Thinking About Urban Sociology, Somewhat Historically

I haven’t had much to say about the controversy over Alice Goffman’s On the Run. I do here, but for a rather different purpose. To state my positions on the core of the matter, I find the critiques of Goffman’s veracity compelling, and defenses of her work considerably less so, but I’m more interested in thinking about how the affair illuminates the way that knowledge about cities gets produced. Since Goffman’s book was praised by many non-academic reviewers as being like The Wire but (ostensibly) true, I’m reminded of the last season of that show, particularly since I probably rate that season much higher than the typical fan. What I found most compelling about the arc of the season was its reflection on the way that a wide range of imperatives–Scott’s compulsion to fabricate, his bosses’ encouragement of his pursuit of “Dickensian” aspects of Baltimore life–make a newspaper a grossly limited source of understanding. The assassination of one of the most important men on the west side, after all, gets cut. Because it doesn’t mesh with what some people think they already know about Baltimore, Omar’s death, which actually caps a truly Dickensian story arc, gets lost to the history that’s fit to print.

And, while the problem is most definitely larger than a single book, the On the Run controversy should be cause for some deep thinking about how we know what we’re talking about, and what the prior assumptions of our methods and theories are, particularly for academic ideas associated with Chicago School sociology that have been profoundly influential to other academic fields, to public policy, and even to public common-sense about metropolitan communities. It’s beyond me to offer a critical history of an entire academic discipline in a blog post, though thankfully it’s not beyond others. And it seems to me that On the Run intersects with another sociological bombshell offered by a critical history of the discipline. Which I’ll discuss below.

But first, a few (admittedly half-cooked) thoughts about urban ethnography. Paul Campos, both for himself in the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywalled) and blogging at Lawyers, Guns & Money, has been one of the more tenacious and acute critics of Alice Goffman’s On the Run and of Goffman’s defenders. Campos, among others, raised serious questions about the plausibility or veracity of several of the key incidents that Goffman recounted as evidence of the pervasive reach of the criminal justice system into the lives of young Black men in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood.

[Note: To be sure, that reach is a serious problem for social justice, and a problem which many powerful interests in American society would prefer to conceal. Which is all the more reason why academic and popular analysis of it should be rigorous and diligent, and why the apparent “truthiness” of Goffman’s book may prove detrimental to efforts to meaningfully reform rules of probation, parole, and criminal detention.]

Campos’s critique met with praise and counterattacks, but it strikes me that most of Goffman’s defenders have engaged with (and indulged in) metacritical debates–is the intrusiveness of policing on Black men’s lives a core truth that stands regardless of the veracity of the evidence used to demonstrate it? Is it legitimate for a young white woman with academic pedigree and Ivy League credentials to relate the stories of poor Black people? Does the scholarly imperative of concealing respondents’ identities (or IRB rules requiring such concealment) make accuracy impossible? Is sociology losing influence as a discipline and desperate to restore it by supporting more “dangerous” ethnographies? Are sociologists overly impressed by the social distance traversed by the researcher to observe her subjects? Are attacks on Goffman attempts to silence the voices, conveyed through her, of low-income urban Black men?–and ignored the rather large elephant in the room: Did Alice Goffman make a bunch of stuff up?

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s recent NYT Magazine piece on the Goffman controversy performs this dance, acknowledging the publication of Campos’s and others’ critiques but, by and large, ignoring their substance. Lewis-Kraus shields Goffman from questions about her integrity by painting her basically as an autistic-savant who forgets to plug in her phone or what year major life events occurred, who also makes keen and reliable observations of other people’s lives. One supposes the intention is to encourage the inference that Goffman confused her field notes rather than fabricating them, since unless the question of deliberate deception were in play, no ethnographer would probably want to be portrayed this way in the Times. Elsewhere, he focuses on “discipline,” implying on one hand that Goffman has been a victim of jealousy on the part of some fellow sociologists who resent her success and pooh-pooh her methods, which eschew much of the reflexivity on the social distance between observer and observed that characterizes contemporary ethnography, and on the other, that Goffman has been unable to rebut charges against her because of her strict adherence to methodological safeguards of her subjects’ identities. Since this is the way this story goes, there’s also a third hand, on which Lewis-Kraus argues that the controversy’s spread outside of the academy reflects a gap between the methodologies of journalism and sociology (a formulation that would make Goffman a brave interdisciplinary boundary-crosser, assuming that there’s a significant difference in each discipline’s toleration for making stuff up).

