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Mormon Emotionality Compared to Other Constructions of Emotions

2 April 2012

Last Saturday (31 March 2012), I presented the second paper to come out of my ex-Mormon project (1), entitled “‘It Felt Like a Cord Snapping’: Mormon Emotionality and Emotional Reframing among ex-Mormons.” The more I have been immersed in this second round of coding and analysis, the more excited I am about the findings. Emotionality is the range of beliefs and practices surrounding emotions, giving intelligibility and inciting expression and social behavior; Mormon emotionality thoroughly shapes adherents’ life experience, making it necessary for them to reframe and transform their emotionality as they leave Mormonism.

To understand this transformation, I must begin with an analysis of the Mormon context or “situation”; to wit, the specific ways that Mormonism structures emotionality by making bodily sensations intelligible, naming them, and giving them social significance, i.e., turning feelings into Mormon emotions (2). I argue that Mormonism overestimates (3) emotions, locating all evaluation of morality and knowledge within the purview of emotionality. This in turn creates a personal practice of constant self-scanning for emotions, an emotional vigilance among adherents, as well as a social practice of using emotions to judge and constrain others’ behavior and well-being.

During the Q&A session, several people in the audience objected to my characterization of emotional vigilance as something uniquely Mormon. Three specific objections were given: one person argued that we all constantly scan ourselves for emotions, or rather, that such emotional awareness is constitutive of modern life; another objected that this kind of emotional scanning is similar to patients or clients in a mental health, doctor-patient relationship; and a third person objected that this might be similar to any highly observant religious group with tight social bonds, making a comparison to Hasidic Judaism. In the moment, I responded quite simply that my intuition is that Mormon emotionality is indeed different; that as a microsociologist, I tend to see the specificities of groups. I also reflected back to the commenters that what I was hearing is that, whereas I had been focusing on the specific case, I may want to step back and see connections and overlaps with other forms of emotional practice coming from other social spheres or groups.

Although the uniqueness of emotional vigilance is a minor part of my overall argument, I took the feedback seriously and have spend the past day mulling the objections over. Upon reflection, I think I must stand by my argument that Mormon emotionality produces a particular kind of emotional vigilance that is emphatically Mormon in its make-up and meaning. Taking each of the three possibilities posed in the Q&A, I see parallels and similarities; but I still see major differences.

Probably the easiest case to consider is that of other religious communities. Having studied religiosity off and on for the past 10 years, I can say with a relative confidence that Hasidic (4) emotionality  is quite different from Mormon emotionality. Given that Hasidism views embodiment, sin, forgiveness, truth, joy, revelation, etc., so differently from Mormonism, it is not that much of a stretch to see that, even if Hasidism produced an emotional vigilance (which I don’t think it does, frankly), it would be of a radically different character and for different social ends, than that of Mormonism. Within a religious context, I think that perhaps the closest you might get would be evangelical Christianity, with its belief in the gifts of the spirit. But there as well you find dramatic differences in the experience of conversion (born again) and communion with the spirit, as well as the means to discern truth and morality, that would make its emotionality and any kind of emotional vigilance quite different from that of Mormonism.

The second objection, however, poses a more difficult case for me. Although the therapeutic relationship itself is clearly different from Mormon emotionality, there is a transformation of emotionality in both the process of therapy and the process of leaving Mormonism.  My informants reported a significant amount of self-awareness of emotions vis-a-vis Mormonism, specifically in the two areas of truth (knowledge) and morality (good/evil). All of the informants discussed one or both of these areas; and most of them talked about the experiences of constantly watching themselves for the feelings that would be “emotionailzed” in an acceptably way within Mormonism. Indeed, this self-surveillance was a key part of Mormon adherents’ lives; and consequently awareness of it is a key part of leaving Mormonism (at least for those who become unbelievers). Having only a limited knowledge of the literature about mental health clients/patients (Goffman and Foucault), my educated surmise is that the mental health process would provoke an intense self-scanning of the individual, one that requires, by its nature, a self-reflexivity, a consciousness, and a reframing (especially in cognitive therapy, where reframing is an explicit project), that is, creating a new emotionality. It would seem, then, that in a general sense, there are some parallels between a therapeutic emotionality and ex-Mormon emotionality.

