Goodman was born in Watford, England on 19 February 1948. He was educated at the University of Manchester (politics and modern history) and the London School of Oriental and African Studies (Chinese language and Chinese politics). He also studied economics at Peking University. Goodman's university teaching since 1971 has focused on Chinese society, politics, history, and literature. He currently lives in Suzhou in China.
Goodman is currently Vice President Academic Affairs at Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University, in Suzhou, where he was previously (2014-2017) Professor and Head of the Department of China Studies, and (2016-2017) Head of Humanities and Social Sciences. He has served in the past as Acting Director and Academic Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney (2010–14), the Director of the Institute of Social Sciences at University of Sydney (2009–2010), Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International) and Vice-President of the University of Technology, Sydney (2004–2008), Director of the Institute for International Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney (1994–2004), Director of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University (1991–1993), and Director of the East Asia Centre at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne (1985–1988). In 2000 he was elected a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in the discipline of political science. During 2012-2016 he was a PRC Ministry of Education Distinguished Overseas Academic and Professor of Social History in the School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Nanjing University.
Goodman's research has focused on centre-local relations and regional development in the People's Republic of China; the political history of the Communist Party of China; and, more recently, on social and political change at local levels in China, most especially configurations of class, and the sociology of entrepreneurship in contemporary China. His research emphasises the historical continuities in Chinese economy and society from the 20th century to the 21st. He is the author or editor of more than three dozen books and monographs on Chinese politics and society and more than 100 academic journal articles and a similar number of academic book chapters.
Since the late 1980s Goodman has been active in promoting a provincial (or more localised) approach to understanding China, both in his own work and in workshops organised by him around that theme. Through these activities Goodman has had a major influence on the development of China studies, prompting China scholars to address the implications of the wide variation in social and economic development across the country. The academic journal Provincial China arose out of the workshops he held across China beginning in 1995 on the theme of "Reform in Provincial China."
In his current research on the 'new rich' in China, Goodman's view is that local elites and power relations are strongly shaped by family ties embedded in specific localities, resulting in a wide variety of models of what it means to be middle class in different places across China. Goodman is also involved in social-historical research into the strategies pursued by the Communist Party of China in the northern base areas of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1939–1940.