Why Aren’t There Economists in Mormon Studies?

December 29, 2004 | 22 comments

The patron saint of the New Mormon History – Leonard Arrington – started his academic life as an economist, but interestingly economists have been on the whole absent from Mormon studies. Given the presence of philosophers, sociologists, and – of course – gobs of historians, the lack of followers of the dismal science is striking.

Arrington, of course, was an economist in the Wisconsin sense of the term. He was interested in looking at economic practice and commercial experience. One will search his work in vain, however, for anything that resembles contemporary economic theory. Keynesian macro economics, the reactions against it, the rational actor model, and the other props of contemporary economics just aren’t there. There are some rather half-hearted comparisons of 19th century Mormon economic experiments with the New Deal in the preface to Great Basin Kingdom, but otherwise Arrington is essentially a story teller who is interested in commercial stories. He is not really an economist.

To my knowledge there has only been one sustained attempt to apply economic theory (in this case micro theory) to Mormon history: Marvin S. Hill, C. Keith Rooker, and Larry T. Wimmer, The Kirtland Economy Revisited: A Market Critique of Sectarian Economics. (There may be others. If so please let me know!) On the other hand, the application of sociological concepts – such as Weber’s typology of religious figures — to the study Mormonism has been ubiquitous.

Of course, Mormon studies tends to exhibit an intellectual time lag. That which is popular in the mainstream academy seems to by and large become popular in Mormon studies about a generation later. (This is an exaggeration, of course, but not much of one.) Hence, you see lots of references to Weber or Durkhiem, but few to more recent sociological theorists. Still, this phenomena only suggests that we would expect the economics applied to Mormon studies to be slightly out of date. Why don’t we see vigorous applications of the rational actor model sans game theory or classical Keynsian economics to development in Deseret or the rise and fall of the Law of Consecration and Stewardship. Here are a couple of potential explanations:

1. We are witnessing a selection bias. Economics for whatever reason attracts spiritually stunted intellectuals who are uninterested in their own religion or the religion of others.

2. Economic tools are unsuitable for the study of religious phenomena. Economics is the science of dollars and cents, trade, barter, commercial activity and the like. Hence, its theories cannot be applied to religious experience.

3. The basic methodological assumption of economics – that people are utility maximizers – requires that would be economists of Mormon studies impute selfish or greedy motives to the Mormons that they are studying. Most non-Mormon economists are not sufficiently interested in Mormons to bother, and most Mormon economists are uncomfortable imputing such motives to “their� people.

I don’t think that any of these explanations really works. With regards to (1), I have personally met several economists who are interested in Mormonism and the study of religion. As to (2), it seems an error to assume that economics is methodologically limited to the study of commercial activity. The work of Gary Becker and others seems sufficient to refute such a claim. Finally (3) seems to assume that would be Mormon economists are more sensitive about imputing less-than-flattering motives to their co-religionists, despite the fact that those from other disciplines have been willing to offer theories of Mormon history the rest on unflattering assumptions about Mormons past and present.

So where are the books and articles on the economics of Mormonism? Is there really the gap that I describe, or am I simply missing the articles? (BTW, I know that there have been a couple of articles in econ journals on Mormon subjects.)

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22 Responses to Why Aren’t There Economists in Mormon Studies?

  1. Clark on December 30, 2004 at 1:30 am

    Regarding the time lag, I suspect that in terms of published articles or books, one generally wants to be established first. If one does write, one is more likely to write in more general areas than applying too much theory. That means academic fads take a while to get applied.

  2. Derek on December 30, 2004 at 2:04 am

    I remember my father talking about some show or article about saving as it pertains to L.D.S. members, and how the first thing they should do is stop paying tithing and instead just invest that 10 percent. So maybe the whole field of economics is biased.

  3. Martin James on December 30, 2004 at 2:04 am

    I would assume that the economic answer is that it doesn’t pay.

    It seems to me that the economic literature is highly skewed towards subjects that have policy implications or that are methodologically innovative. Historical mormonism apparently doesn’t highlight these topics.

