Book Review: The Sacred Project of American Sociology

Book Review by Bradley Williams

sacred

To begin, I chose to review this book with no prior knowledge of the author or his academic work, nor about the book’s thesis.  I have a general interest in the history of American sociology and welcome any book that claims to be a sociologist’s take on the field of sociology.  This book is not a history of American sociology, nor the kind of examination of the profession that I have read in other books such as Turner and Turner’s Impossible Science.  Though the author does not wish to explicitly proclaim it, this book is an argument against the tradition of activism within the sociology profession.

Christian Smith’s book The Sacred Project of American Sociology explores an undercurrent moral imperative that has structured American sociology since its inception.  By “sacred project”, Smith means a moral mission within American sociology that is implicit and largely visible only through the habitus of sociologists and sociology students. Smith applies the term “sacred” to those collectively held beliefs that the majority of sociologists adhere to unwaveringly and innately learn to defend throughout the professional socialization process.  Basically, the sacred project is the animating drive in American sociology to decrease all forms of social, economic, and political inequality and generally transform the whole of society toward maximizing the freedom of individuals.  Smith claims that the profession has fostered this implicit desire to transform the whole of society through its various schools of thought while still explicitly claiming to be an objective and systematic study of society.  Smith further concludes that along with relegating the serious study of religion to other fields, American sociologists have trained themselves to uphold secular, scientific inquiry as categorically as a religious belief.  The tradition of scientific enlightenment has given the profession of sociology the dual identity of claiming to be objective, while obsessing about social revolution.

While there is a multitude of various sub-disciplines within sociology, Smith contends that most (almost all, excluding methodology and rational choice perspectives) are “vanguards” of the sacred project.  Referring to the dominance of these “sacred” sub-disciplines within sociology, he satirically notes that the current state of the sacred project is within a “liberal-Enlightenment-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-postructuralist/postmodernist ‘tradition'” (p. 11).  This immediately narrows the focus of the book which might have been helpful if it hadn’t set a condescending tone that continues throughout most of the book.  Smith repeatedly states that he does not personally dislike the “sacred project” that he has identified, even explaining that its overall affect is one that makes American sociology as vital and interesting as it is.  His tone and use of short and pointed jabs make his distaste of most sociologists evident, as they are framed as opponents (defenders of the sacred project) rather than colleagues with a different perspective.

In the second chapter titled ‘evidence’, Smith provides a non-comprehensive, but thesis-validating content analysis of books and articles that he found “randomly” while taking a “stroll” at an ASA meeting.  He also surveyed the various ASA sections and some random review articles he received in the mail, noting examples of the sacred project.  First, none of the data selection is treated seriously, because we are told that sociology’s sacred project is so ubiquitous that a “systematic” analysis is not possible.  Whether this is true or not, he notes that his personal experience as an academic sociologist, renowned is his field and included in the highest ranks of sociology’s professional strata is enough to trust his thoroughness and objective standards.  Smith’s arguments are fairly straight forward, offering examples one by one, showing indeed that a majority of articles and books from top publishers are focused on some form of inequality.  I never found this surprising, nor do I think most sociologists will either.  We are repeatedly prepared for the outcry that will follow the publication of this book.  If the points made in this book are going to actually produce some rupture within the field that incites meaningful dialogue, it will most likely come from another writer.  Unfortunately, Smith continuously wavers between making a serious call for reform and an overly defensive and sardonic criticism of elite tendencies within the field.

To contrast, in one surprisingly illustrative point, Smith asked what sociology might be like without this animating drive for utopian ideals, in which he admitted a disinterest in seeing this become a reality.  This portion, more than the other “evidence” in the chapter seemed to belie an interest in cultivating an honesty within the profession that would be healthier and more constructive.  Unfortunately, this tone does not hold and remains the only part of the book that seems true to the stated intent of an honest dialogue within sociology, where most of the book makes more pointed criticisms at individuals and research areas.

