“On the Run” has an extra level of fieldwork immersion

As publishers get excited about Alice Goffman’s upcoming book, sociologists say the fieldwork she undertook was quite immersive:

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.”

By her own account, she lost most of her college friends, and struggled to complete her non-sociology requirements. Her thesis, advised by the noted ethnographer Elijah Anderson, won her a book contract from the University of Chicago (probably the first based on undergraduate research the publisher has ever signed, said Douglas Mitchell, its executive editor).

It may sound “absurd” now, Ms. Goffman said of her extreme immersion. “But I was trying to take the participant-observer approach as seriously as possible.”

Fieldwork is intended to get an in-depth view of real life through long periods of observation and interaction. This sounds like going the extra step to truly find out what is going on. I wonder if there isn’t another element involved: Goffman worked in areas that many, the public or academics, might consider dangerous for significant periods of time. In other words, even most sociologists, who tend to be interested in addressing social issues and using a variety of research methods, would not go as far as Goffman did. All of this makes me wonder how much we might have missed about the world because sociologists and others might not always be willing to go further.

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