Sacred Sociology

By Spady, Richard | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Sacred Sociology


Spady, Richard, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


SACRED SOCIOLOGY The Sacred Proiect 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 selfunderstanding.

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. …

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