Before I start this post, I just want to apologize to all my fellow JIers for my unproductive participation in the blog as of late. Because my primary area of research falls outside of the Mormon History paradigm, I often have to wait for the spirit to move me towards some sort of meaningful post. I still want to put together some concluding thoughts on Mormonism and ethnicity one of these days, but it seems like my dissertation research has kept me pretty busy the last little while. I am hoping to attend at least some of the Mormon History Conference in May since Springfield is quite close to Champaign. Several posts on the Bloggernacle of late (not particularly on JI but as a blog devoted to Mormon history I think this is a good forum for addressing the issue) have made me think about the reality and role of bias in the production of historical scholarship.
Projects of revisionism and re-revisionism have always depended on the revelation and identification of bias within previous scholarly endeavors. Historians try to demonstrate how ideological and methodological blinders have caused previous historians to misread, misrepresent, or even leave out important historical details in order to create space for their own particular projects and interpretations. The study of how historical interpretations change over time and the reasons why such changes occur is called historiography.
Although understanding and engaging historiographical debates is central to the study of history, for those outside the discipline, accusations of bias often are taken as excuses for disavowal. Such overly-simplistic dismissals of scholarship are grounded in a world-view that identifies bias as a spoiler of truth, especially when framed within a world devoted to the idea of objective, scientific discovery. Like it or not, the study of Mormon history has gone mainstream, but its popular manifestations often lack the nuance of deeper, more respectful scholarship. When historians identify scholarly biases, they usually do so not to discredit former scholars, but instead to augment or correct some of their conclusions. We can never look at every relevant document from a particular time period or event. Even if we examine everything we can find, events never occur within vacuums and we must rely on the scholarship of others to place our narratives into proper historical context.
Rough Stone Rolling provides a great illustration of how history works. Bushman’s magnum opus has been proclaimed as the most comprehensive biography ever written about the prophet. He spent years looking at almost every shred of paper that had something to do with the prophet’s life. Nevertheless, if you look at his notes you will find that he relied on Michael Quinn at times when talking about the culture of magic in which Smith grew up. He followed Todd Compton in discussing Joseph’s plural wives. He even follows Fawn Brodie in some of his interpretations, while at the same time superseding many of her other conclusions. Historical scholarship is an inherently collaborative project, and good historians know that even as we criticize and revise other historians’ conclusions that we also stand on their shoulders. 
I am trying to make two points. First, I want non-specialists to begin to understand the importance of nuance, criticism, and collaboration within the study of history. I also want to caution historians to think hard about the way that we dismiss other historians’ work and interpretations in historical forums. We need to choose words and arguments that help others understand the discipline’s complexity.
I think that one way to do this is to talk about investment instead of bias as we evaluate other historians’ work. As professionals, historians literally found their careers on particular interpretations of particular events. By spending years developing a dissertation, we have invested time, money, and sweat in creating our own little niche in the scholarly world. We expand this niche every time we publish something new. What we sometimes don’t realize is that when it comes to Mormon history, people are invested for a variety of reasons. Members are invested in a particular narrative of Mormon history that gives their membership meaning, stability, and value. Many have invested their entire lives in a church based on their belief that a fourteen year old boy saw God and Jesus Christ. While this definitely biases the way that they perceive and understand the past, it does not give others the right to completely discredit this narrative either. Just because members are heavily invested in a particular take on history does not mean that that this history is completely wrong. The same goes for all those that have undertaken the study of Mormon history. New Mormon Historians became invested in Mormon history as a scholarly endeavor. Many of them built their academic reputations around the analytical discussion of Mormonism as a social and historical force. Others are invested in disproving the story of Joseph Smith. I really like the concept of investment because it fully humanizes even those with whom we disagree. When we dismiss someone as biased, especially in a public setting, others often perceive it as an attack or complete repudiation. They often respond in kind. I think it is important for us as historians to understand the humanity invested within the stories we tell. We must repudiate scholarly violence. 
 Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 573, 575, 624-625.
 Some of my thinking is inspired by Jane Tompkins, “Fighting Words: Unlearning to Write the Critical Essay,” Georgia Review 42, no. 3 (1988): 585-90.