Tag Archives: Christian Smith

Narratives

Divine Life and Afterlife narrative:

Once upon a time, the universe was created by the sun-god, Ra, who appeared out of primeval chaos and created the air god Shu and his wife, Tefnut; to these were born the sky-goddess Nut and the earth-god Geb, who in turn bore Osiris, Isis, and Set. Osiris became king and judge of the dead, and god of the waters of the Nile, the grain harvest, the moon, and the sun—the beloved protector of all, both poor and rich. One day, however, Osiris was murdered by his brother, Set. But he was restored to life by his wife, Isis, and so became the great god of the eternal persistence of life. Osiris was also avenged by his son, Horus, revealing the triumph of good over evil. All creation is thus spiritual in origin. We humans are born mortal, but we contain within ourselves the seed of the divine, which, if we avoid evil, can reach its full potential in us after death. Our purpose in this life is to nourish that seed, and, if successful, we will be rewarded with eternal life in the next world and be reunited with our divine origin. If we worship the gods, live honorable lives, avoid evil, and follow proper procedures in death, our souls—our “ka” and “ba”—will live eternally in the Underworld.

Christian metanarrative:

A personal, loving, holy God created the heavens and the earth for his own glory, making humans in his very image, and establishing a relationship of care and friendship with humanity. Tragically, however, humans in pride have chosen to rebel against and reject God, the source of all life and happiness, thus plunging the world into all manner of evil, death, and spiritual blindness. But the love and grace of God is more powerful and determined than the sin of humanity, so through Israel God continued his covenant relationship to redeem the world from its sin. Rather than allowing creation to reap death and utter destruction as the full and just consequence of sin, God himself became human and freely took upon himself those evil consequences. Through the undeserved crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God conquered death, set aright the broken relationship, and opened a way for the redemption of creation. God now calls all people to respond through his Sprit to this divine love and grace by repenting from sin and walking in a new life of friendship with and obedience to God in the church and the world. Those who persist in their denial of God’s love will finally get exactly what they want, the end of which is death. But those who embrace God will enjoy and worship him together forever in a new heaven and earth.

Militant Islamic Resurgence narrative:

Once upon a time, even while Europe was stumbling through its medieval darkness, a glorious Muslim empire and civilization led the world in all manner of science, art, technology, and culture. Islam prospered for many centuries under faithful submission to Allah. But then, crusading Infidels from the Northwest invaded the land of Islam and over five hundred years have progressively conquered, divided, and subjugated, us. Once glorious, Islam has no suffered endless humiliations, infidelities, and corruptions through Western colonialism, secularism, socialism, communism, mass consumerism, feminism, and eroticism. Now arrogant Western infidelity desecrates the sacred lands of Mohamed and Palestine with its armies, and by backing our Jewish enemies. But today the tide is finally turning. Islam has awoken and is now returning to fidelity and glory, with a new vision of devotion to faith. All believers must submit themselves to Allah and devote their lives to a holy war to drive out infidels both at home and abroad.

Capitalist Prosperity narrative:

For most of human history, the world’s material production was mired in oppressive and inefficient economic systems such as primitive communalism, slavery, feudalism, mercantilism, and more recently, socialism and communism. In eighteenth-century Europe and America, however, enterprising men hit upon the keys to real prosperity: private property rights, limited government, the profit motive, capital investment, the free market, rational contracts, technological innovation—in short, economic freedom. The capitalist revolution has produced more wealth, social mobility, and well-being than any other system could possibly imagine or deliver. Nevertheless, capitalism is continually beset by utopian egalitarians, government regulators, and anti-entrepreneurial freeloaders who foolishly seek to fetter its dynamic power with heavy-handed state controls. All who care for a world of freedom and prosperity will remain vigilant in defense of property rights, limited government, and the free market.

Scientific Enlightenment narrative:

For most of human history, people have lived in the darkness of ignorance and tradition, driven by fear, believing in superstitions. Priests and lords preyed on such ignorance, and life was wearisome and short. Ever so gradually, however, and often at great cost, inventive men have endeavored better to understand the natural world around them. Centuries of such inquiry eventually led to a marvelous Scientific Revolution that radically transformed our methods of understanding nature. What we know now as a result is based on objective observation, empirical fact, and rational analysis. With each passing decade, science reveals increasingly more about the earth, our bodies, and our minds. We have come to possess the power to transform nature and ourselves. We can fortify health, relieve suffering, and prolong life. Science is close to understanding the secret of life and maybe eternal life itself. Of course, forces of ignorance, fear, irrationality, and blind faith still threaten the progress of science. But they must resisted at all costs. For unfettered science is our only hope for true enlightenment and progress.

