On Mormon Studies, Apologetics, And Other Fundamentalisms

On Apologetics,
Mormon Studies, and Other Fundamentalisms

Part Five of Interviews with Myself


I want to address,
Daymon, an issue that some of your research, I think, maybe talks about, or

OK.  What is that?

This Correlation
business.  It’s a good thing we have all
these  outlets now for Mormon culture,
and that with blogs, journals, and scholarly research we have a way to thrive,
faithfully, and not be reliant on those guys at Correlation.

Look, Daymon, this is the problem with scanning someone’s
research, particularly when it explores the cultural processes by which social
imaginaries are formed –

Social what?

I can’t get into it here.
But, the problem is that one can read my research from a correlated
perspective, and believe one understands it, and yet, extend the frontlines of
Correlation in the very act of misreading.
That is to say, one cannot simply announce that this text, article, or
word is now free from Correlation; or presume that one’s cultural work, because
it wasn’t run through the COB, is not itself a patchwork of Correlation.  You’re just being fooled by names for things,
and missing what they refer to.

But doesn’t that lead
to the paranoia that everything is Correlated?

It could, and sometimes should, but only if one doesn’t
really understand the dynamics by which Correlation sustains itself, and merely
sees the results and has some notion about what it is.  A lazy reading, in other words, has as its
fruits that sort of paranoia.  But an
informed reading can give one directions for escaping a seemingly
all-encompassing eye.

So, how do we get
outside Correlation?  Isn’t it proof that
we have journals, blogs, and conferences, that Mormonism is thriving as an
intellectual marketplace?


Is the existence of parasites, maggots, and bloating gases
evidence that a corpse is alive?  There
may be life there, but a corpse is a corpse.

What are you saying?

Let’s take the basic assertion that there is a Mormon
Studies.  Just because one has the name
of Mormon Studies, that is no reason to assume it is the same sort of thing
that other people call “X Studies”.  Anymore
than, this article is or is not Correlated, so that means I can read something
else into the text.  This is a point, an
argument even, that I made in an article posted on this site (Bananality of Mormon Studies).  Unfortunately, the post was taken over by a
proponent of Mormon Studies, who proved something: in the action of reading my
work as a way of reading my soul (the review of me/my work was titled, D.Smith
is a Sinner, though later it was admitted by the author that he hadn’t read
much of what I’d actually written).


Proved what?

That what folks call Mormon Studies is nothing like, say,
African or Jewish Studies.  That is, peer
reviewed by tenured or tenure-track faculty whose primary focus is the
research, its progress and regulation by factors outside the immediate sphere
of the researchers themselves.  There are
always personal politics in academia, but there is also, always, original
research.  That is, a complex interaction
of dependencies and independencies which ensure that, over time, consensus can
be used as a sign of an increase in knowledge on a subject.

Consensus is a sign?

Yes, but not always.
In Mormon Studies we have carved out many little circles for finding
consensus, and taken these as signs of increased knowledge of the subject at
hand.  But this is not the case.  For example, I recently read a blog post that
listed all the journals devoted to Mormon Studies, in one fashion or
another.   The conclusion, hastily given
and poorly thought out, was that this is a sign of a thriving intellectual
community.  Hardly so.  It could be; if there was just sooo much
research being done on a subject, that no single journal could publish all the
results.  But that isn’t the case.  What we have are hobbyists and amateurs,
pulled from a potential market of maybe a million readers, who get on a
hobby-horse, and write about it.  Mere
quantity means nothing, but a sizable market.
Their inspiration typically comes from a single journal, which is then
the target site for publication.   But
given enough people, and donors, or enough wealth aggregation, and a
potentially unlimited subject matter vaguely glossed by the phrase Mormon
Studies, given all these, one should not be surprised that many journals exist
which have as their purpose the publication of texts which contain the words
“Mormon” in them, and which have citation expectations, and a passive narrative
voice.  Merely imitating various
scholarly genres, and the market makes the self-deception possible.

So, consensus?

