What is a Mormon? From an anthropologist’s view

Part One of a New Series!

Free Lessons in How to view Mormons like an Anthropologist

Before embarking on a comparison of Tolkien Studies with Mormon Studies, and the “logic” of amateurs and professional practices, I think it might be helpful to outline where I’m coming from.  Hence:

LESSON ONE: The Articles of Faith, in quasi-legalese, of Any Ethnography of Mormonism

1.  “Mormon” is a word with no single, non-discursively dependent referent.  That is, unlike the word-thing relationship between, say, table or chair, Mormons as a referent of “Mormon” do not exist without the word.  This is another of saying “Mormon” is a cultural “construct,” though in a more careful, and analytically fruitful way.  Now we can follow how the term “performatively” creates what it refers to, and the speakers of it likewise as potentially being also what is picked out in the utterance…

2.  To use the word “Mormon” to refer to a person is to put them into a class of things by virtue of some criteria said to be unique to that class.  Where did the class come from?  See Article I.  So, by virtue of usage, and one’s encounters with usage (say, in family circles, in the media, or at a church; let’s call them “communities of usage”), one decides that a certain quality is seemingly unique to whatever one hears referred to as “Mormon”.  That quality is inevitably bound up with speaking (in whatever modality: writing, gesture, etc.), but also the performative effects of speaking are registered to some other seemingly non-discursive creator, such as, spirituality, mentality, faith, region, class, gender….this is a misunderstanding that anthropologists read as a sign of a “native” perspective which then warrants explanation by way of data elicited from the “native” (but not exclusively from them, as they cannot “see” all the complex processes by which they came to be a “native”, as it were).

3.  There is no definition of “Mormon” which is not itself derivative (and creative) of the existence of that class; which class is itself derivative from the existence of the word.  That is to say, every definition of “Mormon” is itself creative of the class of things it would define, and the definition itself derives from the thing it creates by way of usage.  All the “parts are in motion,” though appearing stable from any “native” perspective.  Hence, when looking narrowly in space or time, one can be confounded into believing that “Mormon” actually refers to some language independent thing or person; but this belief is untrue, though compelling and seemingly beyond doubt.  The result (and proof of the essentially sociological-discursive source of the existence of the referent of “Mormon”) are practices designed to “purify” the “authentic” class.  Correlation is one example, but there are many.  Another result (and proof) is the existence of schisms aimed at uniting a more criteria-singular class (“we are gay Mormons”).

4.   The existence of modifiers of the word “Mormon”, such as liberal, gay, true blue, true believing, reformed, uninformed, faithful, worthy, jack, doubting, correlated, uncorrelated, utah, and so on, are proofs that the word “Mormon” works its “magic” by virtue of bringing together relational terms, in a sort of three-card monte.  That is to say, more discrete sociological sub-classes of “Mormon” attempt to give definition to the term, and rationality to the class, and attempt this by drawing on sociological and cultural categories which are independent of the class of things ‘sensed’ to be drawn in by the term “Mormon”.  Thus the demonstrable fictiveness of the term “Mormon” is occluded by posing “essentially” different subclasses which can claim adhereents who can then offer their usage, and their “communties of usage”, of the term against the stereotype of another subclass.  Ethnicities and nationalities are formed by the same “logic”, though these ground their fictive existence in “the body” or “territory” or some other seemingly tangible thing.  “Mormon” is utterly discourse-dependent, and so tends to generate and rely on the generation of subclasses in order to hide the basic truth of its existence.  So it happens that as a result of the discourse-dependent nature of the term, and of classes of persons said to be referred to by this term, sociological categories emerge within distinct “communities of usage”; such groups have as a primary interest the continuance of misunderstanding of the discourse-dependent nature of their being.  Having an alternate, opposed, subclass of “Mormons” is of primary importance in furthering that misunderstanding.

5.  The ways and means of forming new “subclasses” or of “purifying” the class of things referred to by “Mormon” depend on the technologies of communication, and on the relative capital required to acquire, maintain, and control these technologies.  Communities of usage can be enlarged in this way, though at the risk of exposing the essentially discourse-dependent nature of their being.  Hence, many “cheap” ways of performing “Mormonness” emerge, ways which are easily ranked according to their status and validity, as defined (implicitly, of course) by those in charge of the community of usage.  Other “communities” emerge which claim to exist “outside” Mormon circles, and this is, too, a matter dependent on the processes described above.  No blog, for example, has a way to derive a definition of “Mormonness” that is not itself derived from pre-existing values attributed to “fashions” of speaking.  Over time Mormon blogs, like any other discourse-dependent community, develop ways to regulate the boundaries within which Mormonness is performed.  As a result, technologically “new” communities of usage typically extend the cultural dynamics previously at work, rather than alter them.

