Is There a Method to the Madness?

By May 1, 2008

I just thank everyone for their comments to my last post about the place of theory in the study of history and its implications for the study of the Mormon past. This post will focus on historical methodology and its implications in the study of Mormon history. Questions about historical methodology and Mormonism are what inspired my recent rhapsodies on process of historical inquiry. I was skimming through Prince’s provocative biography of David O. McKay, which I liked very much in many ways, but I was appalled at the way he described his methodology. I know he is not a trained historian, and I don’t believe that he was being disingenuous–he really believes that he was describing his writing process correctly. Nevertheless, I found the following statements extremely troublesome as a historian:

With no training in either historiography or biography, I chose to follow my instincts and use the only tools at my disposal, those of scientific methodology. I believe that this is a valid approach for nonfiction writing, be it science or biography, depending on the author’s ability to gather and analyze data. [1]

While I can heartily commend the biography as a fascinating read, I completely disagree with Prince’s characterization of how he put it together. His description of the deductive research process surely counts as a valid historical method, but to portray it as scientific; and thus, unbiased and unassailable is just irresponsible from the perspective of a trained historian. He also claimed that “given the wealth of data, they [the authors] were able to stand behind the biography, not in front of it.” [2] In my view, more evidence means more interpretive choices for the historians and not less. In my mind, standing in front or behind a particular work is more of a rhetorical than an evidential choice. Once again, I would like to reiterate that I am not criticizing the accuracy of the biography or making a judgment about its quality, I am criticizing Prince’s portrayal of his method because I think that it foregrounds one of the largest mistakes that some academic historians and most non-historians make when they don’t understand the role of methodology in the creation of historical writing.

Before continuing, I would like to offer a very basic definition of what methodology is. First, the word methodology has come to mean something very different to historians, and other academics, than its etymological roots might suggest. The term methodology does not simply refer to the study of method, but instead it can be defined as the intellectual lens and process that the historian utilizes to create an analysis from raw evidence. Thus, methodologies are the path between historical sources and history. The difference between methodology and theory lies in their portability. Methodologies are extremely source driven, while theories tend to claim more universal applicability. Methodologies often represent the ways in which historians apply theory to actual historical circumstances.

Historians utilize their methodologies to solve the complex problem of truth in their sources. Historical sources never unearth the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. As an example, let’s think about journals and the potential problems that they present as historical sources. First, journals rely on short term memory and generally convey an event in the way that a historical actor wanted to remember it. Journal entries are subject to the mood that the writer was in when writing and hold the potential for deliberate falsifications. For example, writers sometimes omit certain events from their journals that they find embarrassing and can stretch or exaggerate other moments to make themselves look good. Journals only tell the story of an event from the perspective of the journal writer and are often not written by representative persons–they are the work of literate, thoughtful people. Thus, when utilizing a journal as historical source you are limited by that source’s scope, depth, and accuracy.

Part of a historian’s methodology involves envisioning the way in which to deal with the potential difficulties in a particular source. This can be done by verifying a particular account by cross checking its information with another source or by demonstrating that particular source’s authenticity by establishing the credibility of the sources’ author. Historians might also choose to trust a particular source while acknowledging the sources human production and foibles. They might also try to read a particular source utilizing literary theory-reading it either for meta-narrative or focusing on its intentional omissions.

Methodologies not only account for sources’ human production, but also account for the ways in which historians organize their arguments and the aspects of the story upon which they focus. Methodologies can arrange evidence chronologically, and show change over time, or thematically, and demonstrate the importance of different historical forces over time. Some methodologies track the genealogies of ideas while other focus on certain classes or groups of people. It is through our methods, that we historians present our skills and training.

Although complex and intricate methodologies abound throughout historical world, it is important to remember that these methodologies represent choices made by historians. It was for this reason, that I was so annoyed by Prince’s description. Although he brings massive amounts of evidence to bear in his interpretation of the McKay years, his assertion of scientific methodology serves to obscure the thousands of important choices he made in putting the biography together. For example, he chose to let his interviewees speak for themselves and take the notes of Claire Middlemiss as fairly literal depictions of what occurred in the McKay Presidency. My purpose is not to claim inaccuracy; I just want to bring to light the choices inherent in creating any work of history.

I think Prince’s methodological mischaracterization offers another window into one of the most prevalent problems that I see among many Mormons and their relationship with academic history. Many Mormons, as well as people in general, still think of history as a science. Thus, any historical conclusions that they feel is inimical to the Church’s claims to truth must either be refuted, thus the apologists, or ignored, standard procedure for devotional history.

