The first real news has all happened today. First I will be presenting my paper “Breathing Like a Soldier” in Stockholm Sweden in the Embodying Sociology Session. I will be discussing how the soldier’s seemingly bizarre world of asceticism, suffering, and limit pushing is made sensible through the conversion of the soldiers body from civilian to martial. I will lay out how the situation of the novice who is trying to “make do” in an objective economy of practices comes to transform his corporeal scheme through the embodiment of techniques du corp, such as styles of breathing, and how this then changes how that world is experienced. In this sense I argue that breathing is both a disposition for action, a readiness of the body to act in terms of conditioning of the respiratory system and as a habit for regulating breathing to stimulate the body for dexterous activity or to calm it as a platform for deploying weapons. On the other hand the incorporation of techniques for breahting as habit, the result of engagment in drills for fitness and for marksmanship, acts as a form of incarnate knowledge to the extent that the world is immediatly apprehended in terms of the bodies readiness and capability for action.

So what does carnal sociology as an ethnographic project do that adds to the traditional approach of making distanced observations about a group, an approach in which every effort is made to suspend participation in the world studied, to avoid affecting the situation studied, and to make sure that the sample acquired is representative? Carnal sociology proposes a number of advancements in participant-observation research:

1.) It aims to demonstrate, in action, a theoretical and methodological approach that takes seriously the fact that social agents are beings of flesh, nerves, and sense, who partake in the world that makes them and them in turn contribute to the making, with every fiber of his or her being. As Loic Wacquant has put it to me once, carnal sociology is not a sociology “of the body” but a sociology “from the body.”
2.) Carnal ethnography does this by placing the observer in the center of the action where the researcher engages in a methodical and meticulous work of detection and documentation, to try and capture the “taste and ache of action,” the sound and fury of the social world that positivistic approaches tend to suppress or make mute. In this way a carnal sociology adds another dimension to ethnography as “a fine-grained depiction of the ways of feeling, thinking, and acting of a particular people in a particular milieu.”
3.) This documentation and detection is accomplished ONLY by initiatory immersion and even moral and sensual conversion to the cosmos under investigation. How can one know what soldiers look for in the woods without oneself having the perceptual and sensorial powers to appreciate the soldier’s visual and acoustic world. But to attain such a power of sight and sound one must be ready for an “education of the sense.” Above all what this allows is, given the proper theoretical and analytical tools, for the sociologist to appropriate in and through participation the cognitive, aesthetic, ethical, and conative (desires) structures that those who inhabit that cosmos engage in their everyday deeds  .
4.)  If the knowledge that we are seeking is a knowledge learned by the body, a social world inscribed in the bodies of those that dwell in it, in the form of affects, habits, and dispositions, then the sociologist must submit to the fire of action, in the situation, and to the greatest extent possible put his or her own being, sense, and incarnate intelligence at the epicenter of the material and symbolic forces that he or she wishes to dissect
5.) It is misleading to see this kind of research as primarily a personal or autobiographical narrative. Rather the body of the sociologist is deployed, often unwillingly, as a tool of inquiry and vector of knowledge. The transformations of the sociologist’s body become just one more indicator of the world under investigation. I do not simply study my body. I thematize the transformations to it in order to direct my attention to what I might otherwise miss in the surrounding social world. I allow myself to be sensitized and interested in the  cosmos I am new to.
6.) One does not focus exclusively on the sociologists transformation alone. Interviews, video and photo documentary and simple observation must all be consulted to create a dense network of overlapping data that makes the social world studied in some sense “more” real.
7.) Carnal ethnography is a science. It claims to make falsifiable and generalizable explanations of a social phenomenon that, in principle, could be repeated.
8.) Carnal ethnography is an intervention (closely related to point 5). It is by mutual reaction that we discover properties of the social order. One can do this by creating ripples in the social situation and alternatively in the flesh of the researcher. Research and social world should be in a relationship of reactivity. The social world rarely reveals its secrets without some kind of seismic disturbance.

