Socially Constructed Mormonism

shifting bordersThis is the second post (see first post) discussing ideas presented in the recently published memoir of retired LDS sociologist Armand Mauss, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic (Univ. of Utah Press, 2012; publisher’s page). After taking five years away from his graduate work to serve as a counselor in a bishopric, Mauss returned to his studies in 1962 at UC Berkeley, where he quickly encountered a serious challenge to his faith.

Here is how he recounts it:

I was, of course, expecting to be exposed to new intellectual territory, especially since I was switching my disciplinary focus from history to sociology for the doctorate. … As my intellectual development continued, the sociological concept that truth or reality is socially constructed turned out to offer a greater challenge to my religious faith than anything else I was to encounter in my entire academic career. I gradually came to terms with that challenge, however, and eventually became quite comfortable with the “social constructionist” way of understanding reality. (p. 47; emphasis in original)

Mauss cited Peter Berger’s 1967 book The Social Construction of Reality as well as Berger’s 1968 book The Sacred Canopy as direct influences. Mauss described a contrast between an objective reality “existing independently of human invention, of the kind claimed in religions like Catholicism or Mormonism” and a sense of the world “which has been constructed by our families and passed along to us as part of our cultural heritage” (p. 48). How did he resolve this challenge to the traditional approach to religious belief?

Where religion was concerned, at least in my case, it became increasingly obvious that if I were to continue as an active believer in the LDS faith, it would be mainly a matter of choosing to embrace a certain construction of reality, not the result of a meticulous process of testing and proving incontrovertible claims about the supernatural. (p. 48; emphasis in original)

This sort of episode — encountering a doctrinal or historical or philosophical challenge to the Mormonism you received from parents, teachers, and the CES — seems particularly relevant in the Internet era, where such encounters are no longer limited to graduate students or academics but extend to a good portion of the general membership. The particular circumstances of Mauss’s experience (it was a slow and gradual encounter; he had served a mission and then five years in a bishopric prior to the experience; his commitment to Mormonism was deep and sincere) probably helped him work through this challenge more successfully than others. But in 2013, with Google at our fingertips, such encounters happen quickly and they happen earlier. Anyone pushed into the risky transition toward a more sophisticated approach to faith and belief should know that it simply takes some time to get there.

This idea or model — that our view of the world and how it works, including religious belief, is largely socially constructed — was not simply a personal view. It became the model that Mauss used to understand the various LDS beliefs and doctrines related to race and lineage that he finally published in 1994 as All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage. Mauss explains how he gradually came to apply the model to LDS racial doctrines:

[A]s I began my research into early offical and quasi-official Mormon literature, it became obvious that a preoccupation with the divine plan for several lineages was indeed a theme that recurred with increasing frequency in that literature from the mid-1830s onward. Indeed, this preoccupation included, as part of that larger context, an increasing glorification of the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic peoples as modern descendants of the ancient Israelite tribe of Ephraim. This retroactive construction of the Mormons themselves as a chosen lineage or “race” was the focus of my MHA presidential address in 1998. My research in LDS literature over time also revealed the changing construction by church leaders of the meaning and significance of the “Lamanite” lineage. Gradually, I was able to formulate a comprehensive and unifying theme through which to interpret the part played in Mormon history more generally by the social construction of identity around lineage and the changes in such constructions as an important dynamic in Mormon history. (p. 110-11; emphasis in original)

Interestingly, Peter Berger himself has distanced himself from the constructivist paradigm that his earlier book gave rise to, most recently expressed in In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic (HarperOne, 2009). With co-author Anton Zijderveld, he writes:

In the social sciences, the term “constructivism” has gained currency as denoting a postmodern approach. There are no objective facts, only interest-driven “constructions.” The term, in all probability, was originally meant to allude to the book The Social Construction of Reality, by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966). … Perhaps the word “construction” in the Berger/Luckmann volume was unfortunate, as it suggests a creation ex nihilo — as if one said, “There is nothing here but our constructions.” But this was not the authors’ intention; they were far too much influenced by Durkheim to subscribe to such a view. What they proposed was that all reality is subject to socially derived interpretations. What much of postmodern theory proposes is that all interpretations are equally valid — which, of course, would spell the end of any scientific approach to human history and society. And some postmodern theorists have maintained that nothing exists except or outside these interpretations — which comes close to the clinical definition of schizophrenia, a condition in which one is unable to distinguish reality from one’s fantasies. Put simply, there is a world of difference between postmodernism and any sociology of knowledge that understands itself as an empirical science. (p. 66-67)

I provide that quotation only to show that the social constructivist model remains complex and controversial, not as a rejoinder to the account given by Mauss. Plainly, a good chunk of our view of the world is socially constructed. It’s just a question of whether that socially constructed chunk comprises some of our view, most of our view, or all of our view. As Mauss recounts his own experience with the theory, what started as a challenge to his view of Mormonism became a tool for better understanding Mormon doctrinal history (as illustrated in All Abraham’s Children) and also a tool for minimizing the distress caused by unwelcome cultural aspects of Mormonism. It might be a handy concept to put in your religious toolkit.

6 comments for “Socially Constructed Mormonism

  1. Nice post, Dave. Something else that makes Mauss’s encounter with challenging ideas different is that it was sustained and serious. Not only was he prepared for it, he was in the business of grappling with ideas. In 2013, with Google at our fingertips, encounters with challenging ideas can easily be brief and superficial.

  2. Yes, thanks for the post!

    “A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
    There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.”

  3. Thanks for the comments. Jonathan, I think that is certainly true; people increasingly react, and sometimes overreact, without doing much “grappling with ideas.”

