It’s modernity, stupid (Book review of The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith)

Book review: The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Smith Confounding

Christian Smith Confounding Philip Cohen: With (left to right) Brad Wilcox, Mark Regnerus, C. Wright Mills, and Talcott Parsons (Original source: Giovanni di Paolo, St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës, from Wikimedia Commons)*

Note: I am self-publishing this review rather than trying to find another outlet for it because I once (in response to Smith’s email described below) used a single profanity in an email reply, and I don’t want to get some editor in trouble for allowing me to write a review when I have a documented personal animosity against the author. Unfortunately, it’s much longer than it would be if someone else published it. Sorry!

Christian Smith in this book reminds me of a vaccine denier. He is convinced the whole modern world is a Big Lie but, except for a few fellow travelers, he can’t find a way to convince everyone else that they’re the ones who are crazy. Inevitably, out of desperation, he starts to write in italics.

…the secular enterprise that everyday sociology appears to be pursuing is actually not what is really going on at sociology’s deeper level. Contemporary American sociology is, rightly understood, actually a profoundly sacred project at heart. Sociology today is in fact animated by sacred impulses, driven by sacred commitments, and serves a sacred project (x).

(In his frustration, he also clutters up a very short and simple book with endless redundant phrases like “in fact,” “rightly understood,” and “actually.” I haven’t added italics to any of his quotes in this review.)

He’s not being “tricky” with the term sacred: he means it in the strictly Durkheimian sense of, “things set apart from the profane and forbidden to be violated,” things “hallowed, revered, and honored as beyond questioning,” things that “can never be defiled, defied, or desecrated by any infringement or desecration” (1-2). This is not a metaphor, this is “exactly the character of the dominant project of American sociology” (2). Literally.

The book is not just the familiar diatribe against leftist groupthink in academia. What sets this apart is that Smith’s real problem is modernity itself, which I’ll return to. However, this particular expression of modernity – the one that happens to surround him in his chosen academic discipline – is especially grating. So we’ll start with that.

Like a vaccine denier, Smith is more and more convinced of his theory the more all the sociologists around him deny it. In fact, actually, rightly understood, rampant denial is literally evidence that he’s right. By the end of the book he concludes, “Many American sociologists will … find it impossible to see the sacred project that sociology is – precisely because my argument above is correct” (199). This treads uneasily close to the line where common arrogance tips over into a lack of grip on reality.

In the text of the American Sociological Association (ASA) description of the discipline, for example, “none of it admits to advancing a sacred project” (6). Aha! Why not? Two reasons, he figures. First, the sacred project “is so ubiquitous and taken for granted … that it has become invisible to most sociologists themselves” (6-7). Why would we discuss something universal and uncontroversial? Second, admitting its existence “would threaten the scientific authority and scholarly legitimacy of academic sociology,” so it must be “misrecognized, implicit, and unexamined” to maintain “plausible deniability,” and therefore “sociologists carefully exempt their own discipline from their otherwise searching sociological gaze” (7). So, we “carefully” keep secret for strategic reasons that which we cannot even know exists. The devil does work in mysterious ways.

Sacred is as sacred does

What is the content of the sacred project? In a bizarre throwback to the 1950s – he even puts red-scare quotes around “the people” [12] – Smith describes “the project” as

about something like exposing, protesting, and ending, through social movements, state regulations, and government programs all human inequality, oppression, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, constraint and domination by, of, and over other humans (and perhaps animals and the environment (7).

For convenience, we could reasonably shorten this to, “communism.”

But this veneer of egalitarianism “does not go deep enough.” The project is

more fully and accurately described as … 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 (7-8).

We might call this deeper goal, “decadence.”

After that, it’s only a matter of a few lines before he starts putting “(so-called)” before “the Enlightenment” (8) and stringing together terms like this: “modern liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil right-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist” (11). Did I mention this guy was Mark Regnerus’s dissertation committee chair at UNC? (Funny, he forgot to mention that, too.)

Of course, Smith has to admit that the sacred project is not something that all sociologists are into. “Most are, I think, being more or less conscious and activist on behalf of it [the project]. But some are not” (23). Who are those more innocent ones? He grudgingly lists five groups of exceptions (23-24):

  • “believers in sociology as purely a scientific study of society … often very fine people”;
  • “just commonplace ‘institution improvers,'” trying practically to make modern society work better;
  • “professional data collectors” who work in various bureaucracies and companies;
  • “ordinary, middle-America college professors who simply like to learn and teach about the family, criminal justice, or what have you”, and, finally;
  • “old-school liberals who genuinely believe in tolerance, fairness, and pluralism.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking this comprises is an important slice of American sociology, however, because they don’t represent “the discipline’s dominant culture, sensibilities, interests, discourse, and project.” And anyway, they are a very small minority. Excluding these five groups, in fact, Smith estimates that 30 to 40 percent are “true believers” and another 50 to 60 percent are “essentially on board, but are circumspect in how they express it” (24). Doing a quick calculation 100-(30+50) and 100-(40+60), it appears that those five groups of exceptions sum to between 0 percent and 20 percent of American sociologists. But it’s worse than even that, because some of the moderates, “when scratched hard enough,” do “show their true colors as sympathizers” with the project (25).

Hardly evidence

It seems shocking that that such an overwhelming majority of American sociologists could be so deeply into something so radical. To make such an extreme claim in a book published by a leading, highly reputable university press, surely one must have some pretty damning evidence? No.

