Reviewed by: Erick Laming, 2016
The “tough on crime” approach in American criminal justice is ever so present in Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. The book presents a first-hand account into the lives of several African-American individuals who are constantly involved with the justice system – either running into or running from it. Goffman’s six year urban ethnographic research of a small, disadvantaged Black neighbourhood (described only as “6th Street”) in Philadelphia is an eye-opening experience of how young Black men (and women) are caught up in the criminal justice system. Goffman was not only able to live and befriend her subjects, but she was also considered to be part of this community. Although Goffman’s book sheds some insight into the inner workings of the police and the American criminal justice system, as well as the everyday lives of disadvantaged Black men and women, it may not serve well as a scholarly resource for those studying urban issues or ethnography; but rather it may be more appropriate for the casual reader.
Goffman introduces the reader to a number of individuals who are constantly and consistently on the run from the law. These characters, as well as their friends and families, are struggling to survive from not only the police on a daily basis, but also from violent “wars” with neighbouring communities. For example, Goffman explains how members from a neighbouring community would drive through 6th Street and unload bullets into homes and vehicles on a continuous basis as a result of ongoing conflict between individuals belonging to both neighbourhoods. The threats of violence from the neighbouring communities were only a small issue that these individuals had to deal with.
The most pervasive topic in this book is the demonstration of how active the police were in their pursuits of these young Black men. Throughout, Goffman illustrates on several occasions that the police would brutally beat these young men, use girlfriends and family members as bait to obtain information, and threaten women with eviction and child custody if they would not turn in the male suspect they were looking for. Although these police tactics may come as a surprise to many readers, it appears as if this behaviour is normal practice and an everyday occurrence for those living in the 6th Street neighbourhood. Another point of interest is how often these young Black men were incarcerated. During the six years of research, several of the characters appeared in court dozens of times which eventually led to them being imprisoned frequently. The notion of mass incarceration of young African-American men is clearly exemplified throughout Goffman’s text.
One primary reason why this book may be more attractive to the casual reader is because of its straightforward use of language. Goffman is effective at clearly articulating the vernacular that the various men and women use throughout. It allows the reader to better comprehend what is being said, as opposed to leaving one to interpret the narrative given by these characters. Moreover, this book is more suitable for a non-academic audience because it does not follow the qualitative research tradition of providing context and themes throughout. While Goffman’s book may be described as a sequel to Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street (also set in Philadelphia), Anderson’s book is divided into specific sections delineating themes, which is more in line with the common presentation style of qualitative research. Conversely, Goffman’s book is more of a story-telling narrative that does not generally follow qualitative research conventions with regard to presentation of results, as well as it lacks a deeper theoretical analysis of the socio-economic factors that affect each character.
The book does suffer from structural and organizational weaknesses. There are several individuals featured throughout the book, making it easy for the reader to lose track of who is who (i.e., relationships between one another – brothers, girlfriends, mothers, etc.). As the book goes on, more characters continue to be introduced and this does create confusion between all individuals. Moreover, Goffman’s “Appendix: A Methodological Note” (located at the end of the book) has relevant information that may be more suitable within the main text. For example, one of her closest friends from 6th Street was shot and killed, however she devotes only a couple of sentences to the incident in her seventh chapter, but discusses the situation in much more detail in her Appendix. The casual reader may neglect to read the Appendix, resulting in frustration over the lack of detail into one of the main characters death. While these drawbacks are not detrimental to the quality of the book, they do illustrate common problems for the reader.
Goffman’s ethnographic research should be recognized as a strong and effective approach to understanding the ways in which disadvantaged Black men and women attempt to live their lives in opposition to severe police harassment and brutality, as well as the broader criminal justice system. It is important to note that this book is a larger product of Goffman’s doctoral dissertation and was published by the University of Chicago Press. Although Goffman’s text may not significantly contribute to the academic literature, it does provide a clear and succinct journey into the experiences of Black men and women whose lives revolve around running from or into the law. More importantly, it provides easy access to an urban ethnographic experience for the casual reader and a non-academic audience.