"The Mormon People: A View from Anthropology"

In an essay called “The Mormon People: A View from Anthropology”, LDS anthropologist John L. Sorenson reflects on how the science of anthropology applies to the study of Mormons and Mormonism.

He writes that each people group works out a relatively integrated set or system of meanings, which unites that group as a people and makes it possible to make meaningful generalizations about them. For example:

“A culturally mature Fijian has learned the crucial notions, assumptions, concepts and resultant actions which others of the people consider appropriate in anyone claiming to be one of them.”

Yet there is a danger of overgeneralizing to the point of stereotyping. Even given the common characteristics of a people group, individual members of the group will exhibit variations from the group’s norms.

“When the anthropologist, or anyone else, assumes a model of wholeness or integration of a culture, there is danger that significant variations will be overlooked. Both scholars and most Mormon participants are remarkably ignorant of how wide is the variation that occurs under the broad rubric ‘Mormon culture.’”

The boundaries of what constitutes a member of a cultural group can be fluid. Those boundaries might be defined differently by different members of the group, or by outside observers:

“No doubt from an official…perspective, Mormons are suppose to behave, feel and think more or less to one standard. But is that supposition soundly based? What proportion of those who consider themselves, or are considered by others, to be Mormons believe in a literal devil, desire godhood, use drugs, pray to Father in Heaven, pray to Mother in Heaven, never lie, routinely lie, have no spouse, have one spouse, have multiple spouses, dislike the president of the church, refuse to receive home teachers, pay no offerings, doubt the efficacy of work for the dead, and so on? How much variability is manifested, and how much is allowable for one to consider himself or herself to be a Mormon? How much variation can be tolerated in one considered by Mormon peers to be one of them? What are the boundaries of the degrees of Mormonness in a cultural sense?”

When we consider how to conduct ministry in Utah’s unique culture, we must keep in mind the variation that exists within a given group. Decisions about the shape of the church or the way to communicate the gospel message take into account the general features of the receptor culture – but without glossing over the uniqueness of individuals.

2 thoughts on “"The Mormon People: A View from Anthropology"

  1. Thanks for this post. This illustrates the tension one maintains during intercultural dialogue, that is, the individual-group tension. One side can make a group assertion, and the other can respond back with an individual assertion. This is possibly what makes evangelism so difficult when it is seen as a series of discrete and separate, maybe even one shot contacts. Usually what will happen is two ships passing in the night.

    A more continuous, multiple contact, developmental model allows the individual and group issues to surface, and hopefully be explored in a trust building environment. What may seem to be rabbit trails may actually be trust building exercises, and over the longer period movement can be made. Certainly there comes a point where both sides recognize that a decision might be made, and then there could be withdrawal and refusal. However, in a relationship, that may not always be so abrupt. Or if so, there is a history of relationship that the withdrawall”ee” may remember and process further later on in their journey…

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