American Experiment narrative:

Once upon a time, our ancestors lived in an Old World where they were persecuted for religious beliefs and oppressed by established aristocracies. Land was scarce, freedoms denied, and futures bleak. But then brave and visionary men like Columbus opened up a New World, and our freedom-loving forefathers crossed the ocean to carve out of a wilderness a new civilization. Through bravery, ingenuity, determination, and goodwill, our forebears forged a way of life where men govern themselves, believers worship in freedom, and where anyone can grow rich and become president. This America is genuinely new, a clean break from the past, a historic experiment in freedom and democracy standing as a city on a hill shining a beacon of hope to guide a dark world into a future of prosperity and liberty. It deserves our honor, our devotion, and possibly the commitment of our very lives for its defense.

Progressive Socialism narrative:

In the most primitive days, before the rise of private property, humans lived in communities of material sharing and equality. But for most of subsequent human history, with the rise of private property, the world’s material production has been mired in oppressive and exploitative economic systems, such as slavery, feudalism, mercantilism, and capitalism. The more history has progressed, the more ownership of the means of production have become centralized, and the more humanity has suffered deprivations and injustice. As the calamitous contradictions of capitalism began to intensify in the nineteenth century, however, a revolutionary vanguard emerged who envisioned a society of fraternity, justice, and equality. They proclaimed the abolition of private property, the socialization of productions, and the distribution of goods not according to buying power but according to need. Right-wing tycoons and magnates who have everything to lose to the cause of justice fight against the socialist movement with all their power and wealth. But the power of workers in solidarity for justice will eventually achieve the utopia of prosperity and equality. Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

Expressive Romantic narrative:

Once upon a time, people were free to experience the exhilarating power of nature, to assert their primitive selves, the shout raucously, to dance wildly, to fight hard, to love harder. They were noble, authentic, primal, unrestrained. The encroachments of civilization, however, have gradually domesticated humanity, smothering our authentic, primeval selves under blankets of repressive and formal rationalities. Modern people hardly know any more who they are, what they feel, how to express their will and passions. Only a few free thinkers have broken through the suffocating restraint, and at great cost, but they point the way to authentic life and self-expression. They flaunt convention. They walk the less trod roads. They get in touch with their deepest selves. They beat drums. They splatter paint and scrawl poetry. They run naked through forests. They dance in the rain. They party wildly, altering states of consciousness. They are not bound by the bourgeois mores and manners that extinguish the human spirit. They fear not the Dionysian orgy, nor violent rebellion, nor bohemian isolation. They are troubled souls on wild and lonely quests, yet are society’s only hope for authentic and expressive living, perhaps even for redemption itself through pain and art.

Liberal Progress narrative:

Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism—all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant, and short. But the noble human aspirations for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.

Ubiquitous Egoism narrative:

Once upon a time, people believed that human self-centeredness was a moral flaw needing correction through ethical and spiritual discipline toward self-sacrificial love for neighbor and commitment to the common good. Even today, many people believe this. But as noble as it sounds, more perceptive and honest thinkers have come to see the cold, hard, simple fact that, beneath all apparent expressions of love and altruism, all human motives and concerns are really self-interested. In fact, notions such as love and self-sacrifice themselves have been tools of manipulation and advantage in the hands of Machiavellian actors. Idealists persist in affirming moral commitment to the welfare of others, but they are naïve and misguided. Truly honest and courageous people who have intellectually “come of age” are increasingly disabusing themselves of such illusions and learning to be satisfied with the substitute idealism of helping to build the best society possible, given the constraints of ubiquitous rational egoism.

