Image: John Spade,

Ethnographers in Cars with Guns

On the last day of her life, December 30, 2018, seven-year-old Jazmine Barnes was accompanying her mother and two younger sisters on an early morning run to a Houston convenience store. Suddenly, another automobile pulled alongside their car and someone began shooting at them. “As I turned around and looked back at the street, I heard shots start firing and they came through my window, broke my glass, and hit me in my arm,” said Jazmine’s mother, LaPorsha Washington. The shots kept coming as the other car sped away. “Momma, Jazmine’s not moving,” cried one of the girls. ”She’s not talking.” Washington turned around and realized, “my 7-year-old was shot in the head.” Jazmine died at the scene.

Two men have been arrested and charged in what was evidently a case of mistaken identity, a revenge shooting. It should be no surprise that both the shooter and his driver have been indicted for murder. Under Texas law, as in every state, anyone who participates in a crime can be prosecuted for the consequences.

The victims of drive-by shootings are not always in other cars. In January 2013, fifteen-year-old Hadiya Pendleton proudly marched with her high school band in President Obama’s second inauguration. One week later, she was standing with classmates in a Chicago park, taking a break from school following an honors class exam. The students were somehow mistaken for gang members, and Hadiya was killed in an all too common rivalry shooting. Two young men have been convicted Hadiya’s murder – the one who fired the gun, and another who helped him plan it.

These stories could be multiplied by thousands over recent years, with bystander victims of all ages gunned down in parks, alleys, stores, schoolyards, and even their own homes. It takes no great insight to recognize that everyone responsible for these crimes – both the shooters and their enablers – should be held morally and legally accountable.

This brings us, I regret to say, to the case of Alice Goffman, as raised by Michael Burawoy. I had no intention of revisiting this issue, and I trust that Contexts readers have noticed that Goffman’s name does not appear in my opening essay (in the Winter 2019 issue). Unfortunately, Burawoy insists that Goffman’s participation in a would-be drive-by shooting, as described in her Methodological Appendix to On the Run, was all in a day’s ethnographic work. This requires a somewhat detailed response, so please bear with me.

Here is how Goffman recounts the manhunt that followed the murder of her friend, Chuck:

Many nights, Mike and Steve drove around looking for the shooter. . . . On a few of these nights, Mike had nobody to ride along with him, so I volunteered.  We started out around 3:00 a.m., with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he directed me around the area.  We peered into dark houses and looked at license plates and car models as Mike spoke on the phone with others who had information about the 4th Street Boys’ whereabouts.

One night Mike thought he saw a 4th Street guy walk into a Chinese restaurant.  He tucked his gun in his jeans, got out of the car, and hid in the adjacent alleyway.  I waited in the car with the engine running read to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside.

Luckily, Mike realized that he had the wrong man, and nobody was shot that night.

As I have noted before, these activities constituted conspiracy to commit murder under the law of every U.S. jurisdiction.

Burawoy, however, sees nothing wrong with an ethnographer’s participation in what he himself characterizes as a “murderous pursuit”:

If you are studying people who commit crimes, you are likely to get involved in those crimes. To maintain relations with the people you study, you often have to do what they do.

This rationalization is untenable. There is nothing about ethnographic research that warrants or excuses, much less requires, actively endangering the lives and safety of others. Randol Contreras and Phillipe Bourgois managed to “maintain relations” with subjects who were torturers and rapists, without getting “involved in those crimes.” I doubt that Burawoy would adhere to his cavalier position for ethnographers who studied, say, racists who were plotting to murder Somali immigrants. (Three Kansas men were recently convicted of such a conspiracy, even though the planned bombing was never carried out.)

Burawoy bolsters his argument by informing us that he has also “transgressed the law” by participating in an anti-Apartheid demonstration while conducting research in Zambia. The comparison to a drive-by shooting is offensive. There is a vast difference between protesting South African racial policies and jeopardizing innocent lives. The acceptability of the former, which is morally blameless although locally illegal, does not begin to justify the latter.

This distinction is well understood in jurisprudence and moral philosophy, and I would have hoped in sociology. It is the difference between an act that is malum prohibitum, which is wrong only because it is prohibited, and one that is malum in se, which is inherently bad, in and of itself. As I explained in Interrogating Ethnography, it is reasonable for ethnographers to commit victimless crimes (as when Howard Becker smoked weed with jazz musicians) or to violate cruel and discriminatory laws (as in Laud Humphreys’ research on homosexuality). Alice Goffman’s potentially lethal ambush falls into quite another category.

In the summer of 2007, when the events in question occurred, 108 African Americans were murdered in Philadelphia, mostly young men, 94 of them by gunfire. Included were two murders that had already occurred in what Goffman called the “Fourth Street War.” Her “Glock ride,” though ultimately unsuccessful, threatened to provoke another round in the cycle of deadly retribution. She was not a ride-along observer, but the volunteer driver when no one else was available – meaning that the manhunt would not have happened on those nights without her. Ethnography can be socially useful, but it is not comparable to, say, medical research, where calculated risks can lead to great benefits. Whatever insights Goffman might have gleaned from her ambush attempt, they were not nearly worth endangering bystanders in crossfire. Even her own dissertation advisor, Princeton’s Mitchell Duneier, recognized that she “crossed an ethical line.”