Yes, well, consensus within a community of scholars – a
combination of academics, professional researchers at labs, policy makers and
so on – is taken as a sign of more or less certain knowledge.  Evolution, in one form or another, for
example, cannot seriously be doubted, and even if certain soft points exist in
the overall claims of the theory, that is precisely why it is called a theory,
and not a fact.  A fact names a single
proposition which describes a simple reality, easily evidenced to the senses; a
theory names a series of related facts, and so by its nature cannot be grasped
at a glance.  So the “truth” or
validation of a theory is only the thing left over after many attempts at
breaking it, at disproving it.  The
consensus stands in where the “truth” is merely silent, and gives pointers to
new students, journalists, and the like, who’d like to start to understand the
subject.  What is missing in Mormon
Studies, among other things which would make it a legitimate scholarly
endeavor, is this arrangement that consensus induces reason to believe in a
theory, because consensus is manufacturable here, by means other than invalidation
over a long period of time.

I don’t get it.

I can’t make it much simpler for you, but I will provide
examples.  But don’t get bogged down in
what are pedagogic exemplars, and confuse them for evidence I am marshalling
for the theory.  OK?

Got it.  Not really, but go ahead.


Fine.  I can’t teach
you everything to be learned by cultural anthropology, but I can analyze
Mormonism, if you let me.  Look at Mormon
Fundamentalism as an example of Mormon Studies.
The same processes are at work, and indeed, the only difference is that
they called themselves Fundamentalists (on a poorly understood analogy with
Christians), rather than Scholars.  But
look at the details, and not the names.
When the imagined community of Mormons turned plural marriage into a matter,
into a sign, of belief in Mormonism in general; and then, in public, a few
speakers imagined to be “leaders” publicly renounced this relationship by which
plural marriage was a sign of authentic believers, it made it possible to form
a coherent group which could imagine itself, and I mean by that any individual
“member” could imagine the group as existing, thinking, and so on; so the group
could imagine itself within the sign-relation previously accepted by
Mormons.  But in order to maintain
consensus, and thus, oblige the imaginary as something which could passively
compel the sign-relation to continue, they had to sever certain communication
points with the other Mormons.  So they
“broke off,” physically moved away sometimes, mostly stopped reading certain
journals, paying subscription fees, and participating in the rituals.  And so, they become, over time, a place where
new consensus could be seemingly found.
That is, became a distinct culture (though actual consensus is
irrelevant; what I’m talking about is imaginable consensus, keep in mind).

OK.  How is that like Mormon Studies?


It isn’t like it, it is very much the exact same thing, but
from a different era.  An era which, in
fact, made possible the abuse of scholarship as a way to form “break off”
cliques, though now without the veneer of religious purposes.  Mormon Studies is merely the latest
translation of the basic process of cultural division and reformulation; the
process is the same, but the names we give it differ.  But don’t be fooled by names.  Look to what is named, and you’ll see that
Mormon Studies is a breed of Mormon Fundamentalism.

Because they break


Not simply that.
Fundamentalism in Christianity was grounded in a way of reading the
Bible – the King James Version – which required closing communication channels
that seemed “outside” the faith: namely, the voice and writings of bible
scholars and biologists; those who questioned the referentiality of the tales
(and so, their authorship), and those who supplied new tales of origins.   And
Fundamentalism was merely a strain of Protestantism, but rather than pose a
text against the priest, they posed a text against the latest cultural
authority who spoke from a position of power, in a language difficult to
understand.  Now in Mormonism it works
rather differently, in the particulars, but the process is the same.

I’m listening.  Really, I am.


Sure.  Anyway.  New spaces for reading “consensus” were
generated by Mormons in the 1930s, and theses were called sects, or
religions.  New spaces were generated in
the 1960s, in part due to the low cost of paper, the ease of attending college,
a boom in young adults, and other utterly non-spiritual factors; in the 1960s
new spaces of consensus were manufactured, and these were the journals that
became the basis for people to claim the existence of Mormon Studies.  The name, like that of Fundamentalism, came
long after the cultural divisions were securely in place.  And the approach to reading, publishing, and
citing texts is very much the same in Mormon Studies.

But Mormon Studies is
different from apologetics, like FARMS.


