What can social research learn from the savage detectives’ mode of inquiry?

[El nombre de esta sección es “artículos en cuotas”. La idea es, como en una novela por entregas, ir subiendo partes de papers a medida que vayan saliendo. El texto abajo es el segundo post de este tipo. Es un (muy) borrador de la primera parte de un capítulo para el libro Organization 2666 editado por Christian de Cock, Sine Nørholm Just, y Damian O’Doherty. Como el título lo indica el libro reunirá contribuciones que conectan la literatura de Roberto Bolaño y los estudios de las organizaciones]

What can social research learn from the savage detectives’ mode of inquiry? José Ossandón

Image result for Los Detectives salvajes “Soñé que era un detective viejo y enfermo que buscaba gente perdida hace tiempo. A veces me miraba casualmente en un espejo y reconocía a Roberto Bolaño” (Bolaño quoted in Trelles 2008: 271)

“Los detectives de Bolaño, pues, como en sus poemas, como en sus sueños y como en la mayoría de sus ficciones, son poetas en búsqueda permanente de otros poetas pero que, a su vez, serán objeto de búsquedas posteriores que repiten las circunstancias  y las carencias singulares de las suyas” (Trelles 2008: 287)


Crime fiction has been read as a mirror of social research.

In The Arcades Project, Benjamin (1999) notes that Allan Poe’s Dupin is like a physiognomist. Like the ‘Man of the Crowd’, who reads the signs hidden in the masses, Dupin deciphers the traces left in the bourgeois domestic space. The detective’s inquiry works at a level of abstraction that Benjamin recognizes as the key to 19th century society. Like financial commodities and collections, the detective’s mode of knowledge production works by assembling series out of previously unconnected events. Carlo Ginzburg (1983, 2004) has developed the comparison further. In his view, it is in the 19th century that the case study, represented in figures such as Peirce, Morelli and Freud, reaches its consolidation as a scientific method. It is this type of ‘abductive’ research that is represented in Conan Doyle’s Holmes. Sherlock is a sharp reader of signs, a non-stopping abductive machine that can connect a unique trace with massive amount of updated scientific knowledge in order to come up with the hypothesis that will solve the case. The detective literature, Ginzburg points out, fictionalizes too the consolidation of the modern social science as a technique. It is in this context that modern criminology will unfold in two main directions: the industrial collection of traces (like ear patterns and the finger print) to identify unique individuals and the visualization of abstract categories (like the ‘criminal’) in what at the time was known as ‘composite pictures’. More recently, sociologist Luc Boltanski (2014) has suggested that the inquiries of sociology and fiction detectives are comparable as they present the same problem. The crime story situates its reader in the scenario that the social world does not work the way we have normally told it works: it plays with the possibility that social reality is not simply the outcome of reasonable human motivations. Sociology is a science that tests the existence of collective social actors that challenge the individualistic liberal depiction of society. This is why sociology, unlike economics, is always open to the criticism of paranoia. It is in this sense, too, Boltanski argues, that Holmes is finally that conservative. The detective’s work is to find a rational explanation that both solves the case and reaffirms the readers’ trust on the liberal order.

Of course, crime fiction doesn’t stop in the end of the 19th century and similar analyses can be – and have been – done about the books of Chandler, Le Carré, Pynchon or Agatha Christie. It is not an issue in this context either whether the novelists really thought about social scientific methods, or, if their descriptions are factually accurate. It is enough to point out here that what Benjamin, Ginzburg and Boltanski show is that crime fiction, while following its own artistic dynamic and logic, can be read as a reflection on social research. The question this chapter will develop is: what can be learnt if we read Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives as a reflection on social scientific research? In other words: what mode of social science is represented in a book whose title and logic is of a crime fiction, but, that does not feature actual detectives?

The hypothesis the chapter proposes is the following. As it has been mentioned in the literature in the area (Trelles 2008), the poets in The Savage Detectives are detectives in search of their antecessors. Theirs is not a calculative and cold research, like that of Borges’ heroes. They are the Latin-American answer to the hard-boiled detective of the noir novels. But their risk is not only physical (it is though; they live in hard conditions, not far from crime, corruption, torture and hard drugs). They risk also because the result of their inquiry is the sense of their work. Poets, like the infra-realists in The Savage Detectives, know that they do not only have to write, but have to produce the frame in which their work will be read. They do not only spend a great deal of time inventing magazines and anthologies; but they need to find their own genealogy, their antecessors. If they fail: they work will not only be invisible, but senseless. To use another term that crosses the interest of literature scholars and social scientists, The Savage Detectives is performative in at least two ways: it consolidates this idea of inquiry, the poet as detective, while constructing too, the frame to read Bolaño’s own early literature: it is this book that makes sense of infra-realism. It will be suggested that the mode of research conducted by the poets-detectives in Bolaño’s book is not completely alien to contemporary social theory and research (it is not that dissimilar to Deleuze’s own relation to the history of philosophy, or even literature, or Latour’s creative re-visiting of Tarde and Garfinkel). It is a method of inquiry whose object is, at least in part, its own conceptual ground. The chapter will conclude by pointing out how this method adds a yet uninspected dimension to recent reflections on abduction and theorizing in social research (Timmermans & Tavory 2012, Swedberg 2014, Vaughan 2014).


Benjamin, W. (1999). The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Boltanski, L. (2014). Mysteries and conspiracies: Detective stories, spy novels and the making of modern societies. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ginzburg, C. (1983) ‘Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method’, in U. Eco and T.Sebeok (eds) The Sign of Three. Dupin, Holmes, Peirce. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, pp. 81–118.

Ginzburg, C. (2004). Family resemblances and family trees: two cognitive metaphors. Critical Inquiry30(3), 537-556.

Swedberg, R. (Ed.). (2014). Theorizing in social science: The context of discovery. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Timmermans, S., & Tavory, I. (2012). Theory construction in qualitative research: From grounded theory to abductive analysis. Sociological Theory30(3), 167-186.

Trelles, D. (2008) La novela policial alternativa en Hispanoamérica: detectives perdidos, asesinos ausentes y enigmas sin respuesta. PhD Thesis, University of Texas at Austin.

Vaughan, D. (2014). Theorizing: Analogy, cases, and comparative social organization. Theorizing in social science: The context of discovery, 61-84.


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