Cross-posted from The Interpreter Foundation
Review of Jana Riess, The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019). 312 pages. $29.95.
Abstract: Riess’s book surveying the beliefs and behaviors of younger members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was supposed to compare the attitudes of younger generations with those of older generations. Unfortunately, flaws in the design, execution, and analysis of the survey prevent it from being what it was supposed to be. Instead the book is Riess’s musings on how she would like the Church to change, supported by cherry-picked interviews and an occasional result from the survey. The book demonstrates confusion about basic sampling methods, a failure to understand the relevant literature pertaining to the sociology of religion, and potential breaches of professional ethics. Neither the survey results nor the interpretations can be used uncritically.
Oxford University Press has a number of excellent titles in sociology and the sociology of religion that I can recommend.1 Unfortunately, the volume under review is not one of those. On the bright side, this book did not come out of the division of Oxford University Press that deals with sociology but out of the division that deals with religious studies. The unfortunate flip side is that this book did not benefit from peer review by someone who actually does social science.
The author of the book, Jana Riess, is a journalist with a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University, where she studied under Richard Bushman. She has no training in social science or statistical analysis and outsourced the statistical work on her book to others. Her book is based on a survey she calls “The Next Mormons Survey.” She put more effort into this book than typically expected from a journalist, and it shows, but the result does not attain the level of top-quality social science work. Riess’s book is not horrible, but it is plagued with problems. As David Frankfurter, professor of religion at Boston University, once noted, “[M]any scholars in Religious Studies have had a certain aversion to the positivistic use of evidence, borne of post-modern critiques of scientific verifiability and a general relativism toward truth-claims.”2 They thus tend not to be well situated to evaluate or use evidence, which shows in the book under consideration. On a certain level, the book deserves to be taken seriously, seriously enough to go to the effort to dissect certain aspects and analyze them carefully. I will discuss the problems with the book in order of the steps taken to put the book together. [Read more…] about Conclusions in Search of Evidence