Book Review: The Sacred Project of American Sociology

9780199377138_140I approached this book with a certain degree of ambivalence, curious as to the hostility one of my favourite sociologists has seemingly provoked in many of its readers. As someone fascinated by the sociology of sociology, it was exciting to hear that Christian Smith had written a book of this sort, even if it sounded incongruously polemical and had led to some strongly critical reviews. For those not familiar with him, Smith has been a prolific sociologist in recent years, working on the sociology of religion and social theory: his recent work includes Moral Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture, What is a Person? and Lost In Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. He’s also become a leading advocate of critical realism in US sociology, alongside Phil Gorski, a position which came to the fore in a very public dispute on Org Theory last year.

His recent work represents an important and forceful contribution to the sociological dimension of critical realism, offering a philosophically sophisticated defence of the category of the person as integral to sociological inquiry. I found What is a Person? to be an inspiring work, both in terms of its arguments but also the scope and ambition of the book. One of the best aspects of the book was the way in which it situated his argument in terms of the dominant strands within US sociology, fairly but forcefully critiquing them in a way which showed Smith to be deeply conversant with intellectual tendencies within the discipline. So a book entirely about those tendencies was an appealing prospect for me. However it’s a very different sort of book and I feel much more ambivalent about it than his other work.

His argument in the book is that American sociology is dominated by a ‘sacred project’, in the Durkheimian sense of sacred, orientated towards the amelioration of social problems and the ultimate transformation of society. Many diverse strands have contributed to this project, in a cumulative and uneven way, eventually leading to what he claims dominates US sociology at present: a “liberal-Enlightenment-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-postructuralist/postmodernist” complex. This cumbersome phrase is intended to indicate that this ‘sacred project’ “does not embody one single ideology or program” but rather constitutes “an unstable amalgam of variously accumulated historical and contemporary ideas and movements” (p. 8) with conflicts and compatibilities obtaining between them. Broadly speaking his point concerns the ‘moral unconscious’ of American sociology, to use Phil Gorski’s phrase from an endorsement blurb. There’s a rich and diverse history of American sociology which has complex and, in Smith’s view ambivalent, consequences for the contemporary state of the discipline that are rarely acknowledged. These sources don’t figure into the self-definition of sociology or of sociologists. These identities usually relate to what sociology does or how sociologists do this rather than why this activity is pursued. It is the animating force of the sacred that Smith believes accounts for the ‘why’ and he’s interested in recovering this and framing it in terms of the intellectual politics of contemporary sociology. But what is the sacred project? This is the most direct statement Smith makes about it:

American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realising 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 favoured identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures. (p. 8)

Already the specificity of Smith’s claims about the sacred project seem to sit uneasily with his repeated caveats about the heterogeneity of both its origins and present condition. I found his argument most plausible when it takes a counter-factual form, asking what American sociology would be like in the absence of a sacred project: 

“Without this Durkheimian sacred project powerfully animating the soul of American sociology, the discipline would be a far smaller, drabber, less significant endeavour – perhaps it would not even have survived as an academic venture to this day.” (p. 8).

However I don’t think this establishes the character of the sacred project suggested by Smith. I think it highlights the existence of a moral unconscious, in the sense of animating purposes and commitments underlying the elaboration of a discipline, without which it would not and could not exhibit its developed characteristics. This is an important thing for us to discuss: why does sociology matter to people and how does this concern shape the discipline? But would anyone deny this category out of hand? It may be overlooked and there may be systematic social and intellectual factors accounting for this occlusion but I suspect most sociologists would accept the category of ‘personal motivation’ in principle, even if their methodological commitments lead them to circumscribe it in practice. Obviously Smith means much more than this in his invocation of the ‘sacred’ but I think you could minimally restate his core thesis without losing much of consequence: it’s about the structuring of personal concerns in the (re)production of disciplines, with the notion of a ‘moral unconscious’ (I think Gorski hit the nail on the head with this) being a potentially powerful way to make sense of both the motivation and the way it is structured.

