Review: "The Sacred Project of American Sociology" Part II

Yesterday, I began my review of Christian Smith important new book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology. In outline form, I re-stated his thesis, albeit without all the nuances and qualifications Smith rightly attaches but which would have made a review unwieldy. Today, I will look at the evidence he presents in defense of the claim that, so far from an antiseptic, rigorously scientific, unbiased enterprise, American sociology actually pursues a sacred project, based on a sketchy and largely unacknowledged anthropology.

Smith’s evidence is not strictly speaking scientific, but it is also not merely anecdotal, based on critical reflection on his own experience in the craft but fundamentally rooted in factual claims. For example, he starts by discussing the books on display at the annual American Sociological Association (ASA) and says realizes that there is a certain homogeneity, a lack of diversity, despite the claims of the modern academy to truly relish diversity. Smith pokes fun at his author-colleagues with a list of made-up titles, all of them fitting neatly within the confines of political correctness, that exemplify the usual offerings: “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!; See How the System Run by the Rich Obstructs Justice; and my favorite Anything But the Most Liberal Religion is Violent, Fanatical, and Scary.  The list goes on in similar vein and it is funny, as well as revealing. Smith’s cultural tastes run to the conservative. But, the actual list of books on display is scarcely less illustrative of his claim, with my favorite recent titles drawn from Smith’s list including Pagan Family Values: Childhood and the Religious Imagination in Contemporary American Paganism and Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims, and The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls. The point here is not that these books are unimportant, nor that they do not address serious topics, but that when you see a list of twenty of them, all more or less focused on the same narrative, you began to believe that Smith is on to something. The lists of books reviewed by the ASA’s journal Contemporary Sociology only confirms the thesis. Smith writes of this latter list: “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 economic and politically (especially ‘neo-liberal’) powerful elites (ditto on whistle blowing), and mobilizing social and political movements for socio-political and economic change (about which sociologists are the scientific experts and cheerleaders).” Mindful of my own suspicions of neo-liberalism in all its forms, I nonetheless cannot help but agree with Smith that the lists of books reviewed at the ASA’s journal betray not only an ideological lens, nor just an ideological bias, but an ideological agenda, however fuzzy it may be. Smith goes into detail on certain books, even ones whose titles do not seem to betray an ideological agenda, to show how that agenda nonetheless manifests itself with alarming frequency.

Smith looks at the themes and different sections of the ASA’a annual meetings, which paint a similar bias, but then he gets to the truly damning stuff. He examines one of the most popular textbooks for Introduction to Sociology courses, John Macionis’ Society: The Basics.  Smith writes:

The textbook literally begins immediately on page 2 (page 1 is a photo) by highlighting the (then) fact of legal discrimination against same-sex marriage in the United States. The very first block of text beneath the “chapter overview” points out, while discussing why people marry whom they marry, that “Society has many ‘rules’ about whom we should and should not marry. In all states but Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Iowa, along with the District of Columbia, the law rules out half the population, banning people from marrying someone of the same sex, even if the couple is deeply in love.” That, apparently, is the most important place to being an “introduction” to “the basics” of “society.”

Smith goes on to cite other difficulties with this introductory textbook, one of which leads to another bit of damning evidence with real world consequences that should alarm us all.  The text cites a now largely discredited study on the economic impact of divorce on men and women, undertaken by Harvard sociologist Lenore Weitzman. Her study claimed that after a divorce, the standard of living for men increased by 42 percent while for women it decreased by 73 percent. Those are alarming numbers, but they fit the emancipationist narrative of the sociologist coming to the rescue of the oppressed with empirical data that should enrage everyone. Except, of course, it was not so. Professor Weitzman, according to Smith, declined to share her data with other researchers who found her findings outside the expected bounds for almost a decade. Once others had access to that data, they reached significantly less alarming results (using Weitzman’s own data) and other studies found no disparity between the impact of divorce between the genders at all. Despite the alarm bells that such an outlying finding should have triggered as soon as Weitzman’s book was published, it was received with largely critical acclaim. More alarmingly, her “findings were cited (by 1996) in more than 170 newspaper and magazine articles, 348 social science articles, 250 law review articles, 24 state court cases, and on U.S. Supreme Court decision. Despite growing doubts expressed by colleagues, Weitzman reiterated her ‘73/42’ statistic testifying before the U.S. Congress. Legislatures around the country also reconsidered their divorce laws in reaction to her findings. In fact, Weitzman personally took credit in 1996 for shaping 14 laws in California alone. President Bill Clinton actually cited her book’s findings in his 1996 budget proposal.” This all was, as Smith claims, “a grand-slam hit for sociology’s spiritual project that was too wonderful to be doubted or criticized.”

Smith then tells the story of Mark Regnerus, a socialist at the University of Texas at Austin, who published an article in a respected journal entitled “How Different are the Adult Children of Parents who Have Same-Sex Relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Survey.” Here is a hot button topic to be sure but Regnerus’ findings did not fit the emancipatory narrative, although, as he noted, his findings did not point to any particular policy and might have been used to support gay marriage as well as to oppose it. The telling of the brouhaha that ensued is grim and great. Buy Smith’s book to read all about it.

Smith details other evidence to support his claim that sociology, so far from being a disinterested, scientific study of society, has a Durkheimian sacred project at its core. On Monday, I will look at Smith’s conclusions and mine.    




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