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