6.  Capital, econonic or cultural, plays a describable, analyzable role in every community of usage.

7.  As a result of Articles I-VI, the term “Mormon Studies” is a “native” classification of a particular way of “speaking” or of producing texts; the subject being “Mormons” or, more abstractly (and thus releasing the user of even the slightest methodological accountability) “Mormonism”; and the subject being treated within existing, “Mormon”-independent genres common to what might be called “academia”.  What is easily acquired from academia are those things that are now said to give Mormon Studies its being; this is a matter of capital, largely, and its increasingly unequal distribution.  In reality, however, the structural and discourse-independent processes which make scientific inquiry possible are not easily acquired.  Given, moreover, that the terms discussed in these genre-imitations, and their seemingly “natural kind” classes there treated, in fact result from the native’s conflation of “orders” of usage, classification, and definition, it is then true that “Mormon Studies” as a word used to describe the production of texts is a word derived from the same processes which construct and maintain “communities of usage”.  The Study of Mormons/Mormonism are thus not independent from the same forces described above.  Such communities, to repeat, have as their primary function the surveillance and sanction of the use of the term which gives them “being”, and for this reason how one “speaks” (and so “performs” Mormonness), in the most general sense, is of principle concern.

These Articles are a stable beginning for actually understanding how “Mormons” and “Mormonism” can be understood from a position that is not itself derived from the communities that use the same terms.   That is to say, any position which privileges one native community’s use of “Mormon” over another is a position bound up with the power, capital, and other “forces” (let’s say, for now) that generated the misunderstanding among speakers, a misunderstanding that the term’s referent is not dependent on language, but is somehow a “naturally” existing thing.  Translation: to define “Mormon Studies” without defining “Mormon” from criteria independent of the processes which make the term a sociologically living thing is merely to use the capital, power, and force of, say, academic genres to do what “fundamentalist”, “liberal”, “true believing”, “X-Y-Z” Mormons have been doing for many decades.  As a result, Mormon Studies is merely a translation of Mormonism into another sphere, and by that translation, a non-circular understanding of “Mormon” itself becomes an impossibility.


  1. Jordan says:

    Have you seen John Comaroff’s The End of Anthropology article in AA? In it he attacks the Anthropology of Christianity for refusing to define its object of study because any such definition would ultimately be reductive. He thinks we such get along with it and define what Christianity is by using its own terms. I think we can agree that’s pretty stupid. Why? I think you hit it on the head with this post. You also gave a pretty nice back handed critique of the whole NOM or “uncorrelated Mormon” phenomenon. How is that not a product of correlation and discourse itself? I like your capital and usage community analysis. I think we can both agree that the whole movement to accept anyone who self identifies as Mormon (with or without appendages) to be Mormon (with or without appendages) doesn’t really pay attention to the fact that group recognition has to take place (immediately confronting us with power and capital). In Anthropological Theory there’s going to be a piece published soon about the Anthropology of Christianity through a Deleuzian perspective of the Virtual as a way to define the limits of possibility while still being open to the process of unfolding new possibilities. Have you considered how “Mormonism” alternates from Virtual to Actual? Perhaps that’s a way of talking about Mormonism without becoming beholden to its own constraints.

    1. day2mon says:

      I’ve not seen Comaroff’s essay, but I doubt he’s even serious about a critique of anthropologists not defining their object. He is the master of vagueness and fashionable abstractions.

      Regarding the NOM/Uncorrelated Mormon labels, I agree: the fact that they would assume that by attaching a grammatical prefix they would undo sixty years of culture is precisely the illusion one would expect under something like Correlation, which makes the forms of things equivalent to the things referred to. So, by changing one’s name, or membership status, one is no longer shaped by the thing. Absurd, for the every act of attaching un- shows that they depend on the existence of Correlation as much as any TBM.

      Regarding Self Identification: I agree, it’s just lazy to treat anyone calling themselves “Mormon” as a “Mormon”, because the work of Anth is not to classify but to explain how it is, for example, that this person could take up that label, and convince others (perhaps) of its correctness of reference. We don’t really have the tools to study individuals, anyway, and so ‘group’ must be brought in, as you noted. Personally, I try to keep what I believe really “is” a Mormon somewhere deeply hidden from most persons who call themselves Mormon; and anthropology allows just that sort of cover and protection.

      I’ve not read the Deleuzian material, but I’ve never been able to make it far with authors whose names are pronounced eight different ways, and whose theories put to eighty different, often at variant, purposes. Too full of easy-to-grasp metaphor, which ease of handling doesn’t ask for understanding. But that is my provincialism talking, or maybe Peirce spoiled me for most theory (and thus, I am an icon of his own failed life, thus far; though, unlike me, he saw Jesus in a vision).

