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The Body, the Ghetto and the Penal State


This article dissects the author’s approach to ethnography, social theory, and the politics of knowledge through a dialogue retracing his intellectual trajectory and the analytic linkages between his inquiries into embodiment, comparative urban marginality and the penal state. It draws out the practical connections and epistemological rationale behind his main research projects, explicates the distinctive ways in which he deploys observational fieldwork in each of them, and examines the roles of intellectuals in advanced society in the era of hegemonic neoliberalism. Rejecting both Humean empiricism and neo-Kantian cognitivism, the author argues for the use of ethnography as an instrument of rupture and construction, the potency of carnal knowledge, the imperative of epistemic reflexivity, and the need to expand textual genres and styles so as to better capture the taste and ache of social action. In the public sphere, he proposes that social science can act as a solvent of doxa and a beacon casting light on latent properties and unnoticed trends in social transformations so as to disrupt and broaden civic debate.

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  1. 1.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Ethnografeast: A Progress Report on the Practice and Promise of Ethnography,” Ethnography 4, no. 1 (March 2003), pp. 1–10.

  2. 2.

    Pierre Goubert, Louis XIV et vingt millions de français (Paris: Hachette, 1967, new ed. 1997; tr. Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen, New York: Pantheon, 1970).

  3. 3.

    Pierre Bourdieu, Le Sens pratique (Paris: Minuit, 1980; tr. The Logic of Practice, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990); the type and style of public lectures that Bourdieu gave in those days is captured by the collection Questions de sociologie (Paris: Minuit, 1980; tr. Sociology in Question, London: Sage, 1994).

  4. 4.

    Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, La Reproduction. Eléments pour une théorie du système d’enseignement (Paris: Minuit, 1970; tr. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, London: Sage, 1990; Jean Baudrillard, Le Système des Objets (Paris: Gallimard, 1968; tr. The System of Objects, New York: Verso, 1996).

  5. 5.

    Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1984, orig. 1968).

  6. 6.

    Loïc Wacquant, “La question scolaire en Nouvelle-Calédonie: idéologies et sociologie,” Les Temps modernes 464 (March 1985), pp. 1654–85; “Jeunesse, ordre coutumier et identité canaque en Nouvelle-Calédonie” (with J.M. Kohler and P. Pillon), Cahiers ORSTOM-Série sciences humaines 21, no. 2/3 (1985), pp. 203–228; “Communautés canaques et société coloniale: notes complémentaires sur la ‘question canaque’,” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 61 (March 1986), pp. 56–64; “The Dark Side of the Classroom in New Caledonia: Ethnic and Class Segregation in Nouméa’s Primary School System,” Comparative Education Review 33, no. 2 (May 1989), pp. 194–212.

  7. 7.

    Loïc Wacquant, L’École inégale. Éléments pour une sociologie de l’enseignement en Nouvelle-Calédonie (Nouméa et Paris: Editions de l’ORSTOM and Institut Culturel Mélanésien, 1985).

  8. 8.

    William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), a book that extended the analyses presented in The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

  9. 9.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Three Pernicious Premises in the Study of the American Ghetto,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 21, no. 2 (June 1997), “Events and Debate,” pp. 341–353.

  10. 10.

    Loïc Wacquant, “‘The Zone’: Le métier de ‘hustler’ dans le ghetto noir américain,” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 93 (June 1992), pp. 38–58 (tr. “Inside the Zone: The Social Art of the Hustler in the Black American Ghetto,” Theory, Culture, and Society 15, no. 2 [May 1998], pp. 1–36).

  11. 11.

    Loïc Wacquant, “L’‘underclass’ urbaine dans l’imaginaire social et scientifique américain,” in Serge Paugam (ed.), L’Exclusion. L’état des savoirs (Paris: La Découverte, 1996), pp. 248–262.

  12. 12.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Chicago Fade: remettre le corps du chercheur en scène,” Quasimodo 7 (Spring 2002), pp. 171–179 (tr. “Chicago Fade: Putting the Researcher’s Body Back into Play,” City, Fall 2008, in press).

