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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A passionate, profoundly insightful and disturbing book...
Goffman's book is a triumphant tour de force on multiple levels. She eloquently describes her gradual and life-transforming process from a naive, Caucasian undergrad into total immersion in the subculture, families and lives of a roughly five block neighborhood of inner city Philadelphia in the 10 years ending in 2012. Her commitment to the people that form the core of...
Published 8 months ago by Thomas Ball

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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars 2.5 Stars
I approached this book with a heavy dose of suspicion. Who gets a book contract, based on their undergraduate thesis? That is almost unheard of. And unfortunately my suspicions were indeed warranted. My fear was the look at black life from the base of pathology. She obviously anticipated some of these concerns, she writes in the introduction, "The appendix recounts...
Published 4 months ago by Read-A-Lot


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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A passionate, profoundly insightful and disturbing book..., May 6, 2014
By 
Thomas Ball (NY, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries) (Hardcover)
Goffman's book is a triumphant tour de force on multiple levels. She eloquently describes her gradual and life-transforming process from a naive, Caucasian undergrad into total immersion in the subculture, families and lives of a roughly five block neighborhood of inner city Philadelphia in the 10 years ending in 2012. Her commitment to the people that form the core of this book goes way beyond anything I've ever read or even heard about. Among this book's many strengths is the uncompromising candor and honesty she brings to bear in documenting her questionable status as an educated, white girl in a male dominated, urban black street culture. But the book isn't about her, a point she makes quite forcefully in a riveting methodological section, and the strongest testimony for this fact is the extent to which she was able to successfully assimilate, blend in and not become the focus of or change the ongoing behaviors, dynamics and tragedy of the lives of the people in her research. At least, based on her scrupulous reporting, it seems that way.

Her key themes are highly political, controversial and shocking to most of us living in the bubble that is mainstream America. She describes the day-to-day lives of an alternate society consisting to a significant degree of young fugitives, "on the run" from a social and legal structure that officially espouses neoliberal principles of equal opportunities for all while instituting a stunningly punitive judicial system that is guilty of blindly disenfranchising, imprisoning and oppressing significant numbers of black youth. In her view, this is nothing less than an updated version of racism, segregation and apartheid -- a horrifying American Gulag Archipelago. Based on the evidence, this is an accurate and compelling statement.

The controversy, of course, revolves around the appropriateness of the social responses to the riots of the 60s, the culture of murder and violence spawned by the demand for a hugely profitable, illicit drug trade in the 70s and 80s, enactment of harsh, Rockefeller-type anti-drug legislation, "James Q Wilson" enforcement of so-called "squeegee" laws for minor infractions of social codes, the racist profiling in routine stop and search sweeps that disproportionately target minorities. After all, it could be worse, right? We could be as paralyzed by drug cartels and corruption as countries like Mexico. Among the many disconnections that form the background to this book is the fact that there are millions of illegal aliens struggling and working -- WORKING -- in a vast underground economy which systematically excludes the subjects of her story.

These are definitely minority opinions in the current zeitgeist. The fact is, however, that you would have to be a complete ignoramus not to know of the astounding rate of incarceration and imprisonment in this country - which in 2014 stands at 3% of the adult population. And that's just those currently in the prison system. If the numbers of people ever imprisoned for a felony at least once in their lives are included, the rate jumps by a lot more. Today, more people are in jail in this country on a per capita basis than were ever imprisoned in Stalin's gulags or are imprisoned in North Korea's penal system. This should not be a source of pride for any American.

Books like Goffman's will serve to solidly anchor the ongoing debate regarding the dysfunctions, dislocations and gross social inequities inherent in these policies. Fortunately, it's not hard to envision a time when her minority opinions will diffuse into the opinion held by the majority. It should go without saying that if the inherent talent and brains in this dispossessed subculture were put to work in a socially profitable manner, the economic multipliers would be worth billions, if not trillions over the long run.

Easier said than done.
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32 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars fascinating and infuriating, May 28, 2014
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I am incredibly impressed by the personal sacrifice the author made for her research. Her drive and compulsion takes her deep into a culture few of us can relate to. She writes with refreshingly simple and clear language (especially considering her association with Cornel West).

I found the meat of the book, however, to be incredibly frustrating. All of the criminal actions of her subjects felt like they were described in the passive voice. The police acted to inflict pain and punishment. The "boys" were victims.

I kept wondering about her conclusions of cause and effect and whether she could have gained some insight if she hadn't blown off her statistics class. There are lots of descriptive statistics about percentages of minorities in the criminal justice system (all well trodden ground), but no attempt to quantitatively untangle the cycle of violence, police response, more violence, more response, etc. To me, this is the core of the issue. Maybe that is work for others, but it requires some note if her conclusions are to have clout.