Much criticism related to the alleged lack of rigour in the book, with one comment on this hostile review calling it “a 200 page blog post”. I think this is actually quite an apt description and, as I’m sure anyone who knows me can guess, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I think there’s a time and a place for broad brush strokes and that under certain circumstances impressionistic judgements shouldn’t be excluded a priori from discussions about ‘big’ issues of the sort that necessarily elude empirical resolution. But it’s more problematic when this gives rise to a tendency to overlook obvious objections, proceeding with such confidence and verve that the gaps in an argument  are not so much swept under the rug as left abandoned and forgotten  in the author’s wake. Furthermore, the book isn’t brief, at least not to the extent of the ‘mini-book’ format that is becoming increasingly popular amongst academic presses and that I’m enthusiastic about precisely because it provides a forum for the kinds of discussions that are too deep for a research paper but too diffuse for a research monograph. I couldn’t help but contrast The Sacred Project of American Sociology to Stephen Turner’s American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal that was recently released as a Palgrave Pivot, with the former being I think somewhat longer than the latter. My intellectual congruence with the theoretical thought of Smith contrasts to my continued inability to confidently ‘get’ where Turner is coming from (which I guess amounts to me saying I can’t pigeonhole him, surely a virtue now I think about it) but I nonetheless felt that the former’s book lacks the degree of rigour and detail we see in the latter’s, in spite of their arguably similar scope.

In an important way I think Smith is too defensive about his argument and this compounds the more contentious aspects of how he makes it. Consider this passage from Michael Burawoy’s 2004 Presidential Address for the American Sociological Association in which he talks of the normalising pressures encountered in the pursuit of an academic career and their implications for the ‘sociological spirit’:

The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.

I may be wrong but I read ‘spirit’ here in largely the sense that Smith intends it. His defensiveness results perhaps from an awareness that a sociologist of religion who (correctly in my view) makes no effort to privatise his own Catholicism and exclude it from the scope of his professional activities might provoke misunderstanding by talking about ‘spirit’. So he over defines his terminology in a way that sets up the notion of ‘spirit’ as a point of contention in a way that it just isn’t in the sense in which Burawoy uses it. For all the points in the book where Smith falls short of his customary rigour, I don’t find his notion of the ‘sacred project’ conceptually problematic given the qualifications he attaches to it. He is not claiming the existence of a mono-thought clique but rather suggesting a dominant tendency within the discipline, constituted by a number of more or less conflictual intellectual strands, with the ‘sacred project’ being the underlying structure of feeling (Burawoy’s ‘sociological spirit’) which animates activity that contributes towards the enactment of the project. He recognises the “variance” with which “American sociologists” pursue it: unfortunately in doing so the “liberal-Enlightenment-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-postructuralist/postmodernist” complex comes to seem so comically diffuse that it’s hard not to wonder if we might be better off just saying the ‘sociological spirit’ and leaving it at that. Smith’s point though is that this quietism would contribute to a widespread inarticulacy in sociology about its own meaning and motivation – it’s a form of argument that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the work of Charles Taylor. In effect Smith is saying that sociology needs to retrieve its moral sources and, through doing so, we can strengthen the discipline. I think the most convincing argument is a thought-experiment:

Imagine this (if possible): What if sociology really and truly was nothing but a purely scientific, objectively neutral, spiritually disinterested, just-the-facts-and-theory study of society? Would most current-day sociologists really want to be a part of it? How would it be different than it is now? For one thing, sociology departments would have far fewer undergraduate majors and graduate students than they currently have. Sociology of that kind just wouldn’t be that attractive to as many students. For another thing, the undergraduate and graduate students that sociology would attract would be a very different bunch of people than they are now, ideologically, culturally, and politically. The composition of its practitioners would be more blandly mainstream, facts-orientated and technocratic. Furthermore, the subject matter of the journal articles and the content and tone of the books that such a spiritually blank sociology would produce would also be very different than they are now … Sociologists would generally be less impassioned about their work, and they would enter their classrooms with less of an agenda to convince and transform their students. (Pg 22)

