Teaching the Storm: Pedagogical Lessons from Alice Goffman’s "On the Run"

It is not often that a piece of social science scholarship comes along that so animates those within academia that it spills over into the mainstream media. However, even before the release of her book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, Alice Goffman’s extensive ethnographic research detailing the lives of several young black men living on “6th street”—a small section of a mostly black, poor neighborhood in Philadelphia—received more attention in both the field of sociology and the popular press (here, here, here, and here are a few) than most top sociologists at the pinnacle of their careers could hope for. This is no small task for a piece of ethnographic work—a genre of scholarship that, due to its immersive data gathered over many years through “participant observation,” rarely lends itself to easy and concise headlines that capture the public’s attention. 

However, the positive reviews and accolades that On the Run enjoyed early on were quickly, and not so quietly, joined by criticism and controversy with accusations of legal and ethical misconduct, questionable storytelling covered up by destroyed field notes, sensationalization of poverty and crime for publication, white ‘voyeurism’ of black lives, and, what some have levied against it, a “pornography of pain”. One prominent sociologist and blogger went so far as to deny that On the Run is sociological research, calling it a “sociological memoir.”

As the discussion of On the Run devolved on some social media platforms to sexist comments, rants, and 60-page “massive take-downs,” others heralded the controversy as a moment for scholars to engage in dialogue and deep discussion about the role of research and the researcher in public life, the “power and pitfalls” of ethnographic research, reflexivity, and the position of the researcher in his/her own research.

I want to be among the first to suggest that the controversy surrounding On the Run presents us with the opportunity to explore how such controversies can be embraced not only as moments for disciplinary reflection and methodological soul searching, but as teaching and learning moments in the classroom, particularly, though not exclusively, for those who teach in the social sciences.

Much like the work of ethnography, the work of embracing controversy and contested research in the classroom is a messy business. Students are often resistant and uncomfortable when the “right” answers do not quickly and readily present themselves, and often faculty are hesitant to present debates and controversies in their own field for fear that it may diminish the reputation of their field and the scholars in it. However, most faculty report critical thinking to be one of the top learning goals in their courses. They want their classes to be the foundation upon which students are able to develop, intellectually moving from a dualist perspective of “rights and wrongs” to the ability to make choices and commitments when faced with a myriad of information that is often conflicting and sometimes messy. Therefore pedagogical approaches that facilitate critical thinking and intellectual development must, out of necessity, embrace this messiness.

The On the Run controversy raises two important pedagogical questions for us: (1) how to teach controversy and contested research, and (2) how to use the On the Run controversy as a case study for addressing specific lessons for teaching research methods in the social sciences.

To begin with, I believe that the unique qualities of the ethnographic method itself provides insight into how to use controversial topics and contested research as a pedagogical tool in any classroom (STEM, Humanities, and the Social Sciences).

If we look a little more closely at the ethnographic method we can find many tools that we can use in the classroom when introducing controversy to encourage intellectual transformation. There are many similarities between the goals of ethnographers in the field and faculty in the classroom looking to facilitate critical thinking. Therefore, many of the same tools that ethnographers use to engage in research can be used to foster dialogue and learning with controversial topics in the classroom. Among these are:

  • Building trust and respect;
  • Expecting resistance and planning for it;
  • Embracing the conditional nature of knowledge and discussing the value of ‘knowing what we don’t know;’
  • Honoring emotional responses, but encouraging students to move beyond emotion;
  • And, encouraging listening as much as, if not more than, talking.

Utilizing the above tools in the classroom creates an environment in which students can comfortably grapple with controversial topics, work through disagreements in the discipline, and learn from discussions of contested research.

More specifically, as a sociologist and qualitative researcher by training myself, I can see several ways to use On the Run and the surrounding controversy for a deeper understanding of what it means to be a researcher of, and within, the social world. Below are a few lessons from the controversy that can be used to encourage students to think critically about their own research and role as researchers in the social sciences.