  2. David Knowlton says:

    Thanks Daymon. This is a very useful beginning for an anthropological Mormon studies. I like it. But, as all intellectual constructs, it too needs thinking through.

    First, it seems your intended audience is mostly Mormon Studies people. That is itself a particular community with its own established tropes, expectations, processes, and boundaries into which an anthropology of Mormonism might seem to fit. Lord knows I found that community an interesting and engaged one in which to speak and write, initially. But, as your defining work shows, the ontologies mobilized by anthropology thinking does not map easily over the ones commonly used in the Mormon Studies community. So, I am not convinced this is the right place to locate an anthropology of Mormons rather than as a subject for anthropological study.

    This seems a potentially fruitful, but also troubled, beginning for your defining work. You are both arguing with Mormon Studies people about what “Mormon” is and means, since that is the defining part of the Mormon Studies couplet (You are breaking their icons) while at the same time establishing an anthropological object. They do not seem to fit well.

    Most, but not all of us, who do the anthropology of Mormonism come from within communities invoked by people’s engagement with that term “Mormon”. For us, thinking such as what you do here, lays a basis for establishing an external object that is both not our experience and our experience. It allows us to develop an external–perhaps rigorous–thinking and studying of what produced us (at least to some degree). But that external thought enters into tension with our internal worlds (not inside our heads as much as inside our social worlds where “Mormon” is the organizing point of reference. As such, we become part of the diversity of Mormon communities you describe.

    That is one set of issues. But their is another and that is our interaction with anthropologists who were not formed in the space of the category “Mormon”.

    External anthropologists, such as Davies, Cannell, Hammarberg, Fortuny, etc. when defining an object of study, generally engage in a short hand of looking for a community and let it define the object. Of course late twentieth century anthropology filled with questioning the ontology of these ostensible “natural” communities that anthropologists could study.

    Generally anthropologists had not done the ontological work required to think through how social relationships, or semiotics, taking place outside of anthropological thought interacted with the need for a “stable” and “bounded” object of study.

    Though the anthropologists I mention above write after this anthropological work, on the whole there is no real questioning of “Mormon” as an anthropological object or as a “natural” community.

    Instead people engage in an institutional fallacy. That is, they take the presence of “The Church of JC of LDS”, on which you have written brilliantly, as a real thing and let it define the anthropological object.

    While understandable, this build a faulty understanding of Mormonism which to a significant degree fits the prejudices of Mormon Studies. Unfortunately this leads to a politics of exclusion which has not allowed for the kind of questioning of the object “Mormon” that you do so well here and in your other work.

    As a result, I am arguing for freeing an anthropology of Mormonism from Mormon Studies, and challenging the anthropologists who fall into the institutional fallacy to do a better job with establishing an object to study. I want us to argue and, in the process, establish a field.

    Furthermore, I think that the problems that result from your work here are not just a challenge for “mainstream” anthropology of Mormonism, but also for most work in anthropology on religion, including the relatively new anthropology of Christianity.

    Now, let me engage more directly some of your ideas. Your approach privileges a semiotics. It would be easy to simply work at that level. But, from your first statement you acknowledge, even if backgrounding, that the semiotic depends on something “cultural” you say, though I think I prefer to say social, not that social is any less problematic. This really is the challenge of Peirce’s interpretant.

    So, given its appearance in your first paragraph, even though your emphasis is on the performance of Mormon as something that constructs the social, is that anterior social not also important? I wonder if we are fated to a chicken and egg argument here, or if there is not someway to define an ontology that avoids that question of which is first.

    It is good to begin with what you write, especially if it requires us to look at the social relationships that led to “Mormon” taking on referents and pragmatics and that formed the space in which Mormon has been performed.

    Now we are in the space of capital, power, etc. to which you refer. In your monographs you show how those engage mutually with the semiotic in an almost Weberian historical sociology (semiotics).

    As a result, I would like to see what you write here develop more, not as a subset of Mormon Studies, but as an anthropology in itself. But we anthropologists are few as an audience and the Mormon Studies people are numerous, so I may be pissing in the wind. I just think the issues are different.

    1. day2mon says:

      As usual, you’ve hit directly on the weak and strong points of the argument. I’ll respond more in depth later, when I’ve given your questions and so on more thought.

  3. David Knowlton says:

    I think the dilemma of the interpretant and Mormon, as something dynamic and temporal might be a useful place to debate a basis for an anthropology of Mormonism. And I see your post here as an important beginning.

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