On Goffman: Ethnography and the Ethics of Care

By Michaela Benson

Since its publication last year, Alice Goffman’s On the Run has been subject to a growing chorus of scrutiny and scepticism. Important questions have been raised about various aspects of Goffman’s conduct, amidst a wider sea of criticism that some have found excessive. In this post our editorial board member Michaela Bensonargues that the most pressing issues raised by the case are being obscured by the direction of the debate.

The recent controversy surrounding ethnography, sparked by the publication of Alice Goffman’s book On the Run, is the latest in a longstanding debate about the morals and ethics of ethnographic research. My own reading, however, leads me to the conclusion that the real ethical issues raised by publication (critical and commercial success) of On the Run have been overlooked in the frenzy of activities focused on discrediting the author.

I read the book in the wake of this controversy, not content to draw opinions merely from secondary sources, I quickly found myself turning to the methodological note in the Appendix; it promised to shed light on how a white, middle-class young woman found herself able to do research with young Black men from a lower-income Black neighbourhood in West Philadelphia. But it was here that I found myself squirming with discomfort, not leveled at Goffman herself, but at the pedagogical structures that allowed the research to take place at the time that it did.

What particularly stood out to me was the fact that Goffman started this research as a 19 year-old undergraduate student in the early 2000s, choosing on her own volition (or so it seems) to go and live in that neighbourhood. This should be setting off alarm bells about the ethics of care that we have towards local communities and to our students. My question really was why did the University of Pennsylvania, her supervisors and teachers, initially authorize this research as part of an undergraduate degree? Goffman began her six to ten, depending on what you read, year ethnography as an undergraduate and continued with this project as a PhD student at Princeton. Admittedly, the formal ethical procedures in place in most institutions today may not have been in place at the time, but nevertheless, these procedures were predated by ethical practice within research, not least of which is a view to the potential harm that could be done to a local community by an inexperienced researcher, but also the potential harm to the researcher.

I teach social research methods with a particular focus on ethical practice to both undergraduate and postgraduate students at Goldsmiths and am chair of the departmental ethics committee. And so I see undergraduate students, enthusiastic, as I imagine Goffman was as she started her undergraduate studies, about doing ethnographic research. It is something that really captures their imagination, as I am imagining Goffman’s book will in the coming academic years. But I think that we need to be very careful here; students are often attracted to research topics that appear, in their perceptions, to be far removed from their own life experiences. Exoticization plays no small part in this.

Students are ambitious, and this is not something that we should discourage; but they do need to learn (some of) the ropes before they are let loose on the field. What becomes clear through talking to students is that at this stage they have only a very basic understanding of what it means to do ethnography and importantly, of the ethical commitments and practices that this entails in relation to their interlocutors; their enthusiasm often outweighs their knowledge and understanding. What then of our role as supervisors and teachers of ethnographic research? Students need to learn how to critically deconstruct their own tendencies to exoticise research subjects, to be reflexive about their relationship to their interlocutors, to take seriously the ethical commitments they have to themselves and others within the research process; it is our responsibility to question their choice of topic, to get them to carefully consider what lies behind these, to unpick the attractions and desires of particular topics over and above others, to make them think critically about their choices, encouraging them to become reflexive and ethical practitioners.

While Goffman’s research proceeded beyond her undergraduate studies and became the crux of her PhD research, its origins are wrought on the text. On reading the book, one of my colleagues described it as unbelievable. I did not find it unbelievable; the naivety of the text and the rather uncomfortable account of negotiating privilege within this field is perhaps more of a reflection of the circumstances under which she entered the field: a young undergraduate student learning ethnography ‘on the job’, choosing to engage in a process tantamount to a ‘rite of passage’. It reads as I would expect a text started as an undergraduate assignment. Remembering myself at 19, an undergraduate student in Social Anthropology, I can put myself in Goffman’s shoes; the prospect of doing research such as this would have been thrilling to me, inspired by the perceived romance and adventure of the field encounter. But this is exactly where my critique of Goffman’s research lies, in the fact that as a student at this stage in her studies it is unlikely that she would have had the critical skills to conduct and analyse ethnographic research in a way that deconstructed, among others things, her own position in relation to her research subjects and the ethical practice relating to this encounter.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that her methodological note reads uncomfortably, recounting what I can only describe as the process by which she ‘went native’, and her subsequent realization of this. She describes how she took on the cultural traits of those around her, including developing a way of evaluating women drawn from her time hanging out on the stoops with her interlocutors, and observing her surroundings in terms of what she could steal. Goffman introduces this account precisely to demonstrate her reflexivity, but for me it reads worryingly as navel gazing, the privileged white woman ‘going native’ in ways that are hauntingly reminiscent of a previous generation of ethnographers whose work has been challenged and criticized on precisely these grounds.

Alice Goffman was always going to be challenged, her father’s namesake, her choice of fieldsite and her relative privilege making this inevitable. But the real conundrum is much closer to home for us as social scientists and educators than others have been keen to point out.

Michaela Benson is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths. She is a member of The Sociological Review’s Editorial Board. She tweets at @michaelacbenson.

Originally posted 28th June 2015

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