The personal commitment required for truly immersive research
Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’ Studies Policing in a Poor Urban Neighborhood [NYT] describes a sociologist who commits deeply to truly immersive fieldwork. At one level this simply reminds us of the differences between academic and industry work, but beyond that it surfaces just how personally demanding it is to deeply engage in a culture, requiring us to forgo much of ourselves (In Interviewing Users that’s Check Your Worldview At the Door) in order to understand the people we are interested in (Embrace How Other People See the World).
Ms. Goffman comes from a home where intensive fieldwork was something of a family business. Her father, the eminent sociologist Erving Goffman (who died when she was a baby), posed as an employee of a mental hospital for a year to research his 1961 study, “Asylums.” Her mother, Gillian Sankoff, is a sociolinguist at the University of Pennsylvania who has done studies in Papua New Guinea and French Canada; her adoptive father, the sociolinguist William Labov, also at Penn, has done pioneering field research on African-American urban vernacular, among other subjects.
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, 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.
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.”
It can be hard to square the very ordinary-seeming academic who recalls her teenage affection for “My So-Called Life” with the young woman of her startlingly confessional appendix, which ends with a moving account of a close friend’s death in a shootout.