I just finished reading Alice Goffman‘s in-the-field study of Philadelphia’s black slums, On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. I recommend it highly. It’s a wonderful piece of reporting. It’s also nuts. It’s worth reading for both reasons.
Goffman — a slight, attractive white girl and the daughter of famous sociologist Erving Goffman — lived for six years in a place she calls Sixth Street in Philly. There she befriended various black drug dealers and gangsters and their girlfriends. Completely losing her objectivity along the way, she actually reached a point where she chauffeured one of these thugs around town while he, his gun on his lap, searched for a man he wanted to kill. She’s lucky he didn’t find him. I don’t think that would’ve been sociology exactly. More like felony murder.
Anyway, Goffman writes well and observes well. She brings these dysfunctional characters and their milieu thoroughly to life. Then she proceeds to explain to us that ”this book is… a close-up look at young men and women living in one poor and segregated Black community transformed by unprecedented levels of imprisonment and by the more hidden systems of policing and supervision that have accompanied them.” Or as they put it in the musical West Side Story: They ain’t no delinquents, they’re misunderstood.
Goffman’s own material demolishes this thesis. On the Run documents a world of predation and law-of-the-jungle mores, riven with violence and betrayal. Far from being the hapless victims of random “legal entanglements”—Goffman’s euphemism for the foreseeable consequences of lawless behavior—her subjects create their own predicaments through deliberate involvement in crime.