towards a carnal sociology (or the dark night of the ethnographer’s soul)

I’ve something on my mind – something that has preoccupied me ever since starting my ethnography of the Cambridge squad. It is at once a great source of embarrassment and an intellectual challenge. Try as I might, I cannot remember a time when I dreamt as vividly as during my fieldwork. In contrast to most ordinary nights, these dreams were far from innocent.

How can it be that a healthy soul gives, in dreams, the strangest, the most incoherent, the most illogical manifestations, and afterwards, when awake, performs its function again in the most normal way? (Rignano, 1920). I’d frequently wake up feeling parched, pooped, confused – haunted by the ghosts of last night’s dreams and wondering why they’d suddenly become so vivid, so menacing, so wounding? Who were these vengeful shadows from the netherworld floating in and out of my head, and why are they here? Was I not allowed some reprieve from the excessive introspection and worry that enveloped me like candyfloss since joining the squad? Like Philip Larkin’s mum and dad, the squad fuck you up: ‘They may not mean to but they do / They fill you with faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.

This entry is a call for help as much as an attempt to untangle the clutter that are my thoughts. Rather than soliciting names of psychotherapists, however, my invitation is of a scholarly kind. A handful of sociologists to date, including Loic Wacquant (author of Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer), have made inroads into formulating a carnal sociology – or an attempt to describe the subject’s world ‘by immersion’. This approach is, Wacquant argued, a radical departure from conventional ethnography. For it embraces the view that our subjects are first and foremost embodied, carnal beings of blood and flesh who relate to the world in passionate ways. This calls for a manner of ethnography that recognizes and takes full epistemic advantage of the visceral nature of social life, such as Wacquant’s boxing gym or my rowing squad. (As many of you will know, Wacquant credits the origins of carnal sociology to his mentor Pierre Bourdieu and his notion of ‘participant objectivization’, or entering social worlds that can often only be grasped in practice.)

To the seasoned sociologist, my interpretation of Wacquant’s vision no doubt seems superficial – in which case I’d gratefully stand corrected. That said, it has very strong intuitive appeal. As a carnal sociology my recent work has serious drawbacks, the most relevant being that of me being unable to ‘partake’ of the training in the way Wacquant could – and did. After all, Boat Race preparation requires a level of skill and fitness that come only with many years of dedicated training and coaching. The best I could do was to participate with them in core exercises and, in lieu of their physical training, to row and train and compete with a less competent city based crew instead. It’s not perfect, but probably as good as it gets given the nature of the beast.

What interests me (coming to the point) is the extent to which Wacquant’s carnal sociology might need to be extended by allowing subconscious experience to inform analysis? After all, dreams were often regarded as truth-telling oracles in times past and, like it or not, we spend a significant portion of our lives unconscious. More relevantly, dreams may well serve as an important compliment to conscious reality. That, at least, was Jung’s view in seeing dreams as spontaneous self-portrayals, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious. (It is partly here that Jung deviates from Freud’s thesis on dreams as wish-fulfillment). Jung took dreams to be diagnostically valuable facts. So why shouldn’t we as ethnographers?

I believe it was C.S. Lewis who suggested that dreams do not suddenly cease to exist when unmasked for the delusions they are upon waking. Nor is the experience of everyday life snuffed out when descending into sleep. The two worlds are unmistakenly distinct and yet somehow related. This would seem particularly true in ethnography, where dreams might serve to highlight vital links between the observer and the observed. (This link may not be altogether different from that described in Damasio’s Descartes Error in linking emotion to reason, for instance, where emotion may increase the saliency of a premise and, in so doing, bias the conclusion in favour of this premise). But what precisely is this relationship? And how important is it in the research process?

The literature relating dreams to ethnography is (understandably) sparse, particularly with organizational ethnographers. An obvious methodological difficulty lies in the inability for others to participate in dreams except by means of first-hand accounts (which raises issues of reliability).