It doesn’t help his case much, but the chapter titled “Evidence” is packed with ammunition for any grad student who ends up with Smith on his or her dissertation committee. Keep these defensive lines handy:

  • “the evidence I can offer is not ‘conclusive,’ at least when the standards of proof are set as the types that count for, say, publication in the top journals” (28). (No offense intended to Oxford University Press, I’m sure.)
  • What is “personally most convincing” is his own experience of many years, which he hopes will help readers “intuitively grasp the truth of my thesis” (28).
  • “There is no practical way to ‘test’ my thesis with standard sociological measures; the issues involved are too subtle and elusive to be ‘verified’ by such means” (29).
  • “I cannot conduct a systematic investigation to ‘prove’ that [some random claim], but I am confident that one well conducted would validate my claim” (66).
  • “Again, nobody, I am sure, has conducted or could conduct a systematic study of such features and reactions to empirically ‘prove’ my point” (87).

Honestly, the required survey design seems pretty simple. First, ask a sample of sociologists if they “are now or have ever been an activist on behalf of the sacred project.” Then, provide them with a list of their friends and colleagues, and ask for them to identify the individuals who would or should answer affirmatively to the first question.

Rather than follow such a straightforward approach, Smith presents “an array of semi-systemic evidence,” beginning with a “stroll through the ASA’s annual convention book exhibit” (29) (presumably senior professors with endowed chairs conducts “strolls” to collect their data, while junior faculty might feel the need to at least jog). From his stroll, he constructs 12 generic categories into which “most” of the books there “could be translated.” I won’t list them all, but these give you a feel:

  • People are Not Paying Enough Attention to Social Problem X, But if They Read this Book they Will Realize that They Have To
  • Women, Racial Minorities, and Poor People are Horribly Oppressed and You Should Be Really Angry About That!
  • Gays, Lesbians, Transsexuals, and other Queers are Everywhere and Their Experiences are Some of the Most Important Things Ever to Know About

After establishing the categories, he reprints the titles of about 30 books from NYU Press (which he doesn’t name because “a look at the sociology lists of virtually every other university press and trade publisher would produce a list very similar” [34]). The book list supports his hypothesis that there is a “narrow range of themes and perspectives.”

This is confusing. When you use concepts like, “Social Problem X,” and then put most books into that category, the question really is how many values does X take? This is like saying many history books are the same because they fit into the category, “Something happened during Period X in Place Y.”

The actual list of books he includes covers topics as diverse as factory farming, GLBT people in Islam, mass incarceration, paganism, breastfeeding, fair trade, donor conception, the NRA, school discipline, hip-hop culture, marriage promotion, immigrant health care, deliberate self-injury, and homeless youth. To Smith these are all “these type of books” produced by “activist disciples of the sacred project.” And, without opening a single one of them, he concludes, “So much for celebrating diversity, the proactive inclusion of social others, and welcoming differences” (34). (I’m thinking, “What an interesting body of work!”)

To supplement the NYU list, Smith adds 30 books reviewed in one issue of Contemporary Sociology. And now he’s in the territory of Sen. Tom Coburn – just listing research topics which, if you already think social science is stupid, sound stupid.

While one cannot always judge a book from its cover (title), my discussion above provides the right interpretive context for knowing what these books are about. Collectively, they are focused on threatening social problems (about which sociologists are the prophetic experts), injustices committed (about which sociologists are the whistle blowers), abuses by economically and politically (especially ‘neo-liberal’) powerful elites (ditto on whistle blowing), and mobilizing social and political movements for sociopolitical and economic change (about which sociologists are the experts and cheerleaders) (40).

To supplement his evidence, because titles don’t tell you everything, he includes five “exemplar” books, into which he delves more deeply – which means quoting from the book jackets and random reviews posted on Amazon.

And then Smith spends four pages – more than he spends on any other research in the book – attacking one book (which he didn’t read) about religion: Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches. He writes, “Between the book itself and the reviewer’s presentation of it, American sociologists are generally confirmed in their standard stereotypical fears about and negative mental associations with evangelicalism” (43). He refers to the book as a “sociological ethnography,” which reflects attitudes held by “sociologists” and the practices of “sociologists far and wide.” He doesn’t even show the courtesy of identifying the author (Omri Elisha) and citing the book properly. If he had, he might have noticed a slight problem with his evidence: the author is an anthropologist! Details.

To analyze research articles, Smith turns to American Sociological Review, based on the method of reading the next issue that arrives (Vol 78, No 3) for evidence of the “sacred project.” Except for one methodological piece, “the raft of articles in this issue tilted clearly in the supportive direction of the sacred project to which, explicitly or implicitly, subtly or obviously, the ASR, the ASA, and American sociology as a whole are committed” (58-59). The evidence he finds is basically that most of the articles study inequality, and when they do they sometimes describe it in negative terms. In essence, the existence of any sociological work describing any aspect of inequality confirms his hypothesis. (And somehow he thought this was too subtle to study empirically.)

Mo’ better modernity

The extent of his disillusionment finally becomes clear in a brief discussion of Horne et al’s, ASR article on bridewealth in Ghana. They investigated “normative constraints on women’s autonomy in the reproductive domain.” Smith objects to the value-laden perspective by which autonomy for women is assumed to be a good thing. He virtually sneers, “Here ‘improving the lives of African women’ is equated, as a good western feminist presupposition, with expanding ‘women’s reproductive autonomy'” (57).