To be fair, Lewis-Kraus tries to write about the inherent difficulties and contradictions of outsider ethnography as communication across social divisions, though his reluctance to consider the veracity of Goffman’s accounts of the lives of her associates undermines that effort considerably–the charge of making stuff up speaks directly to Goffman’s credibility as a conduit of those associates’ experiences and views and to the premise that Goffman was guided by imperatives determined by her solidarity with her associates rather than by the expectations of her audience. If, ultimately, Goffman and her defenders want to base the legitimacy and importance of her work on the premise that Goffman became part of the Sixth Street community, described it accurately, and thus gave voice to its inhabitants, the veracity of her accounts could not be more important to judging her work.

Campos wrote an interesting reaction at LGM yesterday. Part of it is a critique of Lewis-Kraus’s account. But Campos closes with a perspective that, I think points us productively away from thinking about the internal politics of a discipline or the particularities of events Goffman described, and toward thinking about the way that academic research has and may shape what we “know” about urban America, particularly the parts of it that are, for all intents and purposes, foreign to the kind of people who inhabit the sociology departments of Hyde Park and Penn, increasingly separated from south Chicago or west Philadelphia by demilitarized-by-redevelopment zones.

As Campos writes in a follow-up today:

This is another example of how Goffman seems to constantly confuse her “positionality.” The whole point of the anecdote [in which Goffman stiltedly describes her efforts to exchange a “look of solidarity” with a young brown man detained by TSA at the airport] is that she (supposedly) has white privilege in this particular context, so there isn’t any solidarity here between her and him, much as she might want there to be. But Goffman has a habit of forgetting that she’s a very privileged person in a wide variety of ways: hence her complaints that doubts about her veracity are attacks on the credibility of low-status informants, such as the residents of Sixth Street.

This line of defense echoes a certain strain of cultural masquerading by the young, white, and privileged seeking authenticity, as Campos argues.

Any reader who has gotten this far is by this point probably as sick of the Alice Goffman saga as I am. What continues to intrigue me, however, is her apparent ability to get supposedly hard-headed journalists to believe her. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that what makes On the Run an initially compelling read is, ironically, its apparent authenticity — the glimpse it provides into a demi-monde that has fascinated upper class white people for a long time, as captured most memorably in Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro.” That Goffman explored and chronicled this world was, above all, really cool.

This has shown up in prominent stunt-ethnographies, indicating that neither academics nor peri-academic audiences are immune, the contempt with which they might treat the blatant racial essentialism of Mailer’s essay notwithstanding.

But the twist that occurs when these immersions are presented as scholarly research is that the imprimatur of the academy positions the researcher as an authority uniquely able to research the story (by sharing the experiences of the subaltern) and to tell it. It’s this elasticity of positionality, more than whatever tendency toward vicarious danger might excite the hipsters of the sociology department, that are problematic. And, to be sure, though contemporary sociology certainly teaches critical reflection on positionality, this development is a relatively recent adjunct to the core of the discipline. If a high-impact work like Goffman’s can exhibit such a slippage, sociologists may be inconsistently examining an important aspect of racism–not the presence of different groups or the observation of differences in their experiences, but the maintenance and nature of the boundaries among them–both social and spatial (Douglas Massey refers to “boundary work” in the abstract, while George Lipsitz describes “racism taking place” to call attention to the practices that inscribe boundaries, rather than presumably bounded identities).

This point leads me to an article by Julian Go in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology. Both a review of Aldon Morris’s 2015 book The Scholar Denied, a history of the concealed and quarantined influence of WEB DuBois on the development of American sociology, and a reflection on Go’s own training as a sociologist, the post does two things. First, it makes me determined to get my hands on Morris’s book (and not just the online metacommentary) ASAP. Second, it should make anyone concerned with urban and metropolitan studies consider very seriously the dialectical relationship between knowledge and the implicit premises of research methods. What we know about urban and metropolitan life and communities after all depends quite a bit on the core premises of our investigations, and sociological perspective–that is to say, a particular sociological perspective, embracing both the scholarly authority of the ethnographer and the ethnographer’s ability to transparently observe and describe an otherwise distinct community–has been tremendously influential.

What if this perspective has been narrowed and constrained? As Go argues, summarizing Morris, the gravest limitation of canonical sociological methods has been the diminishment of DuBois’s role (and the role of his “Atlanta School” of researchers working from the city’s historically Black colleges) as the discipline’s most important founder.

In short, the elevation of the Chicago School has served to marginalize Du Bois, even as Du Bois was profoundly influential for his time. Narrating this tension is one of the many virtues of Morris’ book, and it marks the tragedy that The Scholar Denied writes for us – that we have erased the history of Du Bois’ profound influence upon sociology from our most influential histories of sociology. We assume Weber taught Du Bois. We herald Frazier as the most influential black sociologist. We herald Robert E. Park as the innovator.