    There has been interesting work on rates of business development and the relative lack of risk aversion in religious communities including mormonism due to the implied insurance of welfare support, and possibly even work on differential rates of tithe paying by the variability of wages by occupation.

    Your example is one of the many holes in the application of economics. For all the talk of human capital and the knowledge economy, the reflexive use of all the sciences including the social science of economics is disheartening. Your question is about the economics of economics and it is underdeveloped along with the science of science.

    I look at all these blogs and the moral discussions and the political discussions and the religious discussions and I wonder how any of it can possibly make sense when we have no understanding (either agreement or a scientific theory) of what a concept is, how definitions aren’t hopelessly circular, what a belief is, what the cause of a goal or purpose might be, etc..

    Nonetheless, if your one generation hypothesis is correct in another 25 years, then the models of Ed Glaeser about the market for frames and belief systems will be applied to mormonism.

    One interesting point his work makes about beliefs is that there will be more errors in belief when the cost to a mistaken belief is low. For example, most people in Ireland the the USA believe in Satan. Most people in England and Denmark do not. Either the Irish or the Danes are wrong.

    But the cost (at least in this life) of being wrong is not high enough to have beggared the side that is wrong.

  4. Jeremiah J. on December 30, 2004 at 2:52 am

    Rodney Stark is a sociologist of religion who takes an approach to religion which borrows heavily from economics (as do many others). But he is unique in his keen interest in Mormonism. His book The Rise of Christianity could even be described as a book about Mormonism. His interest in why so many Mormons give so much money to their church is of special interest to him, since he has spent considerable effort trying to figure out how religious groups suppress free-riding.

    Of course Stark doesn’t count as a Mormon economist but his work shows that we have interesting things to study if we ever get many.

  5. Mike McBride on December 30, 2004 at 3:29 am

    Long time T&S peruser but first time responder who, as an economist (a game theorist, actually) just couldn’t pass this one up. Hopefully, my response disproves (1), and I’m not even the best economist in my extended family (I have an in-law economist cousin)! Re (2), rational choice methodology is commonly used to study the success of new religions and the variation in religious preferences around the world. Rodney Stark often uses rational choice theory, and read Armand Mauss’s “Mormonism in the Twenty-first Century: Marketing for Miracles� (Dialogue, Spring 1996) to see how the idea of “religious markets� can be applied to Mormonism. I cannot speak for other economists concerning (3), but it shouldn’t be an issue because rational choice methodology is sufficiently flexible to allow for many types of behavior that wouldn’t normally be called “selfish.�

    One possibility… This is arguable, but I think it is a harder to use publications related to Mormonism to advance your career as an economist than in some other fields, e.g., sociology (sociology of religion-see Mauss, Stark), history (American history-Bushman, Quinn), English (religious literature-Givens, Bloom). The trick is to find a novel aspect of Mormonism that would appeal to a non-LDS economics audience. This is how a recent publication in the top econ journal (Amer Econ Rev, Sept 1999) succeeded. It said something more broadly about humans and not just Mormons. (Alas, my in-law cousin was one of the authors. For those who don’t know, he showed that self-serving biases in Mormons’ tithing donations depend not on financial situation but instead on activity level.) If you cannot find such topics, then you’re left writing for an LDS audience, which means you’ll be looking for another job soon.

    That said, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that would be appropriate for BYU Studies or Dialogue. Off the top of my head, I can think of what basic game theory can say about the failure of Mormons’ attempts to live the law of consecration, and of how current theory about econ development and conflict can lend insights into the prosperity promise in the BoM. And there’s plenty more out there waiting to be written.

  6. Kaimi on December 30, 2004 at 8:27 am


    Not to mention the fact that your basic neoclassical formulation (3) might be at least somewhat undercut by the last 20 years of Kahneman and Tversky and related behavioralism — it would be interesting to see how their work on heuristics affects analysis of tithing, etc.