  13. 13.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Corps et âme: notes ethnographiques d’un apprenti-boxeur,” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 80 (November 1989), pp. 33–67; “Protection, discipline et honneur: une salle de boxe dans le ghetto américain,” Sociologie et sociétés 27, no. 1 (Spring 1995), pp. 75–89; “The Pugilistic Point of View: How Boxers Think and Feel About Their Trade,” Theory & Society 24, no. 4 (August 1995), pp. 489–535; “Pugs at Work: Bodily Capital and Bodily Labor Among Professional Boxers,” Body & Society 1, no.1 (March 1995), pp. 65–94; “The Prizefighter’s Three Bodies,” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 63, no. 3 (November 1998), pp. 325–352; “A Fleshpeddler at work: Power, Pain, and Profit in the Prizefighting Economy,” Theory & Society 27, no. 1 (February 1998), pp. 1–42.

  14. 14.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Banlieues françaises et ghetto noir américain: de l’amalgame à la comparaison,” French Politics and Society 10, no. 4 (Autumn 1992), pp. 81–103; “Pour en finir avec le mythe des ‘cités-ghettos’: les différences entre la France et les Etats-Unis,” Annales de la recherche urbaine 52 (September 1992), pp. 20–30; “Décivilisation et démonisation: la mutation du ghetto noir américain,” in Christine Fauré and Tom Bishop (eds.), L’Amérique des français (Paris: Editions François Bourin 1992), pp. 103–125 (revised and expanded as “Decivilizing and Demonizing: The Remaking of the Black American Ghetto,” in Steven Loyal and Stephen Quilley, eds., The Sociology of Norbert Elias, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 95–121); “Urban Outcasts: Stigma and Division in the Black American Ghetto and the French Urban Periphery,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 17, no. 3 (September 1993), pp. 366–383.

  15. 15.

    Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008); “Ghetto, banlieues, État: réaffirmer la primauté du politique,” Nouveaux regards 33 (April-June 2006), pp. 62–66, and “Ghettos and Anti-Ghettos: An Anatomy of the New Urban Poverty,” Thesis Eleven 94 (August 2008), pp. 6–11.

  16. 16.

    Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press and Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1992).

  17. 17.

    Loïc Wacquant, “The Curious Eclipse of Prison Ethnography in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Ethnography 3, no. 4 (Winter 2002), Special issue on “In and Out of the Belly of the Beast,” pp. 371–397.

  18. 18.

    Michael Tonry, Malign Neglect: Race and Punishment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

  19. 19.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Crime et Châtiment en Amérique de Nixon à Clinton,” Archives de politique criminelle 20 (Spring 1998), pp. 123–138 (revised and expanded as “The Great Penal Leap Backward: Incarceration in America from Nixon to Clinton,” in John Pratt et al. (eds.), The New Punitiveness: Trends, Theories, Perspectives, London: Willan, 2005, pp. 3–26); “The New ‘Peculiar Institution’: On the Prison as Surrogate Ghetto,” Theoretical Criminology 4, no. 3 (2000), Special issue on “New Social Studies of the Prison,” pp. 377–389; “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh,” Punishment & Society 3, no. 1 (Winter 2001, Special issue of “Mass Incarceration in the United States: Social Causes and Consequences”), pp. 95–133.

  20. 20.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Les pauvres en pâture: la nouvelle politique de la misère en Amérique,” Hérodote 85 (Spring 1997), pp. 21–33l; “De l’Etat charitable à l’Etat pénal: notes sur le traitement politique de la misère en Amérique,” Regards sociologiques 11 (1996), pp. 30–38; see also the issue of Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales (no. 124, September 1998) devoted to the shift “From Social State to Penal State,” with contributions from David Garland, Katherine Beckett and Bruce Western, Dario Melossi and Loïc Wacquant.

  21. 21.

    Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2008).

  22. 22.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Les banlieues populaires à l’heure de la marginalité avancée,” Sciences humaines 4 (Fall 1996): 30–33.

  23. 23.

    Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009).

  24. 24.

    Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971; expanded edition 1994).

  25. 25.

    Harold Garfinkel, “Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies,” American Journal of Sociology 61, no. 2 (September 1956), pp. 240–244.

