What is sociology “about?” According to the American Sociological Association (ASA), it is:
“The study of society, a social science involving the study of the social lives of people, groups and societies; the study of our behavior as social beings, covering everything from the analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global processes; the scientific study of social aggregations, the entities through which humans move throughout their lives; an overarching unification of all studies of humankind, including history, psychology, and economics.”
The problem with this definition, according to Notre Dame sociologist (and HxA member) Christian Smith, is that it focuses on what sociologists do, but says nothing about the purposes or ends for doing these things -– i.e. “we perform these activities in order to…” This conveys the impression that there perhaps is no overarching mission that defines the discipline, or that sociological methods and theories inform a diverse array of projects. Smith argues that while this impression is at least superficially true, it is also misleading. “Sociology has at a deep level become, to use Harold Rosenberg’s apt phrase, ‘a herd of independent minds’” (p. 146).
What Smith has in mind here is not homogeneity along political, ideological, or even moral lines – at least not in the conventional sense. Sociology is not fundamentally “about” advancing particular politicians, parties, policies, ideas, or behaviors. Nor is it a “grievance discipline” oriented around critiquing the prevailing order — such a characterization misses the point of sociological critique, which is in the service of a positive project. And not just any project, but a sacred and spiritual one.
American Sociology’s Sacred Project
What does Smith mean when he claims that American sociology is a sacred and spiritual project?
By project, Smith means “a complex, purposive, endeavor requiring concerted effort sustained over time to mobilize, coordinate, and deploy resources of different kinds to achieve a desired but challenging goal” (p. 3).
By sacred, Smith is referring to that which is “reverenced, defended as sacrosanct, set apart from the common and profane, that which is hallowed, revered, honored as beyond questioning or disrespect” (p.1). The sacred is not ordinary, mundane, or instrumental. Sacred things are not permitted to be questioned, disrespected, defiled, defied, or desecrated. — people respond immediately and forcefully when that which they hold sacred is doubted, challenged, or denigrated. This also holds true within the discipline of sociology with respect to its sacred and spiritual project, as Smith highlights.
By spiritual, Smith denotes “that dimension of human life that concerns the most profound, meaningful, transcendent visions of human existence, feelings, and desires. Spiritual matters… transcend instrumental means-ends rationality. They sustain and guide people… in ways that actually pre-rationally and a-rationally govern, rather than are governed by, preferences, rationality, and calculated choices” (p. 2).
According to Smith, American sociology is more than just the science of society – it is a “movement to venerate, protect, and advance a specific Durkheimian sacred” (p. 189), namely: 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 favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures.
This leads sociologists to “work to expose, protest, and end through social movements and state regulations and programs all human inequality, oppression, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, and constraint of, by, and over other humans (p. 7-8).”
Broadly speaking, Smith argues, “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” (p. 20).
There is a lot here, and the bulk of the book is dedicated to unpacking this description, talking about the different strands of history and thought that inform it, and how they are integrated within the practice of contemporary U.S. sociology. Here, I will simply draw readers’ attention to a few elements:
- Sociology’s sacred project is rarely made explicit. There are a few reasons for this, but perhaps the main driver is that the project is so widely-subscribed to, so central to the orthodoxy and habitus of American sociology, that it is essentially invisible and taken for granted by most. It seems to us so naturally and obviously correct and worthwhile that it is not even something in need of articulating, let alone defending. Moreover, as Bruno Latour has elsewhere noted, sociologists rarely analyze themselves and their cherished objects in the manner they analyze virtually everything else (especially those things they dislike).
- Undergirding sociology’s sacred project is a highly-specific philosophical anthropology: whatever happens to a person should be a reflection of their own independent volition — not determined by anybody or anything else. All relationships should be purely voluntary and contractual, all obligations self-imposed.
- Alongside the more traditional Western commitments to freedom and equality, the sacred project of American sociology emphasizes moral affirmation. “It is not, for this project, enough simply to set people free from oppression and to treat them as equals. Everyone else also deserves to be morally affirmed by everyone else in their society…. People are believed to need to feel good about themselves. Unacceptable, therefore, is any form of real or symbolic lack of acceptance, exclusion, or moral judgement against another. Every identity and lifestyle must not only be tolerated but positively validated, affirmed, and included” (p. 14).
- There are internal tensions and contradictions between the various facets. For instance, the project has a strong populist and egalitarian streak – but also powerful undercurrents of elitism, even Gnosticism: “The disciples of sociology’s sacred project do not trust ordinary people and social institutions to know the ‘right’ things to do or to actually do them. In fact, in sociology’s dominant view, it is ordinary people and institutions that are a main part of the problem with the world. Therefore, sociology as a discipline—the movement of enlightened ones—needs to act as the vanguard to push people and society, to become activists in protest, to agitate, to mobilize, to force people to do the ‘right’ thing” (pp.187-8).
- Sociology’s sacred project is not monolithic in its expression (p.24) – there is variance in ways that adherents pursue it. Some are more radical, some more moderate. Some emphasize certain dimensions over another. Some do not subscribe to the project at all (although even many of these remain sympathetic): “By speaking of ‘sociology’ as a whole, I am not claiming that each and every American sociologist is committed to the spiritual project… many are, but some are not. Yet some individual sociologists do not matter here, since, as sociologists well know, the collective power of dominant institutionalized sociocultural systems is much more important than this or that individual commitment and possible dissent in particular cases” (pp. 4-5).