Smith may not know that reproductive autonomy usually refers to a broad suite of decisions about childbearing within families, and it’s an important predictor of such vital outcomes as seeking medical care during pregnancy and delivery (e.g., in Ethiopia, Tajikistan, Bangladesh, and India), reduced unintended pregnancies (e.g., in Bangladesh), and children’s adequate nutrition (in India). If the big problem with sociology is that we assume those are positive outcomes, then I think I’m OK with that.

But Smith is presumably thinking of autonomy in the modern American sense of, “I’m bored, let’s get a divorce”; or, “I love myself, I think I’ll masturbate instead of volunteering at a soup kitchen.” And in that he has reason to worry, as it appears the majority of the world may be headed that direction.

smith-wvs

But surely – given the weak influence of sociology on global culture – he misdirects his irritation over modern life in general onto the sociologists who merely reflect it. This is especially clear in the discussion of sociology’s roots, which reveals the origins of the sacred project he is trying to describe:

As a project, sociology [originally] belonged at the heart of a movement that self-consciously and intentionally displaced western Christianity’s integrative and directive role in society. It was a key partner in modernity’s world-historical efforts to create a secular, rational, scientific social order … Sociology was not merely about piecemeal reforms but world transformation guided by a radically new sacred vision of humanity, life, society, and the cosmos (122).

Indeed, the latest version of the sacred project focuses on “the moral centrality of the autonomous, self-directing, therapeutically oriented individual,” but “this is merely a new emphasis, the seeds of which were planted long ago and have been growing along with the progressive unfolding of western modernity” (130). Thus, “the sacred project that dominates mainstream sociology today is a natural, logical development of the inheritance of liberal, Enlightenment modernity” (131).

Given the worldwide magnitude of this project, and its global success over several centuries, in which American sociology has played such a small role, its seems useless to single out today’s idealistic graduate students and young researchers for blame. They are mere cogs in the modernity machine. This is the deep incoherence of the book: he pours his scorn so superfluously on the leftists who annoy him even though the details of contemporary politics seem tangential to his existential concerns.

Into ASA

Smith extends his superficial empirical analysis into the subject of ASA sections, the organizations sociologists use to develop affinities around their interests and expand their institutional influence. This analysis consists entirely of Smith separating sections into three categories by title based purely on his own inimitable expertise. No content, no text, not even a mocking list of conference presentation titles – just section titles.

The first category is those that are “at the vanguard of sociology’s sacred project.” Naturally, this is the largest category, with some 13,000 members (many people belong to more than one). These include, obviously, Sex and Gender, as well as, less obviously, Mental Health; Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco; and Disability and Society. Next are those that are “less obviously but in many ways still promoting sociology’s sacred project.” These sections have about 11,000 members, including those covering Culture, Theory, Law, and Population. (Oddly, while Mental Health is in the seriously-bad category, Medical Sociology is only in the pretty-bad category. He said it was subtle.) He would “venture to say” based on his experience, that the “majority” of research and teaching by those in this second category “ultimately feeds into support for and the promotion of” the sacred project (66). Finally, there are only four sections, with less than 1,000 members, that are “seemingly not related” to the sacred project (History of Sociology, Mathematical Sociology, Rationality and Society, and Ethnomethodology).

To cover teaching, Smith discusses selected portions of John Macionis’s best-selling Society: The Basics. I have never used one, but I hear that intro books are often frustrating for research university professors, so I am sympathetic here, although my concerns would no doubt be different. I don’t mind criticizing the triumvirate theoretical framing of functionalism-conflict-interaction, but I’m OK with discussing the limits of “free will” (versus social influence), quoting Tocqueville on how excellent the French Revolution was, and even using of BCE/CE instead of BC/AD for dating eras (so touchy – who knew?).

Anyway, there is an extensive literature about introductory sociology textbooks, and since Smith ignores it I mostly ignored this section. However, I did like this: “I could also conduct the same kind of analysis of the other best-selling introductory sociology textbooks, and again, the results would be extremely similar” because “these textbooks are almost identical to each other” (85). I love that he knows this before conducting the “analysis.” But I also don’t doubt that we would reproduce similar conclusions regardless of what he read.

Tall tales

Smith concludes the crucial “Evidence” chapter with “some less systematic [!] but still I think revealing illustrations” (86). These are extended anecdotes that nicely illustrate his ability to harbor a grudge – including cases in which sociologists vehemently reacted to violations of the sacred project (mostly sociologists mistreating his friends).

For some of the anecdotes, Smith does not name names. This is supposedly to underscore his larger points, but since he is not a reliable reporter this is a very bad practice. One he discusses anonymously is obviously the reaction to the book by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially. His description is completely misleading, characterizing it only as a “book about the many benefits of marriage, the lead author of which was a very highly regarded University of Chicago sociologist and demographer.” Excluded is the fact that the book was not published by a university press (Doubleday), and that the second author was a conservative activist, a non-academic “affiliate scholar” working with the Institute for American Values (IAV). Gallagher was already known as a right-wing nut (the author of Enemies of Eros: How the Sexual Revolution Is Killing Family, Marriage, and Sex and What We Can Do About It), who went on to become perhaps the most famous American anti-gay marriage fanatic.