  • What does it mean to study a community as an outsider? It will come as no surprise to social scientists that one of the criticisms levied against Goffman referred to her position relative to those she studied. Beginning her research as a young white, female college student investigating the daily lives of young black men living ‘on the run’ her social position mediated all aspects of her relationship to those she was studying. Her position is not something to control for, but something that shapes and defines her research. Ethnography is shaped by who the researcher is, what they are allowed to see and hear, and their own social position. Therefore, being a reflexive researcher means being honest about your position and integrating that honesty into your analysis. All methods (in all fields I would argue) are affected by social position, but since the ethnographer is, her or himself, the research instrument this means that “the personal and the professional are never separate.” This leaves the ethnographer with the responsibility to accurately identify and address their social position and its effect on their research, but also with the difficult task of positioning themselves in their own analysis. Whether or not Goffman’s research accomplished this reflexivity is open for debate and students can learn much from a deep discussion of reflexivity and by asking themselves how much of ourselves we write into the analysis.

 

  • As the criticisms against On the Run began to mount, many called for Goffman to release her field notes to the public and some were dismayed to find that her dissertation was not on the library shelves at Princeton (and therefore inaccessible to the public). Goffman defended herself by saying that she destroyed her field notes to protect her informants and the community she worked with from subpoena after the publication of her book. This controversy provides an opportunity to discuss not only the role of field notes in research, but also how researchers balance the transparency of their work with the privacy and protection of those they study. Many students new to qualitative methods, as well as many critics of Goffman, are under the assumption that field notes are “raw” data that are a reflection of actual events as they happened in real time scrubbed of any interpretation and analysis. This is a misunderstanding of the role and use of ethnographic field notes. As the sociologist Shamus Khan reminded us on Twitter, field notes are more than just notes. Ethnographers spend years cultivating relationships and research notes are only a glimpse into these relationships – and an incomplete view at that.  But more importantly, these notes are written for the benefit of the researcher who is embedded in these relationships and may include ideas, analysis, and emotional reflections that never make it in the final analysis. To view field notes as raw data open to replication is to misunderstand their methodological role. Students can use the controversy to learn not only about the role of field notes and how to document their work (there is great software for this purpose), but also how transparent the ethnographer researcher should be both in regards to the safety and privacy of their subjects as well as of their own subjective experiences in the field.

 

  • And lastly, how do we translate sociological research to the public? Most sociologists hope that their research has salience beyond their discipline and makes it into the hands of a larger audience. However, the platforms and media by which research becomes available to the public are not neutral and objective themselves and often something is lost in translation. Ethnographies are much more likely to be published in book form and publishers that hope to sell books are looking for stories that titillate readers, which—in turn—puts pressure on ethnographers to repackage their research for new audiences. For example, one ethnographer recently blogged that in her efforts to get her ethnographic manuscript published, she was told by at least one editor that her research was not “sexy enough for his press.” The pressure to repackage research for a larger audience can lead to what the sociologist and ethnographer Victor Rios calls to the “Jungle Book Trope” in urban ethnographies, by which an innocent researcher survives the wild natives and lives to tell the story. Whether or not it is fair or accurate to label On the Run a “Jungle Book Trope,” the issue of how researchers reach a wider audience and how to practice packaging their work to make it salient beyond their own discipline is an important discussion to have with students.

I would like to end by pointing out that I believe all research to be open to contestation as all research is a human endeavor. That is the beauty of research. There are always ways for us improve as individual researchers and as academic disciplines in our study of the world around us. We do our students a disservice when we fail to point out the ways in which we can interrogate research and use these interrogations as learning moments. When we show students that it is okay to open up the research in our own fields to interrogation and reflection we provide students with the tools to develop intellectually and become creators of their own knowledge, whether it is through their own research, their academic studies, or their daily engagement with the world around them.

In this sense, embracing controversy and asking students to engage with contested research can be a teaching and learning moment in any discipline and in any classroom. Instead of shying away from controversy and the “problems” of research we can embrace them for the benefit of our students.

As for Professor Goffman, even though the media blitz surrounding her work has likely left her “whiplashed as a result,” I am confident that she, the field of sociology, and the ethnographic method will emerge stronger and with more fans because of it. 

Posted on July 16, 2015 .