  4. I’m interested in various social theories or theories of reality as an amateur exercise, though I have more formal experience on some of the neuroscience behind our interpretations of reality. These never came across as ‘faith shakers’ to me–either I’m intellectually dense (a distinct possibility) or I just have enough confidence in both my experience with the divine and/or spiritual to where I’m beyond the realm of serious doubt, at least from this kind of reasoning.
    The origins of these kinds of theories are from some kind of problem or motivation that the originators are trying to solve. While I believe most of these people are quite earnest, they usually often come from a world view that is quite foreign to me, and they are trying to grapple with a world where there are a lot of belief systems and all are equally valid or invalid. I just don’t exist in that world, but also, when these theories are broadly applied, as the above post suggests, they start to step on the toes of other empirical approaches. I’ve seen this happen in other areas. It gives me pause that just because some new interpretive approach is the ‘next big thing’, that it needs to be viewed within the limits that its authors constructed, including their own academic backgrounds.

  5. Thanks, Dave, for this second post about my new book. Some of the comments on my uses of the “social constructionist” ontology suggest that it might have been well to have added the following quotation from page 62 of the same book:

    “My new understanding, however, did not require me to abandon my
    religious community, ontology, or epistemology, but only to embrace them as a matter of CHOICE, rather than as the only valid way of seeing reality. Such a recognition seemed to accord also with a theological conception of faith as an active personal choice, rather than as a passive acceptance of a religious tradition. A social constructionist understanding of reality, furthermore, leaves one free also to reject any secular definition as the only “true” understanding of reality, since no particular epistemology can claim privileged status in the eyes of God or nature—or (still less) in Academia. Any epistemology has validity only within its own community of discourse. My “Mormon passport,” then, was as valid as any other as I traveled through the various communities of discourse that I encountered. This line of reasoning, one might say, further relativizes the relativity of the social scientist’s construction of reality! The scholar thus remains free to embrace the epistemology and ontology of a religious believer for ordering his or her own life and world, while at the same time being entirely free to venture into other epistemological worlds to understand other peoples with their respective discourse and behavior.”

    Even empiricists sometimes forget the changing historical “constructions” of reality in the physical and biological sciences (e. g., Lamarkian genetics and medieval physics and astronomy). After all, nothing was more empirical than watching the sun move around the earth during the day! Today’s scientific theories, as any scientist will tell you, are always subject to change in light of new data. At each stage of history, however, these scientific theories are but “social constructions” of reality, claiming a greater or lesser consensus among the appropriate scientific experts or peers. And, like other social constructions (in theories about society, psychology — and especially theology) changes from one social construction to another depend a lot upon the differential political power of the various “constructors.” Engineering, of course, as an application of science, faces a constant pragmatic test — i. e., it has to WORK or it is soon abandoned. Especially for “social constructions” about the next world, however, no one can know what “works” or what is “true” until (and unless) we get there, so all theories (“constructions”) must remain unfalsifiable (i. e. untestable).

  6. Regarding Professor Mauss’s comment from a Social Construction perspective that “Any epistemology has validity only within its own community of discourse”, the whole point of Kuhn’s the Structure of Scientific Revolutions was to point out the values by which competing communities of discourse with different epistomologies attract or loose adherents, how they decide which paradigm actually works better, deserves to be a community of discourse, and deserves further work. It leads to what Ian Barbour calls “Critical realism” in which rival paradigms (that is, discourse communities defined by standard examples that embody a set of methods, assumptions, and problem fields) go through an arbitration process. He points to the existence of values that do not depend on a particular community,, and therefore, are not defined or are dependent on particular communities. Barbour argues that paradigms are neither verified nor falsified, but assessed by a range of values. And Kuhn had pointed out that because they function as values, not rules, paradigm choice cannot be reduced to a set of rules or methods. But because of the existence of those values, it does make sense to argue that one paradigm may be “better” than another in terms of puzzle generation and solution, accuracy of key predictions, comprehensiveness and coherence, fruitfulness, simplicity and aesthetics, and future promise. Other values values can and do enter in (biographic experiences, appeals to authority or tradition or nationalism, etc., but those have less to do with what is real, what, in Mauss’s final paragraph above, ultimately makes a paradigm WORK. In John Charles Duffy’s Sunstone essay on the Book of Mormon debates, he discusses social constructivism, and eventually points to Kuhn and the latter values being part of paradigm choice, but neglects any mention of the former values. That neglect lets him argue that if all grounds for paradigm choice are socially constructed, then what matters most is which social group a person prefers. That is, meaningful choice devolves to something like “which social group offers a preferred orthodoxy”, or “which group’s acceptance do I prefer?” If, on the other hand, as Kuhn and Barbour argue, there is a meaningful means of arbitration, an actual structure for revolutions in world view, then, a search for further light and knowledge can be more meaningful than adherence to a socially defined orthodoxy.

    Regarding the next world, I recall in 1999 at the IANDS conference in Salt Lake City, hearing a young woman describe her upbringing in a faith community that did not believe in a next world, but held to the notion that one behaved ethically in the here and now to be a good person. On finding herself in a next world that she did not expect to exist, her first thought was, “I HATE being wrong.” From one who has not had that experience, the question is whether such accounts can be approached in terms of puzzle generation and solution, testable predictions, comprehensiveness and coherence of explanations, fruitfulness, simplicity and aesthetics, and future promise. Or I could add in whether such things fit my traditions, impress my favorite authority figures, have favor within my social group, or enable what I most feel like doing today. Given different valuations by different social groups, it meaningful to ask, “Which paradigm is better?”


    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

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