Critically, Smith’s goal in the book is not to argue against American sociologists’ specific sacred project, or against researchers holding deep commitments such as these in general. His objective is simply to render the project explicit – to force sociologists to reckon more directly with what they are doing and why, and to be more reflective about how the pursuit of the sacred mission of American sociology shapes the discipline and its work.
Sociologist Andrew Abbott has called for the establishment of new lines of scholarship, explicitly oriented towards normative inquiry. By reckoning with the moral dimensions of sociological scholarship in a more direct and sophisticated way, he argues, we can perhaps escape the “cryptonormative swamp” we currently find ourselves in. Smith, for his part, is somewhat skeptical about the prospects of success (as things currently stand):
“For sociologists to successfully evaluate their own sacred project would require a great deal more internal spiritual, ideological, and political diversity than currently exists; a genuine readiness to listen carefully to and consider critical voices expressing doubts and critiques of things taken for granted; institutional mechanisms by which to sustain open, honest, and fair debates and discussions across different perspectives; and the epistemological humility all around to remain open to the possibility of being wrong” (p. 183).
Why does all this matter?
Smith highlights that there are tradeoffs involved with sociology pursuing this sacred project, which participants must better attend to. On the one hand, the spiritual dimension of the work helps render it more compelling for many – pulling in new recruits and imbuing scholarship with a greater perceived sense of urgency or significance (among those who are part of, or sympathetic to, the project). However, there are costs as well. Facts are bent in order to render them compatible and useful to the project. Inconvenient findings are ignored or even suppressed. Heretics are banished. Important questions go underexplored. Problematic axioms go unchallenged or untested. Many non-believers feel as though they have no place, leading them to exit the enterprise or avoid it altogether:
“The irony is sadly obvious. Sociology’s sacred project champions emancipation, autonomy, equality, justice, inclusion, diversity, open-mindedness, progress, tolerance, and cosmopolitanism. But, whether or not it helps achieve those in the outside world, within sociology itself, and in higher education broadly, in the end that sacred project actually tends to produce sectarian narrowness, exclusion, uniformity, silencing, self-censorship, lack of debate, the negative sanctioning of nonconformists, and the debilitation of rigorous thought. In short, it reproduces in its own image that which it opposes and seeks to transform in the world beyond” (p. 146).
The consequences are not just borne by other academics either. To the extent that sociologists have an inaccurate or incomplete view of the world as a result of these tendencies, it can result in poorly designed policies and interventions that fail to achieve their stated objectives, or even cause great harm. Smith also views it as problematic that researchers are pursuing this idiosyncratic project, often on the taxpayers’ dime, without any sense of transparency or accountability to the people footing the bill, and little consideration for the concerns and priorities of ordinary Americans:
“Many sociologists (and no doubt other academics) behave as if they believe that robust institutions of higher education are an automatic and natural feature of any conceivable society, that nice and secure academic jobs are something like a civil right guaranteed for those who have passed the hurdles to have landed them, and that the American public owes it to academics like themselves to provide the necessary resources to continue indefinitely to do their jobs as they have done them in the past. The underlying attitude is almost as if sociology is God’s gift to society, and so must be, and definitely will be, sustained with the required resources. Few sociologists in my observation seem aware of how brief American sociology’s history has been, how unsuccessful sociology has been in achieving most of its early promises, and how serious and widespread current public discussions are about the value, condition, and possible alternative deliveries of higher education in the United States” (p. 195-6).
Smith argues that if social scientists continue taking this support for granted, it is likely to evaporate. And indeed, in the five years since this book was published, we have seen some moves in this direction.
In a democratic society, Smith insists, sociologists must “earn our keep” by producing something valuable for a wide range of stakeholders — who may be pursuing projects different from our own, even projects that are contradictory to our own:
“In my view, social science’s greatest contribution to the societies that sustain it with resources is simply reporting back to those societies what really is going on in and among them, why and how so, and with what apparent consequences. That is the service of social self-reflexivity that is so valuable when performed well, a service well worthy of the resources invested in it. That requires describing the world accurately, but also understanding and explaining it well to people outside of social science… My proposed approach understands sociology as ultimately a society-serving discipline that is commissioned by and accountable to the larger social orders that support it. Sociology’s job in this view is to do its very best to tell the truth about what is happening in society, what is causing it, and what consequences seem to be produced as a result. This view gives sociology two key tasks: reporting and explaining, the purpose of which is to promote public understanding and self-reflection… sociology at its best expands and enriches human personal and social self-understanding by reflecting upon, reporting about, and explaining the what’s, why’s, and how’s of human experience, institutions, and practices and, as a result, making better sense of them for the variety of people and groups involved” (p. 185-7).
In closing, it should be noted that Smith focuses on American sociology because he is, himself, an American sociologist – and is most familiar with this discipline, its culture, and its outputs. Nonetheless, he suspects that some version of this account may hold – and probably does hold — in other sociologies (for instance, in the U.K.), and in other disciplines. After all, the needs that the sacred project fills are fundamental—the desire for purpose and meaning, etc. Academics have these drives just like everyone else, and for many, their work is how they try to pursue these impulses. Anthropologists, humanities scholars, economists, political scientists, psychologists, journalists, et al. also have underexamined aspirations, metaphysical assumptions, etc. undergirding the work they do – many seem to be embarked on sacred projects that are perhaps slightly different from, but broadly resonant with, that of sociologists.
Consequently, while this book is, in a narrow sense, about sociology as practiced in the United States – its relevance transcends this particular discipline and context, likely elucidating important dynamics in social research, U.S. higher education, and among American elites, more broadly.
Smith, Christian (2014). The Sacred Project of American Sociology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.