Waite was also working outside of academia to advocate policy. She was writing for IAV, and served on the research board of the National Marriage Project, an academic-activist organization promoting pro-marriage policy. Waite said she and Gallagher kept their politics separate and out of the book. Others disagreed. Clearly, Waite was moving in a more activist direction, as she acknowledged herself, couching her advocacy for marriage in public health terms, and comparing it to the campaigns about smoking and for exercise. A lively debate ensued. Smith describes an author-meets-critics session at the ASA conference in 2002, and says an eyewitness told him that one of the critics “literally frothed at the mouth” and shouted, “You have betrayed us!

But why is Waite different from the other activists who use social science research to promote social agendas – a similarity hidden by Smith’s selective description? And how is this debate so much more damaging than any other? To show the harm done by the sacred sociologists, Smith reports that Waite, who had been on the ASA Council and chair of the Family Section (incidentally one of Smith’s “vanguard” sacred project sections…), has not since held elective office in ASA. That’s true, and I doubt she would be elected if she ran, because of her politics. She has, however, continued a very successful career, holding a named chair at the University of Chicago and serving in important positions at the National Institutes of Health, among other distinctions. Being president of ASA is a privilege, not a right.

Another anecdote concerns Brad Wilcox’s tenure promotion at the University of Virginia, also hardly anonymized (93-95). As a non-public personnel matter, however, this case is poorly suited for weaponization. I don’t know the facts first-hand, and Smith doesn’t offer any documentation or reveal his source for the story. The gist of it is that Wilcox’s department at the University of Virginia voted to deny him tenure, but they were overruled by the top level of administration (Smith says it was the provost that saved the promotion, while Wilcox colleague Robert George reported it was the president). I don’t know the extent to which Wilcox’s religious affiliation or political positions played a role in the department’s decision, and I certainly wouldn’t take Smith’s word for it. Simply counting the publications on a CV is not enough to judge a tenure decision; the quality and impact of the work matter, too, as do ethics and character. For example, regardless of his publication record I might vote to deny Wilcox tenure on the basis of his dishonesty and incompetence (which I have documented voluminously – although my stories begin after he was tenured).

Regnerus reflux

All this is setup for Smith’s rant about the Regnerus affair (overview here; archive of posts under this tag). When the scandal was unfolding in 2012, Smith made an unintentional appearance in the blogosphere when some of his outraged email to sociologists (including me) was posted on the Scatterplot blog (here and here). He followed that up with an essay defending Regnerus in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which accused academic sociology of perpetrating an auto-da-fé (which is similar to being criticized on blogs, except in every possible way).

Obsessed readers will recall that, in the original version of that essay, Smith wrote, “Full disclosure: I was on the faculty in Regnerus’s department and advised him for some years, but was not his dissertation chair.” That was later corrected to read, “Full disclosure: I was chair of Regnerus’s dissertation committee.” This seems not a minor detail to forget, considering (by his accounting) Smith and Regnerus co-authored eight articles together, and Regnerus was one of only six dissertations Smith chaired at UNC.

Regnerus dissertation signature page.

Regnerus dissertation signature page.

Smith is still having trouble with the details of the story, and forgets again to “fully disclose” this fact.

He also tells this story as if everything Regnerus said initially was true and nothing substantial was subsequently uncovered. For example, it hardly seems relevant anymore that, “Regnerus was clear in his article that his findings did not point in any specific policy direction” (102), now that Regnerus and his colleagues did use his results to press the case against marriage equality, in both briefs and expert testimony. We also now know, confirming the early conspiracy theories, that Regnerus and his colleagues – principally Wilcox – did indeed plan the study as an activist endeavor to influence the courts. (This doesn’t mean they faked the data, only that they were sure they would find a way to find something in the data to make gay and lesbian parents look bad.)

Smith quotes from Regnerus’s paper, “I have not and will not speculate here on causality,” but we now know that Regnerus grossly does exaggerate his results and draw causal conclusions when speaking to like-minded audiences, including by presenting unadjusted results while discussing his statistical controls, and by speculating about mechanisms for the patterns he found. The original published paper, with its caveats and disclaimers, proved irrelevant to how the movement against marriage equality used it for their ideological ends.

In any event, Smith still needs to vent on the ill treatment he believes Regnerus received at the hands of the purveyors of the sacred project. He devotes more than 14 pages to the scandal, of which almost 6 are footnotes in which he schools himself on the legal particulars of the case, condemns the non-academic activists who agitated and sued their way through the process, and takes on some of the wider research on same-sex parenting. Not surprisingly, however, I’m afraid Smith seems to have learned little from the scandal (including the relevant facts).

One odd falsehood Smith commits is claiming there was a “review process by which the [Regnerus] article had been unanimously judged worthy of publication by six double-blind reviewers” (107), which he repeats later (157). If this is an honest error it results from misreading the internal review conducted by Darren Sherkat for the journal, Social Science Research (SSR), in response to the scandal. Sherkat reported that there were six reviewers for two articles that sparked controversy – three each. So, three reviewers, not six. Also, Smith must know that SSR is the only major sociology journal to practice single-blind review. The reviewers always know who wrote the articles they review. In fact, as we now know, two of the three reviewers were directly involved in the research: Paul Amato, who has described his role as a paid consultant on the study; and, far worse, Brad Wilcox, the principal fundraiser and institutional architect of the research, whose role as a reviewer was finally admitted in August 2013. So, not exactly “double-blind,” even nominally.

