Sociology as the Science of Human Uplift: The Sacred Project of UK Sociology?

In this keynote talk from the 2014 British Sociological Association conference, Steve Fuller talks about “Sociology as the Science of Human Uplift”. I was struck when listening to his discussion of the early history of the discipline in the UK, particularly the notion of sociology as a synthetic discipline orientated towards social change, by the parallels to what Chris Smith has recently written about as the Sacred Project of American Sociology. Is Steve Fuller talking about the sacred project of UK sociology? I think his historical claims could be usefully articulated in terms of Smith’s notion and the exercise would be more historiographically plausible when applied to pre-disciplinary and early disciplinary currents in UK Sociology than it was with American sociology. In this case, it seems that the project was lost and that Fuller is arguing for its (cautious) retrieval.

Unfortunately it seems the BSA have disabled embedding so you’ll have to watch the video of Steve’s talk here


Categories: Committing Sociology

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5 replies »

  1. I had never thought to associate Steve Fuller and Christian Smith before but upon reflection, the comparison does illustrate an odd convergence of the extreme social constructionist Left and the theocratic revanchist Right in opposition to modernity, particularly the exclusion of the supernatural from the Academy. Fuller is one of the few on the Left that is still fighting the Science Wars of 90s – he reminds me of the Japanese Holdouts who refused to accept the surrender of the Emperor long after the end of the battles in the pacific theatre – who makes common cause with anti-secular religious fundamentalists and carlist roman catholics in opposition to well settled evolutionary theory. Christian Smith embraces a similar epistemological attack on science, methodological naturalism is the villain in his narrative, and laments the loss of christian social and political hegemony, which he sees as the only bulwark against the “evils” of feminism, gay rights, atheism, etc.
    So far both Fuller and Smith have been unsuccessful in their attempted interventions in the academy and politics. Fuller’s testimony in the Kitzmiller trial on behalf of the intelligent design creationists seemed to validate the worst fears of his opponents in the Science Wars, Norman Levitt would be smiling from above if there was a heaven, while Smith comes off a bitter cultural conservative whose hypocrisy was exposed in his embarrassing homophobic “defense” of Mark Regnerus. If this is the state of critical social theory, the project needs serious reevaluation if it ever wants to exert influence beyond a small niche of ivory tower academics.

  2. Without wishing to endorse the comparison, I can see why you lump me together with Christian Smith, in that we both maintain strong normative visions for sociology. I can even see why you compare me to a Japanese holdouts after the Second World War because, indeed, I do believe that the social constructivists (starting with Latour) blinked during the Science Wars and suddenly took an ‘ontological’ turn that implicitly ceded the epistemological ground to guys like Levitt. I call it surrender. However, where I disagree with you is in your conclusion — namely, that critical social theory needs to ‘re-evaluate’ itself in order to exert extra-mural influence. No, that’s the last thing that critical social theory needs to do, mainly because it’s the only thing that critical social theory ever does: i.e. reflect on itself (aka navel gazing). What critical social theory needs to do is to make more public interventions of the sort that Smith and I have done. Of course, there is no guarantee of success, but you might learn something from these failed experiments (if they are indeed failures) to do better in the future. But there is no formula hidden in the writings of Bourdieu or anyone else that will guarantee that a theorist can make a positive difference to the world. You just need to try harder.

  3. As it turns out, this Christmas message of mine to the Social Epistemology collective may be of interest in the context of this discussion:

  4. I am amazed that Fuller is still taken seriously in the UK – his reputation was destroyed in the US because of his creationism. If you want sociology taken seriously, I’d suggest not having him speak at your annual BSA meeting!

  5. Smith’s public interventions include promoting right wing think tank funded “science” that smears gay parents as child molesters. I’m sure you can justify this as some sort of reverse affirmative action for straight, white christian homophobes but at that point you should just drop your pretense at being a leftists, liberal, etc.

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