Saturday, March 16, 2013

Dissertation Proposal: Religion, Culture, and Identity: Essays toward a Cultural History of Mormonism

This is a speech I gave before the History Graduate Organisation Dissertation Working Group at the University at Albany (I know, I know) in 2007. It contains what was my initial proposal for my history dissertation. I didn't end up doing it. I did a dissertation on the history of Mormon Studies instead. I still think it is a good idea. Probably not a good History idea, however. The academic discipline of History, after all, is rather quaintly a- if not anti-theoretical in its staidness despite drawing on, even if historians don't always realise it, all the dominant social theoretical perspectives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I did do a longish paper/monograph on aspects of the subject which remains unpublished. Too short for a book. Too long for a journal. Too theoretical and not "historical" enough for the Journal of Mormon History. Oh Well, part 4,886,872. And I have worked off and on on a paper on the social and cultural construction of gender in primitive Mormonism but I am just not as interested in using Mormonism to address cultural and theoretical questions as I used to be. Oh Well, part 4,886,873.

Theoretical Approach:
Historians have typically attributed the rise of Mormonism in the Burned Over District of upstate New York in the early 19th century to geographic, demographic, psychological, economic, or political, and, to a lesser extent, cultural factors or some combination of these. Of course, geographic, social, economic, and political contexts and biography so matter and they do impact social and cultural groups. However, pointing to the supposed prevalence of poor New Englanders among early Mormons, noting that transformations wrought by the Erie Canal in the Burned Over District gave birth to Mormonism, exclusively exploring the mind of Joseph Smith to find clues to Mormon origins, or emphasizing that transformations in American political culture gave rise to Mormonism don’t fully account for the cultural differences one finds among these social and cultural groups. It is simply not enough to point out that Shakers, Oneidans, Adventists, and Mormons arose in the Burned Over District of upstate New York, a region experiencing change as a result of the construction of the Erie Canal, that Shakers, Oneidans, Adventists, and Mormons, shared apocalyptic visions, that Shakers, Oneidans, Adventists, and Mormons were situated in an America undergoing political transformations from less to more democratic forms, that many early Mormons came from New England, or that Joseph Smith came from a poor family and was once been involved in treasure seeking. Shakerism, the Oneida Community, Mormonism, and Adventism like all social and cultural movements have distinct and separate histories and cultures and hence identities, and these specific histories and identities must be analyzed and taken seriously if we are to fully understand these groups and the cultures, identities, and communities they created. By exploring and critiquing the perspectives of the past this dissertation hopes to offer somewhat novel ways to approach early Mormon history in the present.

First what this dissertation is not. This dissertation is not concerned with “religion” per se. I take a largely functionalist perspective on the definitional issue and see religion as one way among many that humans give meaning to their existence. This is not to deny that social and cultural constructions aren't institutionalized over time. This dissertation, in fact, attempts to explore how one identity formation, Mormonism, was created (an identity largely constructed by the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith in part out of the broader social, economic, political, and cultural stuff of his environment) and institutionalized over time. I chose Mormonism because it is a cultural movement that has left a decipherable (if not always easily so) historical trail.

What this dissertation is, is interdisciplinary. Rather than religion this dissertation focuses on historiographic issues surrounding Mormon origins and how culture and ideology rather than economic or political contexts are at the heart of Mormon identity construction. A critical historical ethnography is the means by which this dissertation will explore how culture and identity were central to the creation of a Mormon identity. Chapter One looks at the ways academic and intellectual cultures have categorized and characterized marginal groups like Mormons often demonizing them as “cults”. It explores the ethnocentric and sometimes deadly consequences academic/intellectual institutional discourse has for new religious movements and will offer of a critique of theories which are grounded in static social typology and notions of social normality and social pathology. Chapter Two reviews the factors generally cited as giving rise to Mormonism in the Burned Over District of upstate New York and upper northeastern Ohio (geography, demographics, economic and political change, social deprivation, social anxiety) and suggests that these are not, by and large, causal forces but rather contextual phenomena and hence cannot fully explain in the rise of Mormonism as Mormonism (or any other movement in the Burned Over District for that matter). Instead, it argues that it was culture through which Joseph Smith “constructed” Mormonism. Chapter Three critically explores various cultural explanations for Mormon origins. Finally a conclusion attempts to look at Mormonism and Mormons through the prism of broader theories of identity and community. It investigates theories of identity and community construction, explore how these impact theories of Mormon identity and community construction, and finally explore just how Joseph Smith manufactured a Mormon identity and a Mormon community out of the Christian culture of the Post-Reformation period and the American culture of the nineteenth century. It briefly explores how Mormon identity, culture, and community has both remained the same and changed since the early nineteenth century.

