Christian Smith's New Book Explores Meaning of Personhood

Author: Susan Guibert and Joanna Basile

Book Cover

The question “What is a person?” has occupied the minds of philosophers and theologians for centuries. But University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith argues in his latest book that the question also lies at the center of the social scientist’s quest to understand social life.

What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up presents a new model for social theory that embraces the best of our humanistic visions of people, life, and society. The book earned an honorable mention in the philosophy category at the 2010 American Publishers Awards for Academic and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE).

Smith draws on critical realism and philosophical personalism to construct a theory of personhood, and then engages the works of other influential sociologists to illustrate its importance to our understanding of social structures.

The William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Sociology, Smith also specializes in the sociology of religion and is director of both the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame and the Center for Social Research.

Christian Smith

He currently heads the University’s Science of Generosity initiative, which grew out of his work on Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money. That 2008 book examines the complex reasons for the illiberal financial giving of American Christians and suggests that more generous gifts could accomplish world-transforming change.

Established in 2009 with a $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the Science of Generosity initiative brings together the often disconnected and diverse approaches to this topic in order to research generosity in all its forms.

In addition, Smith is leading the sociology working group for Religion Across the Disciplines, a four-year, international project housed at Notre Dame. Funded by a $657,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Religion Across the Disciplines calls on leading scholars from around the world to join with faculty and graduate students at Notre Dame to investigate the influence of religious knowledge in history, international relations, literature, music, and sociology, as well as the influence those fields have on religion itself.

The scholars involved in Religion Across the Disciplines will open a neglected but much needed area of research, Smith says.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that religion is not disappearing with modernity—that we are entering what many call a ‘post-secular’ age,” he says. “This initiative is taking the lead in thinking through the implications of that growing realization for a variety of disciplines in higher education. I find the prospects to be exciting.”

Originally published by Susan Guibert and Joanna Basile at on October 19, 2010.