Pitfalls in the Sociological Study of Cults (Janja Lalich, 2001)

NOTE: This article is taken from Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, pp. 123-155. It has been condensed.

Misunderstanding Cults

One of the things that cults do well is the construction of inspiring and exciting alternative worldviews. They do this passionately and with great skill, and the most successful of them are also skilled at creating internally consistent social and cultural contexts to make these worldviews visible and attractive both to their members and to their audiences. Consequently, researchers attempting to study cults are confronted with a set of problems beyond those encountered by ethnographers studying other types of social organizations. Researchers of cults are faced with a kind of hall of mirrors in which they must contend with multiple layers of reality construction. In this chapter I discuss the potential pitfalls inherent in doing research on such groups.

First, let me attempt to define what I mean by cult, that problematic word:

A cult can be either a sharply bounded social group or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent ideology (often but not always religious in nature) and requires a high level of personal commitment from its members in words and deeds.

At certain times in its history a cult can be a precisely defined group with clear boundaries separating members from outsiders, and at other times it can take the form of a more amorphous social movement with fuzzy concentric boundaries shading off imperceptibly from totally committed inner-circle members to fellow travellers to vaguely interested spectators.

When one turns the viewing lens on a single cult in order to extract a thick definition of the forces that hold it together, one inevitably sees charismatic relationships and devotion to transcendent ideology as the important defining features.

Howard P. Becker's church-sect typology, based on Ernst Troeltsch original theory and upon which the modern concept of cults, sects, and new religious movements is based.
Howard P. Becker’s church-sect typology, based on Ernst Troeltsch original theory and upon which the modern concept of cults, sects, and new religious movements is based.

Cults Try to Prevent You from Coming Backstage after the Show

Often cults are found to be mystical, grandiose, secretive, and multi-layered. Such characteristics have been noted by various researchers.1 There is no way to know how many times researchers have been successfully ‘fooled’ by such groups, in the sense that researchers were shown a version of reality that either differed from the typical daily life or hid from view the negative or controversial aspects. But if we assume that a researcher wants to present a thorough descriptive account, then how best achieve that goal? Whether doing content analysis of documents, participant observation, or interviews, in addition to abiding by generally accepted standards of research in the social sciences, an important first step would be for the researcher to acknowledge that there might be some distortion going on, meant either to impress or to hide, or both.

Over the years there has been a surprising likeness in reports of systems of control and influence used in cultic groups, which have served to misinform, disinform, or obfuscate in one way or another. Those efforts at information control and impression management might be called the group’s ‘mask of normalcy.’ This mask can serve to keep researchers at arm’s length, impeding an inside look at what really transpires. For that reason a researcher must be methodical, thorough, and grounded, and have a solid but flexible plan or approach.

Wearing the Mask of Normalcy
Wearing the Mask of Normalcy

An initial task involves acquiring basic knowledge of the group in question. Know as much as possible about the group beforehand (its doctrine, practices and rituals, lingo, history, lineage, controversies, and crises); then be ready to entertain various interpretations of findings. A central challenge, of course, is gaining access.

I offer here a glimpse of the various strategies used some of the time by some groups, with examples of the types of occurrences that might derail the researcher…These manipulative strategies pose four categories of problems for the researcher who would not be deceived: (1) tricks and setups; (2) demands, restrictions, and intimidation; (3) informants as spin masters; and (4) researcher susceptibility to the cult’s appeal.2 I will discuss each of them in turn.

Impression Management

Problem 1: Tricks and Setups

Researchers must remember the ease with which a group can trick visitors and outsiders. This can happen through selected interviewees, selected topics of discussion, and staged events.

Selected Interviewees

When visiting a group facility or location, a researcher may believe that she is free to interview or observe whomever is there, and as a result may feel that she has been given free reign. In many cases, however, only trusted members are allowed in those locations during the time the researcher (or, in some cases, the public) will be there. As a result, ‘outsiders’ end up talking to or interviewing only those group members who were preselected by the gatekeeper, or were pre-assigned and trained as spoke-persons for the group.3 Another way this type of control occurs is through either overt or indirect censoring of responses and interactions.4

Selected Topics of Discussion

Researchers or journalists who want to interview a group leader may quickly learn that this is not so easy. One evasive strategy has been to ask researchers to submit their questions in writing to the leader, who then (either himself or through his aides) selectively chooses the questions he wants to answer. Sometimes the questions are rewritten so the leader can talk about his own favourite topics.