Not anymore, and the fact they changed their name to Mormon
Studies Review merely gives the game away.
The name means nothing, obviously, except that most names are not owned
by some party who controls the usage.


Branding.  Anyway. The first
unofficial, seemingly scholarly routes for writing about Mormonism and reaching
some sizable public (by that I mean, consisting of persons unknown, and of too
many persons to ever really know them all; hence, generic notions stand in as
“people” or a “church” or a “community”), the first ones were vaguely
conceived; once blatantly apologetic spaces appeared, the seeming scholarly
nature of the other spaces was secured.  Like
the editorial page making objectivity a possible reading in other articles.  Just like the polygamist fundamentalist
Mormon sects made possible the seeming normalcy of non-polygamist Mormons.  Whatever the notions found outside Mormonism,
and remember that most Americans don’t distinguish polygamists from other
Mormons, whatever these views of Mormons, Mormons could conclude they were themselves
mainstream, normal, super-patriotic Americans, because at least they weren’t
like those Mormons.  Just so, Mormon Studies could posture it
wasn’t like FARMS, and when it was clear that something like Correlation
existed, now the posture is that, We Aren’t Correlated!  Funny, and foolish.

What about consensus,

Each little group requires a demonized alter ego group:
membership is found in the relationship among the “members,” and also in the
reading of different groups as being distinct.
Inside each group, as most anthropologists would tell you, the
differences are almost non-existent.  Yet
each group is certain those other guys are totally different.  Consensus in Mormonism is manufacturable in
ways it isn’t inside, say, academia, in particular, in the sciences.  So we cannot read “consensus” as a sign of
anything other a seeming agreement in a small circle.  More often than not, however, consensus is
merely a fiction read from the non-public presence of dissent.  Since long before Correlation we’ve made
statements uttered in public the default for what is real, and so, a consensus
can be manufactured merely by public relations.
If one disagrees, one does so silently, or as an individual; because the
public spheres of Mormonism are not designed for individual dissent.  To dissent publicly, as an individual, is to
speak for oneself, and not for the “group”.

I see.

And so, the trend after Correlation has been to quote some public
utterance, for this is a sure way to cover one’s ass, and to indicate that one
is not speaking as an individual, but as a member of a group.  Enunciating the “mind” of the group, as it
were.  But this has nothing whatsoever to
do with the truth, so much as ability to mobilize capital which can be used to
buy or manufacture new public spheres for the manufacture of consensus.

But there’s lots of
dissent, and it isn’t all consensus in Mormonism.


Obviously!  But that’s
the point, is that the reality of things hardly matches up to the diagrams of
them, which images are then presupposed, acted against, and by reacting, given
life, even if founded on untruths.  Many
dissenters in Mormon Studies merely founded new public spheres, so that their
“dissenting” voices were protected by the new seeming consensus of the new
community, and thus, what was once a dissenting voice becomes another orthodoxy
in another circle.  And that is both
Fundamentalism and Mormon Studies.

What about
apologetics, though.  Doesn’t that differ
from Mormon Studies?


Not really.  Here’s
why.  An apologist has a stake in
research resulting in one outcome, versus another.  They hardly convince anyone other than the
already convinced ,and so, their research takes on a ritualistic feel, a sort
of cultic power, because it borrows much from the priestly circles, and not
merely by defending them.  If the
research doesn’t come out the preferred way, it doesn’t get published in the
apologist’s journal, or presented at their conferences.  That is the basic criteria, and that differs
from science.  Controversial findings are
difficult to publish in the sciences, but not if they are founded on
recognizably good methods, with good records and data, and rely on sound
reasoning.  These become championed by
increasing numbers, particular by those not at the top of the field, until the
theory is accepted.  But in apologetics,
the voices are already scripted, and there can be no negotiation, and there is
no interest in “compromise”.

