This is the second of a two-part Q&A series with four social scientists of Mormonism. See the first post here. BCC sincerely thanks Mike McBride, as well as the panelists below, for contributing this valuable discussion.
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.
Complete transcripts, which include answers for all respondents for all questions:
5. Describe one particular finding or idea from the social scientific research that has significantly influenced your understanding of Mormons or Mormonism.
RP: Jan Shipps was among the first to systematically examine the differences between “gathered” Mormonism and “mission field” Mormonism. Like Shipps, I think that Latter-day Saints born and raised in Utah and SE Idaho with extensive genealogies and pervasive kin ties in the church develop a Mormon identity that is very distinct from that of first generation converts living in places where Mormonism is a small minority religion. Shipps points out that balancing the religious needs of the “center” and the “periphery” has been a challenge for the church since the days of Joseph Smith. This tension between center and periphery is what I’m writing about now. Anyone who has ever lived in a “mission field” ward with a substantial contingent of Utah Mormons can attest that converts and lifers have different lenses through which they view their faith. Often each group enlightens and enriches the other, but sometimes there is conflict or misunderstanding. Contrasting the attitudes and behaviors of new converts with “Deseret Mormons” is fertile ground for investigating the various ways that Latter-day Saint identities are constructed and maintained.
AM: I would mention three theoretical concepts that have most influenced my understanding of Mormons/Mormonism : (1) the social construction of truth/reality, as per Berger & Luckmann (but going back before that to Schuetz); (2) the natural history of social movements (including, but not limited to, religious movements), as per Weber, Sorokin, and Kenneth Bock; and (3) rational choice within a religious economy to explain religious conversion and defection as well as the growth and decline of religious movements (as per social exchange theory, Stark, and Becker exponents like Iannaccone).
6. What is the best social scientific book or article on Mormonism that you have read in last couple years, and why is it the best?
RC: It’s hard to argue with Mauss’s work: Mauss, Armand. 2003. All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage. Illinois: University of Illinois Press. Granted, that was published 6 years ago, but not much else that has been published since then is as authoritative and comprehensive as is his work. It’s definitely not an easy read, nor something you should tackle unless you have a free month or so, but it’s a great book.
RP: I recently served as a peer reviewer for an interesting paper that used census data to examine how the missionizing strategies of the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists affect the demography of converts to these groups in Chile, Mexico and Brazil. (These groups are often lumped together by sociologists of religion under the rubric “non-Protestant Christian sects.”) The paper argued that Mormonism (with its largely imported missionary force) is more money intensive than the other two faiths, and hence self-identified Mormons (which are a subset of those the missionaries have baptized) tend to be more affluent than their fellow citizens. Being a Jehovah’s Witness is more time intensive, so they tend to be concentrated among people who have more time than money to give. Finally, Seventh Day Adventist outreach centers on providing schools and other institutions in places where developing governments can’t provide adequate services, so they have many more rural converts than either of the other two denominations, which tend to get a better return on their proselytizing investment in the cities.
7. What are your favorite social scientific books on Mormonism?
RC: Buerger, David John. 1994. The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship. Salt Lake City: Signature Books.
Cornwall, Marie, Tim B. Heaton, and Lawrence A. Young, eds. 2001. Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Heaton, Tim B., Stephen J. Bahr, and Cardell K. Jacobson. 2005. A Statistical Profile Of Mormons: Health, Wealth, And Social Life. Edwin Mellen Press.
Mauss, Armand L. 1994. The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle With Assimilation. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
O’Dea, Thomas F. 1957. The Mormons. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Phillips, Rick. 2004. Conservative Christian Identity & Same-Sex Orientation: The Case Of Gay Mormons. Peter Lang Publishing.
Shepherd, Gary, and Gordon Shepherd. 1998. Mormon Passage. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Shepherd, Gordon, and Gary Shepherd. 1984. A Kingdom Transformed: Themes in the Development of Mormonism. Univ of Utah Pr (T).
AM: (Aside from my own, of course!). There is a great dearth of such books prior to the mid-20th century, and such few as there are seem very primitive by modern intellectual and methodological standards. Since mid-century, the first that I recall was Lowry Nelson’s The Mormon Village: A Pattern and Technique of Land Settlement (Univ. of Utah Press, 1952). Perhaps the most visible and important one from that period was Thomas F. O’Dea’s The Mormons (U. of Chicago, 1957). Not much appeared thereafter until the 1970s, when a new “golden age” (or at least bronze!) began in Mormon studies, thanks mainly to historians. Among the social science books that I have appreciated the most since O’Dea are Mark Leone’s The Roots of Modern Mormonism (Harvard U. Press, 1979); Gordon & Gary Shepherd, A Kingdom Transformed: Themes in the Development of Mormonism (U. of Utah Press, 1984); Hans Baer, Recreating Utopia in the Desert: A Sectarian Challenge to Modern Mormonism (SUNY Press, 1988); and Erich R. Paul, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology (U. of Illinois Press, 1992). The Shepherds’ book is really a pioneering work, not only in what it reveals substantively about the transformation of Mormonism up to modern times, but also in demonstrating the power of literary content analysis as a research method. Some might argue with my inclusion of the Paul book as “social science,” but it is (among other things) a study in the social construction of cosmology. I should add, finally, that a great many works that would usually be considered history rather than social science actually make great use of social science explanations, either on an ad hoc or on a sustained basis. Among the historians who are best at this are Thomas Alexander and D. Michael Quinn.
8. What topic on Mormonism would you most like to see social scientists study in the near future, or what do you consider to be understudied topics?
AM: a. What has worked and not worked in the Church Education System, which is enormously expensive. After controls for family influences and density of the surrounding LDS environment, what is the net impact of daily religious instruction? Is the impact (if any) cognitive (what the kids actually learn and retain), or is it social (retention of kids in church activity beyond the teen years)? Or what?
b. Why are the retention rates around the world so much greater for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Pentecostals than for the LDS?
c. How do LDS women define their roles and their value in the religious life of the LDS community in such a way as to claim power and validation in that community? Derivatively, what different “constituencies” form among LDS women around this issue, and how are the women distributed among these constituencies?
d. Even among “active” or practicing Mormons, there seems to be a variety of personal beliefs about the historicity of the Book of Mormon; the nature of the First Vision; what counts (and doesn’t count) as observing the Word of Wisdom; or as a “full tithing;” what counts as “obedience” to church leaders as contrasted with legitimate uses of agency; what constitutes “sabbath observance;” what political beliefs are in accord with Church teachings and which are not; what scientific theories (or “facts”) are in accord with LDS doctrine, etc., etc. These differences would probably yield different “subcultures” or different “intellectual constituencies” among Mormons. Then I would want to know what changes across time occur in the recruitment of men from these different constituencies to positions of leadership in the Church, especially at the general authority level. My underlying (but untested) theory is that the general tone and culture of the Church, at least in the U. S. if not worldwide, is largely dependent on the differential recruitment to leadership from these different intellectual constituencies, which are now taking the place of the pioneer family networks that used to be so determinative of leadership recruitment.
e. I could go on and on.
MN: In general we could benefit from more research on psychological aspects of Mormon experience– connections between belief and behavior (such as the Bushman et al study above); developmental changes in LDS belief; mission experiences, particularly of the senior or couple missionaries; how people understand information that is discrepant with their beliefs; and so forth. I’d say that we know much more about sociological aspects than we do about these kinds of psychological aspects of Mormon life.