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The Sacred Project of American Sociology
by christian smith
oxford, 224 pages, $28.95

Things wouldn’t be so bad if the sacred project of American sociology were just the sacred project of American sociology. Allowances are made for sociologists. The problem is that all the human sciences as practiced in our elite universities are in thrall to the sacred project that Christian Smith so clearly articulates in this slim and masterful volume:

American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realizing 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.

The other human sciences overlay this conception of human emancipation with their own trifling concerns—money, politics, literature, whatever—and so do not find themselves at every turn determined in the details of their everyday conduct by this project. But let there be no mistake: Sociology is at the center of our modern human sciences, and its conception of the human person and freedom informs a great deal of the elite academy’s mission and self-understanding.

Smith subjects sociology itself to sociological analysis, revealing how its sacred values are reinforced. In one case, a study that finds incredibly large disadvantages for women and correspondingly large advantages for men in divorce settlements wins scholarly awards and is widely cited in the popular press, law reviews, and court decisions (including the U.S. Supreme Court), but turns out—after a decade’s worth of dilatory tactics by its author in releasing its government-funded data—to be completely irreproducible. Not much happens.

Another author writes a book on the benefits of marriage to both partners; opprobrium at the American Sociological Association (ASA) meetings follows, despite her being an elected officer. That ends her tenure as an officer at the ASA. (Not a fate worse than death.) In 2012 a University of Texas sociologist, Mark Regnerus, publishes a careful study of a random sample of U.S. young adults and finds that on a wide variety of outcomes, those raised in an intact biological family have fared better than those from other family structures, particularly than those raised by lesbians (and, somewhat less dramatically and clearly, than those raised by male homosexuals). A firestorm follows: university inquiries, judicial proceedings (against the university where the editor worked), email dumps, the lot. A point has been made. No one will want to referee, let alone publish, a paper with similar findings for a very long time.

Notice that that doesn’t mean studies won’t be done or published. It simply guarantees what they will say.

As Smith shows, a bad research paper gets a free ride so long as the findings are in accord with the sacred project. In my experience, when a weak paper with the right message is presented in a faculty or graduate student seminar, the attitude is: This paper has its heart in the right place, and we know its conclusion is true, so it’ll be OK after a little work on the methodology. In contrast, the mere description of certain profane topics or the possibility (or worse, reality) of a profane finding—one cutting against the values of emancipation, equality, and affirmation—elicits a barrage of methodological attacks. These attacks usually have at least a grain of truth. The problem is not the criticism of research that violates the sacred project; it’s the constant asymmetry. Students learn the obvious lesson by conditioning: If you want to avoid the punishment, avoid the transgression. 

Gay marriage has been the flashpoint of conflict in sociology: first, as the point where friction has given rise to ignition and, second, as the photographer’s flash that illuminates both the stark foreground and the shadows beyond. In the shadows, the orthodox see broken families and ruined institutions, while progressives see a triumphal march from the choice to conceive to the choice to bear to the choice to be as one decides one truly is.

As Smith writes:

To the more traditional liberal commitments to freedom and equality, sociology’s sacred project also adds the centrality of moral affirmation. In some ways, this is contemporary American society’s version of the French Revolution’s ideal of fraternité. It is not enough simply to set people free from oppression and to treat them as equals. Everyone also deserves to be morally affirmed by everyone else. Justice and equity are not sufficient. . . . Every identity and lifestyle must be not only tolerated, but positively validated, affirmed, and included.

It follows from this that when, say, the fire chief of Atlanta publishes a book that refers to biblical passages condemning homosexual conduct, or when a tech executive makes a donation to a referendum campaign opposing gay marriage, or when anyone expresses condemnation of any fully consensual sexual act, they trespass against the sacred program of “moral affirmation.” And whoever profanes the sacred deserves what he gets.

In an interview in 2014 on the occasion of The Bell Curve’s twentieth anniversary, Charles Murray said that the problems in social science stem from “corruption” and “cowardice”:

The reaction to The Bell Curve exposed a profound corruption of the social sciences that has prevailed since the 1960s. The Bell Curve is a relentlessly moderate book—both in its use of evidence and in its tone—and yet it was excoriated in remarkably personal and vicious ways, sometimes by eminent academicians who knew very well they were lying. Why? Because the social sciences have been in the grip of a political orthodoxy that has had only the most tenuous connection with empirical reality, and too many social scientists think that threats to the orthodoxy should be suppressed by any means necessary. Corruption is the only word for it.

He’s wrong. Corruption is not the only, not even the right word for it. Corruption is cured by showing the contradiction between agents’ principles and actions, and by holding individuals and institutions accountable for actions that violate acknowledged principles. But these phenomena are not about principles of reason; they are about the sacred and profane, just as Smith says.

This is an important difference. Our progressive brothers and sisters do not have the inner life of the corrupt. By and large, they are no more cowardly than would be expected given our shared condition. Most important, we will not change their minds by treating them as such.

Smith hopes (but only hopes) that by describing the way in which sociology has become a sacred project, he will restrain the fanaticism of his colleagues. But this is not how the sacred project works. Its logic demands that progressives continue to turn up the heat until all the frogs either jump or die. I’m for jumping.

Richard Spady is research professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University and a senior research fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

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