Stockholm syndrome was always on my mind as I read the book. For the first half I felt like she had fallen in too deep with her subjects which led her to conclude that the boys were the victims, despite their continuous criminal actions. By the end, I became more convinced that it was her academic environment that clouded her conclusions.

Her descriptions of her personal experiences and those of the "clean" were beyond compelling and were more honest (by my reading) than the main part of the book that focused on the sociological conclusions. Her work chronicling of the "clean" and "decent" was inspiring. The writing on her personal experiences kept me up late at night.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An on the ground look at those On the Run, May 2, 2014
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This review is from: On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries) (Hardcover)
On the Run is an on-the-ground authentic look at an emblematic neighborhood in Philly where more than half the men at some point have a warrant out for their arrest, causing them to be on the run. On the run from the police. On the run from parole officers. On the run from the courts. On the run from girlfriends. On the run from those who would use their vulnerability to victimize them.

This is the world behind the statistical sketch Alice Goffman paints in her preface. Briefly, the US locks up five to nine times more people than western Europe. More than in Russia, or China, excluding Stalin's reign. And it's the Black communities suffering the brunt.

Blacks, who make up 13% of the population, account for 37% of the prison population. 10% of black men are behind bars compared with 1% for whites. 60% of Blacks who do not finish high school will go to prison.

All of this is well known, and has been known for more than three decades. What Goffman does is bring the reader face to face with people caught in this cycle. She follows a group of young men in whose neighborhood she lived and shared their lives for six years while a student.

She introduces us to Chuck. His predicament with the law begins after a scuffle on the playground in high school. It sets in motion the cycle described in the statistics above. He does time for it. Upon release, he's denied re-admittance to high school because he's turned 19. A chippy arrest follows for failing to appear in court. Chuck is on the run.

There is an art to running. Chapter one begins with Chuck teaching his 12-year-old brother how to run: not to a relative's house - the cops armed with enhanced technology know places the refugee frequents. It's to a church lady's house ultimately. In addition to Chuck, Goffman introduces us to four other friends with legal entanglements. It's these entanglements and the subsequent running from them that form the warp and weave of their world, and the world of their families.

Running from the police is an art that according to Goffman resulted in 58% of the men succeeding in eluding the police despite the fact that the enforcement officers devote up to five squad cars in one instance to pick up one suspect on a minor charge.More than 70% of the time, the police had no idea who it was they were chasing in instances where the target escaped.

Running requires the ability to spot police well in advance.

For those who have done time and report to a parole officer, running from the parole officer also becomes an issue. In a quite humorous anecdote, Goffman recounts the instance of Jevon, a born natural actor, who develops a business on the side by taking curfew calls from parole officers. In addition to parroting his client's voice, he is briefed on identifying information the parole officer requests to ensure he has the right subject. It may seem like a lot of trouble to go to, but the penalty for missing curfew in the chippy world of law enforcement in the Black community is two years.

The author herself is caught up and subjected to what might be considered enhanced interrogation. It's what the women of men on the lam suffer, midnight raids with their living quarters turned upside down and subjection to intimidation to reveal the whereabouts of their sons.

Of course, those caught up in these legal entanglements cannot go to the law for protection or to register grievances. Others know this and take advantage. In once instance, a boy's car is torched because he's late in making a payment to a drug dealer. In another, one of the boys is mistaken for someone else and beaten severely suffering injuries that have been with him into his adult life. He refused medical treatment at the hospital because a parole violation would be filed against him for curfew violation.

In one instance, however, the boys in the hood sought the protection of incarceration by turning themselves in to the law to avoid a shooting war that broke out. One even asked his parole officer for a urine test he knew he would fail.

This is well worth the read to better understand the numbers that are all too familiar.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars 2.5 Stars, September 28, 2014
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I approached this book with a heavy dose of suspicion. Who gets a book contract, based on their undergraduate thesis? That is almost unheard of. And unfortunately my suspicions were indeed warranted. My fear was the look at black life from the base of pathology. She obviously anticipated some of these concerns, she writes in the introduction, "The appendix recounts the research on which this work is based, along with some personal reflection about the practical and ethical dilemmas of a middle-class white young woman reporting on the experiences of poor Black young men and women."

Her thesis is based on the lives of young black men caught up in the criminal justice system in a black community in Philadelphia,PA and how that impacts not only their own lives, but the lives of family and community members as well. She becomes completely immersed in the community, and her goal is to become a fly on the wall. "Blending into the background became an obsession." On some occasions this works, and in other situations not so much. This method however skates the ethical line.