  7. David Salmanson on December 30, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    Gentile lurker again (two comments in one month!). In addtion to the more economic bent of Arrington’s work, you might also look at Dean May’s stuff. Edward Jones Allen’s book Second United Order among the Mormons was tough going for me b/c I lack the stats background to fully understand what he was arguing. Two other works that I can’t vouch for: Israelson “An experiment in alternative economic systems” and Geddes United Order among Mormons.

    Feramorz Fox might be relevant here (the May, Arrington Fox book would surely be the starting place) also Lowry Nelson’s work on the Mormon village might be interesting.

    These are all historical works with varying degrees of economics.

    Hope this helps. Keep me posted

  8. Nate Oman on December 30, 2004 at 5:49 pm

    “That said, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that would be appropriate for BYU Studies or Dialogue. Off the top of my head, I can think of what basic game theory can say about the failure of Mormons’ attempts to live the law of consecration, and of how current theory about econ development and conflict can lend insights into the prosperity promise in the BoM. And there’s plenty more out there waiting to be written.”

    Mike: Thanks for posting. I think that you are right about this. I also think that some of the stuff in the New Institutional Economics could be interesting as well. For example, I think that Doug North’s theory of economic change in history might be adaptable in interesting ways to study change in Mormon history. (Just throwing out ideas here. I am too ignorant to know if they are good ideas, let alone how one might actually impliment them.) BTW, I read your cousin-in-law’s article in the AER as part of a Mormon study group in Cambridge. Interesting stuff.

    BTW, in addition to Stark and other economically friendly sociologists there are economists who study religion as well. Check out http://www.economicsofreligion.com.

  9. Ethesis (Stephen M) on December 30, 2004 at 10:59 pm

    One possibility… This is arguable, but I think it is a harder to use publications related to Mormonism to advance your career as an economist than in some other fields, e.g., sociology (sociology of religion-see Mauss, Stark), history (American history-Bushman, Quinn), English (religious literature-Givens, Bloom). The trick is to find a novel aspect of Mormonism that would appeal to a non-LDS economics audience. said it better than I was going to — where would you get an audience.

    I think that the entire area of worker managed firms and Hutterite economic experiences (vis a vis the small scale steel foundaries and the worker managed rail roads) is a fertile area for the discussion of how to set up a new united order in a modern (non-farming) economy.

    I’ve been meaning to write something on that for about twenty-five years and have obviously just not gotten around to it. I’m sure other LDS types with an economics background have had similar experiences.

  10. Ethesis (Stephen M) on December 31, 2004 at 11:39 am

    BTW, most economics based feedback gets ignored as well, thinking about a long post I sent Nate on “all things in common” vis a vis American Indians and the absolute silence that came back.

    As for linguists, here’s an excerpt from a newsletter on religion I get from a linguist (where are the LDS linguists?):

    “Some scientists are outraged that government money is being spent on such research. On the other side, some religious figures worry that putting God to the test in this way ‘cheapens religion.’ More philosophically-minded thinkers, however, have been mystified that anyone would be presumptuous enough to entreat God for favors. After all, if what you ask God for is just, he has already resolved to do it, and your prayer betrays a lack of trust. If what you ask him to do is unjust, your prayer is an insult.”

    There is an unbridgeable gulf here — between those who believe it is the devout person’s duty to ask for what Mr. Holt calls “favors” (and that it’s spiritual laziness to just leave it all in God’s hands without speaking up) and those who consider petitionary prayers “an insult.” (Not to mention the fact that by Holt’s reasoning the Lord’s Prayer “betrays a lack of trust.”) However….

    “A recent survey of American adults asked about their concerns before checking into a hospital or other health care facility. Sixty-one percent were ‘very concerned’ about being given the wrong medicine, 58% about medical procedure complications, 53% about receiving correct information about medications, and 50% about contracting an infection during their stay. Concerns about being indiscriminately prayed for did not make the list.” [In "Prayer and Medical Science," by Larry Dossey, online at http://www.mercola.com/article/prayer/dossey.htm .]

