The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 26th, 2015
Controversy over the sociologist Alice Goffman’s On the Run, a study of young people on the margins of society, has put ethnography on trial.
Lost in the accusations and rebuttals, I fear, is the reality that
ethnography is one tool among many but too valuable to dismiss or
ignore. Like other methodologies, it has strengths and weaknesses, but
it complements other approaches in crucial ways.
Almost two decades ago, I finished a visual ethnography of a small
police department in a suburb of Minneapolis. Over several years, I had
examined how media-driven stereotypes of what it was to be a "cop"
affected officers’ work. I spent hundreds of hours, mostly on the "dog"
shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., riding along in squad cars, attending roll
calls, and generally hanging out, observing, and photographing the
police. I eventually "joined" the department as a reserve officer —
lighter-blue uniform, no gun. My study, including some of the pictures I
took, was published as a book.