Guest Post—Thoughts on inclusivity in Mormon studies

05.28.2017 | Guest

The Mormon Studies Review and Maxwell Institute are pleased to announce the release of a new Study of Mormon Studies Bibliography (SOMS). All sources in the bibliography have the purpose, nature, value, or future of Mormon studies as a primary theme. The initial compilation, created by Heather J. Stone at the University of Utah, contains 155 searchable records organized by format, decade, online availability, publication type, author, title, and other identifiers. The bibliography attempts to include all works about Mormon historiography created during the “New Mormon History” period (around the 1960s), as well as digital and print works from recent decades to the present. You are invited to test drive the new SOMS Bibliography at this here and to suggest additional sources or corrections. During her compilation of the bibliography, Stone developed the following reflections.

Heather J. Stone

Over the last decade, Mormonism historiography has been much preoccupied with what to call itself. In a 2009 roundtable discussion, scholars proposed “New-New Mormon History,” “A Newer Mormon History,” “Mormon Cultural Studies,” “Post New Mormon History,” “Global Mormon History,” “Mormon studies,” and my personal favorite: “we who do work on Mormon topics.” ((Journal of Mormon History 35, no. 3 (Summer 2009), 190-233. The name suggestions are scattered throughout. The quote is from page 222.)) The scramble for nomenclature reflects a struggle for identity as some begin to see good old-fashioned “New Mormon History” as being homogeneous, localized, even somewhat bland. By 2017, the “Mormon studies” moniker seems to have acquired most of the mindshare. The MHA 50th Anniversary issue of the Journal of Mormon History standardized on the phrase, while the emergence of Mormon Studies Review and new Mormon studies academic chair positions suggest Mormon-related scholarship may now be settling into definable disciplinary boundaries. Well-within those boundaries lives the notion of inclusivity. We’ve heard numerous calls to broaden the acceptable range of topics, methods, sources, time periods, and geographies included in Mormon studies. The Mormon History Association—despite its niche name—explicitly “welcome[s] all who are interested in the Mormon past, irrespective of religious affiliation, academic training, or world location.” ((Mormon History Association, “About Us,” http://mormonhistoryassociation.org/about/ (accessed May 19, 2017).)) Our manifestos proclaim we are expansive and diverse—or at least that we want to be. However, my close reading of the 155 sources in the new Study of Mormon Studies Bibliography (SOMS) suggests we may not be as inclusive as we profess to be when it comes to researcher identity. For instance, we still seem to straddle an insider/outsider divide in much of our historiographic writing about what constitutes “good” Mormonism research. Claiming that people are welcome irrespective of religious affiliation, academic training, or world location is not the same as saying faith, institution, and geography are unnoticed or not considered. If such classifications were truly irrelevant, our discourse wouldn’t mention them. We never say that people with all size of noses or no nose at all are welcome to study Mormonism. As a group, we obviously don’t think nasal capacity is relevant to scholarship, and we are happy to read research findings from people with all possible sinus configurations. Like the title New Mormon History, Mormon studies uses categories to describe and classify scholars. Unlike New Mormon History, Mormon studies formally adopts a position that people in each category are to be treated equally. But this move is not the same as Mormon studies dissolving categories; rather, it seems to be an example of using insider power to assure those on the outside that they are important too. In Mormon studies, our discussions about who we are and the nature of our work sometimes reinforce barriers rather than tearing them down. Is it inclusive or exclusive when scholars of Mormon studies weave references to their own distinct religious affiliations into their writing? When we label ourselves in faith-based ways, do we reinforce the importance of religion as a classifier? Do we equalize the social landscape more by rejecting the labels we call each other or by using those labels to address the party invitations in order to make sure no one is left out? I see no obvious answer to these questions. Like many historians, W. Paul Reeve foregrounds the “impossibility of objectivity” and claims that bias, so long as we acknowledge it, can enrich and enhance our research. ((W. Paul Reeve, “Post New Mormon History: A Manifesto,” Journal of Mormon History 35, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 224.)) But why does acknowledging bias in Mormon studies so often mean answering the binary of Mormon membership, as if membership alone is enough to tell readers what they need to know? My work on the Study of Mormon Studies Bibliography (SOMS) suggests that we risk performing exclusion in the study of our own discipline even as we encourage inclusion in the study of Mormonism.