    5. The 11-12/04 issue of _Books & Culture_, pp. 38-39, has two interesting brief review articles on the subject of the Book of Mormon.: “Evangelicals and Mormons Together?”, by James E. Bradley; and “The Historian as Latter-Day Saint,” by Elesha Coffman. [Bradley reviews _By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion_, by Terryl L. Givens, and _The New Mormon Challenge_, by Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen. Coffman reviews _Believing History: Latter-Day Saint Essays_, by Richard Lynn Bushman.] Here is a sample from each.

    [From Bradley] “..Givens’ book surveys the enormous advances that have been made in Mormon historical and literary research… These advances are so significant that in a 1999 article, Mormon scholar Daniel Peterson can, in an off-hand remark, compare the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library in the mid-20th century to the ‘recovery’ of the book of Mormon in the early 19th century.” And “since the year of its publication, the Book of Mormon has been the subject of unparalleled critique and spirited defense, and the debate shows no signs of being resolved any time soon… But the tone of the debate and the depth and seriousness of the research on both sides of the divide have changed dramatically….”

    [From Coffman, page 39] “On this topic of primary sources, Mormon scholars have a significant advantage and a significant disadvantage in relation to, say, evangelical scholars. The advantage is archives… Mormons have hard evidence of almost everything that happened in the early years of their church, while evangelicals have to make do with text fragments and archaeology. On the flip side…. [a]n evangelical historian can write a lot about faith in the 19th century without having to broach subjects like the supernatural or the inspiration of Scripture. A Mormon historian lacks the luxury of compartmentalizing such questions.”

    6. On pp. 29-36 of the 11/15/04 issue of _The Nation_, Daniel Lazare took on the difficult task of reviewing six ponderous books on the religious thicket we now find ourselves tangled in and trying to make some sense of the tangle. “Formerly,” he says on page 29, “it was an article of faith among liberal ecumenicists that all religions were equal and that all were essentially benign. Whether or not certain holy texts called for the wholesale massacre of nonbelievers was irrelevant. They were all written a long, long time ago and, anyway, such texts had to be understood metaphorically rather than literally. But given all that has happened since 9/11, the old faith has been shaken.”

    The books reviewed include Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s _What’s Right With Islam_, Richard Bulliet’s _The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization_, Olivier Roy’s _Globalized Islam_, Gilles Kepel’s _The War for Muslim Minds_, Shadia Drury’s _Terror and Civilization_, and Sam Harris’ _The End of Faith_. I recommend the article, and I thank Pat Mathews for sending it.

    7. Less grim, less ponderous (and so badly written that it defies description), this comes from the current Quality Paperback Book Club flyer:

    “The Lord works in strange ways, but Brendan Powell Smith’s heaven-sent directive to illustrate the entire Bible using nothing but LOGO bricks has to be the most unusual request to date. Smith’s first LEGO book, _The Brick Testament: Stories from the Book of Genesis_, has received raves … and his website (www.bricktestament.com) has received over two million hits. With _The Story of Christmas_, Powell returns, with an all-new construction sure to make for a quirky holiday.” And it goes on like that, at considerable length. The page is rescued by the pictures of the LEGO manger scene, the LEGO shepherds and sheep in their field, and so on. I’m all for _The Brick Testament: The Story of Christmas_.

    [What do you suppose "The Lord works in strange ways, but Brendan Powell Smith's heaven-sent directive to illustrate the entire Bible using nothing but LOGO bricks has to be the most unusual request to date" was intended to mean???]

  11. Mike McBride on December 31, 2004 at 8:32 pm

    Nate: Thanks for the link. I’m familiar with some (but not much) of this research.

