What is Mormon Studies?

Seriously. This is a real question. We’ve been so busy patting ourselves on the back about Claremont, USU, and Wyoming, that I have rarely heard anything interesting about what the category of Mormon Studies consists of (the Yale grad student conference was an exception to this, from what I understand). At T&S, Nate Oman reflects on whether or not to include his research on Mormonism as part of his Letter to the Dean. The response (so far) is that Catholic Studies and Islamic Studies exist, so why not Mormon studies? But this question is to side step the issue.

Different scholarly fields have different sets of rules that regulate them. These rules are enforced by the members of the field, as well as the larger academic community. Catholic and Islamic studies programs are not the same as doing Catholic theology or writing hagiographies of Islamic heroes. These studies are approached from a wide variety of disciplines, including anthropology, history, law, religious studies, etc. This fact has sparked the question of what Catholic Studies is in Catholic circles as well. We can’t just adopt a model of research without asking the critical questions about what that model does.

Is Mormon studies what FARMS does (remember what the MS stands for?), what FAIR does, what legal historians do, what anthropologists do, what American historians do, what religious studies does, what theologians do, or what meso-americanists do? What about feminist theorists, ethnographers, cultural studies, and philosophers of religion? Which discipline does Mormon Studies rely on? Which should it rely on? Or, should the study of Mormonism simply be what different disciplines can do, and not exist as a separate field at all?

3 Replies to “What is Mormon Studies?”

  1. I think the main problems are two-fold in regards to the discussion on T&S and as it relates here:

    1)Mormons have not proven themselves in a wide enough variety of academic contexts to constitute a “thick” notion of “Mormons Studies”: Anthropology, Religious Studies, Sociology, Theology, Philosophy, History, Biblical Studies, etc. This is not to say that we don’t have a scholar here and there in some of these fields, but we don’t have the breadth or depth in scholarship that these other traditions have. I often wonder if we’ve “earned “the right to talk about our selves in these venues without first knowing more about the larger pictures. Of course we may witness (and be witnessing) much of this changing in the generations to come.

    2) Much of the fear, I think, is not so much about studying the Mormons per se, but about Mormons studying Mormons. I think it will be important for some of these Mormon Studies programs to recruit non-members. In light of point 1 I believe the skepticism will wear off as we make more headway in the larger discourses.

    An issue that I have, however, is that I wonder how unique this particular problem is. The boundaries of all fields are continuously challenged. Is a “field” really anything more than a critical mass of people willing to consent to the category and enjoying tenure at respectable universities?

  2. These questions are always germane to any “XYZ Studies” field. Such fields are interdisciplinary, which means that in principle they simply consist of people using any or all intellectual methods to study anything related to the topic of XYZ. At my university, I have some connections with Latin American Studies and our center for International Studies. So I get emails announcing talks about Inca pottery, Chicano political theory, modern Maya literature, and voting behavior in Chile.

    These kinds of interdisciplinary programs are essential in terms of promoting work that crosses institutionalized, and often meaningless, disciplinary boundaries. At the same time, one’s ability to say something meaningful in the context of the interdisciplinary XYZ-Studies conversation is usually predicated on one’s mastery of the tools and worldview of one particular discipline. I think Mormon Studies is really no different: we have historians, theologians, etc. writing about Mormonism, but these are applications of disciplinary frameworks from history, theology, and so forth, not exercises in some distinct discipline of Mormon Studies.

  3. This reminds me of the discussion (and here and here) about Kent Jackson’s article on this site a couple months ago. Since that discussion I’ve been wondering about this and have had a chance to discuss fields and taxonomy with some (non-LDS) colleagues. In the Jackson article he speaks of “LDS Bible Scholarship” as opposed to “Bible Scholarship” of other varieties. But my Jewish friend raises the point that if you’re using LDS lenses to read the bible, that brings the “Bible” and the “Scholarship” of “LDS Bible Scholarship” into question. How can it be scholarship if it’s not participating in the larger discourse and more importantly if it begins with an overt bias? And how can it be scholarship of the Bible if it’s reading biblical texts via extra-biblical materials? I tend to agree with him. Seems to me what Jackson called for is “LDS __________” fill in the blank (studies? apologetics?)

    This is not intended to be a threadjack. It raises the problems of taxonomy in the wider fields, which TT, RT, and SA have raised: What makes “Mormon Studies” Mormon? If the chair of Mormon Studies is an historian, why not put her in a history department, presuming she’s doing authentic history? Same goes for Anthropology, Religion, etc.

    I personally think the import of a Mormon Studies chair isn’t in creating a legitimate field called “Mormon Studies” with its own methodology (impossible), but rather in raising awareness of the “arrival” of “legitimate” (in quotes because many legitimate scholars of topics related to Mormonism arrived decades ago) scholars working on topics related to Latter-day Saints.

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