sociology’s sacred project

(Reposting this to allow Chris Smith to post his response.)

After reading Philip Cohen’s thorough and entirely apt review of Chris Smith’s new book, I did what any self-respecting academic would do. I bought the book and read it.

I’m not going to offer a thorough review here; Philip’s is, characteristically, at once substantive and devastatingly accurate. In the main, it’s a profoundly silly book by an author who has the intellectual chops, professional history, and resources to do a much, much better job. The evidentiary base is irresponsibly haphazard, interpreted disingenuously, and in several cases factually inaccurate. And the pages are filled mostly with score-settling, as if Smith has spent his illustrious career keeping an enemies list of those who have insulted him and his friends and has committed to publishing it here. There are numerous basic editing mistakes (authors’ names misspelled, idioms incorrect, verbs forgotten). In short, it reads like an extended, incoherent blog post: a particular irony since Smith spends a considerable amount of space fretting that blogging has been bad for sociology, based mostly on Sherkat‘s admittedly obnoxious style.

Rather than a review, though, I want to ask whether there is a nugget or two of interest to be extracted from the book.

Much of the thrust of the book is a debunking project that depends on the weight of the word “sacred.” This, in turn, rests on Smith’s reading of Durkheim. A sacred project is that which cannot be questioned, cannot be defiled (or, in some variants, will evoke a strong reaction when defiled). But this reading of Durkheim is incomplete, to say the least. Indeed, Durkheim’s brilliance is in demonstrating that the sacred/profane dualism animates all social practice, including both science and reason.  To charge sociology with having a sacred project is to charge sociology with being social, with being a group.

One could reasonably ask: what would characterize the profane to sociology’s sacred? If sociology were to proceed without the shared mental representations and collective effervescence that result from a sacred project, what would that look like? At various times throughout the book, Smith shows some affinity for what he ultimately terms “sociography” (a term Adorno used derisively in his 1968 lectures): “using… empirical research methods simply to describe the contours of the social world as accurately as possible” (p. 184). (I was surprised at this, as I remember a contentious faculty meeting at which Smith derided demography as “downloading the census, plugging it into Stata and seeing what comes out,” but I guess that’s now preferable to a sacred project he dislikes.) But Smith ultimately rejects sociography as insufficiently meaning-making, a position I agree with, and with which I suspect most sociologists also agree.

I don’t think Smith actually wants sociology to abandon sacred projects, or even to abandon normativity. Much of his recent writing has pushed the other way, arguing that the fact/value distinction is illegitimate. And in the Appendix he argues for a “personalist” position, based on persons as:

conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending centers of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who — as the efficient cause of their own responsible actions and interactions — exercise complex capacities for agency and inter-subjectivity in order to sustain their own incommunicable selves in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the non-personal world. (201)

Now, many of those descriptions are subject to empirical and/or theoretical investigation. And many parts of this are actually fully compatible with sociological theory and research. But, as Smith writes, and Philip calls him out for, the real culprit here is not sociology but modernity. You see, “Personalism knows that humans are not lost in a world of moral vacuity and live in a reality involving natural goods and bads, truths and falsehoods, justices and injustices” (201-202; emphasis mine). What Smith is calling for, then, is an antimodern, personalist sacred project to supplant the one he sees as hegemonic in sociology.

Smith is right, I think, in thinking that sociology’s history and toolkit provide grounds for a sociological critique of modernity. These lie in part in Durkheim’s insistence on the social whole as the unit of analysis and the problem of social order in advanced societies, and in part in critical theory’s concern with modern capitalism’s proliferation of meaningless choice. Questions like these animate lots of current sociological research, including many of the books and articles Smith pillories earlier in the book. A less-motivated survey of these materials (and maybe actually reading them instead of just sneering at their titles – ahem) would probably have turned up some important affinities for Smith’s preferred approach. For example, feminist analyses that the ’60s’ “sexual freedom” often led to reproducing women’s disempowerment are compatible with the social-order problem that the benefits of “structurelessness” are unevenly distributed. And certainly the global-inequality literature’s implicit concern with the condition of extremely-low-wage workers is directly relevant to those workers’ capacity to be “conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending centers of subjective experience… in loving relationships with other personal selves!”

