An Interview with Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye

Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Auckland. Her areas of research interest include the social and cultural history of modern China, charismatic global Christianity, and women and religion. She received her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University in 2011.

Melissa Inouye photo

Please describe your academic background and how you came to be interested in global Mormon studies.

I studied Chinese literature as an undergraduate and then, as a graduate student, “East Asian Languages and Civilizations.” This means I studied mostly religion, literature, and language (reading Japanese scholarship and Chinese texts). I wasn’t trained formally as a historian–I didn’t take classes in how to do history. However, my dissertation advisor, Henrietta Harrison, was a historian, and I learned so much from her in the process of researching and writing.

I first came to be interested in Mormon studies when I did a summer seminar in 2001 led by Claudia Bushman at what was then the BYU Smith Institute. This was a lively group of young scholars that included Kristine Haglund, Janiece Johnson, Amy Hoyt, Katie Blakesley, Rebekah Clark, Tina Hatch, and Melissa Proctor. It was the first time I studied church history topics like polygamy and changes in administrative policy. Through this seminar and its fruits, I met other people working in the field and presented a paper at MHA for the first time (Katie Blakesley organized a panel and Tom Alexander was the commentator). I found it very interesting! Later on as I continued to check in with the Mormon studies world I was struck by the wonky framing of our global story. It was so US-centric. “The rest of the world” or “the global church” was seen sort of the way that one sees garnish on the Thanksgiving turkey, but not the turkey itself. But if you looked at the numbers, the global church [though fragmented] was indeed the turkey itself, and the demographic trends were making this more and more the case.

You have been involved in a few different global Mormon research projects over the last several years. Please describe your vision behind one of the projects, what motivated you, and comment on why you think this project is important.

The first project we tried on a community-wide scale was the International Mormon Studies Book Project in 2013. We were trying to address the problem of America-centrism in Mormon studies by developing the Mormon studies collections of universities outside of North America. We ended up sending books to universities in Bordeaux, France, Queensland, Australia, Wuhan, China, and Auckland, New Zealand. Bordeaux Montaigne University in particular has emerged as a major centre of Mormon studies in Europe. Carter Charles, Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, and Pierre Vendassi hosted a global Mormon studies conference in March 2019 that brought together some of the best established scholars and most promising young scholars from around the world. This is definitely because they are awesome, not because we donated them some books, but my point is, the Book Project was important because it was a point of collaboration between GMS scholars who were attempting to address the structural difficulties in the field. These scholars are still working together on individual projects and many within the Global Mormon Studies Research Network and Steering Committee.

Let’s talk method. What is your usual research method? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this method?

I am a historian. I usually work with documents in archives. When it’s relevant, I try to supplement archival research with oral history interviews. The problem with archival research is you only see the documents that people decided to store in a safe place for decades or centuries. The supply of information about daily life that happens to get preserved in formal institutions over time tends to be very limited. That said, you can find out a lot about people from certain documents they left behind, like letters, or manifestos, or articles of organization, or advertisements. Oral history is a different ballgame because you have access to real living people. However, often what they say or remember is invisibly constrained by the kinds of questions you ask, or the kind of story they are trying to tell, the environment in which you ask it, and so on.

Recently I have been trying to work with people who have more quantitative skills to try to expand my methodological reach, but these projects are still in the early stages.

As you examine the lives of global Mormons, what theorists or theoretical frameworks do you find particularly useful? What scholars do you model your own work after and why?

I think the work on agency and women’s power by Saba Mahmoud and Catherine Brekus has been very influential for thinking about Mormon women. I appreciate work on global Christianity by scholars such as Lamin Sanneh, Andrew Walls, and others that emphasises the infinitely translatable nature of Christianity. Once the gospel goes somewhere else, these scholars say, it becomes something else. It becomes local. I also really love the work of my advisor, Henrietta Harrison, and my old teacher, David D. Hall (who pioneered the study of lived religion) because it has so much detail and context and sympathy for people.

Do you have any advice for grad students or scholars just beginning to explore this field?

