I’m Rosemary Avance, a scholar of digital media and religious identity. I received my PhD from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in August 2015. My work focuses on the intersection of new media, religion, and modernity.  Using an interpretive, cultural studies approach, I analyze the role of the internet in cultivating new religious experiences and identities, with an eye for the ways that religious people use Web 2.0 to advocate for change within their faiths, and the way that organizations, in turn, adapt their structures and narratives to accommodate these shifting identities.  To date, I’ve focused my academic attention on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or the Mormons), publishing articles in the Journal of Religion and Society and the Journal of Media and Religion and presenting three invited talks and eight peer-reviewed conference presentations, all of which explore modern Mormon identity and its intersection with communication theory.

My dissertation, entitled “Constructing Religion in the Digital Age: The Internet and Modern Mormon Identities,” examines the ways modern religious identities are constructed, negotiated, and broadcast via the internet, and how religious institutions respond to these technologically-driven shifts.  In it, I trace the formal features of Internet culture — access, perceived anonymity, and surveillance — to the disruption of Mormon imagined community. I began studying Mormonism because of its sophisticated use of new media, including search engine optimization, advanced market research, interactive Church websites (such as user-generated content and a “Chat with a Missionary” feature on mormon.org), and ubiquitous presence on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

But while the LDS Church uses new media as a way to advance its particular ideological narrative, many members use the Internet to circulate competing and heterodox narratives about what it means to be Mormon. My dissertation uses a combination of ethnographic methods and discourse analysis to track the interplay of these narratives, including those of LDS leaders, orthodox members, apologists, heterodox members, and feminist Mormons. In the last three years alone, social advocacy on the Internet has contributed to an institutional disavowal of past racist policies (a huge step for a conservative faith built on the presumption of its leaders’ direct access to divine mandate); a softening of rhetoric around homosexuality (e.g., eschewing former teachings that homosexuality is a “lifestyle” or “choice”); institutional admission of problematic aspects of church history, including issues with the translation process of some of its scriptures; and the silencing of one prominent feminist through excommunication which paradoxically allowed for many small but significant institutional advances toward gender equality.

I was honored to be the recipient of the 2012-2013 George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Fellowship in Mormon Studies at the University of Utah’s Tanner Humanities Center. The only fellowship of its kind, it provides one dissertation-status recipient with funds to spend a year researching the history, beliefs, and culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members.  Because of this fellowship, I was able to relocate to Salt Lake City, the spiritual capital of Mormonism, to research and write this important analysis of Mormon identities.

I’m originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in 2006, I received a B.A. in Communication from the University of Tulsa (go Hurricanes!).  I also received my M.A. in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, and a Certificate in University Teaching and Instruction from Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning in 2012.