And that’s

No.  That scripting
and silencing is merely the most obvious thing one can name Correlation, and
it’s easy, because it sounds evil to discriminate between voices.  But Correlation in Mormonism, is more
profoundly, a way of imagining consensus, of imaging reactions to a text, that
a text (or a statement, talk, or whatever) says something about the speaker,
about his or her soul, and so, every text is not merely a conglomeration of
statements about the subject at hand.   But
also, and more importantly, a sign of something about the speaker: about his or
her spirituality, obedience, or any other intangible thing referred to by
abstract nouns.  Literally, a text can be
made to index anything about the speaker, in principle.   That’s culture.  And in Mormonism this is what Correlation
does, but without giving any firm way of reading a public text as a sign of a
speaker’s qualities.

I don’t get it.

I can’t teach you everything about Correlation here.  You’ll have to read, and think, carefully on
your own.  But look at it like this.  What are the standards for getting something
“past” Correlation?

I don’t know.  Purity of doctrine, truth, and so on?


Not at all.  There are
no standards, except that it doesn’t contradict a Correlator’s interpretation
of his little book of official sayings, officially constructed and handed out
by Correlation.  That’s it.  It’s very vague, and badly done, and that is
the point: there are no standards, which means this.  Paranoia, imagining of what the standards
are, and so, self-Correlation is the norm.
That is, one must imagine what the text is going to say about oneself,
as read by persons both known and unknown.
Thus, the clearest way forward is to quote already published

That’s what they do in


Literature reviews are totally different.  That is, when done correctly, a matter of
demonstrating coverage of reading, so that one isn’t merely duplicating
previous research.  In Mormon Correlation,
citation is a way of ensuring that one is duplicating previous findings.

In Mormon Studies?


It depends,  sometimes
more like the scholarly method, sometimes more like the Correlation way.  Sometimes in the same journal, sometimes in
the same article or book.  That’s the
problem.  But look.  My point is that Correlation is not a word for a single bad or good thing, which can
then be removed, undone, or foisted upon someone; but rather the word merely
names a small sample of a wide phenomenon in Mormonism, which is itself
commonly found in American culture.  The
existence of the word makes it possible to imagine one is or is not
Correlated.  But the problem is this:
people, individually or collectively, are not correlated, or correlatable; only
texts are.

Doesn’t that mean by
having non-correlated channels for distributing texts, we can get beyond

Not at all.  By text I mean, the way signs AND their
interpretation are put together; that is a text.  A fundamentalist way of reading assumes that
a text is independent of the translation of it, and so, you find
fundamentalists in every stripe are those who insist they need not defend their
reading of a text, because their reading is IN the text.

In a way, it is.

Yes, and that is why it seems true to them.  But the truth is more complex, and it is that
every interpretation is found in the text.
By definition.

So every text means

No, no, no.  By “text”
I mean the interpretation of a seemingly independent sign-configuration, to be
technical.  So, yes, all
“interpretations” are found in the text, by definition; but that merely means
that we ought to spend our time justifying our reading against another’s, and
in finding rationale for justifying such, which can be used by persons capable of
devising alternate readings of a text, or, giving alternate texts from a single page
of writings.  It should compel our
charity, not our desire for purity, orthodoxy, and so on.  But it doesn’t give reason for “anything
goes,” or “it’s just opionions.”  That simplification makes the law a matter of power, and that is just as
dangerous.  We can come to agreement
about how to read a text, and that is what academic disciplines are: lines that
describe how agreements are made concerning “texts” that range from laboratory
results to English literature and the like.
That doesn’t exist in anything called Mormon Studies, that basic
agreement about how a text is to be read, argued about, and so on.


When we look for consensus in that way, then we have moved
toward creating a rational, mature Mormon Studies.  That is not topical, or subject driven, or a genre imitation.   But
rather, any “study” is an exceedingly difficult achievement only a few times seen in the
history of humanity.  That science is now
so prevalent is merely a sign of the power of the truth, and not a sign of the
inevitability of consensus as a way of getting power.  Think how scarce real science was, say, two
hundred years ago.  A rare
accomplishment, just as democracy is.
Calling something democracy is no more a guarantee of democracy, than is
calling something “X studies” a sign of scholarship.