Smith’s main complaint is that the sociologists criticizing Regnerus have always ignored weak studies and shoddy research methods when people who used them found that gay and lesbian parents don’t harm children. This is the “ideological double standard” that Smith called “pathetic” in an email to me and others, now rehashed at p. 110 of his book. But it’s ridiculous. Neither I nor the others objecting to the Regnerus paper claimed our primary objective was the protection of accurate science in some abstract sense. The paper drew the sustained attention that it did because of the moment and manner in which it appeared – and was deployed – in a raging national debate with important, practical consequences for real life.

Speaking for myself, I of course routinely review and recommend rejection for research articles whose results and apparent worldview are completely consistent with my empirical expectations and normative assumptions (even in cases where rubberstamping them into publication would increase my own citation count). And I often decline to cite relevant research that would support whatever case I’m making if I don’t find it sound or credible. I have standards for quality and I impose them in the routine course of business. But I don’t stand on street corners and holler at passersby every time a poor quality article is published, the way I do when one is that attacks minority civil rights. That’s not hypocrisy, that’s priorities.

On the merits of the equivalency claim – bad Regnerus, bad prior research – I also disagree. Much of the previous research on same-sex parenting was essentially in the form of case studies and convenience samples, which are legitimate ways of studying small and hard-to-identify populations, despite the possibility of selection bias and social desirability bias. As Andrew Perrin, Neal Caren and I argued in a response paper, that previous research, in the aggregate, is consistent with the “no differences” view because it fails to falsify the hypothesis that there is a notable disadvantage to being raised by same-sex parents. All those case studies and convenience samples do not prove there is no disadvantage attributable to same-sex parenting – they merely fail to find one. And that is the state of the research today.

Unsurprisingly, Smith draws the wrong conclusion from the Regnerus affair, arguing that the greatest negative outcome was the threat to the peer-review process posed by the criticism of Regnerus:

Most obvious in that episode was the attack on Regnerus himself. Less obvious but no less important was the assault on the integrity of the double-blind peer-review process involved in those attacks. Recall that Regnerus’ paper had been evaluated by six blind reviewers, all of whom recommended publication. Recall that the quality of Regnerus’ sample was, though not perfect, superior to any other that had been used to answer this research question prior to his study. Nothing in the review process was unusual or dubious… (157).

Even if all that were true, and it is demonstrably all not true, I still don’t think protest and criticism of published research – what Smith calls “scholarly review by mob intimidation” – marks “the end of credible social science” (161). This is like saying the problem with the Vietnam War was that it ushered in a new era in which elected politicians can’t even make the decision to go to war anymore without the threat of mob protests and civil disobedience. Who let the public in to this democracy, anyway? (Of course, as I was once instructed by a colleague, academia is not a democracy, it’s a meritocracy.)

His summary of the story takes on this Orwellian character. “I do not mean to suggest that sociology’s journal peer-review system is rampant with corruption,” he says, somehow referring not to the bad decision to publish the article, but rather to the public criticism it sustained.

But I do think it is vulnerable to pernicious influences exerted by some scholars who are driven by some of the less admirable aspects of sociology’s sacred project. The Regnerus debacle shows that it can happen and has happened. The potential for abuse is real (162).

The abuse in the Regnerus case was not in the protest, but in the mobilization of big, private money to generate research intended to influence the courts, infecting the reviewer pool with consulting fees among insider networks, manipulating the journal into relying on reviewers without expertise in gay and lesbian family studies, and then mobilizing the result for harmful political ends. The public criticism, on the other hand, besides making Regnerus professionally toxic – for which I have little sympathy – served only to bring this to the attention of the academic community and the public. I may be in the minority on this among academics who value their privileged social status, but I don’t even object to the public records requests for information on the peer review process (which, although not triggered by sociologists, consume several pages of Smith’s narrative). Rather, I regret that the use of private money and a corporate publisher limited the possibility for more thorough transparency in the process.

Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins.

Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins.

Blame the bloggers

Like he blames politics when he doesn’t like the political outcome, Smith blames communication itself when he doesn’t like the content expressed. In this case, that means the blogs. I find this passage jaw-dropping:

The Internet has created a whole new means by which the traditional double-blind peer-review system may be and already is in some ways, I believe, being undermined. I am referring here to the spate of new sociology blogs that have sprung up in recent years in which handfuls of sociologists publicly comment upon and often criticize published works in the discipline. The commentary published on these blogs operates outside of the gatekeeping systems of traditional peer review. All it takes to make that happen is for one or more scholars who want to amplify their opinions into the blogosphere to set up their own blogs and start writing. … If this were conducted properly, it could provide benefit to the discipline. But, in my observation, the discipline’s sacred project sometimes steers how these sociology blogs operate in highly problematic directions (166).

He calls this “vigilante peer review.” And I guess I’m doing it right now.

No journal or book review editor has asked any of these sociologists to review a paper or book. What publications get critiqued and sometimes lambasted is entirely up to the blog owners and authors (166).

Then, after a three-page excerpt from a Darren Sherkat blog post – which, admittedly, probably was not intended to lower Smith’s blood pressure – he concludes:

The Internet has created new means by which American sociology’s spiritual project … can and does interfere with the integrity and trustworthiness of the social-scientific, journal article peer-review system (172).

Yikes. This might all not seem so embarrassingly wrong if it didn’t follow from holding up Regnerus as the paragon of the peer review system.

I can’t think of exactly the right children’s movie analogy here – a grouchy traditionalist who eventually learns that it’s OK to be free and have fun. It’s not quite The Grinch, because that was just evil for no reason. It’s not quite Captain von Trapp from Sound of Music, because his misplaced need for social order resulted from the injury of his widowhood. Maybe it’s Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins, who is just merrily living his life, benignly assuming that children should be seen and not heard because that’s the way it’s always been. I like the movies where, in the end, the grouch learns that it’s OK to sing and dance.