I find this a compelling argument and I think one that can be detached from pretty much the rest of the book. If we accept the argument and sociology isn’t just a “purely scientific, objectively neutral, spiritually disinterested, just-the-facts-and-theory study of society” then what is the additional element? This is what Smith is suggesting we are inarticulate about and this is what The Sacred Project of American Sociology attempts to retrieve. The problem is that this immensely important question gets somewhat lost in the detail of his argument, as well as the rushed and polemical way it is made. This is compounded by the fact that Smith seemingly does have an axe to grind, further provoking the critics. The overriding impression this leaves me with is akin to watching two people you were having an interesting conversation with breaking into a tedious argument, seeing them talk past each other and wishing you could go back to the fascinating point you’d seen them hit upon just before the shouting started.

However I don’t think the book’s problems are purely rhetorical. Leaving aside the invocation of a ‘stroll’ through the ASA book displays (might it not have been better to just introduce this informally and not subsume it under the category of ‘evidence’?) and the similarly impressionistic perusal of book reviews and journal abstracts, what I found really problematic was his lack of attention to the way in which his own situation might shape his perspective on the ‘sacred project’. He begins his section laying out the evidence, in so far as it exists, with an appeal to first person experience. He has “learned and taught sociology in a small liberal arts college, at a major private Ivy League university, in a major public research university, and at another elite, private university” yet has also “always felt some distance from and marginality in relation to American sociology” (pg 28). I can only speculate based on familiarity with his more theoretical works as to what explains this feeling of distance and marginality (to be fair he qualifies it as ‘some’) and, in keeping with the broader tenants that draw me to his work, I’m reluctant to dissolve these feelings into third person sociological concepts. Even so, how marginal can he really think he is? As the hostile comment on the review I mentioned earlier points out, “The fact that Christian has a named chair at a research university and can publish a 200 page blog post on Oxford University Press belies his thesis that sociology is controlled by decadent communists.” I don’t think this is what Smith argues and I’m far from hostile to either the book or its author but this point still stands. What marginality Smith might experience is of a very particular sort, such that from the outside he can’t help but look like an enormously prolific, widely recognised, award winning tenured professor who has won over $15 million dollars worth of funding in his career. None of these factors constitute a reason to either dismiss his argument or affirm but it seems axiomatic to me that this positioning should be held in mind when meditating upon his arguments about the ‘dominant trends’ within American sociology.

This issue occurred to me again later in the book when Smith decries the ‘secret club’ at the heart of American Sociology, the invitation only Sociological Research Association which meets at the same time as the American Sociological Association. He invokes this to make a point about the tendency towards perpetuating inequity of those committed to the sacred project. But the existence of the SRA surely indicates something else: the centre of power in American sociology is hostile to the sacred project, if indeed such a project exists. Consider this extract from the after dinner speech made by Andrew Abbott at the SRA which Smith himself cites:

Many people in the SRA dissent from this strong politicization and indeed there has been talk about activating the SRA as a possible alternative organization to the ASA, an organization focused on sociology as an intellectual enterprise rather than a political one. I am of two minds about this project. I am also, as it happens, of two minds about after dinner speeches. It is one thing to give them, it is quite another to attempt to listen to them. Much, then, as I hate to disappoint those of you who have come to hear me say something blunt and outrageous about the follies of the ASA, and much, indeed, as I would like to say something blunt and outrageous about the follies of the ASA, I have chosen instead a milder course, and that is to argue that we have taken the ASA’s political shenanigans far too seriously.

We have therefore missed the fact that the spectacle of a bunch of reasonably well-heeled, sinecured academics parading around a pair of fancy hotels and talking about Oppression, domination, and liberation is fundamentally and delightfully silly. Here we are trading students and manuscripts like so many yard-sale fanatics while we bustle importantly from the oppression of women here to the oppression of Puerto Ricans there and the oppression of short people somewhere else. Can anyone in the world take this seriously as political action? Is it not the very epitome of absurdity? If we ask what would be the response of the oppressed masses to a typical sociological paper about oppression, a moment’s reflection gives the answer.The oppressed masses would tell us at once, that like them, the sociologists are just trying to get by and feel good. Getting by in a fancy hotel is great, if you can manage. Beats working…

