“Sociological theory has conceptually *centered* nearly everything imaginable–nearly everything, that is, except human persons. We have centered action and meanings. We have centered interactions, society, and practices. We have centered culture. We have centered social structures. We have centered the functional requisites of society and the means and relations of production. We have centered habits and habitus. We have centered pleasure, exchange, and utility maximization. We have centered social network ties and social influence. We have centered social norms and values. We have centered power and conflict. We have centered social roles, identify, and creativity. We have centered social interest, social class, social facts, and social knowledge. We have centered gender and rational choice and emotions. We have centered individuals. All of that. But we have never centered human persons. And that explains, I suggest, why sociological theory has never quite worked.”
– Christian Smith, To Flourish or Destruct: A Personalist Theory of Human Goods, Motivations, Failure, and Evil (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 60.
I always find it refreshing when a scholar is able to reflect critically (and philosophical) on their own discipline. Christian Smith (PhD, Harvard; Professor at Notre Dame), noted sociologist and author, has been doing this for years.
The heart of his critique is that modern sociology has tended to lack an ontology of human personhood, having accepted modern dualisms (esp. “the individual” versus “society” in sociology) rooted in the Enlightenment (Hobbes, Hume, Kant) and the philosophies aligned with or reacting to it (materialism, positivist empiricism, antimentalist theories, social situationism, antirealist social constructivism, individualism, collective ‘holism’, etc.). Even so, sociologists tend to see themselves as serving the public good, and implicitly rely on unstated assumptions regarding what constitutes that good (perhaps valuing things like equality, inclusivity, fairness, justice, etc.). The problem, according to Smith, is that this is both contradictory (how can we pursue normative goods for humans when we have avoided specifying what human beings are and what ends are intrinsic to their nature and thus necessary for their flourishing?) and inevitably ineffective (because a reductionist view of personhood – usually held implicitly – leads to reductionist solutions to human social problems).
While I don’t agree with everything Smith writes in this book (I’d want to qualify some things and expand upon others, theologically), I’d highly recommend it as important in its aims and thought-provoking for stimulating one’s own reflection on human persons. (I also recommend his previous book, What Is A Person?, also published by U. Chicago Press).