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Christian Smith | Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

But what, exactly, is a person? Equal parts critical and constructive, Smith confronts the basic paradox of the social sciences -- their preoccupation with describing and analyzing human activities, cultures, and social structures but falling short on the core understanding of the human condition -- and tackles the four fundamental flaws of social science in defining personhood.

Impoverished is he who can predict economic trends but who does not well understand his own self. The first disconnect Smith addresses is that of social science theories, despite their interesting and illuminating propositions about social life, failing to fully represent our actual dimensions as human beings.

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When we look at the models of the human operative in, say, exchange theory, social control theory, rational choice, functionalism, network theory, evolutionary theory, sociobiology, or sociological Marxism, we may recognize certain aspects of our lives in them. Otherwise the theories would feel completely alien and implausible to us.

But I suspect that few of us recognize in those theories what we understand to be most important about our own selves as people.

Something about them fails to capture our deep subjective experience as persons, crucial dimensions of the richness of our own lived lives, what thinkers in previous ages might have called our 'souls' or 'hearts. The second disjoint deals with the gap between the social sciences' depiction of human beings and the moral and political beliefs that many social scientists embrace as individuals, yet few of their theories actually reflect those beliefs. Much theory portrays humans as essentially governed by external social influences, competing socially for material resources, strategically manipulating public presentations of the self, struggling with rivals for power and status, cobbling identities through fluid assemblies of scripted roles, rationalizing actions with post hoc discursive justifications, and otherwise behaving, thinking, and feeling in ways that are commonly predictable by variable attributes and categories according to which their lives can be broken down, measured, and statistically modeled.


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Smith's third focal point explores sociologists' preoccupation with conceptualizing social structures at the expense of understanding what actually gave rise to them, or how the nature of individual personhood affects them. Much of sociology simply takes social structures for granted and focuses instead on how they shape human outcomes A good theory of the origins of social structures needs to be rooted in a larger theory about the nature of human persons.

On 'Moralistic Therapeutic Deism' as U.S. Teenagers' Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith

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