Though I’m happy to write about my dreams – and to try and contextualize them as best as I can – it seems that significant scholarly progress would require two things: an ontology of dreams, and (possibly) a theory of behaviour as encased in dreams. Should dreams be treated as data, as bias or as analysis? Can they be considered data in the same way we consider interviews or first-hand observation data? If so, what are they data about? About the subject? About the observer? Or about the relationship between observer and subject?

Or are dreams best treated with contempt – as a source of bias – in colouring observations and analysis? Even in this case, it would seem important to recognize this (much like we confess to other potential sources of bias in reporting research).

Or are dreams active participants in analyzing data? To what extent do they help crystallize what we (think we) see?

I have some thoughts on the above, but no firm answers. Perhaps you do. That said, intuitively I feel very strongly about the importance of acknowledging dreams in writing carnal sociologies – though I’m less clear on what this acknowledgement comprises.

Written by markderond

June 11, 2008 at 12:34 am

Posted in uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the thought provoking post. As I understand it, there are some physical benefits to sleep, such as healing, but it may be the case that sleep is more for the mind than the body in that it allows the mind to make sense of the data from the day. It seems reasonable that dreams would be related to this.

    One of my favorite dream stories is from my first year in grad school. I spent all day working on a problem set for one of my classes (macroeconomics, I think) and couldn’t make any progress. It was very frustrating and stressful. Turns out that that night when I slept I dreamed about working on my problem set and not making any progress. I was not very refreshed when I awoke. I realized then that it was time for a break.



    June 11, 2008 at 5:08 am

  2. Mike — I’ve also had the opposite: no progress on a problem while awake but solutions in effect emerging sometime during/via/after (hard to characterize of course) dreams related to the problem at hand. Kind of interesting — I think that the processing of whatever we happen to be deeply engaged with continues even in subconscious states, the sciences certainly provide ample anecdotal evidence, and, there must be more scientific evidence on this as well.



    June 11, 2008 at 5:25 am

  3. Before we start ontologizing dreams, I think we just simply need a theory of dreams. Whether dreams are useful or not for something like ethnography (which is ultimately an epistemic activity in scientific fields, at least when it comes to the “context of justification”), will depend on what your theory of dreams tells you dreams are in the first place. It is possible that dreams can be helpful in that respect, but it is also possible that they are unhelpful (that is that they prevent rather than help the very difficult methodological labor of participant objectivation that Bourdieu was referring to, by leading the scholar toward the road of self-indulgence).

    For instance, it is clear that your conclusion that dreams are “diagnostically valuable facts” depends on the (dubious in my view) Jungian premise that dreams are ” spontaneous self-portrayals, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious.” I think that this thesis requires you to make explicit theoretical commitments about the structure of the human mind (what used to be called a “meta-psychology” in the olden days), some of which may or may not be warranted (most of what passes as “metapsychology” in psychoanalytic circles is not warranted to me), and some of which is simply outdated in light of contemporary cognitive neuroscience.

    Another issue is the following: to what extent do dreams (or their “symbolic interpretation”) actually further your initial goal to engage in a “carnal” sociology? My sense is that the primary treatment of dreams for the last 108 years has been a-corporeal, and very “anti-carnal” and primarily associated with the “symbolic” meanings of dreams not their relation to actual, practical contents of everyday life (in a certain sense the Freudian tradition is actually superior to the Jungian in this respect)–the Jungian tradition is the worst in my view in proposing the idea of dreams as the repetition of “archetypal” forms and relations, archetypes that are timeless and “universal.”

    So a big challenge in this respect will be to move beyond the largely platonic treatment of dreams in Western psychology, to a more sober consideration of their possible role in more mundane practical contexts (including their role in learning and habitualization) rather than escapes into the symbolic world of the dynamic unconscious (from the former point of view, dreams belong in the “cognitive unconscious”). Whether dreams are useful in this respect is something that is worth considering, but that I think would take a lot of interdisciplinary digging to even begin to establish.