When, however, we demonize alternate interpretations as
evidence of perverse spirituality, or defunct souls, then we are merely looking
to break off and form our own little sect.
All of Mormon Studies, so called, is mostly Sectarianism, for that
reason.  Having a public venue for saying
the word “Mormon,” inside the confines of an imitated genre (e.g., scientific
essay, personal essay, memoire, and so on), is not a sign of the existence of
Mormon Studies.  It merely means that
there are enough people around to provide the capital required to keep the
space from collapsing (and given an ever widening gap between rich and poor,
fewer people are needed in order for a public sphere to inflate, and that is
one reason why wealth inequality is dangerous).
And enough people to seem like a community, that is, to be greater than
one’s personal sphere of friendship, to seem like it is composed of strangers,
strangers who can stand in and carry stereotypes.  Like totems, that is.  ‘We are this kind of people’ – that sort of
imagining is possible only when generic people exist, and generics can only
exist where one is not personally familiar with everyone claiming
membership.  Wards, for example, don’t
have “identities” the same way that churches, nations, and corporations
do.  Notice, also, that “corporate
culture” only became a term after corporations had branch offices, and more
employees than anyone could every know, in a lifetime.  Generic persons become the blank pages on
which consensus can be inscribed.

And that is the truth
of Mormon Studies? 


The truth?  No.  But, this is why the internet has boomed that
particular sect of Mormonism: because identities are utterly opaque, ambiguous,
and the number of members of a community often explicitly identified (e.g., 1456
users; 17 currently online); and start up costs are minimal.  The numbers are there, but not anything else
by which actual persons could be known.
And so, the genericizing of people, and their carrying of a stereotypes,
is ramped up like never before.  So is consensus
so much easier to imagine, as one can merely start a new blog, a new journal,
or conference, online, because the start-up costs are so little, compared to
what they were in the 1960s, or, the 1860s.

And so, consensus?


No longer a fair sign of anything, except the cheap start up
costs of public spheres where consensus can be postured at, and our inability
to have empathy and to understand one another.
Mormon Studies must develop around a different logic than that which
makes science something a student can step into, and be trained in, and
contribute to.  One cannot merely start
up a biology journal, and get contributors, and seem to be on the same level
as, say, Nature.  Though financial start up costs are minimal,
of course, there is vast cultural capital which must be present; think-tanks
and corporate funded “institutes” have the money, try to buy the cultural
capital, and sometimes succeed, but often at the cost of doing actual research.

You mean, the money
corrupts the research?

No, I mean, the cultural capital is at last acquired, and,
lo and behold! The journal accidentally publishes real research, despite what
the funders want, because there is an institutional framework in place that
came along with the cultural capital.
Propaganda cannot play with the sciences for very long before it becomes
either a joke or converts to doing legitimate work.  Nothing like that exists in Mormon Studies.

And so?

And that is where Mormon Studies falters: we have no way of assessing or
reading Cultural Capital, except, by and large, if something seems “authorized”
or “approved” by “the Brethren” or “The Church.”  That, my friend, the lack of cultural capital
being generated outside certain channels, and the ease with which financial
capital can be marshaled to give us new public spheres like blogs, that is why
there is no Mormon Studies.  What counts, for, say, Dialogue, is not convertable in FARMS.  There is no unifying currency.

You seem to have a
problem with amateurs.  What’s your


You see, Mormon Studies thrives on amateurs, who have
hobbyhorses, and but little grasp of the process of scholarship (a grasp which
takes many years of practical labor to understand).  They provide the capital for inflating public
spheres, and the audiences for the imagining of a public where consensus can be
found.  And they inflate the number of
publications any single, new student would seemingly be required to read before
writing on a topic, without providing any institutionalized support for that
reading.  Grad School gives stipends for
students to get their feet under them, to let them read and not produce anything.  Mormon Studies lacks any institutional
support, unless you are being trained for seminary or institute, and those have
their own problems, of course.  So, as a
result of the ease with which amateurs can “enter the market,” indeed are
forced to do so as amateurs and not as professionals; and the low costs of
starting up oneself as a Mormon Scholar; there is very little direction to the
entire endeavor, very little progress that can be pointed to, and, yet, many
journals, articles, blogs, conferences, and books exist.  Hence, occupations with high wages, and some
downtime, are those most likely to produce Mormon Studies articles.


