The Sacred Project of American Sociology 1st Edition
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"[A] slim, masterful volume."--Richard Spady, First Things
"What, one might ask, could possess a well-established and well-known sociologist to write an account of his discipline as a sacred project while at the same time exposing its close-minded outlook? The answer Christian Smith provides is both bracing and sad, bracing in its thoroughness and originality, and sad in the very necessity to shine such a light on a discipline that is largely blind to the unintended consequences of its lopsided claims about the nature of social reality. Smith's observations are a carefully assembled, empirical confirmation that sociology still has important insights and ideas to convey to both students and the public, but that it has failed decisively in its efforts to account for life beyond the very narrow confines of its own expectations about what is right and wrong with that life."-Jonathan B. Imber, Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology and Editor-in-Chief of Society
"Christian Smith has developed a fresh and creative perspective on contemporary American sociology as a sacred project. His arguments are bold and provocative. Smith has begun a discussion that is vitally important for the present and future of the discipline, and his efforts deserve a wide and attentive audience."-Christopher G. Ellison, Professor of Sociology, Dean's Distinguished Professor of Social Science, University of Texas at San Antonio
"'Emancipation, autonomy, affirmation!' That is the revolutionary creed of American sociology, or so Christian Smith argues in the most unflinching look at the discipline since Alvin Gouldner. By excavating the moral unconscious of the sociological project, Smith prompts us to ask whether these should be our sole and highest values and whether they are not at odds with one another in profound and unexamined ways."-Philip Gorski, Professor of Sociology, Yale University
"Smith's book should be read not just by his fellow sociologists but by anyone who is concerned about the current state of higher education. ...it will, hopefully, cause a dust-up beyond the sociology departments of the nation's campuses."-National Catholic Reporter
"Sociologists want to present themselves as objective scientists of the social order, but when Christian Smith looks at his disciple he doesn't see science. He sees the Sacred Project of American Sociology, sociology constituted as a project that he is even willing to describe as "spiritual." He applies a "sociology of religion" to the discipline of American sociology itself. Smith concludes that there is no obvious way to hold sociology accountable. Perhaps this courageous, hard-hitting book might stir the pot just enough to get sociologists to take another look at their totems."-First Things
"The Sacred Project of American Sociology provides a compelling and provocative characterization of American sociology. Overall the book raises many important questions that are relevant for sociologists in the United States and beyond. Sociology, as a discipline, will clearly benefit from taking a critical look inwards in order to discover potentially harmful inconsistencies."-Acta Sociologica
"Based on his experience in this area of research, but aiming far beyond its limits, he has now published a deeply passionate, sometimes polemical, diagnosis of the current state of American sociology in general."-- American Journal of Sociology
About the Author
Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, Director of the Notre Dame Center for Social Research, Principal Investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion, and Principal Investigator of the Science of Generosity Initiative.
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1. The Argument
3. Spiritual Practices
4. How Did We Get Here?—The Short Story
6. The Question of Accountability
7. What Is Sociology Good For?
Smith explains that academic sociology is no longer practicing science. It is on a 'sacred' mission to save/change the human experience.
From the introduction - ''My purpose here is to show that, to the contrary, the secular enterprise that everyday sociology appears to be pursuing is actually not what is really going on at sociology’s deepest level. Contemporary American sociology is, rightly understood, actually a profoundly sacred project at heart. Sociology today is in fact animated by sacred impulses, driven by sacred commitments, and serves a sacred project.''
''That said, let me unpack American sociology’s dominant sacred project a bit more. This project is, first, intent to realize an end. It is going somewhere. It is fundamentally teleological, oriented toward a final goal. It is not about defending or conserving a received inheritance, but unsettling the status quo. The project is fundamentally transformational, reformist, sometimes revolutionary. It is about “changing the world” to “make the world a better place.” '' (10)
''The change that sociology’s sacred project seeks to effect is also dramatic. The problems of the social world are so big and deep in this view that mere remedial tinkering or prudent meliorism is inadequate. Change needs to be systemic, institutional, and sometimes radical—in the etymological sense of “going to the root” of things. So when the new world envisioned by this spiritual project is finally realized, it will be very different from the present world.'' (10) Thus, it is not scientific analysis. This is religious salvation changed into a secular garment. Like putting 'new wine in an old wineskin,' and as the wise man said, 'If he does, the new wine will burst the wineskins and it will be spilled out and the wineskins will be ruined.' Putting secular 'wine' into sacred 'wine skins' brings 'ruin.' This seems to be Smith's conclusion.
''It would not be wrong to say that sociology’s project represents essentially a secularized version of the Christian gospel and worldview. Both are teleological, seeing history as going somewhere of ultimate importance. Both look toward an eventual dramatic transformation of the world in a way that is also importantly linked to smaller transformations in the lives of converted believers here and now.''
''Broadly speaking, in fact, American sociology’s sacred project is a secular salvation story developed out of the modern traditions of Enlightenment, liberalism, Marxism, reformist progressivism, pragmatism, therapeutic culture, sexual liberation, civil rights, feminism, and so on. It is as if, standing within the secular modern movement that had jettisoned the Christianity and Judaism that had so shaped the western imagination for two millennia, and so demystified the world, American sociologists felt compelled to fill in the sacred and eschatological void left in Christianity and Judaism’s absence by constructing, embracing, and proselytizing the world with a secular salvation gospel of its own making.'' (18)
''Or perhaps this was not an “as if” situation, but what actually happened. This is yet another way that sociology’s project is ultimately spiritual and sacred, and not simply political or ideological.'' (18)
(See also of the writings of Isaiah Berlin, J.L. Talmon and Robert Nelson)
Smith isn’t simply arguing that that most sociologists are political liberals -- that's a fairly well-established fact. Rather, he is arguing that sociology’s project of creating an emancipated world is so "central to [its] orthodoxy and habitus” that it animates the discipline, and anyone who challenges this taken-for-granted orthodoxy runs the risk of being excommunicated from the community of "believers."
More importantly, it can blind sociologists to the their own biases in the course of their research. As Jonathan Turner notes in his review of this book, American sociology increasingly views itself as on a holy mission to save the world by imposing its vision of what is good. While this is laudable (I share in most of the sociological vision of what is good), as Turner points out the task of social science is to impart knowledge, not personal biases. This means we should be open to publishing (and having others publish) results from our research that don't necessarily comport with our vision of what is good and right and just.
I highly recommend this book to all in the discipline. If I ever teach an introductory class in sociology again, this book, or portions of it, will be required reading.
Most sociologists acknowledge that they harbor political and moral values and biases, but Smith claims that sociologists are also committed to something "much bigger, deeper, and more meaningful, profound, and ultimate.... At stake in American sociology's project are a vision and a cause expressing what are believed to be the greatest, highest, most authentic goods, truths, values, meanings and purposes. (p. 191) Smith lays out his case using careful logic and abundant evidence. Many will find a reason to dismiss his indictment, but intellectual honesty requires that it be addressed.
Smith's goal it to direct sociology toward a higher vision and purpose. To do so sociologists will have to overcome their aversion to examining their underlying assumptions. Smith promoted his preferred alternative, Critical Realist Personalism, in his 2010 book, What is a Person? His claims are unflinchingly courageous and profoundly challenging, but they have potential to revitalize the discipline.