    June 11, 2008 at 1:02 pm

  4. Your questions about whether to treat dreams as more or less reliable data remind me a bit of the widely-circulated dream manuals of the Middle Ages – which supposedly still survive in certain countries in ‘horoscope’ form sold on grocery store racks, etc. – when dreams and dreaming were not only seen as revelatory or factual but as a socially important source of truth (and error). Debates could then be had because of the close connection between dreaming and social structures of observation and evaluation, but the problem today, as Omar suggests, is that there don’t seem to be even widely accepted assumptions about the importance of dreams, much less a widely shared theory of dreams. Whatever one’s views on the usefulness and validity of psychoanalytic theories of dreaming, contemporary research into neurophysiology and neurochemistry of dreaming has either downgraded the significance of dreams in the understanding of mind and brain function (Hobson) or at the very least rendered it a matter of contention and dispute. Current explanations of dreaming may seem more or less grounded in science or experience or both, but the debates retain something of the flavor of arms-in-the-air conjecture.

    Given the discussions here about Harrison White, it’s interesting that his first published sociology article, with Vilhelm Aubert, was on sleep, though they included a discussion of dreams as well. Situating dreaming within the ambit of a broader comparative study of sleep and its continuities and discontinuities with waking activity may be one way to proceed with a program of carnal sociology.



    June 11, 2008 at 3:20 pm

  5. Thanks for the comments – both on and off-line – which are superbly valuable. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that so much of our scholarly life is spent working in solitude when so much can be gained from pursuing a thought collectively (even if it proves to be a dead-end)?

    I might be helpful to contextualize the blog entry a little. I grew up as a child of missionaries on an island in South America (all of which sounds romantic, until one takes into account the fasting, home-made yoghurts, poverty, and sing-a-longs). I never did spend a lot of time ‘with the boys’ so to speak, doing stuff that boys do (though I did a bit of that too). Hence to be thrown into an all-male, hyper competitive, masculine environment proved to be a shock to the system. This shock became no where more apparent than in my dream world (over which I felt I had little or no control). As a scholar (rather than a ‘loonie’ – though some might argue these archetypes aren’t far removed), what concerns me is this: to what extent might these dreams have informed my subsequent observations (even analysis)? I am once again reminded of Damasio’s Descartes Error (and recent books like it written by authoritative individuals) where emotion seems to play a much more important role in reasoning than previously suspected. One example he provides is that of emotion able to increase the saliency of a premise and, in so doing, bias the conclusion in favour of this premise. Emotion is thus ‘part of the loop of reasoning’. Now that’s interesting. If true, the same might be true of our dreams. And if so it would seem ‘un-scholarly’ not to address this – or at the very least explore it for a while and see where it leads.

    None of this suggests that I believe dreams have special powers. In my particular case, the dreams were often of the anxiety kind (never pleasant), forcing me to think much more deeply about what it is to be a man in a men’s world, what masculinity entails, about the relationship between masculinity and affection, about the role of affection and humour as mediating the often awkward but inevitable tensions between cooperation and competition, trust and vigilance, narcissism and altruism, in pursuit of the sacred and the profane.


    Mark de Rond

    June 11, 2008 at 4:06 pm

  6. You’re touching on three issues here, related as they may be.

    The first issue of embodiment is heavily touched on, treated, and taken for granted in sociocultural anthropology. Feminist anthropology deals with the body a lot. Other feminists have engaged with Foucault’s docile body, but that’s a slightly different issue. I come to the body through a postmodern poststructuralist lens, through Foucault in part, but also through Deleuze, who I am still trying to absorb. One other place to look is phenomenology, which I am currently exploring.

    As for reason, we pomos are incredibly skeptical of such a thing, and always call for attention to the way that “reason” operates on the ground, especially with respect to the body, but also affect/emotion. Zaloom’s “Out of the Pits” is a nice look into the ecstatic and embodied experience of the stock market, which many would assume to be undergirded by cold sterile reason.

    Finally, dreams. I was really struck by Petryna asking one of her participants about their dreams in “Life Exposed”, but I’m not aware of any direct treatment of dreams, ethnographically at least. I suppose one question regarding using this as a source of data is just how you want to treat it. Petryna may have asked about dreams at other times, but it only appears the once. I don’t think she was using it as data in a typical sense, but rather to draw out a context, where it poetically evokes the experience of her participant.


    Jason C. Romero

    June 12, 2008 at 12:01 am

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