“Communities of Plural Love: a Comparative Ethnography of Independent Fundamentalist Mormons and Polyamorists”

Michelle Mueller

My dissertation seeks to undercut the polemic between Fundamentalist Mormons and polyamorists with ethnographic research of adults in both communities. Over a decade of friendship with polyamorists (people who practice consensual nonmonogamy), I have observed a clear bias separating polyamory from polygamy. The bias from polyamory presents polygamy as patriarchal and abusive, and polyamory as freedom-enhancing, egalitarian, and feminist. Polyamorists include Pagans, Unitarian Universalists, Unitarian Universalist-Pagans, Buddhists, Spiritual but not Religious, and seculars. My research methods include participant-observation, field notes, qualitative interviews, and ethnographic writing.

I offer to present a work-in-progress talk about the methodology for my dissertation, “Communities of Plural Love: a Comparative Ethnography of Independent Fundamentalist Mormons and Polyamorists.” In my dissertation, I wish to show, through ethnographic writing, examples that undercut this bias, including Pagan families that are polygynous, commonalities between polyamory and polygamy in conflict resolution and process, and feminist research on Fundamentalist Mormon sister-wives, all demonstrating that the contrast is not absolute. My research method is ethnography, relying on theories for analysis: Sigmund Freud’s Narcissism of Minor Differences, postcolonial feminism, and practice theory from Sherry Ortner and Pierre Bourdieu. I propose to present my current plans and challenges and seek suggestions for applying an even comparative approach towards polyamorists and Independent Fundamentalist Mormons.


Student Area Assistant for my department, I am a third-year Ph.D student of Cultural and Historical Students of Religions at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), a graduate of the Pacific School of Religion, a Unitarian Universalist Director of Religious Education of 5.5 years, and the Starr King-nominated GTU Newhall Teaching Fellow for 2013-14 and 2014-15. Pagan for 18 years, my research question derives from first-hand observation in personal life.

I plan to complete my comprehensive exams in September, including an exam on methodology. Accordingly, this project will be much further along by then; I will have feedback from my committee to share and work towards integrating as I progress in the dissertation.