Thus to answer your question in brief, I translate my carnal experience to something larger by never making carnal  experience my explicit goal. I have a carnal experience precisely because I inhabit the world that I study. It is just one more way of understanding, although this time practical rather than intellectual. I continue to make observations of the group in its material, social, and symbolic setting, but I do so with ever more discriminating senses.
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What it isn’t:

— Autoethnography

A Social Ontology—Primer for a method:

Lande, Brian. 10/14/04.”Carnal Sociology is not Autoethnography: A personal correspondence.”

This is a response to a letter asking about whether or not sociology is any different than autoethnography. As such I have edited it somewhat to depersonalize it. It should be read with the thought in mind that this is not a formal piece with the appropriate references and analytic rigor of a peer-reviewed article but is, rather, a letter of response to friendly inquiry.


Immediately it must be understood that carnal sociology is not to be considered one more postmodern autoethnography, an ethnography or rather biographical diary that seems to be more about the researcher and his/her development and experience of the field. Such an ethnography fails to be empirical or due justice to the  craft  that was formally known as participant-observation. Rather carnal sociology (or if you prefer carnal ethnography) takes seriously the role of the ethnographer as participant. Carnal sociology only risks falling into the category of autoethnography if the research were merely a description of, for example, my participation. Then it would merely be another study preoccupied with the self and perhaps yet another product of the postmodern asocial theory of knowledge that argues the impossibility of knowing anything beyond the self (and hence caught up in what I like to refer to as Kant’s science fiction nightmare). But if my research is ultimately a carnal ethnography, then it is not a report about me and my transformations. I have tried to use my participation in the military, and now in the police, as a gateway into a mysterious and secluded world that does not operate according to the common sense principles and logics of either the academic, economic, or political spheres. What we as both curious citizens and intellectuals are left with are a vagary of stereotypes, propagated by the media  as well  as the folk representations of the military itself and no doubt the ideological machinery of the State. How to counteract these? Will a survey do? Not really, because such a method depends on an a priori knowledge of relevant categories to collect data on as well as relying on the self-reports of the subjects themselves. While self-reports are often helpful, they miss the non-obvious aspects of social life that are either forgotten because they are common sense or, like fetishes, tacit knowledges, and habits, cannot be revealed to consciousness without undermining the social order itself. Thus the situation we are in when studying groups such as the Army or the Police is that what we know is limited by stereotypes and very real social division between civil society and the internal workings and cultures of these  institutions even, as the case may be, if such organizations are vital to the very functioning of the social order.

Carnal sociology, more than even the best designed survey, is about as empirical as one can get in the social sciences. Although there are strictures on just how much a single ethnographer can see, the carnal sociologist  gets  as close to living, breathing, sweating, bleeding, vomiting, eating, and erotic people as is possible in order to fully describe the the phenomena of interest. Indeed if we are at all concerned with studying social practices we must always be able to account for humanity in the flesh, the flesh being the unifying principle of social world and acting organism. All other methods are limited to reporting what people say about what they do (although many survey instruments track down “traces of behavior” left in institutions such as hospitals, law enforcement agencies, and bureaucracies.  Furthermore, since the unifying principles of social practice tend not to be logical (in the sense of the logic of the logician) but practically reasonable, and grounded in the generative scheme’s of the body as habits, dispositions, and skills, these generative principles are often not available to linguistic reflection for study. A sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, once wrote that, “There are heaps of things that we understand only with our bodies, outside conscious awarness, without being able to put our understanding into words” (1990: 166). To try and capture what is going on through formal modeling, or the responses of informants, means possibly destroying the phenomena that one wants to study, namely the relationship of skill and desire to social worlds.

So the analyst, in trying to describe social phenomena and experience, is left to try and apprehend the social world through the same practical and embodied scheme of ‘natives.’ This means using the analysts own body as a kind of experimental device, to try and recreate in the analysts body the sensitivities and habits of the members of a social world through prolonged exposure of the analysts body to the same world of practices, challenges, and necessities as the members of a social universe. If the analyst does his or her work then he should be able to develop the same relationship of passion that so many people have to their social worlds. But above all that means encountering the practices of an institution head on, and being willing to risk the interests, desires, and skills that one enters that world with to a gradual transformation. When the analyst is finished working they should have acquired a new bundle of inclinations and abilities, suited to the social world under study, such that cannot but see the world through body of the world they study. (I think I can safely say, and my mentors and friends can testify to this, that after a year and half studying the military, I had to a great degree become a living and breathing incarnation of its values and purposes. This made the decision to leave the field a painful experience, one that I experienced as nausea). That said, the purpose of carnal ethnography is to have the best of two worlds: the detached observation of a disinterested observer (through the application of the sociologists tools of objectificaiton) and engaged natural attitude of a participant, caught up in the ebb and flow of the social life one is studying.