I would point them in the direction of resources that save them from having to reinvent the wheel. The CGU global Mormon studies website has fantastic suggestions for reading lists. The global Mormon studies forum in the most recent issue of the Mormon Studies Review has comprehensive state-of-the-field essays that will help students get up to speed on what scholars are currently thinking, where we’ve been, where we’re starting to go. I would also encourage them to put up a Researcher Profile on https://www.globalmormonstudies.org/, so that others with similar interests can become aware of their work.

An Interview with Amy Hoyt

Amy Hoyt is a Visiting Assistant Professor at University of the Pacific in the Religious Studies department and a Visiting Scholar at CGU during 2018-19. She has a PhD in Women’s Studies and Religion from CGU and has published in Feminist Theology, Element, and Gender & History. Amy is currently co-editing The Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender with Taylor Petrey, forthcoming 2020.

Amy Hoyt

Please describe your academic background and how you came to be interested in global Mormon studies.

I have a BS and MS in women’s studies, a field I am very passionate about. As a student, I became intrigued with feminist theory and noticed that many feminists chose to engage with patriarchal institutions such as higher education, business, and government but had written off religion as “beyond repair.” I was raised in an LDS home and wanted to find a way that both my spiritual and ideological commitments could co-exist. This led me to study religion within the context of feminist theory at Claremont. I obtained an MA in religion and finished my PhD in Women’s Studies in Religion from CGU in 2007.

As an undergraduate I had worked for an airline and was able to travel extensively; traveling brought the interconnectedness of the world front and center for me. This is when I first visited Africa and became interested in African women. During my graduate work in women’s studies I researched western economic policies and how they disproportionally disadvantaged pregnant women and their newborn children in Tanzania. When I came to Claremont, I began by reading the foundational texts within Mormon studies, which were heavily focused on the historical aspects of the tradition in North America. I could see the need to move the discipline outside of the global north but I was in the midst of a high risk pregnancy and wasn’t able to travel. Instead, I conducted an ethnographic study of Latter-day Saint women in North America, focusing on the theoretical category of agency. Eight years later I was able to begin studying religious women in Africa and have spent the past three years doing ethnographic work in Botswana, Rwanda and South Africa.

You have been involved in a few different global Mormon research projects over the last several years. Please describe your vision behind one of the projects, what motivated you, and comment on why you think this project is important.

One of the projects that I have helped lead is an examination of how religious women in South Africa and Rwanda practice forgiveness and/or reconciliation, both of which can be categorized as religious ideals. In these countries, they are also ideals that are encouraged by the government. The end of apartheid in South Africa and the Rwandan genocide took place within the same time period, on the same continent and the official national mandates are undergirded by religious and ethical ideals. Yet, there was very little scholarly treatment of how religion interacted with the recovery from these conflicts or how women turned to religion in order to work through the trauma associated with these events. Unfortunately, women often bear the burden of national conflict in very personal ways, as violence against women is heightened during war. Our team sought to understand how women of different faith traditions actually practiced forgiveness and/or reconciliation. We interviewed one hundred women who were LDS, Catholic, Muslim and Protestant over a one year period and are in the process of analyzing and synthesizing our findings.

Let’s talk method. What is your usual research method? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this method? Why do you think comparative studies are illuminating and productive?

My typical method is ethnographic research coupled with participant observation as well as demographic surveys. I love ethnography. I love being in the culture, the authenticity of lived religion and gaining an understanding of how people practice their faith daily. I find great pleasure in examining how the grand theological ideals that people adopt play out in everyday life. What does it look like in real life to forgive someone? What does it take to employ agency on a daily basis? It is sometimes messy and contradictory as most people struggle to live out their ideals, religious or otherwise. But it is beautiful to me because I believe it is within the struggle that we have the potential to embody our most sacred convictions. The strength of ethnography is the connection and insight you gain as you interact with people. It can be deeply personal when done with critical empathy and epistemological humility.