Now if one recognizes that the ASA is, prima facie, an absurd organization, one can hardly then exonerate this august body before which I now appear. When I tell people I’m a member of the SRA, they say “whazzat?” — I should know I’m in trouble, right there….. Well, I tell them, it’s kind of a secret handshake society of the movers and shakers in sociology. They ask, “what does it do?” And I say, Well, it has a dinner once a year at which people drink and eat and sleep through a talk. When I look at people’s reaction to this explanation I begin realize that listing the SRA in the honors and awards section of my vita may not be too bright an idea. Maybe I should list it in the obscure achievements section, or even the why exactly do I do this section or even the administrative service section. Like the ASA, the SRA is, in fact, a largely silly organization.

I’ve included the third paragraph because it would seem disingenuous not to, as it manifestly qualifies the strident tone of the first two. However I was struck by recognition of the seemingly casual contempt of Abbott’s initial paragraphs (“look at those left-wing idiots! morons! who could take them seriously?”) and how closely it resembled Smith’s own at various points in the book. The latter, it goes without saying, makes little effort to qualify his hostility, though he does at one point reveal that he has heretofore in the book been showing ‘restraint’ in his comments upon others in the discipline. Leaving aside how little evidence of this I could see, it surely reveals something about the mindset with which Smith has written the book.

I’m focusing so much on the tone of the book because I think much of what’s wrong with it stems from this.  I think the book is flawed, particularly the ‘evidence’ section. So too though are many of the critiques  it has attracted and an awareness of this likely line of attack perhaps goes some way to explaining the odd tone that permeates the book, above and beyond it feeling rushed, which I found sharply in contrast to the confidently pleasant erudition I associate with his other writing. It was also jarring to realise that many bibliographical details seem to be missing from the book, with references like Smith (2015) – and nothing else – to be expected in a blog post but not in a book published by OUP. It feels like it wasn’t subject to any editorial feedback and I’d be interested to know the timescale of its publication. The near constant scare quotes, coupled with an attack on others for doing the same thing about “reality”, lend the text the feel of a rant at times. The fact that Smith repeatedly addresses the difficulty of “proving” his case with empirical data makes him seem defensive in a way that just wouldn’t be the case if he just used the word proving without the scare quotes.

There seem to be sections of the book that serve no purpose other than to antagonise those who will already be sceptical about the book’s argument, adding literally nothing to the substantive case Smith is trying to make. The four  page chapter on ‘spiritual practices’, an ill advised ‘comedy’ diversion, only adds to the sense of this being a 200 page blog post. This is a real shame because the subsequent chapter is probably the strongest in the book, a concise and panoramic thesis about the mechanisms driving change in the intellectual makeup of sociology. He makes a simple though compelling argument about the confluence of circumstances that led to an initial radicalisation of sociology (expansion of higher education in response to the demographic demands of the baby boomers, social and political upheaval in wider American society and the disintegration of the Parsonian consensus) later entrenched by self-selection mechanisms that lead those amenable to radicalism to be more likely to enter university and then more likely to choose sociology as an undergraduate major. The problem is that making this argument compels him to suggest that sociology undergraduates are often intellectually inferior to their peers (it might very well be true but the repeated assertions, irrelevant to his argument as far as I can see, have a nasty tone to them) and he again lapses into the argument that sociologists are effectively indoctrinating their students (with the graduate students representing indoctrinators-to-be). Unless I have completely misunderstood Smith’s theoretical work on personhood, which alongside Margaret Archer and Andrew Sayer has been a big influence on my own work, I don’t understand how he can support these at times quasi-conspiratorial claims reducing the emergence of a series of value commitments into a hierarchical power relationship within an institutional setting. Again, the way the book is written undermines what the book is arguing.

