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Looking back at the Goffman affair

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While looking into something else I was reminded recently of the Alice Goffman On the Run fiasco. Six years ago this spring, Steven Lubet raised a bunch of awkward questions about the book and Goffman’s research methods, which among other things seemed to include copping to a major felony in the course of her ethnographic investigations. I was intrigued, and did a deep dive into the subject, which led me to conclude that Goffman had in fact fabricated a lot of her purported research. The book, in short, was a very prominent (On the Run received enormous amounts of publicity, and has been cited more than 1200 times in the academic literature) example of academic fraud.

I wrote a 10,000-word piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education laying all this out.

After that, here’s what happened: Nothing. Well that’s not quite true: Gideon Lewis-Krauss wrote yet another glowing review of Goffman and her work in the New York Times, and she secured a prestigious visiting professorship at Pomona College (The two other finalists for this position were Black women who as far as I know didn’t fabricate large swaths of their published research).

In short, the elite academic and publishing worlds circled the wagons: Neither Wisconsin — the top sociology department where she remained on tenure track — nor Princeton, which had granted her her Ph.D., nor the American Sociological Review, the top journal in the field that had published the precursor article to On the Run, nor the University of Chicago Press, which published the book after having given Goffman a contract for it a decade earlier when she was still an undergraduate at Penn, nor Farrar Straus Giroux, the tony imprint which had subsequently brought out the trade version of the book, did anything to look into any of this unpleasantness any further.

Instead, everyone — meaning of course everyone important — just sort of gave an embarrassed half-shrug and hoped the whole thing would somehow go away.

And what do you know — it did! Two years ago Goffman was denied tenure at Wisconsin, but that was hardly surprising in and of itself. Even without regard to any questions regarding the integrity of On the Run, Goffman had published almost nothing during her time in Madison — the book and the precursor article were completed before she was hired — and in any event excellent scholars with impeccable records of academic honesty are denied tenure by top social science departments all the time. Goffman didn’t appeal her denial, and instead of getting another job she appears to have dropped out of academia altogether.

This convenient series of developments is going to allow everyone to continue to pretend that what happened didn’t happen. And although it may seem trite to put it this way, the sociological implications of this little incident from the world of academic sociology are pretty interesting. Goffman got away with what she got away with because immense amounts of social privilege protected her from what would have happened to someone with less privilege, if they had tried to pull off a similar set of high wire stunts.

What would have happened to a less privileged person is that, as soon as it was pointed out that a bunch of things in her book seemed pretty incredible, and that further investigation had produced no evidence that they had happened, and a whole lot of evidence that they hadn’t, that person would have been required to produce some actual evidence that she hadn’t made it all up. When that person failed to do so she would have been kicked out of the academy, many many years before the elite sectors of American sociology decided to put Alice Goffman away quietly, rather than make the slightest public acknowledgement of their own role in this tawdry tale.

But Goffman was never required to produce any proof of anything, because requiring that would have generated some significant professional embarrassment for a bunch of powerful and important people.

In the end, the academic standards of the discipline didn’t collapse completely in the face of that privilege: granting her tenure, it turns out, was a bridge too far. But denying her tenure was the most painless way — for those powerful important people, anyway — to make this whole thing go away, while copping, as it were, to nothing themselves.

As for whoever was supposed to win the prize for the best dissertation in American sociology the year she won it, and whoever was supposed to get the job at Wisconsin she got, and whoever should have been granted the book contracts given to her . . . well, we don’t know who those people are, so it’s like they don’t really exist.

Here’s the climax of the lede to Gideon Lewis-Krauss’s puff piece, published many months after Goffman’s fabrications had been exposed to anyone who bothered or cared to look at them. It’s a story, according to Goffman, about white privilege:

At the gate in Newark, Goffman unshouldered a bulky zippered tote bag. ‘‘I’m so happy,’’ she said with visible and somewhat exaggerated relief, ‘‘that I didn’t give you this to take through security yourself.’’ Over the course of our correspondence, I had asked her from time to time if she had any book artifacts that escaped destruction. In this tote was some material she had forgotten about: unpaid bills, bail receipts, letters from prison and a few extant fragments of hastily scrawled in situ field notes. But it wasn’t until the security line that she remembered what the tote probably once held, memorabilia from her time on Sixth Street: bullets, spent casings, containers for drugs. She passed safely through the scanner in a state of agitation, not about the risk she took but by how blithely she was treated by T.S.A. agents.

‘‘And who did they stop?’’ she said. ‘‘Not me and my bag of contrabandy stuff, but a young man with brown skin. I tried to exchange a look of solidarity with him, but he wouldn’t look at me. Compare that to the interactions I’ve had at this airport — people smiling at me, holding the door for me. You don’t think, as a white person, about how your whole day is boosted by people affirming your dignity all day long. This isn’t news. But it is stuff that, for me, at the beginning. …’’ She didn’t finish the sentence.

Here she is, after getting caught out, still slinging the same narcissistic and frankly incoherent self-dramatizing that led her to “punch up,” as they say in Hollywood, the narrative in On the Run, by making up a bunch of fictitious incidents at which she was always somehow at the center. And Lewis-Krauss falls for it! Because he wants to fall for it.

So yeah, white privilege.

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