Rosemary Avance is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication where she studies the intersection of religion, culture, and the media. She is currently the recipient of the Eccles Mormon Studies Fellowship at the University of Utah’s Tanner Humanities Center. She is spending the year in residence in Salt Lake City, researching and writing her dissertation on modern Mormon identities.
I’m so pleased to be guest posting here at JI—one of my favorite blogs and an important source for keeping up with modern Mormon identities. My dissertation is on just that topic: how Mormons today negotiate their identities, and particularly how the internet plays a role in the articulation of various heterodoxies. I’ve been hesitant to comment or post here and elsewhere in the bloggernacle because my research tracks, in part, representations of Mormonism in real time—so contributing to those representations by offering my “take” threatens to, essentially, muddy my data. Despite all the blogs, message boards, and Facebook pages, it turns out that Mormondom online is actually quite a small world.
But I’m pleased for the opportunity to introduce myself and my academic work, so my plan is to offer a bit of my theoretical orientation to LDS identities, explain my interest and background, and then maybe complain a bit. Because the work I’m doing is – at the moment—incredibly frustrating.
I’m a social constructivist, which means I view both religion and identity (and pretty much everything else) as social constructs that result from the discursive interplay of various social actors, each with varying amounts of normative authority or “sway”. That perspective occasionally gets me into trouble if left unexplained, so I’ve learned to parse it out a bit: Just because I say religion is socially constructed, doesn’t mean I think it’s not “real”. Of course it is. (That’s why it’s called the “social construction of reality”). As I told the good folks at FAIR when I presented there last month, there’s a “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” out there, but there’s no such thing as Mormonism as a monolithic category. There are Mormonisms, negotiations of what it means to ”be” Mormon and what the experience of “being” Mormon means, and they vary geographically, generationally, by gender, etc.
The point is that what any given religion/religious practice/religious symbol means is dependent on social attribution and context. It’s a perspective based in Saussurean semiotics, and it highlights the tension between individual agency (I love how that’s both a social science and Mormon catchword) and institutional structure. I think it’s remiss to suggest that the options are endless, that any kind of identity construct can be considered Mormon if the person identifies as Mormon—because identity is socially and not just individually constructed, there are limits to what counts, and those limits are what interest me. How do people negotiate their identities within a canonic tradition? How far is too far before the community reacts, or rejects?
Social construction helps explain why the meaning and embodiment of various religious identities change over time. So my focus is on the ways that modern technological evolutions have altered the landscape of possibilities for Mormon identity expression (like JI!). My dissertation will highlight the discourse strategies used by various communities to—essentially—construct community boundaries, establish new norms for belonging, and police membership.
I have always been interested in religion. I was a member of a fundamentalist Christian church until my sophomore year in college, and after I left, I wanted to learn more about religious identity (I’ve heard it said that therapy is a cheaper alternative to graduate school, but apparently I got the memo too late). As a member of that church, I had faithfully followed its behavioral edicts including, but decidedly not limited to, wearing ankle-length skirts, long hair, no jewelry, and no makeup—details I share to make the point that I was a visible religious minority, and had years’ experience of what it’s like to be judged and discriminated against for that identity. When I began graduate school I planned to study media representations of religious practitioners, convinced that the media hold much of the blame for society’s intolerance of religious difference (I’m still pretty convinced of that). This was back when FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs’ Texas compound, Yearning for Zion Ranch, was being raided on allegations of child sexual abuse in 2008, and I wanted to think about how people like the fundamentalists are represented and explained by secular media sources.
As I studied communication and cultural studies, I decided my real interest is in how religious folk represent and explain themselves: how they push back against popular representations, against even the scripts provided by their religious organizations, to craft a meaningful identity. Above all else, I wanted to know how they make sense of it and explain it to themselves and to others; what narrative strategies they use to explain, for instance, religious doctrines that they find confusing or even distasteful.
My husband was brought up in a Mormon household, but chose to stop attending in college. We met almost fifteen years later. Much of his family was still active in the Church, and someone in his family (I assume) updates the missionaries on his address each time it changes, so that the early days of our marriage—in our first apartment, then a home, before and after the birth of our first child—were characterized by the occasional knock on the door by white-shirted teenagers asking for my husband by name. He didn’t consider himself LDS and didn’t want to entertain the missionaries, but I was a little intrigued by the whole idea of these young “Elders”, and continually invited them back. I baked them pumpkin bread, invited them to dinner. I did some of the lessons in Tulsa, then when we moved to Philadelphia for graduate school, we got a whole new pair (this time a wonderful retired couple from Provo) and I did the entire series of lessons with them. They brought along young married couples from the local ward, who invited us into their homes for meals and also to various ward events (women’s general conference, a Christmas party and chili bake off). Additionally, my in-laws purchased subscriptions to LDS magazines for my family (including my toddler daughter), so the flow of LDS information was virtually nonstop at this time. This was also when I was getting my feet wet in cultural studies, so my choice to eventually focus on Mormon identity seemed natural… to me.
But here’s where the frustration comes from.
I’ve been surprised by the demand for justification for my interest in Mormonism. Obviously members of the Church have been socialized to expect persecution and many have experienced it firsthand. They often want to know whether I’m sympathetic or antagonistic so they can judge my work accordingly and/or chose whether to take part as participants (fair enough). Not infrequently, because I am genuinely not antagonistic toward the Church, I get the sense that my interest in the Church is interpreted by the faithful as a reflection of a seed planted about the Gospel. My academic study becomes an “investigation” of another sort. These believers then do their darnedest to win me over, which means the data I collect is exceptionally rose-colored and reflects the very best things about Mormonism and shades over the rougher parts.
Still, the demands for justification aren’t just from faithful Mormons. Some of my research deals with former (ex-) Mormons, and they too want to know why I study Mormonism. They assume that I approach the Church as a critic, and this too shades the data I’m able to collect. Even my colleagues—Jewish, secular, agnostic, you-name-it, find it interesting and slightly odd that I’d study Mormonism without a dog in the fight, so to speak.
A couple of months ago on my blog, I very briefly pondered the reasons why people question outsiders studying Mormonism in different ways than, say, my advisor who studies Hinduism, or another mentor who studies black Hebrews (http://www.rosemaryavance.com/inside-outsider-studying-the-religion-of-others/). I’ve mostly resigned myself to what’s become a fact of life for me, but wonder if JI readers have suggestions for how to represent my own work in ways that might improve the quality of my data. Like everything else, I’m convinced it all comes down to representation.