And software folks.
And retired guys.  Old ladies.  Bingo.  All driven by intellectual property
litigation, copyright, IRAs, Finance, Social Security, and so on, just as the American economy
has been for three decades.  One doesn’t
find auto workers or clerks writing on the Book of Mormon, or theology, or DNA.  But one also doesn’t find many biologists
doing actual research on DNA and the Book of Mormon, so much as writing off the
cuff editorials on the subject, stuffed with enough to sound like the science
they regularly do.  And one doesn’t find
those articles being published in scientific journals, so much as in Mormon Studies
venues.  And all these amateurs inflate
the public spheres, and at a certain point the barriers for new amateurs to
enter into the sphere become too great, and then, another journal shows up.  The start up capital is easier to acquire
than the cultural capital, you see.  And
so the number of “members” of each sect is fixed, like any ward, and so every
Mormon journal and group-blog plateaus, because the start up costs for a new “sect”
are minimal.  It’s not like you’re
apostate if you start a new blog, rather than a new church.  But the difference is mostly in the words,
and not in the realities.  Got it?

I do.  Sort of.

Corpses are fertile, you see, but all the parasites,
maggots, and so on, are not signs of life.

So, are you saying
amateurs are maggots?

Jeez.  Yep.  That’s what I’m saying.  I’m a bad person.  You can read as much on many reviews of my
writing.  Thanks for demonstrating the
basic problem of Mormon Studies.

Archaeology Can Prove Nothing, And Amateur Mormon Apologists Who Read
Archaeology And Then Trot It Out, Are Unwise..


12 thoughts on “On Mormon Studies, Apologetics, And Other Fundamentalisms

  1. Daymon,

    your research is highly academic. At the same time it seems that you want to communicate some of your findings to the non-academic Mormon out there, including those that are part of the Mormon Studies audience (through blogs, podcasts, etc).

    How do you see your own writing/publishing in face of the “banality of Mormon Studies”?

    • I see Mormon Studies as something I study, the same way I study Correlation, or polygamy, or any other Mormon cultural practice.
      Whether Mormons who claim to be part of Mormon Studies agree with me or not (see comment from ‘the narrator’), I don’t really care.
      Some of this is testing ideas, some of it is eliciting reactions from the natives. This is an experiement in ethnographic data collection, in some ways.

      But I do want to communicate with Mormons, but sometimes the most “intellectual” of them are the most difficult to explain anything to.
      I suppose being a Mormon qualifies one to write about Mormonism.

      • So you are saying that Mormon Studies are something different from studying Mormonism. I am not sure I understand the difference you propose but it makes sense to take Mormon Studies as an object to be studied. It would be interesting then to know when and how the label “Mormon Studies” was coined.

      • Antonio,
        I think your question about the coinage of “Mormon Studies” a very good one. I don’t have the answer, though, I think it is important to track its expansion.
        The lack of definition is at the heart of the problem. Note that the privileges enjoyed by a certain crowd that promotes the existence of Mormon Studies are the same pragmatic rights claimed by those who stamp “correlated” and those who decide whether someone or some text is properly “fundamentalist”. Until there is some definition, some criteria for deciding whether a text is or is not part of Mormon Studies, I cannot see how the field even exists as anything like an academic discipline. I am curious to hear your perspective on the matter.

  2. “That what folks call Mormon Studies is nothing like, say, African or Jewish Studies. That is, peer reviewed by tenured or tenure-track faculty whose primary focus is the

    “You see, Mormon Studies thrives on amateurs”

    “Mormon Studies lacks any institutional
    support, unless you are being trained for seminary or institute, and those have their own problems, of course.”

    Perhaps if you would actually look at what is going on at universities such as Claremont Graduate University, Graduate Theological Union, the University of Virginia, Utah Valley University, etc, you wouldn’t come across so much as a ranting ignoramus.

  3. Daymon,
    I am not a “proponent of Mormon Studies.” My response to your blog post at MSP was squarely on the issue of “Smith’s particular account of how power operates in Mormonism.” That remains my primary point of interest, and I would still be interested in a dialogue on that topic, but you have still avoided this issue and instead read my comment as somehow a defense of Mormon Studies. I remain confused as to why you think that my critique is somehow revealing of your larger point, rather than deeply problematizing it, but I do want to address your specific claim with respect to my earlier response.