There are, however, some key differences. The therapeutic relationship doesn’t produce a full cultural emotionality of itself; rather, it seeks to lay bare the patient’s existing emotionality, create a new, therapeutic practice of emotional vigilance and surveillance (sometimes even requiring a rigorous recording of emotions in “feeling journals”), and transform it into something deemed more “normal” or “healthy” with the help of the expert guide. As an alternative/new religious movement, Mormonism is a fully developed culture unto itself, including its emotionality, which children learn as part of their development and which converts buy into from their very first discussion with missionaries (5). Secondly, the therapeutic relationship is, in many ways, teleological, that is, it is moving toward a known end; whereas the process of leaving Mormonism has no emotional end known in advance to the apostates. In some ways, it occurs to me as I write this, the emotional transformation is an effect of the leaving Mormonism, rather than its explicit goal (although many of my informants reported that when they adhered to Mormonism, they had a longing to “feel better”).

The third objection that all of us in modern societies engage in a kind of emotional vigilance poses a different kind of sociological problem: namely, that Mormons are always embedded in larger social groups. My informants are nearly all North American (from the U.S. and Canada); and in all cases, Mormons are always to varying degrees bi-cultural, working to be “in the world, but not of it,” circulating in “gentile” contexts (sometimes more easily than others) but always with the knowledge of their “chosenness” and their responsibility to be a “light unto the world.” This means that the ex-Mormons in my study are also culturally identifiable as American and Canadian (and, not insignificantly, white).

There is a kind of emotional vigilance of late (post?) modern society, what Christopher Lasch has called the “therapeutic culture of consumerism” (6). In the post-Fordist, late capital, consumerist world, Lasch’s theory posits a focus on narcissistic pleasure, hedonism, that can be enacted through consumerism. This is the oft criticized, but structurally embedded, practice of constantly evaluating one’s state of happiness and judging the phenomenal world based on one’s level of happiness (7). That is indeed a kind of emotional vigilance, one tied deeply to structures of capital, I might add. Further, stepping back from Lasch’s theory and thinking about a broad critical historical literature on the self-help movement that began in the early 19th century and really took off during the 1960s, I definitely would argue that the dominant culture’s emotionality includes a kind of emotional scanning. Indeed, the literature on emotions generally points to the fact that it’s a pretty human thing to do to watch one’s emotions.

So the question that remains is whether or not the Mormon version of emotional vigilance is shared with that of the dominant culture, or if it is a specifically Mormon practices. The easiest answer I can give to this is that, for my informants who spoke about emotions after Mormonism, all of them reported a different, new emotionality, that is, a different emotional practice, characterized by ease and relief at not having to always be on emotional guard. All of them reported a reduction in the salience of emotions generally (by rejecting the Mormon meaning of emotions), and therefore, in my analysis, a reduction in their emotional vigilance.

But I want to go a step further here, and think about why the Mormon emotional vigiliance is different. The baseline human emotionality (which is only a theoretical construct, given that there is no such thing as a human without a social context that builds a particular, located emotionality), I would argue, is at a lower frequency than Mormon emotionality, precisely because Mormonism overestimates emotions; or to say it differently, Mormonism attaches a hyper-salience to emotions that provokes a higher intensity of scanning and surveillance. As far as modernity is concerned, Mormons in North America clearly take part in the narcissistic consumer culture. I see no evidence that Mormons are any less consumers, on average, than other North Americans. That means that Mormons are, in certain contexts, seeking their own happiness through consumerist means. I would argue, however, that these two emotionalities co-exist within an adherent and that they overlap and complement as well as contradict each other. But the Mormon emotionality is its own distinct thing, arising in a specific context, with different structure, meaning, salience, and emotional practices attached to it. Whereas I absolutely see Mormons participating in consumer emotionality, and I can see in my informants how the consumer “happiness” can bleed over into their Mormon emotionality (e.g., I feel happy and excited about buying that house, therefore, it must be god’s will that I buy the house!), I cannot see that they are the same thing, that the Mormon practice of constant, intense self-scrutiny of emotions in order to be able to categorize the phenomenal world into its Good/Evil and True/False schemas is the same as the dominant culture’s. To emphasize the point, my informants all described dramatically different emotionalities post-Mormonism.

So yes, emotional reframing occurs in leaving other religion; and in therapy. But the emotionality of the religions themselves are different; and therapeutic relationships create a practice of vigilance while trying to reframe the emotionality of the “patient.” And yes Mormons are also “normal” consumers. But I believe my data demonstrate that, among ex-Mormons unbelievers, their experience of emotional vigilance when they were adherents of Mormonism was quite different than their emotionalities post-Mormonism. To step back from my own very narrow research project, I think that there are some interesting implications here, namely, that undergoing a major cultural shift—joining or leaving a religion, migration, education, interracial marriage, etc.—is always accompanied by a transformation of emotionality, to some extent.


