What is Carnal Sociology?

“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.