    Stephen: I agree that the comparison with the Hutterites is a natural and interesting one. I think that just as interesting as the management design is the role that doctrinal or moral beliefs may play in maintaining cooperative norms. Some work by an economic historian colleague of mine shows that the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory helped to sustain cooperative behavior in certain craft guilds in the late medieval period. Essentially, the guild would pay priests (whose prayers counted more than others’) to pray for the souls of deceased guild members, thus shortening their time in purgatory after their sinful partying in mortality. Hence, the guild (which functioned economically like a cartel) provided religious as well as economic benefits, since in mortality you’d benefit from the guild’s promise to pray for you once you died. However, the demise of the purgatory doctrine resulted in the guilds falling apart, and the evidence indicates that it was the doctrine that sustained the cooperative norms. Makes me wonder: What role should indoctrination play in organizing a new United Order? Can indoctrination make up for a poorly designed management arrangement? Exactly what must people believe in order to get them to participate in the correct manner? Just how economically powerful are religious incentives for Mormons? Personally, I think the religious incentives or moral imperatives would matter substantially in making a new United Order work.

  12. Justin B. on December 31, 2004 at 8:55 pm

    One recently published article in this area (the author wrote his dissertation on the same topic):

    Learning to Shop in Zion

    Armand Mauss surveys the scholarship:

    The State of Social Science Literature

  13. Nate Oman on December 31, 2004 at 9:53 pm

    Justin: Thanks for the references! These look like interesting articles, especially the first one.

  14. Ethesis (Stephen M) on January 1, 2005 at 2:18 am

    Makes me wonder: What role should indoctrination play in organizing a new United Order? Can indoctrination make up for a poorly designed management arrangement? Exactly what must people believe in order to get them to participate in the correct manner? Just how economically powerful are religious incentives for Mormons? Personally, I think the religious incentives or moral imperatives would matter substantially in making a new United Order work.

    Excellent question. Could you prevent some flaws in United Orders by building in a cultural bias towards handwork over machine work? (some traditional costumes in Europe kept social force for a long time).

    How do you get a parent’s utopia to sustain their children? I’ve been thinking about that for thirty years or more.

  15. Jed Woodworth on January 3, 2005 at 12:13 am


    Here is another study to add to your list of one:

    Kearl, J. R. , Clayne L. Pope, and Larry T. Wimmer, “Household Wealth in a Settlement Economy: Utah, 1850-1870,” Journal of Economic History 40 (September 1980): 477-96.

    Dean May got some training in economic theory at Brown, and his books and articles, although not heavy in theory, have more economics than most Mormon historical studies.

    As for an answer to your question, one big obstacle is the difficulty of obtaining hard data. Tithing records before 1905 are closed to historical research, and solid church budgetary numbers are unavailable after about 1920. Maybe economics can be applied to Mormonism without the hard numbers, but I think their absence must steer some away.

    I would like to see an economically-minded historian come along and answer the questions left by Great Basin Kingdom. Arrington emphasized the communalism in Utah’s early Mormons, but we can see now that they deeply involved themselves in emerging national markets almost from the beginning of settlement in the SL Valley. How did value systems so seemingly at odds coexist together? Arrington doesn’t help us understand how Mormonism could embrace capitalism so quickly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We need another book like Ethan Yorgason’s Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region (UIllinois, 2002), except one written by an economist or an economic historian.

  16. Kaimi on January 4, 2005 at 3:03 pm

    Mormon historians have an established path, blazed by people with impeccable credentials. I mean, there is a Bancroft recipient who then turned his unimpeachable skills to the topic of Joseph Smith history.

    Are there any Mormon Clark Medal winners who then turned unimpeachable economic tools to the study of Mormon topics?

  17. Frank McIntyre on January 4, 2005 at 3:27 pm

    There are no LDS Clark winners. But there is only one Clark medal every 2 years, while there are 5-6 Bancroft prizes every 2 years. Also, Although I am sure Bushman’s work was excellent, recent events has shown that whatever a Bancroft means, it doesn’t mean “impeccable” and “unimpeachable”.

    But the focus on Bushman seems odd. Has Bushman been the driving force behind Mormon History? He wrote a short volume years ago and has a longer one in the works, but it seems unlikely that Bushman’s influence could account for the huge difference in interest in Mormon studies between history and economics. Maybe he has done more than I knew.