Community Lost narrative:

Once upon a time, folk lived together in local, face-to-face communities where we knew and took care of one another. Life was simple and sometimes hard. But we lived in harmony with nature, laboring honestly at the plough and in handcraft. Life was securely woven in homespun fabrics of organic, integrated culture, faith, and tradition. We truly knew who we were and felt deeply for our land, our kin, our customs. But then a dreadful thing happened. Folk community was overrun by the barbarians of modern industry, urbanization, rationality, science, fragmentation, anonymity, transience, and mass production. Faith began to erode, social trust dissipated, and folk customs vanish. Work became alienating, authentic feeling repressed, neighbors strangers, and life standardized and rationalize. Those who knew the worth of simplicity, authentic feeling, nature, and custom resisted the vulgarities and uniformities of modernity. But all that remains today are tattered vestiges of a world we have lost. The task of those who see clearly now is to memorialize and celebrate folk community, mourn its ruin, and resist and denounce the depravities of modern, scientific rationalism that would kill the Human Spirit.

From Moral, Believing Animals by Christian Smith. (source)

The liberal progress narrative in sociology

The discipline of American sociology itself provides an example of the ways big stories actually undergird and make important human practices that themselves appear on the surface to be unrelated to the mythical constitution of reality. Mainstream sociology understands itself to be a kind of science of human social life. It employs rational, systematic methods of empirical data collection and hypothesis testing to make valid and reliable claims about social facts, processes, relationships, and structures. Sociology is concerned to minimize biases in sampling and observation, to replicate findings, to build bodies of generalizable theory, to describe and analyze human social behaviors and practices in ways undistorted by the potential interests and prejudices of the sociologist’s particularistic ideology or tradition–perhaps even to be “objective.” This is the sociological center, around which also encamp a variety of more “critical,” “interpretive, and feminist schools of sociology, which in different ways claim to contest some of these features of the mainstream.

But what most if not all of these versions of American sociology have in common–however scientistic versus “critical” they may be–is that they are ultimately animated, energized, and made significant by one of two historical narrative traditions. Apart from these two narrative traditions, sociology itself would hold little human interest to anyone. Why should any but a few technical experts care about significance tests, fieldnotes, network structures, oversampling techniques, or interaction effects? It all means nothing without a larger context and purpose, neither of which sociology itself could possibly supply. Instead, if and when sociological work is compelling, it is usually because sociology is being carried along by one of two extrascientific narratives–one an optimistic, mobilizing story; the other a fairly cynical, unmasking story. The first I will call the narrative of Liberal Progress, the second of Ubiquitous Egoism; the former narrates reality roughly as follows.

Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism—all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant, and short. But the noble human aspirations for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.

For sociologists whose scholarship and teaching is embedded within and offered in the service of this liberal progress narrative, the important tasks are clear. Studies in nearly every field of the discipline–but particularly in the areas of social stratification, race and ethnicity, sex and gender, poverty, work and occupations, family, economic sociology–must work to identify privilege, exploitation, prejudice, and unequal opportunity in order to inform cultural practices and policy and legislative reforms that will make society more free, equal, and fulfilling for its individual members. In particular, this means identifying and critiquing class inequality, racism, sexism, heterosexism, corporate exploitation, and other forms of discrimination, privilege, and injustice.

For some sociologists, this struggle takes the form of rigorous quantitative analyses–for example, of the causes of poverty, the dynamics of welfare use, the prevalence of dead-end jobs, the correlates of teenage pregnancy–whose findings speak to politicians, technocrats, and other institutional leaders. In the best case, one’s work provides the intellectual backbone of some actual policy initiative, the movement toward which ideally invovles an invitation to present one’s research findings at a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill. Other versions of sociological scholarship in the service of the liberal progress narrative analyze the historical movement and dynamics of liberal progress itself. These include cross-national research on factors influencing democratization, historical analyses of civil rights movements, comparative studies of international poverty and development, and so on. For yet other, more “critical” sociologists, the liberal progress narrative animates scholarship of a more prophetic style, unmasking and denouncing the racism inherent in the criminal justice system, the sexism embedded in consumer capitalism and patriarchal family structures, the class exploitation of the service economy, the heterosexism pervading routine social practices and legal systems, the militarism entrenched in masculine culture and corporate America, et cetera. Sociologists of this latter style pride themselves for their progressive and radical analyses, said to be more critical and systemic than those their merely liberal, more mainstream colleagues produce. What they seem less aware of, however, is the common underlying liberal progress narrative that animates and makes significant all of these bodies of work as a whole.

Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture.