The Chronicle Review

In Defense of Ethnography

June 26, 2015

Controversy over the sociologist Alice Goffman’s On the Run, a study of young people on the margins of society, has put ethnography on trial. Lost in the accusations and rebuttals, I fear, is the reality that ethnography is one tool among many but too valuable to dismiss or ignore. Like other methodologies, it has strengths and weaknesses, but it complements other approaches in crucial ways.

Almost two decades ago, I finished a visual ethnography of a small police department in a suburb of Minneapolis. Over several years, I had examined how media-driven stereotypes of what it was to be a "cop" affected officers’ work. I spent hundreds of hours, mostly on the "dog" shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., riding along in squad cars, attending roll calls, and generally hanging out, observing, and photographing the police. I eventually "joined" the department as a reserve officer — lighter-blue uniform, no gun. My study, including some of the pictures I took, was published as a book.

Since then I haven’t taken up ethnography again, but I never lost my love of or respect for the personal, immersive, deep study of communities. That’s why the recent Goffman controversy struck a nerve. First, Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern, wrote that Goffman might have committed a felony by driving one of her informants, who she wrote was armed with a gun, on a potentially vengeful outing. More generally, Lubet wrote, "There are just too many incidents that strike me as unlikely to have occurred as she describes them." Then, in Slate, Leon Neyfakh, a staff writer, raised the question of whether ethnography itself is so flawed as to naturally produce ethical lapses. In other words, as the Slate headline writer put it, "Is the author to blame — or does the fault lie with her field?"

I admit I saw nothing problematic in Goffman’s book when I first read it. I also imagined us in a Far Side cartoon crossing paths and worlds — maybe at a drug bust? — and culminating in a dispute over who was more accepted by the overlapping (or colliding) communities we were studying.

Legal experts can weigh Lubet’s take on the book. What I want to do is defend the ethnographic method writ large and its role within the context of other current controversies about the state of scientific truth.

Goffman herself says she was vague about some facts and disguised some details to protect her sources, along the lines of institutional-review-board dictates and standard ethnography practice. She also made, she told Slate, a couple of unintentional errors that she’ll correct in future editions of her book. Goffman destroyed notes out of fear that she could be subpoenaed, and as the University of Chicago ethnographer Richard Taub says in Neyfakh’s article, "Your honor — your word — is the only thing you have to make your stuff believable, because your job is to not let anyone track these people down. It’s a terrible problem." Taub, Neyfakh explains, is among the ethnographers who would like to be able to anonymize less than IRBs currently require.

That’s where worlds of inquiry collide. I have taught all my professional life in journalism schools, and the rules that apply to investigative reporting, ethnography, lab science, and legal investigation simply differ. Nothing illustrates the divergence of method and standards as much as Goffman’s destroying her notes. Only very occasionally would a journalist destroy notes to protect a source. I can’t imagine the circumstances in which a lawyer or a police detective would have the right to destroy evidence in a legal proceeding. A health-science or STEM researcher who destroyed her lab records would immediately be assumed to be covering up fraud.

In the photos in my book, I blurred out the faces of anyone besides police officers. In my writing, I never gave any details of date, name, or address that I thought could be used to identify anyone. Moreover, I ran the quotations and, of course, the pictures by my officer informants and got their signed permission to publish them — a requirement of my publisher, not the IRB. Such actions would be considered bad practice or downright unethical by many journalists. For investigative pieces, facts (including quotes) are supposed to be checked, but sources don’t have veto rights. (In the end, no officer denied me the right to print any image or include any detail.)

Then there is the problem of witnessed truth. Human beings are terrible at accurately understanding, remembering, and recounting what happened at an unexpected, fast-moving event. Ethnographers, police officers, and reporters are trained to be better observers than the average person, but we still use the same flawed brain-mind-visual system tool kit as anybody else. I know that many times, watching cops at work, I had the leisure to document a scene in photos, take some good notes, and even discuss what I’d observed with the officers on the spot.

But other times, things happened too fast, with too many actors talking or running around all at once. I came away with frozen moments and narrative impressions that were imprecise in timeline and dialogue. All I can say is that I’m pretty sure my descriptions depicted events that I’m pretty sure are mostly true. The photos showed what I chose to point my lens at. Like all conscientious studies, it is the truth but can never be the whole truth.