The intentionality of this erasure, as well as its effects, concern Morris greatly. The pervasive racism of the early 20th century mattered of course, but so did institutional factors. Robert Park and others obviously secured prestige for themselves as their discipline’s leading lights, but by marginalizing DuBois, they also marginalized a scholar whose purpose as a sociologist stemmed significantly from his famous observation that “the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the Color Line.” While Park’s sociology emphasized ethnicity and difference, his school’s presumptions tended to naturalize difference, to identify racial conflict as a matter of friction between different and incompatible groups sharing space, and to evade DuBois’s call to recognize the construction and policing of color lines as the fundamental and indeed generative core of race and racism. Go, again summarizing Morris:

Still, there is another explanatory current amidst the flow. It is not only that Du Bos was black and other sociologists were white, or that Du Bois suffered from lack of capital, it is also that he had dangerous ideas. To be sure, Du Bois innovated by his empirical orientation and methodology. But Du Bois also innovated substantively, birthing a sociology of race that aimed to wrestle discourse on race away from the Darwinistic, biological and frankly racist sociological episteme of the day. Participants and promoters of that episteme included most all other white sociologists, and Morris pulls no punches when pointing out how the Chicago School was at the center of sociologically racist thought. In riveting swaths of The Scholar Denied, we learn about Robert Park’s racist sociology, for example, a sociology that “portrayed African Americans” as “handicapped by a double heritage of biological and cultural inferiority.”[19] These views compelled Park to side with Booker T. Washington in suggesting that the best route for African-Americans was to become manual laborers rather than to try overcome their “savage” origins (in Park’s own terminology). These views also compelled Park to conclude that blacks should stay away from cities, for there they would “only succumb to the vice, disease, crime, and other evils rampant in city life.”[20] And Park’s own famous theory on the cycle of race relations was underwritten by Darwinistic thought on the inferiority of non-whites. Park’s thought was merely the “conceptual framework” that could explain and hence legitimate why the whites of Europe and the US were dominating the world through colonialism –and why race relations throughout the globe were so tumultuous.[21]

Du Bois would have none of this…. Du Bois’ work, using systematically and painstakingly collected data on communities about which Park had little inkling, instead showed the social production of racial inferiority rather than its biological or even cultural determination.

While these ideas have been most commonly associated with the work of Franz Boas and his students, Morris’s argument is that they were earlier propounded by DuBois in works and correspondence that influenced the later anthropologist. The obscuring of the link turns not only the history of the discipline but critical understanding of its purposes on their heads. Here’s what Lewis-Kraus writes about the development of sociology as a liberal and anti-hierarchical discipline.

People in Goffman’s camp trace their work to Robert E. Park and the so-­called First Chicago School, which set itself to the project of understanding the new vigor and clash of the American city, then driven by the dynamism of industrialization and immigration. Park had spent 10 years as a journalist and was working for Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute when he was asked, in 1914, to join the young sociology department at the University of Chicago. This was a Chicago that would produce new sorts of Americans, characters like Saul Bellow’s Augie March, and Park’s team went on to put together canonical, sympathetic studies of the city’s black, Jewish, Chinese and Polish neighborhoods…. Their painstaking empirical efforts, modeled on the anthropology of Franz Boas, were carried out in the hope that they might refute the reigning theoretical paradigm of the day, which looked to eugenics and social Darwinism to explain racial inferiority and the ‘‘social problems’’ introduced by immigration. The project was explicitly liberal and meliorative, of a piece with the work of journalists like Jacob Riis and early social workers like Jane Addams.

Although that’s what Robert Park may have claimed for himself, Aldon Morris would strongly disagree. Yet, the easy slipping of such a characterization into what passes for a deep journalistic account of sociology demonstrates how pervasive the assumption is, and the ease with which studies rooted in this paradigm, of discrete cultures bumping against each other in the space of the city, and trained observers acquiring privileged insight through immersion, has been among people who have sought to regulate, reform, or renew urban spaces and communities (I’ve touched on that here, for example).

It’s beyond the scope of this post to put forward a counterfactual of what would have happened if DuBois’s proto-constructionist interpretation of racism (which highlighted the role of white institutions and governments, and the relationship of color lines to capitalist exploitation as well as social segregation) had been the theory to influence immigration policy, urban renewal, housing, or employment law in the middle of the twentieth century. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that much of our world would be unrecognizable, and probably for the better. And, in a disciplinary climate more interested in understanding boundaries than in transgressive crossings of them, Alice Goffman’s efforts and talents may have produced a very different book and understanding of the criminal justice system’s role in reproducing racial oppression.


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