Please let me indulge in a short aside about devotional history and its methodologies. Devotional historians look for and draw conclusions from moments when members and leaders have claimed Godly intervention in their lives and in the workings of the church. Their methodology usually consists of chronologically stringing together the accounts taken from the sources uncritically and creating a portrait that sheds the best light on the history of the church. Recently, these histories have often included apologetic discussions to answer questions posed by the Church’s critics. Because such histories take interactions between men and God as “Truth,” they have no methodological mechanism for accounting for incongruities within sources. Devotional histories also have the added purpose of building faith. Personally, I think this type of history has a place in the church which I will elaborate in my next post, but I think it should never claim to be the product of critical methodologies-coequal with academic history.

Historians that utilize critical methodologies will always find something different from those that practice devotional history because they are bringing different methodological tools to bear in their study of the past. Frankly, I don’t think the church, as long as it’s true and I believe that it is, has anything to worry about from academic historians precisely because they cannot claim to discover anything close to scientific truth-which, by the way, has fallen under much criticism as well in recent years by historians of science. Academic historians will examine the Mormon past from a variety of perspectives while employing many different methodologies-creating dialogue and debate. This is the way the historical discipline works. The hope is that over time and through debate the truth will emerge-or at least a good approximation of what happened. Nevertheless, barring an unanticipated turn toward methodologies that take the metaphysical seriously, historians can never know what really happened in the Sacred Grove; thus, some sacred narratives will always be safe.

[1] Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), xv.

[2] Ibid., xvii.


  1. Interesting points about Prince.

    One only has to look at Krakauer, Bagley, Quinn, and Bushman to realize that there are many angles to take Mormon history which are perceived in various corners to be academic.

    In other corners they are called bad history. So yes I would agree that History was always an Art and rarely a science. Because the interpretation is usually covered in its own bias.

    Comment by JonW — May 1, 2008 @ 10:10 am

  2. So, as one of those guys with a background in the sciences (Ph.D. Chemistry) that also writes history, I probably should way in. I also remember reading Prince’s intro and it resonating with me, mostly because so much of Mormon history, whether published for devotional purposes or by academics has been crap. The primal desire for the scientist is to gather data and analyze that. I think what Prince meant to say was that “we gathered tons of data and analyzed it (i.e., btw, we didn’t just make this stuff up).”

    Science is all about methodology and I don’t know of any scientist that would say that they are producing what you call “scientific truth.” Now, your criticism of Prince’s characterizations of his methodology are perhaps otherwise fair.

    All that said, and especially in the fields I have been working in (notably women’s history) most of the methodologies have been in need of a big old shot of science. It is hard for me to read a lot of the crap that has been produced. Data matters.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 1, 2008 @ 11:40 am

  3. Joel, How would you characterize and respond to Bushman’s RSR?

    Stapley, what do you mean when you say that “most of the methodologies have been in need of a big old shot of science”? How do historians ignore data?

    I think, as Joel pointed out, that it’s been (fruitfully) working the other way round: science has needed to be disabused of its truth-claims by humanities-type methodologies that posit the hermeneutical move as the only one in which humans make sense of their world. We’ve already gone the way of trying to infuse “scientific” methodologies into the study of history, in the first half of the 20th century, when positivism and determinism reigned and historians sought to describe laws that governed history and human behavior. I don’t think most modern historians want to revisit that catastrophe.

    Comment by jupiterschild — May 1, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

  4. How do historians ignore data?

    Easily, by either not knowing about it or by just ignoring it.

    While the data of history are not reproducible, analyses are. And data accumulation is essentialy quantifiable (though most historical data itself is not).

    Still, I’m a bit surprised that you would claim that the fruits of modern science are based on humanities-type methodologies. Mystified even. Science, in its purest incarnation is about very simple methodologies. The fruits of science (theory in some outputs) are evolving as more and better data becomes available and analyses are executed. I’m not sure how the foundations of Science can be responsible for crappy history.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 1, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

  5. Joel, thank you for this excellent write up on methodology and how devotional history and academic history differ. I just tuned in to the blog for the first time today and all day I’ve been pondering these issues as I’ve been preparing a review of the S. Michael Tracy book on the Scannel daguerreotype.

    You’re observation about devotional historians that “Their methodology usually consists of chronologically stringing together the accounts taken from the sources uncritically…” is spot on as I will attempt to demonstrate.