    You claim that my reading of your work as having committed a “methodological sin” is somehow evidence “that what folks call Mormon Studies is nothing like, say, African or Jewish Studies,” perhaps needs more fleshing out. You seem to be implying that there is no such thing as a “methodological sin” in these disciplines, and that if someone such as yourself offered an account of Jews or African Americans a fully, unescapably disciplined by the powers that operate within those communities, no one would object. My sense is that you don’t know much about how these fields actually operate (you are an amateur in these fields after all), but have instead constructed an idealized view of harmonious, ideologically free spaces of research. Your description of these fields as “peer
    reviewed by tenured or tenure-track faculty whose primary focus is the
    research, its progress and regulation by factors outside the immediate sphere of the researchers themselves,” fails to account for the massively invested communities for whom these fields exist, and that motivate sociologically not only the existence of these fields, but also their participants. I highly doubt that the motives of those who go into Mormon Studies and those who go into African American or Jewish studies are analytically all that different.

    African American and Jewish communities follow the scholars who write about them, hold “amateur” conferences, radio programs, produce magazines, viciously denounce scholars who don’t portray things in positive ways, give money to institutions who support these fields, and even write blogs and journals. These fields even face scrutiny from the broader academy, as the case of Cornell West and Larry Sommers at Harvard illustrates. In my experiences, these fields are actually quite dynamic, and the question of a “crisis” in the identity of these fields is a persistent concern (See the African American Studies Reader, 2007). They do not, nor do they desire to, exist within an ivory tower without invested readers outside of the academy.

    The interesting thing is that you then qualify this idealized world of African American and Jewish Studies with the following caveat: “There are
    always personal politics in academia, but there is also, always, original
    research.” It is not entirely clear what is meant by this distinction from Mormon Studies. Are you suggesting that there is something preventing “original research” in MS because of “personal politics”? What evidence do you have for this?

    In any case, your assessment that in these academic fields there is ” a complex interaction
    of dependencies and independencies which ensure that, over time, consensus can
    be used as a sign of an increase in knowledge on a subject,” strikes my as naively optimistic about the existence of consensus in these fields (especially given your own amateur status in being able to assess them with any degree of reliability), as well as supremely pessimistic about the ability for academic consensus to emerge in MS. Rather than comment on a particular substantive point of research where you think the “consensus” in the pockets of Mormon Studies is misguided and unable to be open to new “original research,” the only evidence you offer for the failure in MS to be able to achieve consensus is because all the journals out there are filled with stuff by amateurs (a claim which really isn’t very credible).

    You seem to have a different set of rules for evaluating MS than you have for other disciplines, where the existence of “amateurs” (a pejorative, but hardly analytically incisive term) somehow infects academic research, whereas teh existence of Jewish Studies at places like the Jewish Theological Seminary and at places like Harvard manages some kind of “consensus” and somehow miraculously escapes the attention and concern of millions of invested, deeply invested, participants, with nothing short of an entire nation to legitimate and defend, is not a particularly persuasive account about the sociology of knowledge in that field.

    It seems to me that there are some excellent critiques to be made of the way that Mormon Studies is currently done. Complaining that a lot of people without degrees inhabit the field seems not only a radically unfair and inaccurate portrayal, but also a completely irrelevant one. Either the research is good or bad, and one doesn’t need a degree to do good (or bad!) research. Rather than seeing the demographics of Mormon Studies as revealing something about the content of the research, perhaps you should just make relevant comments about the content of the research? Nor do I really see your account of the demographics of Mormon studies (even if it were accurate) really demonstrating your point about the way power operates, at least not when your definition of correlation is so circular that both affirming and denying its presence are both evidence for your thesis.

    • Thanks TT for providing some background on Jewish Studies and African Studies.
      I was at fault for providing that initial comparison, when the descriptions I was giving about “consensus” and “entry points for new students” was really describing the more “rational” or “mature” sciences, which I think Mormons should be aiming at, though not simply by imitation of forms. Anyway, I don’t disagree with your basic assertations about one’s status as a professional or amateur having little to do with the quality of the work. But the initial categorization is relevant to an analysis I will be trying to get together soon enough.