The following chapter is also much stronger than the early sections of the book, with Smith explaining how he sees the effective ‘peace treaty’ that emerged out of the ‘paradigm wars’ as engendering a sclerotic tendency, in some ways as destructive as the internecine intellectual warfare which proceeded it. Everyone is left to do as they wish, provided they respect the sacred project, with the consequence that:

In sum, most of American sociology has becoming [sic] disciplinarily isolated and parochial, sectarian, internally fragmented, boringly homogenous, reticently conflict-averse, philosophically ignorant, and intellectually torpid. Sociology lacks the kinds of sustained, fruitful, and intellectually meaningful clashes, struggles and clarifications needed for a discipline such as itself to regenerate important scholarship and education. (p. 144)

This might be correct. To address this in terms of the moral unconscious of the discipline is a line of inquiry I find intellectually exciting. It’s precisely what I’m interested in exploring in my upcoming project on the Social Life of Theory and I’ve taken illuminating ideas from Smith’s book which I intend to apply in this project. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of sociology, its contemporary circumstance or critical realist theory. But it’s a book to be read charitably and, even as someone with immense respect for Smith as a person and scholar, I had to read charitably to cut through the incivility which pervades the book. I’ve largely ignored the book’s ‘evidence’ section in this review and the personal anecdotes that seem to be as much about score settling as illustrating his underlying argument. I’ve ignored them because I simply couldn’t find any value in them, in spite of my inclination to read the book  as charitably as possible. However it’s provocative and thought-provoking in spite of its flaws. While I wish it had been produced as a 10,000 word paper rather than a diminutive 200 page book, it nonetheless has enough of intellectual value within it to be worth reading. Smith’s prolific writing shows no signs of slowing down and this represents an intriguing, if slightly confusing, precursor to his next big work of theory that will be released next year.

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7 replies »

  1. How could you fail to mention Smith’s involvement with Mark Regnerus and the palpable religiously inspired homophobia that animates many of his rants? It takes quite a bit of privilege as a reviewer to avoid the politics of the book, especially his conspiratorial tone when it comes to gay rights, and praise his insights into social theory. For all his post-modern pretensions, his rejection of methodological naturalism is part of a larger political project to smuggle in supernatural theism back into social science, similar to the efforts of the Discovery Institute’s attack on evolution under the guise of “intelligent design”

    Smith is part of a network of right wing christian “scholars” that have colonized sociology of religion funded by conservative foundations and think tanks. Brad Wilcox and Mark Regnerus almost got away with scientific fraud in hopes of smearing gay parents as some sort of danger to their own children solely for the purpose of slowing down or stopping political and judicial efforts to secure same sex marriage. Smith was a vocal defender of Regnerus and lied about his association with him (he chaired his dissertation committee but denied even knowing Regnerus).

    As much as you would like to defend Smith and claim some sort of middle ground between him and his critics, you seem to mistaken Smith for a sophisticated thinker rather than a run of the mill reactionary catholic that yearns for the authoritarianism of pre-modernity.

    • “How could you fail to mention Smith’s involvement with Mark Regnerus and the palpable religiously inspired homophobia that animates many of his rants?”

      Quite obviously because my desire to get dragged into this tedious dispute is absolutely non-existent.

      • Tedious dispute? That’s a very revealing statement…By bracketing out such “tedious disputes” from your analysis, you miss the forest for the trees. Smith’s interest in social theory is a transparently cynical move to resuscitate the Science Wars of the 90s, an internecine dispute amongst the academic Left, and retool many of the losing arguments for the ultimate conservative goal – thwarting or reversing modernity.

        PS – Homophobia, especially when wrapped in the guise of academic respectability, may be tedious to you but it has deadly consequences in the real world. Warwick once was known for fostering a radical, socially engaged faculty, especially in Sociology. I fear that debates over arcane social theory is what passes for radical these…

      • You’re on my website berating me because I’ve been insufficiently hostile to a social theorist in an academic book review. That’s what is tedious. More than happy to keep approving your blog comments in the interest of openness but I have no interest in getting drawn into this.

  2. I just noticed Steve Fuller (leftist Intelligent Design anti-evolutionist) association with this website. Does the author of this review similarly share his affection for reactionary religion as some sort of radical engine for “reforming” the sciences? Such cynicism reminds me of the worst of marxist theories of false consciousness and vanguard Leninism…

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