The Social Science of Mormonism Q&A, Part II

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.


The Social Science of Mormonism Q&A, Part II


  1. Thanks to Mike McBride for putting together a great set of posts.

    The most interesting idea I ran across in these discussions was Armand Mauss’s suggestion that “intellectual constituencies” have displaced pioneer family networks as a key consideration in recruitment for senior LDS leadership positions. Are there any published articles or book chapters that explore this topic?

  2. Michael Nielsen says:

    In my comment above, I refer to a response that isn’t shown on this page, although it is available on the compilation of all responses, linked at the top of this page. Here is the response to which I refer:
    Bushman, B. J., Ridge, R.D., Das, E., Key, C.W., & Busath, G.L.
    (2007). When God sanctions killing: Effect of scriptural violence on aggression. Psychological Science, 18, 204-207. It is first-rate research, highly relevant to Mormonism and other religions, with important implications for society, published in one of the premier journals in psychology.

    To me, the more interesting aspect of this study is the conclusion that people feel justified in more violent responses when they are exposed to the idea that God OKs violence. Even people who are not religious themselves are affected. Fascinating stuff!

  3. Thank you to the scholars who shared their thoughts. I particularly enjoyed Rick’s story about his mom. It was both amusing and sad. The reading suggestions are helpful and appreciated. As a layman, it’s difficult to know where to go for quality information. It looks like I have some books to buy.

  4. Question re: AM’s answer in question #8, point d:

    AM stated: “…the recruitment of men from these different constituencies to positions of leadership in the Church, especially at the general authority level…”

    Given these different characteristics of people, what are people’s feelings towards the direction this is going? Is there any role for the NOM in Church leadership? Is there any role for someone who believes in more “liberal” interpretations of various traditions in Church leadership? Or is Church leadership going to move increasingly more toward the “TBM” type?

    Any thoughts?

  5. Mike McBride says:

    1-Dave. You’re welcome. And I agree with 3-Sanford, too. I also want to thank all the respondents for their responses and participation on the blog.

  6. Michael Nielsen says:

    #4- Mike S, you didn’t ask me but I’d like to offer my opinion: It might be possible for a NOM or other ‘liberal’ view to be in leadership positions, but this is increasingly unlikely to happen as one moves up the organizational hierarchy. A big part of what helped Heber C Kimball to be a GA was his family connection. As the church transitions from relying on familial contacts to help select leaders, the importance of adherence to cultural norms and doctrines will increase. I’m afraid that I don’t see another Heber Kimball becoming a GA. His language and observance of the word of wisdom would disqualify him from being scoutmaster in many wards, let alone GA.

    I would also question just how ready the institution as a whole is to embrace leaders with NOMish types of views. For example, although some temple recommend questions concern orthopraxy, many focus on orthodoxy. NOMish responses are implicitly discouraged, and in many cases explicitly rejected, from what I have read on the NOM board. This might change, but it would be most likely to change if the leaders themselves initiated the change (e.g., conference talks, policies). I’m not inclined to think that we will see that kind of change any time soon.

  7. I believe you are referring to J. Golden Kimball rather than his father Heber C.

  8. Michael Nielsen says:

    Oops! Yes, you’re right. Definitely J Golden. That’s what I get for typing while distracted by the flu. Thanks :)

  9. Armand Mauss says:

    To Dave and Mike S (#1 and #4) : I’m sorry that I am able only to whet your curiosity about juicy details on this question of different intellectual or cultural “constituencies” in the LDS leadership. I can’t cite a book or article on the subject. At my stage of life, I just like to throw out intriguing ideas for younger scholars to explore! However, my ideas on this question come from a lot of reading in the biographical literature on church leaders by other scholars, who may not have used my terminology but who nevertheless have used similar ideas. I’m thinking, for example of the Quinn books on Hierarchy and on J. Reuben Clark; the Prince/Wright biography on McKay; and the Poll and Firmage biographies on H. B. Brown. When I was writing Angel & Beehive, I discussed briefly the enormous impact on the future of the Church that J. R. Clark had in selecting Elders Petersen, Lee, Kimball, and Benson as apostles all about the same time, since they shared a rather uncompromising outlook on certain questions of personal morality, and especially on unquestioning obedience and loyalty to leaders (though Elder Kimball perhaps not as strongly on this as the other three). I attribute these selections to Clark because President Heber J. Grant (to whom he was First Counselor) was not really functioning at the time. Contrast the outlook of these apostles with others who rose to ascendancy in the leadership a little later, such as H. B. Brown and Howard W. Hunter, who were installed by Pres. McKay. As some of the biographers have pointed out, a kind of tension (that I would regard as both cultural and intellectual) existed for decades between “Clark men” and “McKay men.” I must hasten to confess that I don’t know enough about all the apostles of the past few decades to justify any sweeping generalizations, but it appears to me that the intellectual environment of the Church was very different from about 1970 to about 1993 (with the ascendancy of the Clark men — and allies such as J. F. Smith and B. R. McConkie) compared to what it has been since 1993 (brief presidency of H. W. Hunter, followed by long presidency of G. B. Hinckley). Ironically, Arrington’s “Camelot” was installed just as the 1970s were starting but quickly aborted (or at least mutated!) as the Clark men gained ascendancy, and was kept under constraints at BYU thereafter. All of this is just so much thinking out loud and theorizing off the top of my shiny head, since I don’t have the biographical data to back up very much of it. Nor have I said anything about the selections made to the First Quorum of Seventy, which I think are increasingly important in the new intellectual and cultural openness and outreach that I see in the Church leadership since the mid-1990s. But there it is, for what it might be worth to you.

