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Methodology: Creative Practice Research, ‘Carnal Sociology’ and Feminist Epistemology’s Situated Knowledge

My methodology of research is, broadly, creative practice research. But the research also finds precedence in the methodology of ‘carnal sociology’, developed by sociologist Loïc Wacquant, and in the ‘situated’ knowledge of feminist epistemology. Wacquant’s incarnate sociology stresses that properly representative research results must come not from the body as an observed ‘sociocultural object’ but from the lived body acting, acquiring skills, feelings and memories; in other words, the body itself is a seat of knowledge, of ‘sociological acumen’5.A theory of the human agent as a ‘sentient and suffering being of flesh and blood'6 undergirds Wacquant’s methodology. In practice the researcher situates herself ‘not above or on the side of action but at its point of production.7' A spectatorial viewpoint is disavowed, treated with suspicion only because its very objectivity may in fact mask a reality that only bodily experience can manifest. The methodology is also present-tense, rather than past-tense, in that it researches action-in-the-making, not action-already-accomplished. Action-already-accomplished – as for example the frozen action captured in a photograph – is symbolic; the inertness of the accomplished action suits the body-absent mind. Action-in-the-making is openly and ambiguously affective and corporeal, critical of the received meaning of read symbols. Wacquant used carnal sociology to study boxing subcultures in Chicago, ‘incarnating’ himself into the milieu of the boxing gym and its tournaments. His interest was the body knowledge of the human agent in the social milieu. While the social agent of research is traditionally ‘disincarnated…constituted of an active mind mounted on an absent, inert, and dumb body’8, Wacquant reasons that the human agent, as well as being a ‘wielder of symbols,’ is also ‘sentient, suffering, skilled, sedimented, and situated.9'


Wacquant’s research method potentially provides tools for interpreting the unique methodology of creative practice research in general, especially creative practices where making activities are present. Creative practice research for photography and video, especially where the artist’s body itself becomes a part of the investigation, is perhaps a kind of carnal sociology by default. The movement about a studio or location, the living presence and interaction of bodies, the curating of space, the relationship between the artist’s body and the model’s body – all of these features suggest a fundamentally ‘incarnate’ research activity. In any case, my research ‘incarnates’ my body in the research object I analyse, the subject’s embodied experience of body-correcting practices. I have not observed a kind of feminist sociology of waxing, shrinking, bleaching and cleansing; I have waxed, shrunk, bleached, and cleansed myself. Hierarchies, of researcher and researched for example, are broken down. My research field is such that the ‘spectatorial viewpoint’ can be seen affecting an objectification of the body, compelled to undergo these practices to attain normativity. It also normalises their effects on the female body. Since observation, in the sense of the gaze of the camera observing, is here a political act, selecting an incarnate methodology is critical. Such a methodology does not foreclose on the affective states of the body being objectified in commercial photography. This also links to my critical use of photography, and to the use of self-portraiture. To put oneself before the lens is to also break down the hierarchy implied by gazer/gaze. I will expand on this further in the next section.

In a field of research more closely related to my own, Amanda Czerniawski has deployed carnal sociology to research plus-size models in the milieu of the New York fashion scene. In summary, what is significant in Czerniawski’s research in relation to my own project is that the affective responses of the participant researcher are not excluded from the findings – indeed they are foregrounded. Czerniawski, for one example, remarks on how ‘nervousness or body insecurity can hamper affective labour’10. What relationship might exist between this pattern of affectivity within the woman subject and women’s general subjection as the second sex? To be sure, such emotions and affects can be best generated by an incarnate method of research. Cognition and emotion are equal incarnate responses that engage the trained faculties and proclivities of an indivisible ‘body-mind complex’11. Regardless of the conscious feminist critical perspective from which my body, as an agent in the research, experiences the women’s body-correcting practices that are the object of my research, the affective and emotional responses of the incarnate researcher are inextricable from the results.


Wacquant’s methodology, while recently developed, in fact confirms may of the theories of knowledge already developed in feminist epistemology from the late 1980s onwards. The overlaps (and elaborations) include that knowledge is embodied. Our experience of the world is what discloses knowledge to us, and that disclosure is initiated by our bodily activity. It also closes off those parts of reality that our embodied activity does not activate. This becomes important in able-bodied versus disabled experiences of the world, and the different ways our sexed bodies and the gendered behaviour of our bodies discloses knowledge of the world. Generally speaking, a woman’s body, being more likely to be sexually objectified than that of a man, will have a different ability to abstract propositional knowledge from the embodied experience of objectification – what it is like for an entity that is obviously a subject to be treated as an object – than will someone who is less likely, or not at all likely, to experience objectification (i.e. men). Propositional knowledge is the result of abstractions at the limits of this embodied experience. There is a difference between first-person knowledge and third-person knowledge and, given this, it is obvious that we represent objects of experience and knowledge according to our emotions, attitudes, interests and values. Perhaps a woman’s body itself is a differential object of knowledge, depending on the gender identity and sexual orientation of the knower. Our knowledge of our bodily and mental states is ‘first-personal’, whereas a third-party can only interpret the signs of these states. Since signs are ambiguous, these interpretations can be erroneous, whereas first-personal experiences are to some extend self-evident (for example pain as opposed to the signs of pain). To elaborate the example of sexual objectification, men’s knowledge of the affective damage of objectification represented by stereotypical images of women in media is limited by their ‘situated’ knowledge, since it is as third-personal, interpretative, disengaged and (relatively) affectless.


While there are clear overlaps between this theorising of knowledge and Wacquant’s methodology, the contribution of carnal sociology is that it advocates the researcher’s embodiment as a method of knowing, rather than staying at the level of analysing embodied knowing itself. The injunction to focus on affective states, as well as on the sedimented skills of the body knowing, is welcome in creative practice research.

My research 'incarnates' my body in the research object I analyse, the subject's embodied experience of body-correcting practices. I have not observed a kind of feminist sociology of waxing, shrinking, bleaching and cleansing; I have waxed, shrunk, bleached, and cleansed myself.