My sources for this study are several. And contrary to popular rumour my dissertation is based in part on documentary materials. First, I critically explore the writings and conclusions of historians and social scientists on Mormon origins and more broadly on the Burned Over District and American religious history in general. Second, I have explored and hope to further explore early Mormon journals and diaries (not randomly selected, I might add…I have used those readily available to me) which express why American men and women became Mormons. Finally, I have utilized materials collected by scholars on the demographics of early and contemporary Mormonism.

Before I get to my conclusions let me note that I regard this dissertation as historical, interdisciplinary, two things supposedly emphasized by our department, and historiographic and theoretical. This dissertation follows in the footsteps of such historiographically oriented and theoretically focused historians as Keith Thomas, Rhys Isaac, Warren Sussman, Carroll Smith Rosenberg, Robert Wiebe, Martin Jay, and Russell Jacoby. It is influenced by, among others, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, Ulf Hannerz, and Michel Foucault. I see this dissertation as a contributing, in no particular order, to the historiography on Mormonism, the historiography and sociology of identity construction, the historiography and sociology of community construction, the historiography and sociology of culture, historical ethnography, issues surrounding the question of what prominence to give the role of geography, politics, and economics in historical theory or historiography, and a contribution to the history of history and the sociology of knowledge.

So what are my conclusions? I conclude that geographic, demographic, economic, and political factors are contexts of human action and activity rather than causal factors in the creation or, perhaps better put, the manufacture of Mormon identity, community, and culture and of the identity, community, and culture of other social and cultural groups in the Burned Over District and beyond. It is culture which is critical to the construction of Mormon identity and community not geography, demographics, economics, and politics. And the available documentary evidence seems to bear this out.

When you look at journals and diaries in which men and women describe why and how they became Mormons you don’t find statements such as “I became Mormon because I was born in New England”, “I became Mormon because of economic changes wrought by the Erie Canal”, or “I became Mormon because I was opposed to the “democratisation” of America brought about by Jackson and his supporters”. These are all, in fact, second order or etic explanations not first order emic explanations. That historians engage in such interpretive strategies tell us several things: it tells us that contrary to popular historical belief that history has never avoided theory and that historical writing is rent though, consciously or unconsciously, with theoretical perspectives (this, in turn, raises questions relating to the etiology and sociology of knowledge). It tells us that historical work has long guided by hermeneutical strategies. It tells us that historians have never been fully wedded to surface, emic, interpretations of documents and that they have long read documents between and beyond the lines.

I want to turn this on its head and avoid the interpretive strategy of reading between and beyond the lines. If we do this what do we find? We find that Mormons claim to have become Mormons because they believed Joseph Smith was the prophet of God, because they believed that a divine angel gave the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith, because they believed Joseph Smith when he said he was receiving divine revelations (the first collection of these were called the Book of Commandments; the later collection was called the Doctrine and Covenants. It was Smith, then, who was the charismatic pivot that defined Mormon identity, Mormon culture, and Mormon community. Culture and its accompanying thought ways, symbols, rituals, built environments, embodied habits and memories then are central to how social and cultural movements like the Mormons create and recreate themselves. If we are to fully understand social and cultural movements and the identities and communities they construct we need to go beyond the geographic, demographic, economic, and political contexts in which social and cultural movements are always and always obviously surrounded by.

Thank you. Any questions, comments, gripes, or complaints?


  1. I did do a longish dissertation writers online on aspects of the subject which remains unpublished.

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