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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