At times the book reads like a memoir, she attempts to become a honorary member of the community dubbed "6th St." The numerous times she documents clear cases of police brutality yet remains silent because the community seems unconcerned and there is not a lot of conversation around the event. Well, had she done some historical studying about policing in Philadelphia, she would have been well aware of the sordid and brutal history of the Philly PD, concerning the black residents, and what seems to her like apathy could indeed be fatigue, fear and a historical understanding of how reporting police brutality often leads to more of the same.

So, she is writing from a place of privilege, while attempting to act as though she is organic to the community. To her credit she acknowledges this privilege. "People have asked how I 'negotiated my privilege' while conducting fieldwork. Given that I am a white woman who comes from an educated and well-off family, this is a good question. In fact, I had more privilege than whiteness, education, and wealth: my father was a prominent sociologist and fieldworker."

While this method doesn't completely derail the book, it does dent the project somewhat. The undented parts allow us to see how a simple arrest, can lead to a life diminished by law enforcement. ..."Though the crimes that start them off in the penal system are often crimes of which richer young men, both Black and white, are also guilty: fighting, drug possession, and the like." This is a worthy exposition, and one I think we all sometimes lose sight of. "Thus, the great paradox of a highly punitive approach to crime control is that it winds up criminalizing so much of daily life as to foster widespread illegality as people work to circumvent it. Intensive policing and the crime it intends to control become mutually reinforcing. The extent to which crime elicits harsh policing, or policing itself contributes to a climate of violence and illegality, becomes impossible to sort out."

I wanted to go 2.5 stars, but not possible, so 2 it is.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Questions without Many Answers, August 5, 2014
This review is from: On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries) (Hardcover)
Officials parrot the same refrain in crime-plagued communities: we can't stop it by ourselves; we need the help of the public. So, why don't the residents, the afflicted ones, help? If Goffman's exercise in sociology does nothing else, it answers that question neatly, and powerfully. Who would cooperate with a paramilitary force that imprisons men, leaves women to fend for themselves, destroys already weak families, ensures perpetual poverty, and generally turns life upside down (as in taking care of business in the dead of night)? Would you?

But the larger question, which Goffman leaves readers to formulate and answer for themselves, is: what would work? Perhaps a system that punished when necessary; that showed more understanding and mercy most of the time; that, in doing so, made it possible for people to cooperate with authorities in bringing order and real justice to these neighborhoods.

As for Goffman's methods, well, many will find them questionable. She immersed herself in the neighborhood and became one of the gang, the accepted white sister. Her immersion led her into risky situations, some, such as abetting lawbreakers, illegal. Even more, though, while it provided her with deep insight into how these poor and sieged communities work, it distorted her lens. She was no longer an impartial observer; she was an active participant in the life, to the point where she questioned who she was. That seems a certain signal that she carried things over the line and tosses a pall over her findings and conclusions.

Some may find the book tedious slogging after the first couple of sections. If so, you might jump to the conclusion, which summarizes her findings and thoughts. You might also read her section on methodology to grasp how far down the rabbit hole she tumbled.

While these are critical remarks, I'm still giving the book 4 stars. Goffman raises important questions in readers' minds. She illustrates that what we are doing currently is not working. Not only not working, but doing tremendous harm to whole generations. It's a criminal justice strategy that alienates the communities it is supposed to help, and alienates the communities looking on and wondering what the heck is going on.
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34 of 49 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Bizarre Work of Moral Blindness, July 12, 2014
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This book is a sociologist's Ph.D thesis. It is endlessly repetitive and demonstrates the author's shocking moral blindness.
As a career criminal defense attorney in a crime- ridden American city,, I am well aware of police excesses and brutality. Philadelphia, about which this book is written has a police department that historically has many things to answer for in its treatment of the Black community.
That being said, the author's thesis is essentially that the neighborhood she studied, and the criminal she came to know and love, have their lives constantly interrupted by the police who use sophisticated techniques and relentless pursuit to track down and arrest its residents.
The author attended 19 funerals occasioned by violent death in the neighborhood, mentions in passing dozens of almost casual shootouts engaged in on public streets, her subjects (now friends) shooting into houses, she is present when robberies are planned, she hides a man in her apartment who is sought for attempted murder, she helps someone smuggle drugs into jail, and she exults when a teacher who is the victim of a violent crime by one of his students ( one of her subjects ) fails to come to court, and she believes that giving information to the police to help them apprehend violent felons ("snitching") is unforgivable.

Finally, after one of her armed friends is killed by someone who thought her friend was going to kill him, she sets out with an avenger with a Glock looking for the perpetrator. "I just wanted him dead" says Ms Goffman. Nice.

