The Bench and the Bedside

During thoughtful commentary at the Calgary MHA meeting, historian and JSP editorial guru Robin Jensen argued forcefully that as Mormon historians spend more and more of their time in interpretive, synthetic pursuits, they ought not forget the careful, even fastidious work of those who practice traditional Mormon history. He confessed, with the kind of nerdly glee that only such historians can muster, that he has spent many hours debating the finer points of punctuation marks in holograph manuscripts. He is absolutely correct. As I wondered how best to engage this concern (I am by nature a synthetic historian), an image from my main, biomedical, area of research came readily to hand.

In biomedicine, we speak commonly of the bench and the bedside. By the “bench” we mean the hard work in scientific laboratories–pipettes, enzymes, flasks, RNA chips, experimental animal models–that defines the mechanisms by which health and disease occur. By “bedside” we mean clinical encounters between healthcare providers and patients or investigations that involve actual human patients with actual human problems. For complicated reasons there has been something of a love-hate relationship between the bench and the bedside for many decades in biomedicine. The bedside sometimes feels that the bench misses the point entirely, hammering away at metabolic pathways or genetic anomalies in yeast or zebrafish that will never apply in humans. The bench sometimes feels that the bedside is drifting in a sea of sentimentality, bad methodology, and personal anecdotes. Of course, even during the fights, we all recognize that the bedside needs the bench and vice versa, a point recently emphasized by an NIH initiative.

I think that a similar sort of framing can apply as we approach Mormon history or Mormon studies more broadly. The practitioners of traditional Mormon history–people who know every document and its provenance, who have irradiated 170-year-old documents with various special lasers and x-rays to uncover over-writes and erasures–are like the bench and the practitioners of synthetic Mormon history–people who try to evoke forests rather than trees, who chase human meaning through many different religious groups and engage various theoretical traditions–are rather like the bedside. Without the bench, without the careful analysis of the actual documents, their provenance, their creation, their contents and palimpsests, synthetic historians will have little if anything truthful to talk about. Without the synthetic historians, the bench historians risk a lapse into irrelevance, as the documentary insights gained from such assiduous work must somehow live to be of meaning. Knowing what issues matter, seeing the forest in which the trees live, improves one’s capacity to describe an individual tree.

Of course there are complex relationships and struggles for influence that such a simplistic distinction can not entirely overcome. We are, after all, human, and we will tend by our physical nature to want to be better than others, to want our camp to be better than another camp. But perhaps having such an obviously necessary division of labor (bench vs. bedside in biomedicine) as an example of fruitful collaboration can leave a little more space in Mormon Studies to embrace the various groups who hope to participate.


  1. I agree that both kinds of scholarship need each other, but they need each other in different ways. Solid documentary work may not become famous outside of a small scholarly sphere, but it retains its value indefinitely. Synthetic scholarship only retains relevance as long as its theoretical approach remains current, and it can become useless within a relatively short time (think of things like “The Significance of Hamlet for the Nation in the Time of the Great War”). Every synthesizer should do some documentary work, I think, just to retain an understanding of where edited texts come from and how much uncertainty remains after an edition has been published. Some canons of scholarship don’t make sense unless one has done some documentary work, and synthesizers are sometimes quick to dismiss them as old-fashioned when they’re actually foundational.

  2. themormonbrit says:

    I agree with pretty much everything you say. It reminds me of Paul’s “Body of Christ” analogy – both aspects complement each other and, while different, co-operate to create a more productive whole.

  3. g.wesley says:

    Great analogy Sam!

    The division of labor gets even more divided I think in the case of antiquity and dead languages (which I know Robin also knows a bit about, having had a Greek class with him once upon a time; hi Robin). More time could easily be spent preparing even a brief ancient manuscript for publication than writing a lengthy article or two covering centuries of history/literature.

    At the pinnacle, division of labor is probably unavoidable. But ideally all would do some crossing over and be conversant in what goes on in the other camps, with as little petty rivalry as possible. I do think that the documentary folks get less attention. Simply because is it so detail oriented. Most people can’t get in to it, don’t find it very interesting, essential as (most of) it is.

    Sadly, even in the academy, depending on the field and department, documentary style publications are liable to be so undervalued that they won’t even be counted towards promotion and tenure. There is something to be said for relevance as key. But still.

  4. Hear, hear, Rich F.

  5. Great points, all. The notion that some people would move across those boundaries routinely and most should be able to understand where the other is coming from is part of bench vs. bedside in biomedicine as well. I do think some synthetic works stand the test of time, but it’s a good point that documentary work is useful as a general rule for a longer period of time.

  6. BCC’s/WordPress’s problem with email addresses ate a carefully constructed comment that I’m not going to stay up late enough to reconstruct. I’ll just say thanks, Sam, this is helpful.

  7. Naismith says:

    In this paradigm, perhaps rank-and-file sunday school and primary teachers are like the patients then?

    I have always thought of Mormon Studies as apart from the mainstream church, a field for a few academics and a hobby for some members who don’t have more pressing needs on their time. A while back Julie Smith made a compelling argument of how even those of us in the trenches are ultimately affected by Mormon studies, as it influences church manuals, etc.

    So while I don’t have any interest, I do respect it more than I used to.

    And I have to say that teaching Primary next year about church history, I think a lot of blog posts from Ardis would greatly enhance those lessons.

  8. Great analogy, yo.

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