Staged Events

These events occur for a variety of reasons: to gain credibility for the group, to recruit, to fund-raise, to keep members busy, or simply to put forth a public face.

Beneath the facade there is often a hidden layer—and, in this case, more than one. While the performance itself is sociologically interesting, equally important is what is being hidden: the backstage, the secret nature of the organization, its purpose, and the control of its membership.

Manipulative strategies are devised for a particular context. The purpose is to impress and recruit, and the members’ dedication, commitment, and idealism are taken advantage of, both to put on a good front and to hide certain less desirable aspects.

Appearances are deceptive...
Appearances are deceptive…

An antidote to the types of tricks and setups that researchers might encounter would be to try to establish beforehand some ways to ensure getting unadulterated data. For example, whenever possible, and, if the setting permits, arrive unannounced or early. Try to visit a group’s various locations, including members’ residences, the leaders’ quarters, and any other special facilities. Also request that you be allowed to randomly select interview subjects, and ask permission to speak with members of different ranks, positions, functions, and lengths of time in the group. If at all possible, conduct your interviews off-site, which may allow members to speak more freely. Naturally, all of this must be done within ethical research standards and in a way that maintains good relations with your subjects. Be sensitive as well to the potential emotional, psychological, or physical risks that may befall your informants—whether they are current or former members. And take that same care yourself.

Problem 2: Demands, Restrictions, and Intimidation

Researchers must be alert to a group’s attempt to put demands on them by restricting visiting times, locations, and access to members, and sometimes even requesting to review and approve the researcher’s results or final reports. If a group so desires and is unable to put its stamp of approval on a report, or if a negative or critical report should surface, harassment of the authors and/or publishers is always a possibility.

Ayella5 advises that researchers be critical of the kind of access they are given. Why is a group allowing you in? Is it looking for a clean bill of health or stamp of approval? Has it been criticized recently and is now seeking outside aid in impression management? Does the group understand and agree with scientific norms of research? And possibly most critical, did the group invite you to do the research? Honest answers to such questions may reveal that a researcher is slated to become an unwitting pawn in someone else’s project, perhaps with a questionable goal, and, potentially, with just as questionable an outcome.

Cultic groups with controversial and secret practices are unlikely to be open to scrutiny. It is not unusual for such groups to work against the airing of information that might be detrimental. Groups much prefer positive puff pieces.6

“The worst thing anybody could have happen to him was to have Dad chastise him publicly. That was the worst fear…that you’d be yelled at.”

Problem 3: Informants as Spin Masters

Researchers may encounter trained behaviour on the part of cult members and adherents. Therefore, while acknowledging this front-stage activity, researchers must also be prepared to seek out backstage behaviours and attitudes. Researchers might also consider ways in which they might evoke a fuller picture of what is going on in the member-informant’s mind. Such investigation requires perseverance, creativity, and critical thinking.

As noted earlier, some cults allow only carefully selected members to speak with the press or outsiders.

There is a type of briefing, grilling, and role-playing that occurs in some groups which is intended to train members to respond in desired ways, rather than as they feel. As Barker so aptly described:7

“Some members of some movements have gone further than concealing the truth—they have denied the truth, blatantly lying to potential converts and ‘outsiders.’ Furthermore, some members of some movements lie to other members of the same movement. It is not unusual for members of certain NRMs not to know what their leaders get up to—how the money is spent, exactly who issues the orders, or what the long-term goals of the leaders are.

“Sometimes members have been instructed to say that they are collecting money, food or other goods for the aged, for young people on drugs, or for poor people in underdeveloped countries. Sometimes these statements are downright lies; at other times, they are twisting the truth; at yet other times, the members may convince themselves that they are telling the truth.”

In researching cultic groups, the text is perhaps not so important as the subtext and nonverbal clues.

Planting members trained to ‘spin’ in the group’s front organizations is a common tactic among cults concerned about their public image.

