This post is brought to BCC by Mike McBride is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of California, Irvine.
When the folks at BCC offered me the chance to do a blog post, the idea of a Q&A panel on the social science of Mormonism sounded like a great topic. Though the social scientific studies on Mormonism are not as large in number or as well known among the LDS population as are the historical studies of Mormonism, there are many such studies. There is even a dedicated professional association–the Mormon Social Science Association (MSSA).
In this two-post series, I asked four MSSA members a series of questions about the social scientific research on Mormonism. Our four panelists are, in alphabetical order: Ryan Cragun (RC), Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Tampa; Armand Mauss (AM), Professor Emeritus, Department of Sociology, Washington State University; Michael Nielson (MN), Professor, Department of Psychology, Georgia Southern University; and Rick Phillips (RP), Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of North Florida.
To conserve space, I include two respondents’ answers per question. We will post a pdf of the complete transcripts when Part II goes up.
Also, Armand and Rick have also agreed to participate in the online discussion on the blog, and Ryan may pop in, too, so please look out for them in the comments.
1. Why does the social scientific research on Mormonism receive much less attention from lay members of the LDS Church than the historical research on Mormonism?
AM: Before turning to the specific question, I think it might be important to articulate my definition of “social scientific work,” especially as contrasted with work in history or in the various fields of scholarship usually called “the humanities.” In general, I would define social scientific studies as those which seek to explain the behavior of people in groups and/or in communities, guided by hypotheses derived from general theories of behavior, and based upon systematic, empirical data. Specifically, the conventional disciplines of psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics would be included in most definitions of the “social sciences.” A work in history can be social-scientific to the extent that it attempts to apply a consistent theoretical framework to its analysis and depends upon systematic data for its conclusions.
One reason is that history and doctrine (“truth”) have always been intertwined for Mormons. Their most fundamental truth claims are, after all, historical – about miraculous events that really happened historically. Devout Mormons therefore look to history or historical research to vindicate their truth claims. Dissident or ex-Mormons look to historical research to vindicate their rejection of those truth claims, so historical research has a special interest across the spectrum. Another reason is that social science research on Mormons appears almost entirely in academic journals not readily accessible to lay members. Still another reason is that studies of the past seem “safer” to most lay members than do studies of the present, and the “more past,” the safer they are. Thus a lot more research has been published on 19th-century Mormons than on the 20th-century. Contemporary studies, whether social-scientific or otherwise, frequently challenge the public image that the Church and the Saints prefer, so as lay members encounter the work of social scientists they are prepared to be suspicious, and they always seem quite relieved when they learn that the findings of social science tend to “support the Church.”
MN: I’d suggest that the typical person has much more familiarity with scholarly historical studies than with comparable research in sociology, anthropology or psychology. I also suspect that history is considered a more natural fit with LDS Churchgoers, who are likely to be familiar with church history from LDS Institute or BYU courses. This lends legitimacy to the study of history to a degree beyond that obtained in social sciences. It also may play into the perception that social scientific assumptions – like those in the biological or physical sciences – are contrary to the assumptions of religion. I’m not saying that this is necessarily the case; getting beyond that belief is possible, but requires one to consider issues beyond the regular church curriculum, and the typical LDS Churchgoer has little reason to invest the time and effort to do so.
2. How hard is it to publish social scientific work on Mormonism in professional (i.e., non-Mormon) journals or academic presses?
RP: There are several venues in the sociology of religion that are amenable to papers on Mormonism, provided the work makes an empirical or theoretical contribution that can benefit a more general audience. Because I keep this caveat in mind when I begin to write, I have been able to publish in these journals with few problems. That said, it would be nice to have an outlet where social scientists studying Mormonism could write for one another without having to worry about whether the argument is too esoteric, or without having to constantly define terms for people unfamiliar with Latter-day Saint theology and polity. Every year at the MSSA business meeting we toss around the idea of a journal, but we always conclude that the task is too daunting. I think there may be a constituency for a journal that publishes social science research on Mormonism, but getting it off the ground would be tough. As some of you may already know, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion—the flagship journal for research in the social science of religion—is now housed and edited at BYU. Whether or not this increases the number of papers on Mormonism published in the journal, it says a lot about the how the secular academy perceives the status and credibility of the work on religion (a lot of it Mormon focused) coming from various social science departments at BYU.
