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What Is a Person?

Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up

What Is a Person?

Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up

What is a person? This fundamental question is a perennial concern of philosophers and theologians. But, Christian Smith here argues, it also lies at the center of the social scientist’s quest to interpret and explain social life. In this ambitious book, Smith presents a new model for social theory that does justice to the best of our humanistic visions of people, life, and society.

Finding much current thinking on personhood to be confusing or misleading, Smith finds inspiration in critical realism and personalism. Drawing on these ideas, he constructs a theory of personhood that forges a middle path between the extremes of positivist science and relativism. Smith then builds on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, and William Sewell to demonstrate the importance of personhood to our understanding of social structures. From there he broadens his scope to consider how we can know what is good in personal and social life and what sociology can tell us about human rights and dignity.

Innovative, critical, and constructive, What Is a Person? offers an inspiring vision of a social science committed to pursuing causal explanations, interpretive understanding, and general knowledge in the service of truth and the moral good.

544 pages | 3 line drawings, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Philosophy: Ethics, Philosophy of Society

Religion: Religion and Society

Sociology: General Sociology


“This is an outstanding and important work of scholarship. I am confident What Is a Person? will be a landmark for the field; it will generate a good deal of contention, will be cited for many years to come, and will help influence the direction of social theory and the practice of sociology itself. Smith synthesizes a wide range of arguments, positions, theories, and assumptions in ways that are innovative, analytically powerful, and, finally, convincing. Yet the real originality of the book is in the structure of the larger argument, the cumulative weight of his critical but disciplined reading of this literature and, of course, the case he makes for a critical realist personalism as an alternative to various prevailing models. This is an extraordinary accomplishment.”

James Davison Hunter, University of Virginia

What Is a Person? boldly raises the fundamental questions about the understanding of the person in social science that many thinkers either want to ignore or are content to say mindless things about. I know of no better example of a social scientist employing the resources of philosophy to deepen, clarify, correct, and enrich his own field. It is lucidly organized, philosophically sophisticated, written in clear prose, and takes account of an astounding amount and variety of literature. For me, a philosopher rather than a social scientist, Smith’s way of typologizing and critiquing the main options in his field was extraordinarily illuminating. It’s a terrific contribution to a topic of fundamental importance.”--Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale University

Nicholas Wolterstorff

“Smith has addressed a crucial and unanswered question in social theory and philosophy and has done so from an entirely original angle. Although sociology in the United States has long abjured any systematic discussion of ontological issues, many sociologists now realize that they cannot move forward without addressing the questions Smith raises here. In addition to this ontological turn, sociologists have also shown increased interest in alternatives to neopositivist sociological orthodoxy. Given a century of philosophical underdevelopment in the discipline, an author like Smith and a book like this one are more important than ever. What Is a Person? is destined to be something of a classic.”--George Steinmetz, University of Michigan

George Steinmetz

What is a Person? is a clear and comprehensive reconsideration of the meaning of human personhood as the central core of social structures. With breadth of intellect and balance of wisdom, Smith resets the frame of reflection for the most important discussions of the twenty-first century.”

William B. Hurlbut, Stanford University

Table of Contents



Part I. Initial Arguments

Chapter 1. The Emergence of Personhood   

Chapter 2. Key Theoretical Resources   

Part II. Critical Engagements

Chapter 3. The Reality of Social Construction    

Excursus: Getting to Truth   

Chapter 4. Network Structuralism’s Missing Persons   

Chapter 5. Persons and Mechanisms (Not) in Variables Sociology   

Part III. Constructive Development

Chapter 6. The Personal Sources of Social Structures   

Chapter 7. The Good   

Chapter 8. Human Dignity   




CHOICE - Association for College and Research Libraries: CHOICE Top 25 Academic Titles

International Critical Realist Association: Cheryl Frank Memorial Prize

Association of American Publishers: PROSE Book Award
Honorable Mention

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