    Comment by Jared T — May 1, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

  6. […] Review: Shall Millions Now Know Brother Joseph Again? (Part 1): Press Release: The MuchJared T: Is There a MethodJ. Stapley: Is There a Methodjupiterschild: Is There a MethodJ. Stapley: Is There a MethodJonW: Is […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Book Review: Shall Millions Now Know Brother Joseph Again? (Part 2) — May 2, 2008 @ 12:50 am

  7. jupiterschild: Science’s need of a dose of hermeneutic humility from the humanities depends on what sort of “scientific” discourse one is talking about. When English majors, historians, and critical theorists try to deconstruct substantive scientific conclusions or methodology, they generally make either silly or pernicious claims. This is not to say that one can’t criticize the substance or scientific claims or think about the assumptions of scientific methodology, and this can even be done well by non-scientists. (I am thinking here of philosophers of science like Popper or Kuhn.)

    On the other hand, when scientists start making metaphysical, ethical, or aesthetic judgments and then claiming that they are vindicated by science, they often start making rather niave assumptions and frequently say silly and stupid things.

    Joel: Two points. First, for what it is worth I think that the best way of thinking about historical writing is as contrained story telling. Historians tell a story about past events. In this sense they are creators of narrative like novelists, and their narratives contain all sorts of value choices and rhetorical devices, etc. etc. Unlike novelists, however, their sources place constraints on what they can say. Methodological debates are debates about the sorts of contraints created by the sources. (Except when methodological starts meaning something like a debate about explanatory theories, etc. at which point it seems to me that historians are doing something much more similar to what social scientists do.)

    Second, I think that your methodological characterization of devotional history is mistaken. As a descriptive matter, I agree with you that most devotional history is fairly shoddy stuff methodologically. On the other hand, if devotional history is simply history that seeks to find the interaction of God and man in history, then there is no a priori reason that it needs to take the niave approach to sources that you claim is the sine non qua of devotional history. I also think that a lot of what people think of as apologetic or faith promoting history, is actually a search for what is NORMATIVE in history. They are looking to history not to increase faith but to figure out what bits of it have an authoritative claim on them and what bits do not. (I lay my reasoning out in greater depth in my Element paper “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine”).

    Comment by Nate Oman — May 2, 2008 @ 6:32 am

  8. J. Stapley,

    I don’t find myself qualified to critique the nature of scientific truth from the perspective of scientific experimentation or discovery. What I can say is that the process of scientific inquiry has often been motivated by outside factors, e.i. the atomic bomb was developed when it was because the exigencies of war made the United States dedicate resources for its development. This isn’t to say that scientific truth doesn’t exist, it just means that its discovery is often influenced by social, economic, and political conditions.

    As far as data and historical interpretation. Like Nate has said, history is the art of story-telling to which I agree. These stories are created through methodological interpretations of evidence. The problem with historical discovery is that there is no way to get at the raw data. The historian cannot go back to a particular moment in history to observe what happened. Thus, he must interpret the interpretations made by human observers made at or near the time a historical event occurred. There are only three types of historical data that can be quantified with great regularity: time, place, and persons involved. Even these three basic characteristics are contingent on the memories of those who recorded those basic facts. All other historical interpretation requires the acceptance or rejection, i.e. historical interpretation, of the human interpretations made of events near the time that they occurred. The scientific approach to history requires that we believe or refute the producers of data too much for my own comfort.


    My reaction to Rough Stone Rolling is that Bushman was experimenting with new methodologies. He felt it important to let Smith and his faithful followers speak for themselves, while at the same time introducing readers to the historiographical Joseph as well. I think Bushman’s greatest accomplishment is his portrayal of Smith as man of sincerity, someone who truly believed the things that he was saying. He shows how Joseph Smith himself answered some of his present-day critics. Yet Bushman’s careful dedication to these two goals, presenting the historiographic and sincere Joseph in the same narrative, often feels too safe to me. I wish that he would have been more comfortable solving the historical problems he presents with such detail, though this would have led to a much more controversial book.


    After reading your paper, I agree with your argument that the search for Mormon doctrine requires an almost juridical examination of precedent–though I think that most of those trying to identify Normative doctrine would argue that the spirit provides its own sense of legitimacy in the past and present. Your humanistic argument doesn’t leave any space for the epistemological state of inspiration.

    As for your conclusions about the production of Mormon history, I agree that some practitioners of Mormon history do so in order to maintain the status quo of the church. For others, this is probably an unconscious side effect. Nevertheless, I would argue that the intention of most authors of devotional history is to build faith. Those who practice apologetics seek to maintain faith. There might be a variety of meta-projects underlying these conscious intentions, but I think the intended purposes are the underlying factors for devotional histories’ methodological choices. I agree with you that such naive approaches really aren’t necessary for this purpose, but I believe they probably would see their efforts in the same narrative tradition as the scriptures.