One of the more convincing arguments made in the book is that by reinforcing the implicit mission of sociology to assuage inequality, sociologists might effectively limit the kinds of research they commit themselves.  Another consequence of this is that field pushes away great sociologists by showing an unwillingness to accept any findings that do not support the general thesis of inequality ad societal transformation.  He states that sociologists might support claims that inequality is rampant throughout societies and a fundamental restructuring of society is the solution because this will keep sociologists in business.  In a sense this argument is the same one held against the proliferation of the modern terrorism analysis industry after September 11, 2001.  Sociologists elaborate perceived threats to society in order to maintain job security, though this relationship would contradict and undermine the overall sacred project by perpetuating inequality if it were true.  Smith makes one of his strongest points when offering a short critique of textbooks, particularly Macionis’s Society: The Basics, which is in my opinion a poor barometer of the field.  He makes the case that the text produces an ahistorical account of the three supposedly equally dominant paradigms in sociology: conflict, structuralism, and interactionism.  Smith also takes time in a later chapter to emphasize real negative consequences of the sacred project, though he chooses to omit what he sees as obvious positive impacts on the profession.  By brushing aside any explanation of the positive consequences of the sacred project, he merely reinforces his already evident distaste of activism and further narrows his own argument similar to the way he imagines the sacred project to narrow the creativity and perspective of other sociologists.

Smith makes a direct case that sociology is hostile to Christianity, including restricting the hiring of Christian sociologists in prominent positions within the professional hierarchy.  Part of his chapter on ‘evidence’ includes a comparative case of two sociologists that have produced significantly inaccurate research, one of which produced research compatible with sociology’s sacred project and the other did not.  The one that did not, the infamous case of Mark Regnerus, was treated with footnotes so inappropriately thick that they took up almost the entire page in some cases.  Smith makes this now very infamous case his prime example of sociologists banning together against an author whose findings (that couples where one parent has had a previous homosexual relationship raised children with lower socioeconomic outcomes than otherwise heterosexual couples) do not conform to the ideals of the sacred project.  His championing of Mark Regnerus as a victim of institutionalized bias based on his Christian beliefs from within the sociology community is interesting given his main thesis about the activist mission of the field.  While a secular bias may very well exist within the field at large (a trait found in any social science), the study of religion in sociology is actually quite fruitful, if not still uncomfortable asking many questions.

In what little history that is offered, Smith details the linear progression of the sacred project from the first sociology textbooks by Lester Ward and Albion Small and others to the current proliferation of sub-disciplines championing various, yet apparently ideologically similar, causes.  He dismisses structuralism as a mere break from the progressive and cumulative hegemony of the sacred project.  This, unlike his critique of the sociology textbook discussed above, is treated as ahistorically as possible, despite his argument against the shortsightedness of sociologists and their works.

Smith named a few sociologists that, like him, are marginalized by the secular and activist-utopian sacred project.  I found his list of marginalized sociologists interesting because it included Peter Berger and James Hunter, both of who have temporarily joined the same sociology department at Baylor University in recent years.  I am sort of curious to know if Baylor’s prominent focus on statistical analyses of religious experience or openly Christian mission are the kinds of things Smith thinks of when imagining a healthy sociology research program.

The arguments in this book are lessened by the tone the author uses to speak to his prospective audiences.  He conceives of this debate, or lack of debate, as a conflict against opponents instead of a possible dialogue.  He dismisses the power of challengers to oppose this apparently very old and uniform hegemony by presenting sociology students as mere constructs of the sacred project.  Students that do not wish to conform or admit to being  Christian will be immediately marginalized by their instructors and peers.  The author’s contempt or distaste for the majority of professional sociologists makes this a poor opening for dialogue.

Toward the end of the book, Smith makes the claim that sociology blogs (left unspecified in the book) are a symptom of what he sees as a breakdown of the peer review system.  He uses an extremely crude blog entry by a sociologist known for his vitriolic language, which criticizes openly Christian sociologists.  I really don’t think this was a representative example of any kind of academic blog.  His view that the peer review process should be held to high standards is laudable, but he could have made a more substantial argument for or against sociology blogs.  Neither the writing nor the “evidence” presented here needed a nicely bound book from Oxford University Press to state.  The types of arguments and the way they are written in this book will be easily familiar to readers of niche and opinionated, as well as academic blogs.

 

Bradley W. Williams is a graduate student in sociology beginning his PhD studies at George Mason University in 2015.  His research is located within the intersection of sociology and international relations, specializing in the study of religion, social movements, and Islamic peace processes.

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