Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book: On the Run by Alice Goffman

Goffman, Alice. 2014. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This may be the best ethnography I have ever read, and I have read a bunch of them starting when I was in college. It studies the home front of mass incarceration via the lives of young men in a poor African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia.

Why do I like it so much? First, it is brutally honest. There is no sugar coating here and no romanticizing of the poor or of the police or of social workers or of academics. Second, there are no overt politics (not even the heretofore seemingly obligatory bad policy chapter at the end). There are lots of clear policy messages in the book, but they are all implicit in the descriptions of institutions and events. Third, the material does not require obtuse theoretical structures for its value. Goffman recognizes that and just lets the agents and events speak. As a result, she avoids the situation in some ethnographies, such as Drylongso by John Langston Gwaltny, where the observed seemed to be saying one thing and the observer quite another. Fourth, the author really seems to just want to understand how the individuals she studies see themselves and their actions. That, to me, is both what good history and good ethnography should do: allow you to see how other people see themselves and make sense of their world. Fifth, and finally, the book also functions as a sort of academic coming of age story of the author, one that I found quite moving and memorable. Oh, and be sure to read the methodological note at the end. It contains some of the best material in the book.

Highly recommended.


Triclops said...

thanks for the recommendation. Any other standout ethnographies you would recommend?

econjeff said...

I really liked Making Ends Meet by Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein and The World of Patience Gromes by Scott Davis.