    Comment by Joel — May 2, 2008 @ 8:04 am

  9. I agree Nate.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 2, 2008 @ 9:27 am

  10. I agree with J. ;->

    Joel: I agree with you that my reading of Church Doctrine is humanistic, in the sense that I understand Church Doctrine to be a matter of social fact and normative judgment. This doesn’t mean that I deny the epistemological status of revelation — far from it — but it does mean that I reject that revelation is an organon for the discovery of church doctrine. Indeed, as a matter of social practice we use an essentially pre-revelatory notion Church Doctrine as a standard for personal revelation. This is why few contemporary Latter-day Saints would take seriously, for example, a personal revelation to become a polygamist. This doesn’t mean that they deny the reality of revelation, but it does mean that they understand revelation as operating within a contrained sphere whose boundaries are discovered independent of revelatory experience. (This needn’t imply a revelatory basis for one’s substantive allegiance to church doctrine; it just denies a revelatory basis for answering the formal question of what is church doctrine.)

    Comment by Nate Oman — May 2, 2008 @ 10:25 am

  11. History has a history as a science, though most historians have forgotten that these days. And it did not end in the first half of the twentieth century. History and the social sciences were quite friendly from the 1950s through the 1970s or so. This relationship began to unravel when the cliometric historians fell out of favor with their grandiose claims about quantitative methods. Postmodernism did a lot also to squarely align history with the humanities. For a rare contemporary view of history as a science see The Landscape of History by John Lewis Gaddis. The other way that scientific history is making a comeback is through digital history. It will be something when the Center for History and New Media releases its software for text mining.

    It seems to me that scale is one the keys to solving the puzzle of whether history is an art or a science. I think scientific methods naturally lent themselves to the Annales School when its practitioners wrote history on a grand scale. Since then, historians have become much more narrow and specialized in their historical pursuits. I think historians these days have become less accustomed to analyzing the overarching structures in which the events they write about take place. Maybe if their was more emphasis on overarching synthesis in historical writing we would see greater attention to the forces and structures that scientific history tried to explain. Or maybe the explication of patterns and generalizations was the linchpin that originally held together scientific history–the ability to move from observation to hypothesis and then from testing evidence for patterns to generalizing about the past. For contemporary historians, specialization has apparently become the antithesis of or antidote to generalization.

    I suspect Bushman was influenced by scientific history in the 1950s and 1960s. His 1969 essay “Faithful History” seems to contain elements of it. I wonder if his essay was trying to bridge the tension between scientific history and providential history–whether science explained the workings of the natural world or the hand of God was the engine of history. This may well be one of the main contradictions of modernity. As long as Mormon apologists can accuse secular historians of being too scientific with their naturalistic explanations, and academic historians can ridicule faithful historians for masquerading as scientists who talk about the forces or laws of providential history, I am not sure how we will work ourselves out of this dilemma.

    Comment by Sterling — May 2, 2008 @ 11:16 am

  12. J. Stapley, I don’t think that ignoring data is a problem confined to history and the humanities. All inquiry involves choice of what to include and what to ignore. And I didn’t say that the fruits of modern science are based on methodologies developed in the humanities. What I was saying (apparently not clearly enough) was that philosophers (Schleiermacher, Heidegger, Dilthey, Gadamer) have reexamined the claims scientific inquiry makes to knowledge and truth, and have argued that scientific inquiry is a hermeneutical move like any other: an effort to make sense of the world when confronted with some unexplained datum. That is *not* to say that the methodologies are equivalent (they really can’t be given the nature of the data, in my opinion). I agree with Nate on the point that Humanities types are not equipped to debunk particular conclusions or methodologies of science, and I think it clearly works the other way round. (Stapley, can you say more about how historians are deficient in their methods? I’m still not sure I understand what you’re advocating and how you would advise historians to proceed differently.)

    The historian cannot go back to a particular moment in history to observe what happened. Thus, he must interpret the interpretations made by human observers made at or near the time a historical event occurred.

    Joel, this is true to an extent, but I hear hints of the assumption that observation is itself not an interpretation, that observation would be more like scientific inquiry. Even were we to observe events at first hand (as anthropologists do) and describe them, this would not be an unmediated window on reality. (Not saying this is what you mean, but that your point raises this issue.)