On the other hand

The most persuasive passage in the book is one that is mostly irrelevant to Smith’s sacred project argument. He believes American sociologists have tended in recent years to separate themselves into disparate groups of like-minded people, so that there is “a tacit peace treaty specifying that everyone should mostly think and do whatever he or she wishes in terms of methods, theory, and intent and not suggest that what anyone else is doing might be a problem” – as long as it’s politically correct (142). If the people we talk and argue with professionally have very similar views, debate over broader intellectual or philosophical issues is too limited.

At the same time, too many grad students are trained as narrow technicians, with not enough “broadly read, thoughtful, intellectually interesting scholars and teachers” (143). He may perhaps overstate that case, but it’s a reasonable thing to worry about:

In sum, most of American sociology has become disciplinarily isolated and parochial, sectarian, internally fragmented, boringly homogeneous, reticently conflict-averse, philosophically ignorant, and intellectually torpid (144).

His greatest error in this part is see activist leftists dominating the prestige game within the discipline, shutting out and shunning anyone who doesn’t conform. It seems obvious to me that technical expertise and empirical problem solving skills are much greater determinants of access to top publications and jobs than is devotion to what Smith calls the sacred project. Whacky leftists who don’t think critically (who are of course only a subset of leftists) might be part of the winning electoral coalition within ASA, but I don’t think they’re running the discipline.

The greater culprit here, in my opinion, is not political homogeneity but rather pressure to specialize and develop technical expertise early in our graduate training in order to publish in prestigious journals as early as possible to get hired and promoted in tenure-track jobs. I would love it if sociology had more interaction and debate between, say, family scholars and criminologists, network sociologists and gender scholars, demographers and theorists. (One workaround, at least for me, has been devoting time in my career to blogging and social media, which generates excellent conversation and exposure to new people away from my areas of expertise.)

Don’t just stand there

I agree there are sociologists who see it as their mission to be “essentially the criminal investigative unit of the left wing of the Democratic Party” (21). From the thousands of graduate applications I’ve reviewed, it’s clear that many of our students enter sociology because they are looking for a way to attack social problems and move society in the direction determined by their moral and political views and values. And they’re usually not political conservatives or evangelical Christians.

Why fault people for doing that? What are people with such convictions and talents supposed to do? Sometimes it doesn’t work out as an academic career, but it’s often worth a try. In sociology training, meanwhile, they have the opportunity to learn a lot of facts and theories along with everyone else. And they might also learn to avoid some common intellectual problems. Some things students learn – or learn to appreciate further – include: Things do not always automatically get worse for oppressed people; not all state institutions are harmful to subordinate groups; some facts undermine our prior understandings and political views, and it’s OK to discuss them; and, no matter how oppressed your people are, if you’re in an American sociology graduate program, chances are there are people somewhere who are even more oppressed.

I don’t mean to be condescending to people who enter academia with activist intentions – although I’m sure I seem that way. Personally, I am happier working in such company than I would be surrounded by people who only have faux-value-neutral, technocratic ambitions and no righteous outrage to express. That doesn’t mean I’ll rubberstamp comprehensive exams or dissertations, or ignore errors in the peer-review process, because I like someone’s politics. I like the discipline that social science offers to activism. And I like that our discipline offers a career path for (among others) people whose passion is for changing the world in a good way – the meaning of which I’m happy to argue about further.

* I am not getting into personalism, critical realism, Aristotle, Karol Wojtyla, or other obscure stuff, much of which Smith puts in an appendix.

26 Comments

Filed under Research reports

26 responses to “It’s modernity, stupid (Book review of The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith)

  1. Omg is tht the guy from mary poppins?

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  2. I am absolutely delighted if I have played any small part in causing lying Christian Smith consternation and angst. He and his fellow academic Catholics thought they were going to roll over the gays. They thought they had this locked, in their ignorance of the population they attempted to study (via Regnerus) they did not count on one thing an that is this, they did not have a clue how extremely knowledgeable the Gay Alliance is in reading and understanding social science and psychology research. Highly influential sexual minorities have been tearing apart falsely constructed and conducted research that targets them, for over a decade. Whereas this was Christian Smith, Brad Wilcox, Louis Tellez, and Mark Regnerus’ first anti gay rodeo, our side were seasoned bronco busters. How many academics read court briefs and trial testimony? Not many right? However gay bronco busters read ALL of it, and we knew immediately the purpose of the research because we read in the court briefs how research is used in court. I haven’t read the book, was not even aware of it until reading this review but I am now obligated to buy it and complain to Oxford Press to force correction of the inaccuracies in the book. SIX BLIND PEER REVIEWERS reviewed Regnerus? No, oh HELL NO, we cannot let this stand uncorrected as this will be cited and re-cited. This falsehood is going to show up in a court brief, that Regnerus was reviewed by SIX BLIND PEER REVIEWERS. Trust me I know how this works. I will now begin a public information campaign to alert all actors of this gross negligence in Christian Smith’s book. We are going to make Oxford University Press correct all errors that are even tangentially connected to sexual minorities. That is how you fight for dignity and respect you fight back point by point every single falsehood and lie that is slung against you. We will not let the veneer of a PhD overcome the truth. Just like Christian Smith had to backtrack on his *true* association with Regenrus which he lied about, he is going to have to take this back and APOLOGIZE, I don’t care if this then makes it into a chapter in his next book, he is going to have to apologize.