At some level this means not treating going “native” as research gone horribly wrong. Rather one goes native. But only to a point. What differentiates the carnal sociologist from the native at the end of the day is precisely what the native (as if such a person exists!) and the analyst do in their evenings. The analyst, when he goes home (or in my case under the sheets of my bed in the barracks of Fort Knox) uses his analytical tools to explain and interpret what he or she has observed and experienced.

“Carnal Sociology is not Autoethnography: A personal correspondence”
Carnal sociology aims to understand the social world the way people do, viscerally,  through the body. The social world is constituted as much by the pains, pleasures, and peak performances of persons engaged in social activity as by the meanings and cosmologies attributed to the gesticulations of the sentient, living, and acting body.
It is an approach that “aims to provide a demonstration in action of the fruitfulness of an approach that takes seriously, at the theoretical, methodological, and rhetorical levels, the fact that the social agent is before anything else a being of flesh, nerves, and senses…a ‘suffering being'” (Wacquant 2003).
A carnal sociologist immerses him or herself, as a full participant, in the social world under inquiry in order to capture the sensual and moral attraction that make members of that world tick. It is an “ethnography by conversion,” in which a bundle of skills and interests are transformed by the institution under study such that the research becomes an experimental incarnation of institutional values and ways of being.
In part such an approach by a theoretically armed researcher is deemed necessary because a great deal of a groups knowledge of itself and the world is a tacit knowledge, embodied as collective bodily dispositions and perceptions that often are not or are cannot be articulated through language. This is due to no other fact than that the perceptions and actions that are generated in the bodies relation to the world are not founded  upon linguistic or propositional rules but literally inscribed in the flesh. As Bourdieu argued, “we learn by the body.”

More importantly, carnal sociology starts from the position that the form of the body, its structures, and poise are the conditions for meeting the world. The habits and dispositions that allow the body to interact with the world in situationally contingent ways affect how the surrounding world shows up.

With carnal sociology’s emphasis on how the structure of the body makes the world (physical and social) possible, it differs substantially from the “sociology of the body.” The sociology of the body has an emphasis on the normative and discursive conditions and their inscription in and on the body (see Crossley 1995). This stance highlights the ways in which bodies are embedded in and formed by various kinds of social structures.

Carnal sociology, on the other hand, focuses on the importance of the body in the production and reproduction of social practices. But it is also a genetic sociology that recognizes the conditions under which the body takes its historically contingent form, paying attention the often silent and collective pedagogy and engaged structures of practice through which the acting, moving, living body develops. But even as the body moves about its social world, incorporating its structures into its corporeal form, the body is always also constructing the world through engagement in the practical activities of life.

The body, in this sense, is more than just a text. It is incarnate. Incarnate, is used rather than embodiment, because as a concept, it emphasizes the flesh and blood of the body as constitutive of the conditions under which human life unfolds.

Practically this means that carnal sociology takes seriously the structure of the body and its world (Todes 2000). The body has symmetrical limbs, a front and a back, eyes, a nose, a sensitive skin, and exists in a world with a gravitational field. But the body also takes its form in the ways that it inhabits its social world by making it habitable by way of skills and dispositions. Thus the soldier’s body takes on a particular form and experience that is different than the civilians in part because it has a different posture, way of breathing, levels of stamina and dexterity, and techniques for movement. At the same time that the soldier’s body takes its form from the institutional world it inhabits it also makes that world habitabl by developing a body that predisposes it to interact, cope, and perceive with that world.

Carnal sociology, like phenomenology, focuses on the body as a basis for action and at the same time acknowledges that this action takes place in surroundings which afford limits and possibilities for action. For the carnal sociologist body and world are part and parcel of what it means to have experience.