The weakness of ethnography is that it can also be incredibly colonial as it has been utilized historically to extract knowledge for the gain of the global north. One way to address the inherent colonial legacy within ethnography is to be purposeful about decolonizing the research method. Our team has attempted to do this by partnering with indigenous scholars and local universities, providing volunteer or service work in each locale that has been chosen by the indigenous scholars, and approaching our intellectual inquiries with humility so that we can understand the women who are trusting us with their experiences. There have been growing pains as we didn’t have an exact blueprint of what decolonizing ethnography looked like. Although it has been less than perfect, we have learned enormous lessons as a team.

As you examine the lives of global Mormons, what theorists or theoretical frameworks do you find particularly useful? What scholars do you model your own work after and why?

I am drawn to feminist post-colonial theory, deconstructionism, and feminist theology. In my work I have relied most heavily on Saba Mahmood, Chandra Mohanty, and Judith Butler. In terms of methodology I have learned from Marie Griffith and Robert Orsi. More recently the work of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians has deeply influenced my thought process and work.

I see value in questioning longstanding ideas that are deeply engrained within society and making sure that those ideas allow for the flourishing of all members. One of my sons loves to take everything apart. He wants to know how something works and fits together, why it works and if he can make it better or more efficient. I feel frustrated when I find broken electronics around the house and yet his mind is magical. He finds “hacks” for all sorts of things that I accepted as working perfectly. This is how I feel about deconstructing social theories. On the face of it, all seems well in the world for many people in the global north, particularly those of us who experience multiple layers of unearned privilege. But when you begin to examine taken for granted social norms, you often see that they were constructed at the peril of a group of people who have been deemed less valuable for various reasons within the society. My religious beliefs point me towards recognizing the inherent worth of each person. I believe that theories and practices that thwart the ability for a society to demonstrate the worth of all members are damaging to the whole.

Do you have any advice for grad students or scholars just beginning to explore this field?

Do it! Move beyond North America and find out how Mormons living outside of the western United States practice their religious commitments. What is similar, what is different and what can North Americans learn from them? With the majority of LDS living outside of the US and the vibrant international community that the Community of Christ has built, particularly focused upon service, it is absolutely necessary to work with a global lens in order to be able to speak with any sort of confidence about what Mormons are like. It is intellectually challenging and stimulating to work in locales that have not been studied. Many countries in Africa, South America and Asia have not been adequately researched by scholars examining Mormonism. It is an exciting time to be studying Mormonism within the academy. Use a comparative lens in order to see what Mormonism can illuminate for scholars of religious studies in general. Use Mormonism as a way of connecting with other scholars in the rapidly growing field of global Christianity. There is so much to learn still!

If we take a broad look at the field, where do you believe the field of global Mormon studies needs to go? Do you see some particularly productive areas of research or research questions that strike you as underdeveloped and important?

I feel strongly that scholars need to use comparison in order to understand what makes Mormonism both unique and similar to other global Christian movements. We haven’t scratched the surface in comparative missiology, or service work. We also have an opportunity to develop our theology and ethical responses to war and peace, global health issues and other life-threatening situations, such as access to food and water. I see a real opportunity to delve into the scholarship of economic injustice, over-consumption and the LDS version of the prosperity gospel. This directly relates to issues of environmental preservation and how Mormonism can develop a theology of resource allocation.

Comparing the way in which Mormons outside of North America practice their faith to those in the U.S. is also important. These comparisons will give scholars an idea of what is being translated culturally across religious lines and what traditions, practices and impulses are preserved within specific locales. How do the informal practices that get infused within the religious tradition actually act to influence the official dominant form of the religion? Or do they fade away over time? We also need more sociological studies done on global Mormonism.

We need to make sure that we are not simply focusing on Latter-day Saints but including in our work all of the traditions that stem from Joseph Smith Jr. and acknowledge that Mormonism, within religious studies, is incomplete without these related traditions.

There is still so much to learn; we are a young field. This will take time and resources but a relevant and accurate portrait of global Mormonism will rely on many ideological and methodological frameworks.