MN: In my area of research, I have not noticed a bias against research on Mormonism. The work I have done on Mormons has been published, and when I have reviewed Mormon-related manuscripts submitted to journals the better work has been published eventually. (Virtually all work gets revised in the publication process.) To the extent that there is a bias, it is one that questions the role of religion in general, and not Mormonism specifically.
3. What challenges do social scientists face when studying Mormonism, and how do they differ from the challenges faced by others who research Mormonism?
RP: One of the most significant challenges I face in my work is a dearth of high quality data. The church is now large enough that one can pull Latter-day Saints from large data sets like the General Social Survey, but once you start slicing and dicing the data as we are wont to do, you end up with too few cases for meaningful analysis. For instance, we know from several data sources that education and religiosity are positively correlated among Latter-day Saints. I’m sure that the exact nature of this association is nuanced and complex, but extant data do not permit us to probe the issue deeply. This “data dearth” probably explains why the most visible recent sociological studies of Mormonism have focused on church growth and convert retention. We have pretty good data on this.
MN: The Pew data on belief in evolution, showing that the vast majority of Mormons believe it to be incompatible with religious explanations for creation, reveal a basic antipathy toward scientific approaches to understanding life. This sentiment continues toward social sciences, in my experience. Another problem is the perception that certain topics are off-limits if one wishes to teach at BYU or be an active, temple-attending church member. Some social scientists assert this is a stereotype, while others argue it to be a reality… but even if it is a stereotype, it remains a problem.
4. What advice would you give someone considering a career doing social scientific research on Mormonism?
RC: a. Don’t! ;) Go into physics or biology!
b. Okay, I’m mostly kidding. If I were starting at the beginning of graduate school knowing what I know now and was determined to become what I am today, I’d do things a bit different. First, get involved with the Mormon Social Science Association (I did do this, but kind of by accident). I don’t think people realize this, but pretty much every social scientist who has done significant work on Mormonism is a member of our association. And they are all very nice. If you have questions or want to work with any of these people, my sense is that they will: (1) absolutely answer your questions, and (2) probably work with you if they are not too busy on their own research.
c. The only real limitation here is that very few of us are at PhD granting institutions (see my answer to the first question and the last question for why this is the case). The major exception is the department at BYU – e.g., Cardell Jacobson, Tim Heaton, Marie Cornwall, John Hoffman, etc. As a result, we can’t really work with students in the traditional mentoring role. But that certainly wouldn’t prevent us from working with people remotely. So, first, get involved in the MSSA.
d. Second, unless you are going to BYU for graduate school, I’d recommend one of the really great PhD programs in religion: Duke, Notre Dame, Loyola. There you’ll get great training in religion generally, which will give you a lot of opportunities. You don’t necessarily have to focus on Mormonism to begin with, but you could do it on the side. Then, once you get a job, you could easily turn your attention to Mormonism. But, keep in mind what I said above – you’ll only get published in bigger venues if you can use Mormonism to make bigger arguments.
AM: Don’t devote your career to studying Mormons or Mormonism unless you want a life-long career as a church employee. Academic social science (probably like other professional or scholarly fields) tends to favor certain research topics much more than others. Indeed, there is a fad-like quality to which theories, methods, topics, and sub-disciplines are “in” and which ones are “out” in a given historical period. The fads tend to be politically driven. You can tell what’s “in” or “out” by what sorts of RFPs (requests for proposals) are issued by funding agencies, especially government agencies, and by what kinds of work come to dominate the academic journals. Until about 1970 (or late 60s), research on religion was definitely “out,” at least in sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics. However, as new religious movements arose to startle and scandalize the academic establishment in the social sciences, research on religion gradually gained a degree of acceptance (especially in sociology). In that context, research and publications on Mormons enjoyed a growing audience of social scientists. Yet it is still a research focus best treated as a secondary one for aspiring social scientists. I would recommend that young scholars make their mark in one or two of the “in” fields of research and then, as they gain seniority, gradually introduce Mormon-related work into their CVs, whether as books or as articles in the better journals, or both.