Few would fail to appreciate the difference between joining a political demonstration and plotting a potential revenge killing. But in case there is doubt, imagine what would happen if a graduate student were to consult her advisor, or an IRB, before taking the wheel. Would anyone ever give advance approval to an armed manhunt on the theory that it would help “maintain relations” with a research subject? And if so, how could that be explained to the heartbroken parents of Jazmine Barnes and Hadiya Pendleton?

Burawoy has other complaints about my essay and book, most of which mischaracterize my writing almost beyond recognition. He begins by asserting that I engage in “ferreting out random errors in monographs to discredit them” and thus, “if any of the facts are false, ipso facto, the entire theory is false” and its “contribution is zero (or even negative).” (Italics original.) I have said nothing of the sort. My purpose, as I repeatedly state in both essay and book, is to demonstrate ways in which ethnography can be strengthened through enhanced accuracy. I praise many of the monographs that I have fact checked, including aspects of On the Run. Burawoy seems to think I intended to “discredit” Edin and Shaefer’s $2 a Day, which I actually describe as “powerful and compelling” and “a thorough and closely documented account of extreme poverty,” while explaining that my critique is meant to illustrate the uses of circumstantial evidence, rather than to challenge the overall argument of the book.

Elsewhere, Burawoy achieves the same distorted result through elision. Quoting my observation that documentary evidence is “frozen in time, unlike fragile human memories that may change with every retelling,” he criticizes me because “being frozen in time doesn’t make a piece of evidence more reliable.” He conveniently omits my cautions about documentary evidence, where I set out the circumstances in which it can be either more or less trustworthy. I state specifically that documents are not always accurate and unbiased, explaining only that they have “certain advantages over human memory, and should therefore be consulted if available.” One hopes that every careful researcher would agree, but Burawoy seems determined to recast my views as tendentiously as possible.

In that mode, Burawoy continues to accept Goffman’s claim that the Philadelphia police “wait outside hospitals serving poor Black communities and run the IDs of the men walking inside,” while also examining hospital records for suspects. This is an alleged phenomenon that Goffman alone claims to have observed. No other person – including ethnographers working in the same communities and investigative journalists – has ever reported such incidents at Philadelphia hospitals. Burawoy complains that I give credence to “hospital administrators, former public defenders, and police,” but how else would one attempt to confirm or disconfirm Goffman’s unique assertion? To Burawoy, the unsourced statement of a single ethnographer – claiming, inter alia, to have witnessed three maternity floor arrests in one evening – is sufficient to create a “field of contestation” that can never be resolved. Thus, no ethnographer could ever be shown wrong, no matter how much evidence is produced to the contrary.

Burawoy notes that “an abiding motivation for ethnographic research is to contest ‘official’ views of the world,” which explains his result-oriented deference to an unsupported account about unverifiable events, which just happens to comport with his world-view. In the words of the psychologist Thomas Gilovich,

For propositions we want to believe, we ask only that the evidence not force us to believe otherwise. . . . For propositions we want to resist, however, we ask whether the evidence compels such a distasteful conclusion. (Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So, pp. 83-84, italics original.)

In contrast, my own research was open-ended. I would have reported finding any corroboration for Goffman’s story, as I have done in other cases, recounted in Interrogating Ethnography, where my initial misgivings turned out to be in error.

In any event, Burawoy ignores the fact that no sociologist questioned the hospital story – which he now concedes is contestable – until I did the countervailing research. Nonetheless, he accuses me of acting in bad faith (and worse), by joining what he calls a “social movement to pillory” Goffman. “It is probably no accident,” he opines, that I have “target[ed] a young scholar.” Although there is no such social movement, much less a pillory, it was indeed no accident that my attention was drawn to On the Run. And why not? It was an acclaimed best-seller, the subject of an auction for the paperback rights, the recipient of numerous glowing reviews. It was included on the New York Times list of the most important books of the year, and endorsed and promoted by many senior figures in sociology. Are we allowed only to praise such books? Or do scholarly standards call for the same scrutiny as every other prominent and widely publicized work?

If there is an explanation for so much ax-grinding, it is most likely that I have unintentionally stepped into the middle of a profound and seemingly bitter debate between empiricists and “theory-driven” ethnographers, with Burawoy aggressively in the latter camp. As an outsider to this disputation, I would have thought that accuracy and reliability would be equally important to both sides, but Burawoy sees it differently. He associates me with the dread empiricists, who have “hijacked” ethnography in pursuit of “a strategy of power to subjugate young insurgents within a contested field.”

Hence, the risible accusation that I have become “like Mike, carrying a metaphorical gun, hunting for the killer-error in every nook.” To Burawoy, I guess, real guns are just fine for ethnographers but fact-checking can be deadly.

Steven Lubet is in the Pritzker School of Law at Northwestern University. He teaches courses on legal ethics, trial advocacy, lawyer memoirs, and narrative structures.

Comments 18

Madison Thomas

April 17, 2019

This is pretty scary but very interesting from a sociological point of view. It is a pity for the family and all the people with whom such incidents occurred. Sometimes I really want to live in a completely different world where there is no place for such cruelty. I read the Cirque du Soleil Zumanity reviews and I wanted it so that the world had a little more of the same amazing and pleasant extraordinary things. Why is humanity so mired in its cruelty?

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