urban police puzzle and ethnographic method

A few days ago, we discussed an empirical issue around Goffman’s On the Run ethnography. That work focuses on how police intervention cripples poor Black men. The issue is that other ethnography reports an under policing of poor Black neighborhoods. Earlier, I suggested a voter driven explanation – voters like to see young Black men arrested on drug charges and reward police for it.

Here, I’d like to raise a methodological issue. Goffman’s ethnography is not typical in the sense of studying a field site like a firm or a neighborhood. Rather, the ethnography is a study of a cohort of people. You follow them around. That is different than field site ethnography where you choose a location and focus on the action happening in a space. People come in and out. So it is not surprising that if you stand on a modal street corner in Philly, you won’t see many cops walk by. In contrast, if you follow people who are the target of police, then you will, not surprisingly, see a lot of police.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 4, 2014 at 12:01 am

7 Responses

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  1. Fabio. I did not respond to your original post, but feel inclined to do so now. Your methodological point is spot on, if you hang out with people who police are looking for you will see a lot of police. But this does not answer your earlier query about minority neighborhoods being “under policed”. The other ethnographies you are referring to were probably “old”. It is fairly well known (in the literature on racial profiling at least) that the policing of minority neighborhoods intensified during the war on drugs, and that the Department of Justice in particular encouraged police to target black and brown people in their search for drugs. The explosion of imprisonment for non-violent drug crimes is, of course, more generally recognized in sociology (at least). Where you are in history determines what you observe ethnographically.

    The idea that this historical shift is voter driven, seems to me to be half right and half wrong. The half right part is that in the late 70’s the Republican party bet the farm on a politics of racial resentment and won. The Democrats, including the beloved Bill Clinton and many big city majors, ran away from race and embraced the drug war (really a disguised war on black people). The half wrong part is that this was a deliberate racial framing by the Republican Party to win white voters (which they did in the South). Thus it is not clear that voters asked for this, as much as racial resentment was produced as a framing device. a good citation on the resentment politics is Nancy DiTomaso’s new book The American Non-Dilemma (Russel Sage 2013).


    Don Tomaskovic-Devey

    September 4, 2014 at 12:34 am

  2. I thought thought footnote 4 on page 2, and then the discussion on page 31, at least addressed the issue of why police can seem both absent and ever-present in communities like 6th St.



    September 4, 2014 at 2:36 am

  3. Great points but seeing police does not just depend on who you follow but it also depends on what corner you pick to stand and what you look like…


    September 4, 2014 at 10:32 am

  4. Thanks for all the excellent comments.

    @DTD – The historical sequencing may be off, but the voters keep rewarding the drug war, even if they didn’t initiate it. Policy is that way – a group may not have innovated the idea, but they rally behind it.

    @kenkolb- thanks for the note. In these two posts, we’re trying to fill out the broader methods/theory story.

    @Hector – Indeed. Ethnography probably has the larger interviewer effect. It makes me shudder to think that if it had been an ethnographer of different background, they would have been subject to MORE surveillance.



    September 4, 2014 at 6:03 pm

  5. I’d say it’s a mix of being a geographically bounded and cohort bounded study. The subjects are specifically from “Sixth Street”, and Goffman presents data that help to situate what she observes about the “cohort” that she observed closely into the context of the neighborhood. For example, we find out that the males drop out of the local high school at a much higher rate than females. And one of the major virtues of the book is to show how the status of the young men at the core of the study comes into play in shaping their relationships with people who do not share the same issue with their personal status. One of the major points here is that really fundamental relationships in the community become mechanisms of surveillance.

    Another thing is that we do get to see some of the next cohort coming up. When Goffman began her observations, Mike’s brother was still removed from problems with police (at least in the first degree). But we see how he becomes personally involved when he rides in a car that was flagged as stolen. This has profound effects on his trajectory — his moral career. So, it’s not merely that she observed those who were already targeted by the police. She also shows how that targeting and it’s pernicious effects may come by way of proximity, that proximity being linked to things like kinship.

    Also, doesn’t Tally’s Corner end with a change in cohorts? I seem to remember that the guys who spent time on the corner where Liebow left and new guys started occupying it. If this is the case, we might consider whether the “hang out on the corner” model was ever really just that.


    September 4, 2014 at 7:40 pm

  6. That is the point–law enforcement focuses on policing certain individuals rather than on policing (and helping keep safe) the neighborhoods in which those individuals live. In “Punished,” Victor Rios points out that the Oakland police typically will not even enter the public housing projects in which the boys he studies live, yet those same police spend much of their time surveilling, harassing, and arresting the boys and young men who live there. This coincides with larger shifts in the organization of policing work, as many urban police departments have moved away from walking beats and have not entirely addressed community policing, instead structuring their work as some combination of reactive policing and problem-oriented or intelligence-led policing in which specific “known to the police” individuals are the target of much police activity. Camden, NJ, interestingly, has moved back to a walking-beat system in which police officers are known to the community, a system which has the possibility of reducing the underpolicing/overpolicing duality: :

    Liked by 2 people


    September 5, 2014 at 12:14 am

  7. @mikaila. You’re the second person to suggest I look at Rios’s book in the past three days. Just ordered a copy.



    September 5, 2014 at 2:23 am

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