  26. 26.

    Loïc Wacquant, “The Penalisation of Poverty and the Rise of Neoliberalism,” European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 9, no. 4 (Winter 2001), pp. 401–412; “Towards a Dictatorship over the Poor? Notes on the Penalization of Poverty in Brazil,” Punishment & Society 5, no. 2 (April 2003), pp. 197–205.

  27. 27.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Race as Civic Felony,” International Social Science Journal 181 (Spring 2005), pp. 127–142; and Deadly Symbiosis: Race and the Rise of the Penal State (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008).

  28. 28.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Penalization, Depoliticization, and Racialization: On the Overincarceration of Immigrants in the European Union,” in Sarah Amstrong and Lesley McAra (eds.), Contexts of Control: New Perspectives on Punishment and Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), pp. 83–100; “The Militarization of Urban Marginality: Lessons from the Brazilian Metropolis,” International Political Sociology 1, no. 2 (Winter 2008), pp. 56–74.

  29. 29.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Following Pierre Bourdieu into the Field,” Ethnography 5, no. 4 (December 2004), pp. 387–414, and the six articles by Bourdieu in the same issue.

  30. 30.

    Pierre Bourdieu, “Le sens de l’honneur” (1965) and “La maison kabyle, ou le monde renversé” (1971), in Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique. Précédée de trois études d’ethnologie kabyle (Geneva: Editions Droz, 1972; republished: Paris, Seuil/Points, 2000); both texts appear in English translation in Algeria 1960: Economic Structures and Temporal Structures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

  31. 31.

    Pierre Bourdieu (with A. Darbel, J.-P. Rivet, C. Seibel), Travail et travailleurs en Algérie (Paris and The Hague: Mouton, 1963); Pierre Bourdieu and Abdelmalek Sayad, Le Déracinement. La crise de l’agriculture traditionnelle en Algérie (Paris: Minuit, 1964); Pierre Bourdieu, Le Bal des célibataires. Crise de la société paysanne en Béarn (Paris: Seuil, [1963, 1972, 1989] 2002; tr. The Bachelors’ Ball, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

  32. 32.

    Abdelmalek Sayad, Un Nanterre algérien, terre de bidonvilles (Paris: Autrement, 1995); Stéphane Beaud and Michel Pialoux, Retour sur la condition ouvrière. Enquête aux usines Peugeot de Sochaux-Montbéliard (Paris: Fayard, 1999); Yvette Delsaut, La Place du maître. Une chronique des écoles normales d’instituteurs (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1992); Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, Voyage en grande bourgeoisie. Journal d’enquête (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1997).

  33. 33.

    Wacquant, “Three Pernicious Premises in the Study of the American Ghetto,” art. cit., and the responses by Michael Katz, Janet Abu-Lughod, Herbert Gans, Javier Auyero, Kenneth L. Kusmer, Paul Jargowski, Ceri Peach, and Sharon Zukin in subsequent issues of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (1997 and 1998); Wacquant, “L’‘underclass’ urbaine dans l’imaginaire social et scientifique américain,” art. cit.; “Decivilizing and Demonizing: The Remaking of the Black American Ghetto,” art. cit.

  34. 34.

    Wacquant, Urban Outcasts, op. cit.; “French ‘Banlieues’ and Black American Ghetto: From Conflation to Comparison,” Qui Parle 16, no. 2 (Spring 2006), pp. 5–38.

  35. 35.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Territorial Stigmatization in the Age of Advanced Marginality,” Thesis Eleven 91 (November 2007), pp. 66–77.

  36. 36.

    Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963).

  37. 37.

    Loïc Wacquant, Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, [2000] 2004).

  38. 38.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Taking Bourdieu into the Field,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 46 (2002), pp. 180–186, and “Habitus,” in Jens Beckert and Milan Zafirovski (eds.), International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 315–319.

  39. 39.

    Jeanne Favret-Saada, Les Mots, la mort, les sorts (Paris: Gallimard/Poche, 1978, new ed. 1985; tr. Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

  40. 40.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Shadowboxing with Ethnographic Ghosts: A Rejoinder,” Symbolic Interaction 28, no. 3 (Summer 2005), pp. 441–447 (response to the symposium on Body and Soul).

