We Are All "Confessional"

Jamie Smith, as always, pulls the curtain back from those who think they are doing their scholarship from some neutral space, as if they had been dropped down directly from heaven, at this moment in time, with all knowledge, and no past or context.  As always, the “wizard” turns out to be a person, like us, with a name, history, space, context, and all the rest.

The upshot, that Oppenheimer can’t consider (nor can Smith & Regnerus, apparently), is that there are no “neutral” or “unbiased” scholars.  So it’s not a question of whether faith informs scholarship, but which.   Let’s just take the example of sociology: maybe there isn’t a “Christian way to crunch numbers,” but the number-crunching is only an instrumental slice of sociological scholarship.  Social scientific research is governed by deep notions of flourishing that are not “objective” or universal but rather emerge from stories and narratives and mythologies that are believed.  (Here I’m just repeating Smith’s own argument in Moral, Believing Animals!)  

This means every social scientific instrument is already freighted with a thick, normative, albeit implicit, vision of what it is to be human and what human community ought to look like.  Those deep commitments don’t make it into the data in any explicit way, but they frame every question that is asked, every bit of data that is selected as significant, etc.  There isn’t a single social scientific scholar (or journalist) who doesn’t believe some fundamental story about the world.  We’re all confessional scholars. 
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2 Responses to We Are All "Confessional"

  1. Burk Braun says:

    I think there is a failure of concreteness here. What kind of sociology, which questions, what methods? One can accept that there is plenty of bias and social construction without dooming each pursuit and each result within sociology as informing nothing but its own narrative.

    Like if one asks- why does smoking spread in social groups, and especially only in young age groups? The question has certain motivations behind it that come from a particular narrative or viewpoint. But the answer, if found, may have broader significance, and anyway might make our world a better place.

    So the issue, as in other sciences, is not one of perfect neutrality, but whether the place one is coming from is at least productive and useful- Religious origins rarely are in scientific questions, (and only then if the methods are kept clean of religious preconceptions, allowing contrary results to appear). In sociology, I have no idea how fertile or useful religious narratives are in prompting let alone conducting studies with wider significance. I doubt it, though.


  2. Darrell says:


    No one is saying that to accept such is to “doom” the pursuit to informing nothing but its own narrative. Where did that come from?

    The point is that not only are people of “faith” viewing everything through a narrative but so too is the secularist; and, in fact, the secular is a narrative itself.

    “So the issue, as in other sciences, is not one of perfect neutrality, but whether the place one is coming from is at least productive and useful…”

    I had to chuckle at that. The words “productive” and “useful” are loaded words and the rest of what you assert makes the very point Jamie was making. The narrative you inhabit forces you to believe, as you here assert, that places other than where you are coming from can never be as useful or productive.

    Why? Because you believe you are coming from a neutral place while everyone else is biased. It is the one way to ensure tone deafness and the inability to see one’s own presuppositions in play.


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