In short, where Smith sees a hegemonic juggernaut, I think the “bizarre amalgam of liberalism, positivism, Marxism, empiricism, constructionism, progressivism, hermeneutics, pragmatism, postmodernism, and feminism” (202) that makes up its “modern liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist” (11) project is actually quite divided, in part on precisely the lines Smith would like to see.

Smith is right that most readers will reject this book, and deservedly so. Its myriad flaws, disingenuousness, and fundamental incoherence certainly outweigh the kernel of worthwhile argument. But I do think that kernel exists, and I think sociology would be well served by continuing to consider the social origins of individuality and the collective consequences of morality, both positive and negative.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

8 thoughts on “sociology’s sacred project”

  1. What I find obnoxious is people brownnosing people like Christian Smith until they find it convenient not to. And, of course, there is the not so small matter of people thinking that blogs are anything other than bar conversations in HTML. I guess people who don’t have much published may want to act like these things matter, but they don’t. It’s just bullshit among a mostly younger minority. It may sway some sentiment, but it may instead invite ridicule. So, what? I don’t put my blog on my vita or make it out to be anything other than snark, and Christian, apparently, makes an example of some of the snarkiest stuff published on a full-blown, Onion-style, snark blog. I pity the fool who doesn’t get that.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I wouldn’t draw such a thick line between “publishing” and blogs. Of course, real peer review is awesome, but I’ve had mistakes on my blog pointed out by strangers and corrected in an hour, and mistakes in peer-reviewed pubs that no one ever noticed.


  2. Reply to Andy Perrin’s “Sociology’s Sacred Project.” Christian Smith

    I just now got around to reading Andy Perrin’s response to my book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology, published on this blog in early July. Setting aside Andy’s over-exerted dismissive whiffs with which he begins and ends (“profoundly silly,” “irresponsibly haphazard,” “disingenuous,” “fundamental incoherence,” etc.), once he settles down, Andy does offer enough of interesting substance to invite a potentially profitable reply.

    I respond briefly to two points here. The first is Andy’s suggestion that nobody needs to worry about American sociology having a sacred project, since Durkheim tell us that means nothing more than sociology “being social, a group,” like any other group. The second is Andy’s claim (echoing Phil Cohen’s review to which Andy refers, and to which I am also responding) that my position is fundamentally anti-modern.

    What Andy’s first point does is make invisible the important substantive content of the particular moral commitments of the sacred project that American sociology has and is. Of course our discipline is organized as a social group. If that is all Durkheim tells us, he isn’t much of a thinker. What matters most beyond that is the character of the specific substance of the cultural devotions of our particular social group. That is what my book describes and problematizes. By suggesting that all I am ultimately saying is that sociology is a social group, Andy is essentially hiding American sociology’s particular sacred project among those of all other existing social groups.

    But in this Andy fails to take seriously the very particular claims and responsibilities that American sociology makes and holds as a professional social science. He removes sociology from its larger socioeconomic, cultural, and political context, and abstracts away the soul of its sacred character. Our discipline positions itself publicly as a science of society, often as even objective and value-neutral in its work. Sociology justifies consuming vast public and private resources on the basis of this scientific identity. It also claims that its results contribute to the broad scientific education of American students and the expansive public good of our society.

    It is against that public-identity backdrop that the specific orthodoxies of sociology’s particular sacred project sometimes stand in contrast and even contradiction. That is a major point of my book. I am not surprised that Andy would like to obfuscate that by using Durkheim to say, “Hey, sociology is just a social group like any other” and “Don’t pay attention to the actual substance of our orthodoxies.” That is what any defensive guardian of the sacred project would do. But that itself instantiates and reproduces the very internal tensions and incongruities that I problematize in my book. It does nothing to address, much less resolve the problems. Can we please talk about the substance of what is sacred to us and how well it fits what we as a discipline publicly claim to be?

    Second, the claim that my position is anti-modern is fatuous, and itself reflects the very kind of simplistic dichotomous thinking that sociology’s sacred project produces. In a separate reply to Phil Cohen’s duplicate charge that I am anti-modern, I contrast his 1950s-style singular-convergence view of modernity with the more realistic contemporary fact and theory of the cultural and institutional pluralism of “multiple modernities.” I will not repeat that discussion here, even though it is relevant for Andy’s piece. Suffice it for present to say that, while personalism, like every modern theory, has roots in pre-modern thinkers, as a social theory it is decidedly modern.