    I am pleased to point the readers of this blog a BRAND NEW document obtained recently through a Freedom of Information Act request and never before published, proof that the Editor of the Journal Social Science Research James Wright, willfully violated scientific publishing standards, in his rush to pump up that impact factor of his Journal which he then leveraged in his professional standing.

    *Note to readers Regnerus submitted his study into the software on February 1, 2012.

    Giddyup!

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  3. that is an hour of my life i will never get back. (i’m a slow reader.) thanks.

    on the positive side, i’ve learned that oxford university press is now a vanity outlet that will publish any manner of drivel. i feel bad for people who have published perfectly excellent scholarship there, but now i know i have an outlet for my latest research “toe cheese: a conspiracy by sociologists to kill god and family for satan’s pleasure.” there’s something in it for everyone.

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  4. The fact that Christian has a named chair at a research university and can publish a 200 page blog post on Oxford University Press belies his thesis that sociology is controlled by decadent communists.

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    • so OUP published his book so that he wouldn’t call them out for being decadent communists? does this mean i can’t get them to publish my book on toe cheese unless i make a similar threat?

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  5. Chuck

    Thanks for your candid review of this book. Smith argues that there is bias against conservatives and you disagree, but both of you are merely speculating. How about we look at the research? George Yancey’s book Compromising Scholarship shows that a substantial percentage of academics (across many disciplines) would be less likely to hire Republicans or conservative Christians.
    Fairness and equality can be a double-edged sword, and sociologists don’t like it much when its own methods are turned back on the discipline.

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  6. Scott Rose

    Christian Smith is involved in the Regnerus hoax up to his neck. For one post about it that he made on the Chronicle of Higher Education, he lied by saying that he was not the chair of Regnerus’s dissertation.

    He was in fact the chair.. I provided the Chronicle with the documentation showing that he was, and the Chronicle then made the correction.

    Social Science Research does not have double-blind peer review, so it is extraordinary that nobody at Oxford University Press fact-checked Smith’s writing.

    Above, Str8Grandmother put a link to e-mails showing that Wright permitted Wilcox to peer review Regnerus. Wilcox states that several additional Social Science Research editorial board members were involved in Regnerus’s “study,” but he doesn’t say how many or which ones.

    At this link is a Washington Post report about articles retracted due to corrupt peer review. http://tinyurl.com/k3dett6

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  7. Scott Rose

    I want to clarify: in his Chronicle of Higher Education post, Christian Smith specifically stated that he was not Regnerus’s dissertation chair.

    I already had the documentation showing that he was.

    So, whereas in his new book, he doesn’t mention the topic at all, previously he tried to lie to the public about that, by saying that he was not Regnerus’s dissertation chair, and he got caught in his lie.

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  8. Thanks for the great review. This is one more Christian Smith book I won’t bother to read.

    Also, I’ve reviewed some of George Yancey’s work (both published and for a book publisher to see if it should be published; hint, hint, it shouldn’t). It’s not first-rate, or even second-rate. It’s third-rate work. I think Yancey is trying to snuggle up to Smith to get a place in his Christian sociology camp.

    Oh, and props to Darren for getting that much space in Christian Smith’s book!

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  9. Nicolette

    I have read the book very carefully, and I think you’ve woefully misrepresented it. Smith knows better than anyone “it’s modernity.” He says so, here and elsewhere. But is modernity some kind of handed-down, self-evidently better way of viewing the world, or are we allowed to critique it in its many expressions (American sociology being the one Smith is most familiar with)? Is Smith simply wrong by virtue of his rejection of modernity? Wouldn’t that mean you are treating modernity as something…sacred?

    The lack of “scientific” proofing of his argument is not a separate issue. The elevation of sciencific method above all other ways of producing knowledge–as opposed to, say, decades of day-in, day-out first-hand experience–is, needless to say, a core component of modernity. The evidence he marshalls would be very convincing if this were billed as an insider ethnography. His statements about the difficulty of measuring culture–and about cultural analysis being as much an intuitive, interpretive project as a scientific one–are right in line with what many paragons of the ethnographic method have said. Just because it is an experience-based position piece absent of number-crunching doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

    The issue Smith actually takes with American sociology is the way many act as if they were NOT located within a cultural-historical context with its own standard of what is sacred and what is profane. He never concludes that it is inherently problematic for sociology to have sacred principles. He rather argues we need to ‘fess up to them and think more critically–listening to a wider array of viewpoints–about whether our sacred principles are coherent with reality.

    My point in writing this is not really to convince you (Phil), but to convince those who might (s)troll by to read the book first before casting judgment on the basis of the above review. The book is far from perfect. But its argument is much more nuanced than this review gives it credit for.

    PS. my comments should not be read as some kind of support for anyone involved in the Regnerus affair. Although his misguided defense of Regnerus will likely eclipse all of his other points, that’s a shame, since there is an important argument here that should be addressed on its own merits.

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    • Thank you for commenting. You do ethnographers a great disservice with this, “The evidence he marshalls would be very convincing if this were billed as an insider ethnography.” The ethnographic evidence, if you want to call it that, consists of several anecdotes — maybe half of which he heard second-hand (including the Waite debate and the Wilcox promotion). We are supposed to take from his “decades of day-in, day-out first-hand experience” that the Disability and Society section is at “vanguard of sociology’s sacred project”? The superficial “reading” of titles, abstracts, and book jackets is embarrassing. You don’t have to be a positivist to do research, and this isn’t research.

