Is there a Mormon Diaspora?

Diaspora studies have become increasingly important in recent years. Anthropologists, political activists, theologians, linguists, and others have moved to the diaspora communities for rich research and fascinating studies. LDS scholars and thinkers have not been unaware of this trend and have sought to capitalize on this conceptual framework for making sense of contemporary Mormonism. There is no doubt that there has been a major shift in LDS populations leaving Utah for California, the East Coast, and other places around the world for educational, economic, and marriage reasons. However, I wonder whether this trend is properly understood as diasporic in a similar way to Africans, the archetypical contemporary diasporic community.

A Mormon diaspora properly refers to Utah Mormons and their children. Converts who remain outside of the cultural and geographical centers of Mormonism cannot be considered to be members of a Mormon Diaspora. For this reason and others, it seems that diaspora is not a useful way of thinking about the changing geographical centers of Mormonism. While this might be a helpful concept for understanding the migration of Utah Mormons to other locations, it ultimately cannot be said to describe the character of most congregations around the country.

Further, diaspora communities are typically defined by a sense of alienation, loss, hybridity, and negotiation. I am not sure that these are the best terms to characterize Mormon populations outside of Utah. Perhaps I am wrong, but I suspect that most Mormons who leave Utah are able to integrate rather easily into their new cultural location. Even for those who aren’t, I am still not sure that diaspora is the best way of making sense of this cultural transition.

Finally, one of the useful things about diaspora communities is the multiplicity of identities that one can discover. African diaspora studies demonstrate the rich diversity of transplanted African cultures, the ways they adapt and hybridize surrounding cultures, and the creativity behind their identities. Mormons, however, seem to remain largely homogeneous wherever they go, failing to adapt to the local cultures either because they are already so similar that they can “pass” or because they are so rigid that adaptation is simply not possible. All this leads me to want to abandon diaspora as a useful way for thinking about the shifting centers of Mormon culture. What other concepts might be useful?

14 Replies to “Is there a Mormon Diaspora?”

  1. Clearly the use of diaspora would be ridiculous. I do not have much time, but I think that the use of such a term is an attempt to make us more interesting and significant that we really are.

    The fact that our culture and curriculum are still heavily controlled by Salt Lake (I am not saying that this is bad)seem to make claim to diaspora flimsy.

    Most importantly, Jewish and African diasporas are phenomena that have taking place of many many centuries. We have only been international (and still in a limited sense) for decades.

  2. Chris,
    You raise and interesting point that might take us in a different direction. Do you think that with more time, emigration from Utah will develop into a more proper “diaspora”?

  3. I think there could have been a genuine diaspora during the outmigration of the first half of the 20th century, and especially just after World War II. At that point, most members outside of Utah were emigrants from Utah, primarily driven by economic forces. Today, there are clearly profound differences between Mormons in and outside of Utah (on the average, not in every case), but those differences seem more compatible with the social cleavage model than with the diaspora model.

  4. Today, there are clearly profound differences between Mormons in and outside of Utah (on the average, not in every case), but those differences seem more compatible with the social cleavage model than with the diaspora model.

    first of all, the term “social cleavage” is very funny. secondly, any data to back this up, or are you just going on anecdotal experience.

    Personally, I think that the church has made efforts to “water down” (for want of a better term) it’s cultural religion in order to avoid issues like diaspora. (sadly the only example that comes to mind is the vetting of Utah centric hymns from the hymn book and further vetting in actual use in church services. I guess Correlation in general is there too.)

    I think new technology limits some forms of diaspora. I think if the church has diaspora like effects in the future, it will probably be less like the jewish diaspora and more like mcdonalds using localized marketing to reach it’s end objectives. (McDs Rice and Pasta in certain countries, etc.)

  5. Matt W., no, as always, we have to be qualitative here. There are sporadic instances of survey data, for example those studied by Armand Mauss, and they do point to a substantial social and cultural difference between Utah and outside Mormons. But the data are incomplete and local. However, they point in the same direction as everybody’s lived experience.

  6. It’s my own thing, but I find the diaspora term as a useful distinction between areas where most members are transplanted from Deseret and ‘mission field,’ where most members are converts. SoCal was diaspora when I was young and in transition when I lived there 7 years ago. Finland is definitely mission field.

  7. One quick note…
    Norbert’s point might be useful to adopt a native category that Mormons already use, namely, the “mission field” to speak about Mormon experiences away from the center. The difference between mission and diaspora might help explain why Mormons do not adapt to new cultural contexts.

  8. Of course there’s been a Mormon diaspora. The ancient definition meant a people that went out to colonize an area outside their cultural center. Mormon colonization of Nevada, California, Arizona, etc. certainly qualifies by that definition. The current definition essentially means a people forcibly ejected from the land of their inheritance (or at least that legally belonged to them). Mormons didn’t leave Missouri and Illinois by choice and in many cases weren’t reimbursed for the land and stores they had to abandon. That sounds like a diaspora to me too.

    Let me ask you: don’t you think the descendants of of those Mormons have a legal claim on the land and stores that their ancestors were forced to abandon?

  9. Tom,
    I think that I disagree that either the ancient or modern understanding of diaspora has to do with colonization. We don’t speak of a British diaspora during the period of colonialism. Rather, diaspora more properly applies to subjected peoples. Further, the application of this concept to the forced migration of early Mormons doesn’t seem to work since there wasn’t a scattering so much as an exodus. Everyone remained with the center, even though the center moved.

  10. I would say there’s now a contra diaspora. Just look at the hundreds of thousands who have moved to Utah, Salt Lake and Washington counties since about 2003 or so. Except they’re not primarily Mormons. Some can’t handle the culture shock and move, but for those who do stay here are universally grateful to get away from California, etc.

  11. Matt W., okay, nobody can contradict your experience. What you’ve seen is different from the available survey data, as well as the experiences of pretty much everybody I’ve spoken to about this. Obviously, the set of people I’ve spoken with are a non-random sample, and the survey data are partial and only satisfactory because they’re the best we have. So there you are.

  12. RT, I am sure people can contradict my lived experience. Afterall, I’ve only spent perhaps a week in utah outside of the MTC, so I am not necassarily the best judge, but I would love to see an extensive analysis of this. I guess the real trick of it is what to include as indicators, as that would bias the thing from the start, no? After all, if we include Jello as an essential component of mormon culture, we aren’t going to end up in the same place as if we only included organizational structure.

  13. Matt, yeah, the survey data looks at things like theology (surprisingly different between Utah and non-Utah Mormons in the data I’ve seen), beliefs and attitudes about family (also different, but not as much), beliefs, attitudes and practices regarding non-Mormons (very, very different), political viewpoints (different, but not hugely), etc. For a truly serious study of this, we need the holy grail of Mormon sociology: a publicly available survey of a genuine random sample of U.S. Mormons. Such a thing is indeed possible if someone would fund it; it would probably require a couple hundred thousand dollars, but it would answer so many questions.

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