Since her book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” was published last year, Alice Goffman of the University of Wisconsin has achieved a measure of fame that is rarely visited on a young sociologist. “On the Run” won attention because of timely subject matter (low-income black men and their interactions with the police) and vivid storytelling, based on six years of immersive fieldwork. It was the subject of dozens of articles and often-glowing reviews. An impassioned TED talk Goffman delivered in March has been viewed more than 800,000 times. The New York Times says the “enthusiasm has curdled somewhat, as critics … have debated not just her facts, interpretations and methods, but the fraught politics of privileged white outsiders' studying minority communities.”
Northwestern University law Prof. Steven Lubet, in a review in The New Rambler reposted in condensed form by The New Republic, charges that Goffman committed a felony. She describes driving the car when a young Philadelphia man named Mike went looking for the man who had recently killed their close friend Chuck. Mike, with a gun tucked into his pants, gets out of the car to approach someone. The man turns out not to be the killer, and no shots are fired, but Lubet said Goffman's actions, as described, “constituted conspiracy to commit murder under Pennsylvania law.” Goffman's publishers, the University of Chicago Press and Picador, stood behind her and her book. Several other sociologists told the Times that Goffman's account disturbed them, even if they did not endorse Lubet's approach.