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Literacy and Religious Agency: An Ethnographic Study of an Online LDS Women's Group

Catherine Matthews Pavia, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation is based on an ethnographic study of a discussion board and its 120-150 female participants, all of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). My primary goal was to discover how the women’s religion influences their uses of and the rewards of their online literacy and how their online writing affects how they practice their faith and define themselves. Methods of inquiry included two years of participant observation, phenomenological interviewing, discourse analysis interviewing, and collection of discussion board threads. Participants’ spoken comments and writing show how they created an enclave in order to communicate in ways driven by their religious beliefs and to discuss the multiple essences that emerge as they live their faith. Participants’ literacy practices also demonstrate that the discussion board functions simultaneously as a private board and as a public LDS community, in which participants use intimate literacy to construct public voices that are in harmony with LDS teachings but that reflect their individual differences with those teachings. My analysis reveals that writing in this enclave often contributed to open-mindedness and critical agency. The participants conscientiously engaged in both deliberative discourse and in a pragmatics of naming to claim religious essences and to negotiate their multiple relationships to their religious doctrine, even as they accept that doctrine. In doing so, they have found power to resist other cultural discourses. They also have become more open to difference within their community. This study shows that agency can occur within a fixed structure because there are choices within fixity and that religious discourses offered participants a position of resistance from which to speak. This study suggests the importance of qualitative research on private contexts for faith-based literacy because public contexts may not be deemed as “safe” for discussions of fluidity within faith. I argue that composition studies and literacy studies need to pay attention to the extent to which religion informs individuals’ literacy practices, particularly students who struggle to reconcile the coexistence of religious and academic literacies. I also suggest pedagogical tactics for welcoming faith-based literacies in the composition classroom.

Subject Area

Religion|Womens studies|Rhetoric

Recommended Citation

Pavia, Catherine Matthews, "Literacy and Religious Agency: An Ethnographic Study of an Online LDS Women's Group" (2009). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3380003.