    Comment by jupiterschild — May 2, 2008 @ 11:28 am

  13. Nate,

    I probably misspoke when I said that your ideas didn’t leave space for revelation–I stand corrected. I’m sure the tone of the paper was geared toward a journal article which explains the overtly humanistic tone. I’d imagine most journals wouldn’t be interested in the meta-physical aspects of the process. I still don’t think your model explains devotional history in its totality because it doesn’t address the full range of authorial intent–though I would love to hear more of your ideas on the subject. How would your ideas play out at the methodological level? I think my conception of methodology sees historians as a much more active force in the creation of evidential constraints than you seem to be implying in your first comment. Many of historians’ most important choices about narrative and story play out in the ways they decide to evaluate and then use evidence. The historian plays an integral role at every step of the process. Maybe I’m just misunderstanding you and we are really trying to say the same thing?

    Comment by Joel — May 2, 2008 @ 11:37 am

  14. I don’t think it is a problem confined to history or the humanities either. There is plenty of crappy science. My comments were not to be an indictment of all history, there is loads of great history out there. Mormon women’s history, however, is not an area with loads, unfortunately.

    I’m simply advocating for a more robust collection of data, analyses that consider the data, and less making stuff up.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 2, 2008 @ 11:44 am

  15. Sterling,

    I think the reason why historians have left the Grand narrative is because it omitted so much. The problem with hypotheses and testing in history is that there can never be a control group. All historical subjects are biased by their specific historical circumstances. Although text mining has and will have a profound effect on the historical field, I think that words will probably prove as complicated as statistical data was for the cliometricians.


    I was trying to say exactly what you said, though not particularly well, in the statement you looked at. I was simply saying that while an observer’s testimony is the product of one interpretation, the historians treatment of that observation is an interpretation of an interpretation.

    Comment by Joel — May 2, 2008 @ 11:50 am

  16. I wrote: ” (This needn?t imply a revelatory basis for one?s substantive allegiance to church doctrine; it just denies a revelatory basis for answering the formal question of what is church doctrine.)”

    I mispoke here. What I meant to say was that my theory needn’t imply THE REJECTION OF a revelatory basis for one’s substantive allegiance to church doctrine; it just denies a revelatory basis for answer the formal question of what is church doctrine. Put more simply, one might believe that church doctrine is authoritative on the basis of personal revelation, but — in theory at least — I think that someone without such a revelation could still discover church doctrine. (On the other hand, without a thorough socialization in Mormonism our unbeliever is unlikely to be able to discover church doctrine well, just as an untrained layman will have a hard time grasping the contours of common law rules.)

    Comment by Nate Oman — May 2, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

  17. Joel,

    Historians may have left the Grand Narrative, but the gatekeepers of historical significance still police our historical narratives. Just look at the uniformity in what U.S. history textbooks include or exclude.

    Historians do not need control groups because they avoid the deadly sin of social science: looking for the independent variable. Historians instead work with (and often rank) multiple causes when explaining how and why events happened. Testing and hypotheses work in history as historians control for things like the bias of their sources.

    I think text mining will prove way more complicated than cliometrics. Dan Cohen is probably right that almost all historians will feel threatened by this new technology.

    Comment by Sterling — May 2, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

  18. Nate,

    I think I understand how your model outlines the process of identifying doctrine, and I think that there is much benefit for thinking about the process in a legal sense.


    You are right about textbooks and the gatekeepers of inclusion–though I would argue that a college survey textbook varies significantly today from one from twenty years ago. Textbooks change slowly, but they change. What hasn’t changed is the glut of popular history on the market that tells the same stories about great men and women.

    I don’t know how historians can control for their own biases let alone the biases of their sources. We do the best we can, but we generally identify and rank causes based on our own conceptions of what causes history or our sources conceptions of what was important. Even the process of choosing our projects is a demonstration of our biases of what kinds of things are important.

    Finally, we’ll have to wait and see about the effects of text mining. I think it will change the historical discipline for the better; I just don’t think it will be the omniscient answer for creating scientific history.

    Comment by Joel — May 2, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  19. I?m not sure how the foundations of Science can be responsible for crappy history.

    The historical profession went through interesting developments around the turn of the century and through the World Wars. I suggest a reading of Novick’s That Noble Dream, wherein a good case is made for the influence of science on history.

    Comment by BHodges — May 2, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

  20. (*Most notably history written during that period, I ought to say.)

    Comment by BHodges — May 2, 2008 @ 4:40 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on News from the Mormon: “Congrats to Chris Blythe!”

David G. on Book Review: Colvin and: “Thanks, Charlotte!”

J Stuart on Book Review: Colvin and: “Can't wait to read the rest of the review in JMH. Thanks, Charlotte!”

Ben S on MHA 2020 Networking Materials: “Thanks for this.”

Th. on Book Review: Jake Johnson,: “. Just commenting on your first paragraph: Egad.”

Steve Fleming on A note on the: “No but haven't really looked.”