American Sociological Association

Alice Goffman Award Statement

Alice Goffman Award Statement

The ASA Dissertation Award honors the best PhD dissertation for a calendar year from among those submitted by advisors and mentors.  The winner of this year’s award is Alice Goffman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Mitchell Duneier served as her dissertation advisor with Viviana Zelizer, Paul Dimaggio, Devah Pager, and Cornel West rounding out her committee at Princeton University.

Drawing on intensive fieldwork with unemployed young men in Philadelphia, Goffman’s thesis gives us a view of mass incarceration from the ground. It is a close up account of the profound impact that the prison boom and the war on drugs are having on everyday life in the American ghetto.

Goffman's thesis focuses on a group of loosely connected young men who spend their days enmeshed in one aspect of the criminal justice system or another: entangled in court cases, probation and parole sentences, living in halfway houses and on house arrest. They frequently have low level warrants out for their arrest, mostly for technical violations of their probation or parole, for failure to show up to court, or for unpaid fines. The thesis first describes the sophisticated tracking techniques that a growing number of special police units now deploy to make their arrest quotas.  Then it takes the reader into the world of young men living with a liminal legal status, in their words, "on the run". Goffman explains how boys learn to successfully spot and hide from undercover police; how they come to see their mothers’ homes as last-known addresses, and their closest kin as potential informants. By the time they reach adulthood, young men recognize that the activities and relations that should help them constitute a respectable, law-abiding identity -- going to work, attending the birth of a child, or maintaining a stable and public daily routine – function instead as a net of entrapment.  Staying out of jail requires secrecy and unpredictability -- strategies deeply at odds with any effort to be responsible fathers, spouses, or workers.

After bringing the reader deep into the lives of young men “dipping and dodging” the police, the thesis switches gears, taking on the perspective of these young men’s mothers, girlfriends, and neighbors.  Through first-hand accounts of early morning raids and lengthy interrogations, Goffman documents the sustained pressure the police place on female family members to inform. As the police destroy their homes and threaten to take their children away, women are forced to choose between their own security and their partner or son's freedom. In painful detail we learn how familial and romantic relationships unravel in suspicion and betrayal.  

Yet for all this, Goffman’s thesis never depicts men and women as hapless victims, immobilized in webs of control. Some of the most interesting parts of the dissertation involve the creative ways that residents use the police and the courts for their own purposes, in ways the authorities never intended.  For young men with few employment prospects, warrants become a ready excuse for failures in the labor market. The bail office becomes an alternative banking system, and even jail occasionally serves as a safe haven when the streets become too dangerous. In anger and frustration, women harness the threat of the police to control and punish the men in their lives. They also organize meaningful routines around court dates, bail payments, and jail visiting hours. An entire branch of the informal economy has developed to supply the goods and services that legally compromised people seek to evade the authorities, and local residents are earning extra cash hawking everything from clean urine to fake documents.

In the penultimate chapter Goffman shows how the threat of prison has come to permeate the social fabric of the community, creating a moral framework through which residents carve out their identities, negotiate right from wrong, and demonstrate their attachment to one another. Her dissertation ends with the suggestion that granting a legally precarious status to large numbers of young men – far more than ever go to prison and return home with criminal convictions -- amounts to a denial of basic citizenship rights for a large segment of the country’s African American poor. Goffman makes a convincing case that the systems of policing and surveillance currently deployed in American ghettos are not producing the disciplined subjects as one might expect in some prison-like panopticon, but rather a community of suspects and fugitives who are living underground, in fear of capture and confinement.

This year’s thesis is not only a major contribution to the study of U.S. poverty and racial inequality, but a landmark contribution to urban ethnography. It should serve to inspire another generation of sociologists to see the value of long range, respectful, and observant participation in everyday life.