Date of Award

8-2012

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts

Major

Sociology

Major Professor

Jon Shefner

Committee Members

Stephanie A. Bohon

Abstract

Every year more than a million short-term missionaries travel abroad. Many encounter intense poverty. Popular discourse suggests short-term missionaries return home radically changed. Social movement theory shows collective experiences can transform participants. In this thesis I explore the narratives of short-term missionaries to understand how they understand the poverty they encounter abroad. I have found short-term mission participants think about encounters with the poor in ways that produce contradictory beliefs and legitimate poverty. Interviewees consistently employed deficiency and fatalistic theories of poverty that provide little moral or practical justification for helping the poor. However, these beliefs conflicted with religious convictions. Interviewees reported increased awareness of physical and psychic suffering caused by poverty. However, they consistently romanticized poverty and enumerated its special spiritual, lifestyle, cultural, and psychological advantages. Most explicitly eschewed ethnocentrism and paternalism but employed deeply ethnocentric and paternalistic narratives. Short-term missions did not radically transform participants. Instead, the change is a slight amplification of existing beliefs that reinforce the status quo. Religious beliefs and the absence of alternative schemas or groups make it unlikely participants will develop challenging perspectives. This study highlights the difficulty we have developing critical perspectives on ideas that so powerfully support the legitimacy of our own favorable circumstances.

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