James Forman Jr’s The Society of Fugitives is an excellent and comprehensive review of Alice Goffman’s “On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto.” Forman compares and contrast other social research and studies to the disparaging commentary of Goffman’s character observations in her study of inner city men. Her characterizations represent a minute portion of population, yet Goffman assumes her chosen samples as a monolith of inner city life on the Philadelphia streets.
The best of social researchers reach a crevice they understand is too large for them to cross. The wise turn away and find another science project, yet some, already invested in weeks of research preparations and a finite amount of time per semester plod on to the demise of their subjects. This may be one of those times.
Goffman was a sociology major, but her coursework hadn’t prepared her for the phenomenon she was witnessing. The situation of men like Mike and his friends had not figured prominently in previous ethnographies of the inner city. Whereas Anderson and others had written about young men who were continually suspected by the police but who had some chance of walking free after a street stop, the men Goffman studied were actually wanted. If the police were to stop them and discover their fugitive status, they would be taken into custody. These men also risked arrest for noncriminal activity that violated their probation or parole—staying out past curfew, for instance, or visiting a part of town where they weren’t allowed to be. As a result, they lived their lives on the run.