(1)  This is a grounded theory project that studies people who leave the Brighamite branch of Mormonism—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah—and become unbelievers to some degree, describing themselves somewhere in the atheist or agnostic camp. I collected interview data through semi-structured interviews. A first round of coding, followed by axial codes rendered a theory of the psycho-social process people go through when leaving Mormonism; I tend to err in the direction of  parsimony, so I only claim that the model works for people leaving Mormonism toward some level of unbelief, but I suspect that very similar processes might obtain in cases of anyone leaving an alternative/new religious movement. Building from that first round of coding, I discovered the centrality of emotions in the process, and went back to the data to try to explain Mormon and ex-Mormon emotionality.

(2) I’m currently working through where I stand in the theoretical literature about emotions themselves. In the near future, I will post to this blog a discussion of the debates within the field and where I might land. For the moment, I agree with Jonathan Turner that a sociology of emotions cannot ignore the mounting evidence that there is a core evolutionary and biological emotionality among our species. I rely heavily on Martha Nussbaum’s 2001 book, Upheavals of Thought (especially the first seven Chapters) for an excellent synthesis of the philosophical, neurological, social-scientific, and psychological literature on emotions. To give an over-simplified gloss of my current working theory of emotion: 1) there are embodied, physiological sensations that arise, which can be involuntary or incited feelings; 2) the acculumated knowledge and experience of the individual, including their social and cultural position, enable categorization of the feeling, rules for how, when, where, and to whom to express that emotion, and the significance or salience of the feeling: Emotion; and 3) practices and social behaviors arise in conjunciton with emotions, which can in turn (re)incite feelings (go back to 1).

(3) In the Freudian sense of over-valuing, or holding something in higher esteem than it should or might be held.

(4) The hasidic movements within Judaism are themselves a rather diverse bunch, with multiple schools and rebbes and movements under the label Hasid, so it is actually likely that, for example, the Lubavitcher emotionality may be different from, for example, a Satmar emotionality.

(5) Missionaries are actually trained to push people toward emotional vigilance by constantly asking possible converts to scan their feelings for positive emotions, which the missionaries then identify as “the Holy Spirit,” and which they assign the significance of “revelation of truth.” Thus, converts are inculcated into the Mormon emotionality from the beginning, and actively and consciously trained in emotional vigilance.

(6)  It is important, here, to keep this notion of therapy from that of the medicalized therapy I discussed earlier. They are related, but not the same thing.

(7) Over the past 10 years or so, positive psychologists have argued that this consumer version of happiness has actually short-circuited our ability to know what contentment is and to discern when life is good, because we expect (inappropriately) that happiness be a constant high-level feeling of joy and pleasure. See Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis for an example of this kind of work.


From → Research

  1. Completely fascinating stuff! I would be interested in hearing more about the specific experiences your interviewees reported — the kinds of feelings that they felt like they had to be constantly policing in themselves or others.

  2. Anon permalink

    Although I’m a bit out of touch with the ideas this post is based on, it does sound like something I experienced leaving Mormonism (my parents’ religion) as a young adult about 30 years ago. As you must know, but your readers may not, Mormons attach great importance to receiving communications from the Holy Spirit. These are described in various ways (e.g., “impressions”, “still, small voice”, “burning in the bosom”), and are viewed as distinct from a person’s endogenous emotions. However, there is no cut and dried rule to guide an individual in distinguishing one from the other, nor, as I understood it, can there be. As a teenager I was often told that I was still learning, or needed to learn, to identify the promptings of the Spirit from among the general run of subjective experience.

    As you also probably know, in monthly testimony meetings, Mormons are encouraged (and expected) to stand up and make a public profession of their belief, or “knowledge” to use the preferred formulation, that “the Church is true”. Very often, perhaps more often than not, this is done in a very emotional way, with literal tears, sobbing, and so on. I won’t go into the reasons for this, but I will say that it is completely accepted and normal among Mormons, and at the same time, completely bizarre and off-script socially for outsiders. An outsider attending a testimony meeting will quickly grasp that it’s normal for that setting, but occasionally I’ve seen Mormons give that sort of testimony outside the social matrix, for example in a TV interview. It can be really, really strange out of context, an emotional zero-to-sixty in half a second that must baffle observers who don’t know the culture. The specific maximal example I’m thinking of was a teenage girl, who probably didn’t know how it would look on the news, and really let it all hang out.

    After I had been out of the religion for a while I developed an attitude that, since you can get emotionally worked up in purely nonreligious ways, a religion I could admire had to offer or emphasize something sharply distinguishable from being moved by a persuasive speaker, an experience you can have listening to a TED talk on any number of secular subjects. So, Scholasticism was not my cup of tea, but a heavy dose of logic seemed like a good idea in principle; Buddhism with its outright skepticism of emotion and attachment was definitely on the right track; and so on. I still feel that way, although I recognize that it is a reaction to my own childhood experience and suspect that I hold a minority opinion.

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