moves into the neighborhood and lives with three of the 6th Street boys.  Much could be gained from documenting the challenges in such a community, particularly given the troubling patterns of mass incarceration in the U.S.  However, the book raises questions about what represents credibility, quality, and rigor in social science research; the book lacks an index, bibliography, and meaningful citations.  I write about these concerns and more in a forthcoming Texas Law Review essay, which can be found here.

Reviewers lauded the rigor and ignored ethics of the book, agreeing with Goffman’s Princeton advisor, Professor Mitchell Duneier, and his NY Times assessment that  “[t]he level of immersion is really unusual,” because “[s]he got access to the life of the ghetto and came to understand aspects of it we don’t ever get to see.”  Yet, therein resides a significant problem. Fascination with the ghetto and perceptions that life in inner-cities is so bad that researchers can’t possibly expose those human subjects to risks and harms may have blinded the book’s many reviewers to the fact that Black lives matter, including in human research.  It might have also implied a lower standard for rigor; it is rare that an academic book lacks a bibliography and index.  Goffman also destroyed her field notes. These concerns becomes starkly relevant when she writes about her desire and collaboration with “Mike” to kill a man from the neighboring 4th Street.

In a chilling account, Goffman states that when Mike (who already had many encounters with law enforcement and incarceration) “had nobody to ride along with him…I volunteered.”  In volunteering, did Goffman transgress ethical norms?  Apart from IRB rules, the American Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics charges sociologist to “refrain from undertaking an activity when their personal circumstances may interfere with their professional work or lead to harm for a…human subject.”  This was not riding, but driving; Mike didn’t possess a driver’s license.  Their prowl for a killer relied on Goffman being behind the wheel and it exposed not only the sociologist, but also Mike to harm.  They started out at 3am, “with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he directed me around the area. We peered into dark houses and looked at license plates and car models.”   On one such occasion Mike exited the car with his gun, believing their target had been spotted, while Goffman recounts “wait[ing] in the car with the engine running, ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside.”

Goffman tells readers, “I got into the car because…I wanted Chuck’s killer to die…I simply wanted him to pay for what he’d done, for what he’d taken away from us.”  In numerous academic and other reviews, very few scholars flag this incredibly problematic conflict.  In a recent reviews, Steven Lubet addresses a variety of concerns and Goffman’s response can be found here.  On a cognitive level, praise for Goffman’s work may reflect an important blind spot about Black lives mattering to human research.  Some academics might misread the potential for researchers to harm vulnerable lives in destitute communities, even when the subjects are minors or incarcerated.   That is, their lives are already so fraught, Black lives can only benefit from social science research or certainly can’t be harmed…  Might Goffman’s hunt for a killer have caught the attention of fellow sociologist if the intended victim were educated, wealthy, or Caucasian? In Goffman’s desire to kill a rival 4th Street Boy, she also exposed the children and women on 6th Street to harm, because their lives might likely have come under threat in the aftermath of a shootout. In fact, in an earlier gun battle between 4th Street and 6th Street—innocent women and girls on 6th Street paid the price, because their homes were riddled with bullets. And, it is important to note that this was research–not Goffman’s life experience–and the distinction is meaningful; this research launched as part of her undergraduate thesis and served as the basis for her PhD dissertation at Princeton.

Thus, the problem here is not simply one for Goffman, who admitted in hindsight, “I’m glad that I learned what it feels like to want a man to die…to feel it in my bones, at an emotional level eclipsing my own reason or sense of right and wrong,” but the broader academy, which fails to appreciate the risks of rogue research in poor communities of color. For example, would a different standard have been demanded if the subjects were not the disregarded, disenfranchised, and disreputed, but the elite and middle-class?

Michele Goodwin

Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a renowned scholar, advocate, and author who has devoted her career to uplifting the voices, social conditions, and rights of women and children around the globe. A widely cited legal authority in constitutional law, health law, and women’s rights, her writings have been consulted by courts, legislators, government agencies, and civil society organizations. She has advised or given testimony before Congress and state governments as well as the United States’ Uniform Law Commission on privacy, the regulation of the human body, and reproductive health.

One thought to “Black Lives Matter To Human Research–Lessons From ‘On The Run’”

  1. Excellent review. I can’t believe Eli Anderson helped Alice and stands by this “ethnography”. I have an even more cynical view than yours about the lack of people hitting on the murder attempt … most sociologists know that any events depicted in this book are not meant to be real or have any resemblance to real people. They didn’t read the passage as “real”, either in the risk to black lives or the risk to the undergraduate researcher.

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