But the lack of "objectivity" in ethnography should be taken in context. We live in a world of weapons-grade fraud, hoaxes, and exaggeration in both the social and physical sciences, so the idea that ethnography is especially flawed is absurd. Chronicle readers in recent years have been told about researchers in the social and hard sciences concocting data sets, suppressing negative findings, and embellishing positive results. Retractions of papers are on the rise, with misconduct the leading cause. Fewer studies with negative results are being published, suggesting pressure to assert positive correlations. Self-reported "questionable research practices" and "misconduct" are not uncommon in the sciences, and "misconduct was reported more frequently by medical/pharmacological researchers than others," according to a study reported in PLOS/One. And as Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado at Denver, has documented, there are now hundreds of fake scientific journals churning out either bogus or remarkably slipshod articles on medical and other topics.

The good news is that more concerned attention than ever is being paid to bad science. But credibility issues are hardly exclusive to humanistic inquiry. And ethnography seems like a particularly ill-chosen scapegoat, because it’s very hard to fake outright.

I know of no claim by an ethnographer that he had conducted a long-term, immersive study of a community when he was actually at home watching American Idol. The volume of work required to produce credible "thick description," to use Clifford Geertz’s term, is immense. Frauds and charlatans would find easier hunting grounds in, say, cancer research or positive psychology. Yes, ethnographers get some details wrong (intentionally and unintentionally), but I believe that they usually get the totality right.

Furthermore, the lack of replicability inherent in ethnography is a guidepost to reliability, not a fundamental flaw. "No man ever steps in the same river twice," the Greek philosopher Heraclitus tells us, "for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man." And no two ethnographers can study the same community. If Goffman and I were at the very same scene of police-suspect interaction — she with her notebook and I with my camera — we might well draw different data and different conclusions. (Geertz called the phenomenon "being there.") That said, we live in an era when no academics can study a community without the risk that their subjects will tweet a corrective. The biases of the ethnographic researcher and her "lab" are open to criticism at every step, including by her living data. That’s a powerful check against fraud and honest mistakes alike.

And ethnographic methods, when done correctly, reveal data that other methods are unlikely to discover. I was interested, post-Rodney King, to understand how stereotypes about cops affected them. A police officer giving a safety lecture to a grade-school class, for instance, was asked by one of the kids how many people he shot the previous week.

One of my main findings was that the police critiqued the portrayals of themselves on the news, "reality shows," and dramas as unrealistic, but they were also acutely aware of how they were being judged by the public according to those stereotypes. What does it mean that many citizens expect violence from the police based not on how real police officers act but on how TV or video-game cops act?

Goffman might make similar claims about the young (mostly) men she observed. No online survey, census-data analysis, or focus group could reveal as powerfully these subjects’ spiral of entrapment in criminality and their motivations.

Ethnography can be an important complement to all other forms of social measurement and study. And it is one of the few that goes the last mile of research, to show actual people acting in the world. As the University of Iowa ethnographic writer Bonnie Sunstein puts it, "The truth of ethnography is in its particularities." Some details you just can’t get from a Survey Monkey poll or an fMRI.

Another longstanding criticism is that ethnographers tend to valorize the communities they are immersed in. Guilty as charged, but with extenuating circumstances.

You can’t read Goffman’s study or mine and not conclude that we sympathized and empathized with our subjects. I came away from my years with uniformed police officers deeply respecting their very difficult job and the many sacrifices they make to serve and protect us. I witnessed no police brutality but observed much aggression and vulgarity against and provocations of the police. I also appreciated how much they cared about many of the people they were arresting. I think not a few officers, if they read her book and met Goffman, might say to her something like, "You got it partly right. But there’s another side to the story."

No academic would deny that social problems are complicated, with many actors and viewpoints. But when we study one group, we tend to turn the people we aren’t studying into a stereotype, or at least an amorphous mass. Street officers are uniformed but not uniform; the most nuanced and thoughtful discussions I ever had about crime and punishment were in squad cars at 2 a.m. Ethnographers, thus, give voice to people who aren’t necessarily otherwise heard.

Yes, all research needs oversight. If you conduct ethnography, you must have others check your work — as Goffman seems to have done, with her adviser interviewing some of her informants and the IRB at Princeton approving the study. The subjects too, of course, should be able to voice any thoughts or reservations about the research. In my case, I used photos not just to observe but to elicit, showing the officers pictures of themselves at work and asking them about their thoughts during and about the documented moments. Scores of ethnographers, like Mitchell Duneier in his essay "How Not To Lie With Ethnography," have advocated for ever more rigorous checks and balances.

But instead of valorizing some research methods over others, let’s consider that many academics lament that policy makers and the public don’t pay attention to us. For a relatively obscure academic research method, ethnography can provide the findings that grab the attention of those audiences, especially when the findings correlate with those of other methods.

Details matter in ethnography, as in every form of research. But let’s guide it, not gut it. It’s too important a tool to waste.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. His books include Policing the Media: Street Cops and Public Perceptions of Law Enforcement (Sage, 2000). He writes the Career Confidential advice column for The Chronicle.