    Rather than being simplistically “pro-modern,” however (whatever that would mean), personalism actually advances a third-way vision for modernity that contrasts with its modern rivals of liberal individualism and statist collectivism. Personalism embraces all of the vast goods that modernity has produced, and explains better than the alternatives how and why those good ought to be distributed and enjoyed by modern persons. Far from being reactionary and backward-looking, personalism proposes a vision for the most humanistic modern future possible. All of this is clear in what I have published and will continue to publish about personalism. In my book, What is a Person?, for example, I engage in an explicit, extended discussion of the moral goods, complexities, and ambiguities of modernity (pp. 427-432), that comes out as neither simply “pro-” or “anti-” modern. So we can put to bed the idea that my position is anti-modern.

    My bottom line is this: Andy’s opening and closing dismissals of The Sacred Project of American Sociology are facile. And his more substantive reflections on two key points related to my book miss the mark. One obfuscates precisely what needs examination. The other is simplistic and inaccurate. Readers interested in the matters raised in this discussion should read my book carefully for themselves and make up their own minds, hopefully with more openness and dexterity than is reflected in Andy’s response.


    1. The point about the content of the sacred project is fair, so let’s explore it. There are really two specific statements of what Smith thinks the sacred project is: the first, on page 11, is “modern liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist.” The second, on pages 7-8, is “realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures.”

      The page-11 version is so internally conflicted as to be utterly untenable as a sacred project. At various historical moments, some of them very recent, there have been very substantial rifts between, for example, Marxism and GLBTQ, or therapeutism and feminism, or civil rights and postmodernism, just to name a few. These seem coherent, and Smith can use them to evoke a unified image of a field (perhaps one in which one might expect “Regrettable Ponytail man [to meet] Big Wooden Jewelry Woman) only because they map onto the current — meaning post-about-1985 — political configuration of the American left. This list is internally very heterogeneous, and the terms in it are routinely argued over; speaking simply empirically, Smith is just wrong to claim that it expresses any kind of shared value beyond discussion.

      The page-7-8 version is far more interesting for a number of reasons. First, it is more plausible as a shared sacred object, since it is relatively coherent, historically situated, and potentially implicated in a variety of otherwise heterogeneous views. Second, its emphasis on decadence (“as they personally so desire”, “as they choose”, “gratification of … pleasures”) gives a strong clue as to Smith’s implicit objection: that in adopting this particular sacred project, sociology has undervalued social norms, social order, and social control as important principles without actually having the debate about their importance. Third, and finally, this version is more interesting because it is in direct conflict with another oft-implied, if also oft-ignored, principle of sociology: that the social is in some way independently important, beyond being just a collection of individuals. (As I put it in my intro class, “The fundamental unit of human behavior is the group.”) In other words, it conflicts with a belief most sociologists would likely (claim to) hold.

      Although this is the more interesting specification of the two, I don’t think it actually holds as specific content to a sacred project. That’s because people actually do debate it. Indeed, the question of “individual-vs-society” or some such is a common theme in sociology, both empirical and theoretical. Nonetheless, I do think these are interesting and important questions to take up: the extent to which (post)modern individualism undermines socially useful constraint, for example, sounds like a great theoretical avenue to explore. This would have been a far better book if it had actually explored that theoretical avenue instead of the sniffy score-settling that occupies most of the text.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Secondarily, as to the dismissals: I don’t actually think they’re facile; like Smith’s sacred project, they have content. the book *really is* silly, because of its near total disregard for evidence. It *really is* incoherent, because many of the examples singled out for praise violate the very same principles articulated elsewhere in the book. It *really is* disingenuous, because Smith certainly knows of lots of counter-examples to the argument that simply disappear in his analysis. And its evidence *really is* irresponsibly haphazard, because everything presented as evidence is simply impressionistic and prejudicial. The fact that these sound like facile dismissals shouldn’t detract from the fact that they are fully accurate descriptors of the book.


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