      I agree that “amateur” is not analytically incisive, but neither is it “pejorative” as I use it. I’m just fumbling through an early analysis that attempts to bring in matters of culture and economy. I will try to explain how I think amateurs are a strength in Mormon Studies (so-called).

      I agree that the demographics of Mormon Studies doesn’t say much about the content, but the training one has is not unrelated to the kinds of research that is done. There is a logic to the practice, but I’ve not described that yet, admittedly. The quality of work is not determined by the traning, of course. B.H. Roberts is still, in my mind, the finest Mormon historian, and I don’t know how many days he sat in school, but it wasn’t many. Alternately, I can’t read most “professional” work without holding my nose. But that’s just an admission, and not a critique, of course.

  4. Does any of this really matter? So what if Mormon Studies is not peer reviewed? Or that Mormon studies is largely practiced by amateurs? Does that make Mormon studies any less likely to result in finding truth than say cultural anthropology as practiced at a university. I love your work Daymon. But I always ask the same question whenever I read what you write–so what? You seem to be ever observing and never offering anything in the way of practical advice to actually improve the situation you so strongly criticize. Why is that?

    • Epictetus,
      I will try to make a little more clear what I’m getting at, over the next few posts dealing with Mormon Studies. For now, I will say that I think amateurs are a strength in the study of Mormonism. Maybe I can offer something practical, but we’ll see, I guess.

  5. One of the facts that every ranting ignoramus/cultural anthropologist faces when studying a nasty tribe of cannibals is the prospect that he will offend and find himself sitting in a cauldron. In such circumstances, all the poor, outnumbered anthro-ignoramus can do is smile at all those gnashing their teeth and say, “Eat me.”

  6. Daymon,

    I wonder if the problems you detect are unique to Mormon Studies or are also present in other studies of religious traditions/beliefs. Researches by amateurs are probably way bigger in Mormon Studies when compared to, say, Jewish Studies. How much of the problem is related to the fact that Mormonism itself is quite recent in a historical perspective?

    Funding is always a problem, I guess, in any field. Who sponsors who depends a lot on what both parts believe to be relevant or right.

    Coming from a religious tradition that gives so much attention to authority maybe some of us also tend to focus on the messenger/speaker/author and his/her “authority”. So depending on the paradigm we embrace a certain study is good because was written by … or published in…. (fill in the blanks).

    I watched part of the recent interview with D. Michael Quinn and really liked it. But I sensed a kind of hero celebration. I don’t mean anything derogatory to professor Quinn or those who organized that event. I do think he is honest and brave to the point of being considered a hero in his field. But it bothered a little that people were more interested in learning about his sexuality or personal history than his views and findings on church history. But now there is an environment that offers room for that kind of hero celebration. Is that an outcome of Mormon Studies?

    I also wonder if a lack of definition is not related to a lack of consensus. Institutions produce a consensus but do all its members buy it? If there weren’t no potential or real diversity or division would the consensus be necessary? Sometimes it seems that there are a few items on which everyone agress and because of it they can be under the same umbrella. For example, As a movement Fundamentalism nowadays is a loose federation of many groups with many different ideas and practices. It is a very, very broad definition. With little consensus among them.

    Is there consensus on who is a Mormon? I have been corrected in an elder’s quorum meeting for saying I was one! So the esquizofrenic attitude in LDS church of “we are the only Mormons” versus “we aren’t the Mormon church” has produced a lot of confusion to some Mormons defining the word Mormon. Where is correlation when people need it? ;]

    It has always called my attention that despite the fact the LDS church says there is no such a thing as a Fundamentalist Mormon the term was apparently coined by Elder Mark E. Petersen in the 1940’s. So they were first “defined” as a group by the LDS church and later had to work their identity independently.

    So back to the coinage of “Mormon Studies”, was it used first by “unorthodox” Mormons (at Dialogue?) and then used by everybody else? We read at BYU Studies website “the original Mormon Studies journal”.

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