    I would be more inclined to agree with Mike’s assessment that Mormon Studies is not general interest enough to get tenure or be well-published. I also agree that there is a great deal of low-hanging fruit that would be very interesting to Mormons even if not of general interest..

  18. Kaimi on January 4, 2005 at 3:33 pm

    Agreed in general, but I think that Bushman’s presence gives Mormon historians a recognized heavyweight who can be trotted out for instant credibility.

    Just look, for example, at the NEH event that Melissa just posted about. Bushman is headlining it, and as Melissa suggests, it’s being pitched to at least some groups of people not normally into Mormon studies.

    If (for example) Gary Becker or Kenneth Arrow wrote a piece on Mormon economics and was then always available to lend credibility to the field, I can’t help but suspect that it would make your concerns (not enough interest to get tenure) go away.

  19. David Salmanson on January 4, 2005 at 4:30 pm

    Gentile Lurker again. I worked with Dick Bushman on a museum exhibit in NY and later taught his Jo. Smith bio in a graduate seminar. As a historian, he’s first rate but Gentiles tend to look at the bio as a blip between more signficant works. Arrington remains the big name Mormon historian. Did I mention I really miss Dean May. He was one of the nicest folks I ever met and helped me immeasurably in understanding why LDS men did not work underground in New Mexico uranium mines.

  20. Frank McIntyre on January 4, 2005 at 7:05 pm

    I do not know enough about Richard Bushman to judge, but I cannot think of a single economist (Becker and Arrow included) who could push “Mormon Studies” into a tenurable sub-field of economics. The economics of religion is barely a tenurable sub-field. Mormon Studies, a small slice of that, far less so. Becker did a great job getting economists to study the family, Levitt got more work going on crime, but let’s face it, crime and the family are both of far more general interest than Mormon Studies.

    Coincidentally, I just today had a colleague get a rejection from a demography journal for a paper on polygamy because the topic was not of sufficient general interest.

  21. Greg on January 4, 2005 at 7:37 pm

    I think hardly anyone outside of the intermountain west has been tenured on the strength of Mormon Studies work, even in history. If we are going to see work from economists or scholars from other fields, it will be work done on the side once they have established some credentials, a la Richard Bushman or Armand Mauss. Or it will be from non-academics who do Mormon Studies on the side (e.g. Blake Ostler’s work in philosophy).

    I think history is the most developed field in Mormon Studies not because of Richard Bushman’s deserved reputation, but largely because Mormonism IS history to a certain extent. Both Mormon non-historians and historians that happen to be Mormon will always be intensely and personally interested in Mormon history. That is not really true of economics, sociology, philosophy, literary theory, etc.

  22. Greg on January 4, 2005 at 7:42 pm

    For those that weren’t around for Armand Mauss’s 12 Questions segment, here is take on doing Mormon Studies outside Mormon institutions:

    “The main disadvantage of working outside of Church-sponsored circles is that secular colleagues, especially in academia, have little use for religious studies, so most scholars who teach and write in the major disciplines are expected to earn academic tenure and promotion through their work on topics that are more ‘trendy,’ politically correct, or attractive to government funding agencies. If one can find the time to ‘do the religion stuff’ on the side, that’s OK, but there is not much appreciation for religious studies in general (except, of course, in the relatively few departments or specific programs for Religious Studies). I did my doctoral work under a rare sociologist at Berkeley (Glock) who was interested in religious studies, so I was able to do my dissertation on Mormons and race. However, when I began my university career afterward, I had to spend the first 10 or 15 years establishing my ‘credentials’ in specialties such as deviant behavior (including alcohol and drug use), other social problems, and social/political movements. Only after I had tenure and my final promotion was it ‘safe’ for me to start moving out of those research fields and devote myself increasingly to religious studies generally and to Mormon studies in particular. Until then, I had, of course, always done some scholarly work in religious studies (Mormons and others), but it was always done ‘on the side.’”

    From: http://www.timesandseasons.org/wp/index.php?p=728