Is Carnal Sociology a young man’s game?

How to treat gender, violence, and extreme situations.

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.