      He does acknowledge that his problem is with modernity itself, which I noted. We can disagree about whether that makes his argument incoherent. And, of course, the pro-modernity perspective is just one possible perspective. It happens to be the one upon which modern social science (and society) is built. But, because sociology is so tolerant of diversity, it allows someone like Smith (along with some leftists who reject science, too) to keep a tenured position despite literally rejecting the basis of its existence. He’s a real utopian.

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    • Smith has long tried to co-opt Critical Theory for conservative ends – his obsession with “Critical Realism” is well known. I guess he gets points for being creative but its so transparently craven that no one takes it seriously…

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  10. Daniel

    This book contains two areas that will distract from its core argument: 1) the evidence used and 2) the so-called Regnerus affair. Regarding the former, I agree that an assortment of anecdotes and observations made over some 30 years will – and rightly should – raise the suspicions of most if not all social scientists. Regarding the latter, I am not qualified to adjudicate the Regnerus situation because I am so far removed from it (and most who chime in about it likely are, too, I would guess).

    However, the book’s core argument merits consideration, despite its reliance on anecdotes. Philip, you reveal as much. When discussing Horne and colleagues’ article, you argue in essence, “We sociologists don’t have a sacred project, but if we did, the values that we stand for are good ones.” Your final section adds to Smith’s evidence that most budding sociologists enter the discipline with deeply held core moral, political, and value convictions. Here you are much more direct in your affirmation of their moral and political views: “Why fault people for doing that?” – that is, “changing the world in a good way”?*

    Hence, Smith is not a “vaccine denier.” He is trying to hold a mirror to the field of sociology, a mirror that when you pick it up, you begrudgingly agree with. Criticizing his evidence is thus a distraction from his thesis that American sociology is a sacred project with specific driving values and teleological ends.

    The need for this book and Smith’s argument is that having an un-discussed sacred project brings at least three related problems:
    1. Sociology sells itself as a neutral, value-free discipline, so it is being dishonest with itself and its funders if it claims to be otherwise.
    2. By implicitly privileging or subscribing to certain values, morals, and politics, certain types of questions are asked and certain research is conducted – while a number of questions go unasked and unresearched. We know, therefore, less about the social world than we ought to as curious (social) scientists.
    3. Research that goes against this moral vision will remain unpublished or brutally attacked (see post #2 above), while research that supports it (even if shoddy and based on convenience samples – as Smith’s book admittedly is) will not raise an eyebrow. That’s a recipe for groupthink and myopia over what is happening in society.

    These are very real problems that contribute to articles and blog posts cited in footnote 23 on pp. 20-21 (along with ever-present conversations about the “crisis” in sociology). My take: If we want sociology to be a better discipline that more accurately describes the social world and explains how it works, we need to take Smith’s book seriously.

    *How are you so sure that sociologists-as-activists are changing the world in a “good” way? How do you know this? How do we measure this? What if they are contributing to reactionary political polarization that prevents social change from occurring? (Would that be a “bad”?) And – most importantly – who has decided what the “good” is here? These are important questions, and we can only engage them when we recognize and question our moral and political commitments.

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    • Like Christian Smith (is that you Christian?), alot of bluster, verbiage and rage but no evidence or theory or even an alternative presecription.

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    • Also, nice dodge there about Regnerus – there is no dispute, except in the minds of right wing homophobes and their academic enablers.

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    • Finally, “criticizing his evidence is a distration from his thesis” assumes his thesis is correct without it being proven. Sounds like religion to me – believing something on faith without evidence.

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    • Just to clarify, when I say “good” I mean according to my values.

      The whole “sacred” thing is a red herring. There are various levels of critical thinking within sociology as there are in other disciplines. People who don’t think critically don’t make well-founded arguments. People who do think critically are more constructive. I just don’t buy the idea that there is a non-critical-thinking pact at the heart of the discipline, with a shared secret agenda and collective practices like those you describe about funding, publishing, and lying to the public.

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      • Isn’t the fact that there are profound disagreements within the field itself between say, positivists and crits, quants and quals, etc. pretty much disprove his conspiracy theory about “sacred” shared goals and methods?

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  11. Scott Rose

    By the way, if Sherkat’s audit can be believed, then between the Regnerus and Marks papers, there was a total of six peer reviewers, one of whom peer reviewed both the Regnerus and the Marks papers.

    I could explain in more detail if anybody wished, but my investigative work had led me to conclude that the peer reviewer who reviewed both the Regnerus and the Marks papers is one W. Bradford Wilcox. If Sherkat was being truthful in his audit, then my conclusion is correct.

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  12. Smith names 5 groups outside the sociology orthodoxy – I wonder which he views himself to be in? Methinks he handily left a group out of his list…

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  13. Vijay

    Is this all a tempest in a teacup, an old professor biting back at his critics after many years, and the politically correct joining together to bite him back? A replay of Napoleon Chagnon’s new book and comments by all and sundry? Michael Bailey versus his detractors? Outside of tenured faculty, does anyone care?

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  14. Vijay

    Academia is neither a democracy or meritocracy, but a gerontocracy.

    For an example of extended sneer as a book review, see povinelli on Chagnon in the NY times review of books. We have to go a long way to reach such heights!

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  15. Pingback: » Book Review: The Sacred Project of American Sociology The Sociological Imagination

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