  10. Michael, Hope you recover soon.

    Armand, I wonder how much research has already been done by the Research Information Division that would give good insights into retention and Mormon women’s attitudes. Too bad we cannot see the data…

  11. This comment probably is more appropriate for the previous thread, as it relates to one of the earlier questions–namely, why do we see more attention given to historical research than to social scientific research within Mormonism. I very much enjoyed the responses from Armand, Mike, Rick, and Ryan, as well as input from others.

    As I thought about that question over the past couple of days, one thought that kept returning to my mind is that of relative barriers to entry, and the role of “amateurs.” I have essentially no training in historical research, yet, (and you historians are welcome to rebut my take) I don’t have much doubt that, if a reasonably educated and literate person desired, he/she could spend a moderate amount of time in the Church Archives and, with the help of some pros like Ardis or Stapley, generate a research paper worthy of presentation at any of the Mormon-themed conferences.

    On the other side, I am not sure that a person without some degree of training in the social sciences–especially quant methods–could summon data sets, navigate technical journal articles, and perform the sort of analysis that is necessary to find meaningful results.

    I rush to say that I am not suggesting that history is “easy,” but only that the tools required are more widely available. Am I being to pessimistic about the emergence of “hobby social scientists” like we have hobby historians? If not, I would appreciate the input of the panelists on how an amateur might find a role in Mormon social scientific research.

  12. Ryan Cragun says:

    RE: Scott #11 –

    My sense is similar to yours – with enough time, a fairly literate individual could do historical research – though I’m sure graduate training in historical research methods is beneficial. But social scientific research, at least quantitative social scientific research, requires training in statistics. That said, if you’re literate and good at math, you could probably train yourself in statistics.

    On the other hand, comparative historical and qualitative social scientific research does not require training in statistics. By suggesting that qualitative social scientific research does not require as much training as does quantitative research, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s easier. Having done both types, I’d say that qualitative work is much more time consuming. In a sense, it’s not that different from historical work. And, there are plenty of amateurs (no elitism intended) who do it all the time – interviewing people, filming people, making observations. Those are basically the tools of qualitative social scientific research.

    Part of the reason I continue to read blogs and online forums (not many, but some) is precisely because of this. Everyday people often have insights into religious life that I don’t because they are actually engaged in it (e.g., the baptism proposal by missionaries in the previous thread during a temple tour was pretty interesting to me). That is, in a sense, a social scientific datum.

    The only other serious impediment I can think of for amateurs doing social science is theory. As I read history, there is generally a lack of theory (not always, but often enough for me to note it). I’m not a historian, so I could be wrong here, but that does seem like one of the areas where historical comparative sociology and history differ. So, the amateur social scientist would have to familiarize him/herself with the prominent social scientific theories of the day in order to know how to frame his/her work.

    So, long answer turned short: A dedicated amateur could still do social scientific research, but it would be much easier to do qualitative research than quantitative.

  13. RE: #11 & #12

    I think much of it is due to the availability of data. One thing the internet has proved to me is that is there is the basic “information” available, someone out there in the “ether” will get obsessed with something and will spend an inordinate amount of time on it until they have “mastered” it, regardless of training. Once they post their results, it’s there for the world to see. And all it takes is one person.

    Applying this to this specific question, it’s mostly a question of the control that the LDS church tries to keep on things. Historical information is more “available”. Historical documents can be found. People can pick through them. For a time, the LDS church even opened its archives wider, but when potentially negative things came to light, they clammed back up on that.

    Contrast that to “social sciences” research in the church. While the church collects great amounts of data on its members, things are kept under extremely close wraps. We get a minimal amount of information in the “statistical” report each annual conference, but other than that, it seems that most information otherwise needs to be teased out of hearsay, etc.

    My theory is that if current social science data were actually available to the same extent that historical documents are available, there would be people out there, formal training or not, who would keep pounding away at it until they generated world-class results. I think the data is just kept under extremely close wraps.