Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’ Studies Policing in a Poor Urban Neighborhood – New York Times, April 29, 2014

The image is from a Mach 18, 2017 tweet from The New York Times @nytimes reading: Our top 10 comments of the week

The image – click on it to enlarge it – is from a March 18, 2017 tweet from The New York Times @nytimes reading: Our top 10 comments of the week

I’ve written extensively about Erving Goffman including the start of his academic career in Chicago and the year he spent immersed in field work at a mental hospital. I became interested in his Chicago days after reading about the history of urban planning in Chicago.

The first-noted link (above) is among the most frequently read posts at the Preserved Stories website. A Google search for Erving Goffman positions the post close to the top of the list.

When I first thought of writing about Goffman, I thought: “He wrote a long time ago. Who would be interested?” Then I came across references to his work in several recent studies that I found of interest. That prompted me to think: “Maybe there are people out there, after all, who have an interest in Erving Goffman’s way of analyzing the dynamics and frameworks of people’s lives.”

April 29, 2014 article

An April 29, 2014 New York Times article about his daughter, Alice Goffman, is entitled: “Fieldwork of Total Immersion: Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’ Studies Policing in a Poor Urban Neighborhood.”

Alice Goffman is author of On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (2014).

When I read the blurb for the book, in the link in the previous sentence, the study entitled The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973 (Kathleen J. Frydl, 2013) came to mind at once.

Here’s an excerpt from the above-noted article:

  • Ms. Goffman comes from a home where intensive fieldwork was something of a family business. Her father, the eminent sociologist Erving Goffman (who died when she was a baby), posed as an employee of a mental hospital for a year to research his 1961 study, “Asylums.” Her mother, Gillian Sankoff, is a sociolinguist at the University of Pennsylvania who has done studies in Papua New Guinea and French Canada; her adoptive father, the sociolinguist William Labov, also at Penn, has done pioneering field research on African-American urban vernacular, among other subjects.
  • Ms. Goffman, who grew up in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia, said she took her first field notes as a teenager, recording observations about the Italian-American side of her family in South Philadelphia. By her sophomore year at Penn, she had moved full time to a mixed-income African-American neighborhood and was hanging out on a tough strip she calls 6th Street (all names and places in the book are disguised), fully immersing herself in local culture.
  • She abandoned her vegetarian diet, listened only to mainstream hip-hop and R&B, and adopted local “male attitudes, dress, habits, and even language,” as she puts it in a long appendix, describing her research methods. While drugs, and drug selling, pervaded the neighborhood, she did not use them, she writes, partly because “it hampered writing the field notes.”

[End of excerpt]


Alice Goffman’s research is of tremendous value. I’m really pleased I can across this New York Times article.

Updates: June 26, 2014 New York Times book review

A june 26, 2014 New York Times book review of “On the Run” is entitled: “Deep Cover: Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run.’”

A July 10, 2014 New Yorker article is entitled: De Blasio’s violent-crime challenges.”


An Aug. 11, 2014 New Yorker article, which features Alice Goffman’s work, is entitled: “The Crooked Ladder: The criminal’s guide to upward mobility.”

A March 5, 2015 Metro News article is entitled: “US finds racist, profit-driven practices in Ferguson.”

A May 10, 2015 New York Times article is entitled; “The Real Problem With America’s Inner Cities.”

Click here to access excerpts from the latter article >

A July 30, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans? How a rich entrepreneur persuaded the city to let him create his own high-tech police force.”

A May 25, 2016 Guardian longread article is entitled: “The enduring whiteness of the American media: What three decades in journalism has taught me about the persistence of racism in the US.”

A March 13, 2017 CityLab article is entitled: “Mapping the Achievement Gap: A colorful dot map reveals the stark differences in educational levels across urban and rural areas—as well as the effects of racial segregation within cities.”


1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Also of relevance is a book I learned about from a New York Times article, namely Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (2017).


    How American race law provided a blueprint for Nazi Germany

    Nazism triumphed in Germany during the high era of Jim Crow laws in the United States. Did the American regime of racial oppression in any way inspire the Nazis? The unsettling answer is yes. In Hitler’s American Model, James Whitman presents a detailed investigation of the American impact on the notorious Nuremberg Laws, the centerpiece anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi regime. Contrary to those who have insisted that there was no meaningful connection between American and German racial repression, Whitman demonstrates that the Nazis took a real, sustained, significant, and revealing interest in American race policies.

    As Whitman shows, the Nuremberg Laws were crafted in an atmosphere of considerable attention to the precedents American race laws had to offer. German praise for American practices, already found in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, was continuous throughout the early 1930s, and the most radical Nazi lawyers were eager advocates of the use of American models. But while Jim Crow segregation was one aspect of American law that appealed to Nazi radicals, it was not the most consequential one. Rather, both American citizenship and antimiscegenation laws proved directly relevant to the two principal Nuremberg Laws–the Citizenship Law and the Blood Law. Whitman looks at the ultimate, ugly irony that when Nazis rejected American practices, it was sometimes not because they found them too enlightened, but too harsh.

    Indelibly linking American race laws to the shaping of Nazi policies in Germany, Hitler’s American Model upends understandings of America’s influence on racist practices in the wider world.


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