She describes without comment the FIRST children of teenagers and their "baby mamas" well after the fact, implying they've had more.
After describing a crackhead mother living in an apartment with all utilities cut off, the walls and floors alive with flies and roaches, and the bathtub used as a toilet, she confines her outrage to the fact that the police threaten to take the woman's children away unless she cooperates with them (they should take them away no matter what, but the author doesn't think so).

There are frankly unbelievable descriptions of devotion by young women in the neighborhood to their criminal boyfriends who spend most of the time in custody or running from the police. She describes them several times as feeling "a sacred duty" to love, honor and protect these men. She spent several years living in the neighborhood, describes dozens of relationships and doesn't mention the endemic and pervasive domestic violence surely present in that community even once.

The authors view is that her subjects have constructed meaningful lives full of tender emotion as they commit crimes, elude the police, inform on each other, accuse innocent people of crimes to protect friends who actually committed them (all in the book) and that the remorseless presence of the police is disrupting this community in some inchoate racist way.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Stereotypical Account of Life in a Black Community, January 6, 2015
This review is from: On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries) (Hardcover)
Growing up in Brooklyn and familiar with the struggles of an inner city, I really wanted to like this book. But it reads more like a dissertation and removes the reader from hearing Goffman's authorial voice. The structure of the book is quite cumbersome to read and very choppy--there are paragraphs full on conclusions and random dialogue between characters sprinkled throughout the book. Goffman is also very repetitive--repetitive to the point that paragraphs seem to be copied and pasted in different sections throughout the book. I have read about Miss Linda's roach-infested house at least five times. Rather than mentioning trivial details, she chooses to constantly repeat them.

I give her credit for immersing herself in a neighborhood foreign to her, but the book does not reveal anything more than her observations. The reader does not get to know the author, her own thoughts, her reactions, etc. She witnesses police beatings and even two murders--yet there is virtually no inner reflection. Also, the main characters--Chuck and Mike--as well as the supporting ones are painted as one-dimensional characters. As a reader, I wanted to learn more about Mike and Chuck instead of cloaking them as the stereotypical drug-dealing convicts. I wanted to know more about Miss Linda, other than her crack addiction, roach infested house, and the fact that her three sons have three different fathers. These descriptions reinforce the stereotype of black communities. I am sure there is more to these characters than what she chose to include.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyone should read On the Run!, August 13, 2014
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This is an amazing book. It gives great insight into the lives of young ghetto men. It is also moving and very well written.
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17 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A flawed academic study of the black urban community, July 4, 2014
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This is an interesting book and highlights many of the substantial problems within the current urban black community. Certainly problems of police repression, complete economic failure of the black urban milieu and lack of supportive family structure are issues that need to be addressed by both the white and black populations. I found several of her observations enlightening (e.g. the use of bail bonds in lieu of banks because black residents lack the required identification to open and account) but I think the author missed the point. Black urban communities are in the shape they are due in large part to the activities of that population of people. The police would not have such a large presence if things like shootings, robberies and assaults didn't occur so frequently in that community.

The onus of correcting the issues she identified lies largely within the residents of the black communities. The main personalities she describes were black males who lack the attitudes needed to change things. The rampant decline of the family unit, the chronic drug and alcohol addiction and the "chip on the shoulder" attitude of many people identified in the book are all major impediments to ever changing the environment for the people of that community.

I do have several significant reservations about the book. Many are clearly identified in the Epilogue section where the author goes into the methods she used while doing her research. She has breached the line from being a researcher and impartial observer to being a participant. The clearest example of that was her description of driving the car with one of the principle characters of her study while looking for someone to shoot in retribution for a slaying of one of his friends. She is very lucky the man in the car did not fire on the person who was thought to be involved in the original slaying otherwise she could have been an accessory to murder. She comes across and just another rich white girl who gets involved with the black community and then wishes her skin color were the same as theirs.

Another issue I have is that every time she uses the word black to describe a race of people she capitalizes that word but does not do so when using the word white or Hispanic. I am not trying to be petty here but I don't understand why one word describing a race of people is capitalized while words describing other racial groups are not.

This is an interesting book but is fatally flawed by the manner in which the research was conducted. It shows just how far the gap is between the mainstream white society and that of the urban black community.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Repetitive, infuriating, ultimately unhelpful., December 23, 2014
By 
A. Walker (Gettysburg PA, USA) - See all my reviews
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Very repetitive. Could have been at least 50% shorter and still made the author's points.
After reading this tome, I don't understand any better than I did the dysfunction which is portrayed.
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On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries)
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