  41. 41.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Carnal Connections: On Embodiment, Membership and Apprenticeship,” Qualitative Sociology 28, no. 4 (Winter 2005), pp. 445–471 (response to the special issue on Body and Soul, 28, no. 3, Fall 2005).

  42. 42.

    Gaston Bachelard, Le Rationalisme appliqué (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949); La Psychanalyse du feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1938; tr. The Psychoanalysis of Fire, Boston: Beacon Press, 1964); La Poétique de l’espace (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1957).

  43. 43.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Une expérience de sociologie charnelle,” Solidarités 29 (June 2003), pp. 18–20.

  44. 44.

    Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Book, 1974); Herbert Blumer, Symbolic Interaction (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966).

  45. 45.

    Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 36–46, and Pierre Bourdieu, “Participant Objectivation: The Huxley Medal Lecture,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9, no. 2 (February 2002), pp. 281–294.

  46. 46.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Scrutinizing the Street: Poverty, Morality, and the Pitfalls of Urban Ethnography,” American Journal of Sociology 107, no. 6 (May 2002), pp. 1468–1532.

  47. 47.

    Loïc Wacquant, “The Taste and Ache of Action,” in Body and Soul, op. cit., vii-xii; see also “Whores, Slaves, and Stallions: Languages of Exploitation and Accomodation Among Professional Fighters,” Body & Society 7, nos. 2–3 (June-September 2001): 181–194.

  48. 48.

    Christophe Charle, Naissance des “intellectuels” (1880–1900) (Paris: Minuit, 1990).

  49. 49.

    Louis Pinto, La Vocation et le métier de philosophe. Pour une sociologie de la philosophie dans la France contemporaine (Paris: Seuil, 2007).

  50. 50.

    Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, “The Cunning of Imperialist Reason,” Theory, Culture, and Society 16, no. 1 ([1998] February 1999), pp. 41–57.

  51. 51.

    The debate is available online in video at

  52. 52.

    Franklin E. Zimring, Gordon Hawkins and Sam Kamin, Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You’re Out in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

  53. 53.

    Loïc Wacquant “Critical Thought as Solvent of Doxa,” Constellations 11, no. 1 (Spring 2004), pp. 97–101.

  54. 54.

    Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009); “Ordering Insecurity: Social Polarization and the Punitive Upsurge,” Radical Philosophy Review 11, no. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 9–27; and “The Place of the Prison in the New Government of Poverty,” in Marie-Louie Frampton, Ián Haney Lopez and Jonathan Simon (eds.), After the War on Crime (New York: New York University Press, 2008), pp. 23–36.

  55. 55.

    Loïc Wacquant, “Ghettos and Anti-Ghettos: An Anatomy of the New Urban Poverty,” Thesis Eleven 94 (August 2008), pp. 113–118.

  56. 56.

    On the penal front, see Loïc Wacquant, “The Advent of the Penal State is not a Destiny,” Social Justice 28, no. 3 (Fall 2001), pp. 81–87; “Socialiser, médicaliser, pénaliser: un choix politique,” Combats face au sida. Santé, drogues, société 27 (March 2002), pp. 4–9; “Comment sortir du piège sécuritaire,” Contradictions (Bruxelles) 22 (December 2004): 120–133 (abridged as “How to Escape the Law and Order Snare,” Criminal Justice Matters (London), Special Issue on Politics, Economy and Crime, Winter 2007). On the urban front, read Loïc Wacquant, “Ghetto, banlieues, État: réaffirmer la primauté du politique,” Nouveaux regards 33 (April-June 2006), pp. 62–66.

  57. 57.

    “Critical Thought as Solvent of Doxa,” art. cit.

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Wacquant, L. The Body, the Ghetto and the Penal State. Qual Sociol 32, 101–129 (2009).

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  • ethnography
  • theory
  • epistemology
  • reflexivity
  • ghetto
  • marginality
  • penal state
  • intellectuals
  • politics of knowledge
  • neoliberalism