Cults

Problem 4: Researcher Susceptibility to the Cult’s Appeal

Researchers of cultic groups are treading into charismatic environments. Many of these groups have great appeal—through the belief system, the activities and interactions, the members, and, of course, the leaders. Researchers must learn how not to be overly influenced by the charismatic performance of a leader—whether it consists of showing off, or feigned humility, or both. Being dazzled by the leader’s glamour is something many a researcher has experienced, if only momentarily. But the savvy researcher will acknowledge his vulnerabilities and guard against succumbing to this very human foible.

I realize how difficult it is to gain access to a cultic group, let alone remain disinterested. Barker8 spoke of the dangers of getting too close to one’s subject; she cautioned against favouritism in reporting, or researchers acting to protect members from experiencing bad press. Spending time with these groups, attending their services or meetings or events, observing members interact, sitting with them while their leader is lecturing—certainly only someone made of stone would not feel drawn in. How else can the researcher expect to gather data and draw interpretations? A researcher must both yield and hold back—a sometimes tricky mix in what are often extraordinary settings.

Operating with the authority of charisma, some leaders of charismatic groups go so far as to fancy themselves to be above and beyond human.

Many cult leaders are quite gifted at their public performances. It is not surprising, then, that the researcher, a mere mortal, finds herself responding to the charismatic lure. Naturally, the wise cult leader counts on such a response—it is not only self-validating but also likely to achieve some desired outcome. A researcher who finds himself swayed by the prowess, magical powers, wisdom, or flattery of a cult leader is less likely to be ‘objective’ in his recording and reporting. Therefore, the researcher might want to put into place certain safeguards against those automatic emotional responses. The first would be, of course, to admit to one’s susceptibility to that charismatic pull. The next would be to institute checkpoints and outside reminders to help bring you back to earth. For example: (1) ensure that you have sufficient time alone, away from group rituals, practices, and paraphernalia; (2) place regular phone calls home or to colleagues who can give you a reality check; (3) stay on a good diet with plenty of liquids, nourishment, and protein; (4) surround yourself with reminders of your usual life; and (5) engage in regular reviews of research objectives. It is important to remember that the objective is not to get recruited, or even to have a good time, but to collect data and report on your findings.

quote-the-public-takes-care-of-their-fear-by-thinking-only-crazies-and-stupid-people-wind-up-in-cults-margaret-singer-267253

How Not to Become a Mere Apologist for the Cult You Are Studying

No researcher wants to become a pawn of the group that he or she is studying, but it is all too easy and tempting to fall into just that trap. Cultural anthropologists have long been known to become protective of the tribes they study. The more they come to understand tribes from the inside, the more they realize how vulnerable those distant cultures are to misunderstanding back home. Similarly, with cults, many aspects of their behaviour that seem weird to outsiders are much more understandable within the cult’s own milieu. It is only human nature for the researcher, having worked so hard to become familiar with the cult’s context, to wish to parade this expertise by explaining to the world why certain outrageous cult behaviours really do make sense when looked at from the appropriate perspective. Add to all this the fact that the leaders of totalistic cults are in a position to grant the researcher complete access to the cult with a mere wave of the hand, or just as easily to take it all away, as we have seen. Thus, the urge to ingratiate compounds itself upon the urge to protect the cult. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that some researchers have found it difficult to resist the pressure to become apologists rather than unbiased observers.

The secrecy that often envelops cultic organizations makes that pressure all the more of an obstacle to objective research. Wilson9 was explicit in advising researchers that the ‘tendency toward secrecy is intensified’ in cults and sects.10 Investigators who are not aware of (or turn a blind eye to) this reality will be doing a disservice to their field and to their research subjects. When researchers don’t make efforts to look at what might be going on behind the scenes or when they accept the front stage at face value, the results will stack up alongside some of the weaker studies and analyses in this field.

A Reassuring Lie

An instance of whitewashing occurred recently when a sociologist of religion was flown out to the West Coast as an expert to do a report on a local controversial group for a lawyer and public relations firm hired by the group (or rather, a member of the group), after two or three days in the area, the scholar asserted in writing that the group was not a cult and there was no evidence of brainwashing. His report was sent to both local and national media, as well as to some families of group members who were being affected by the brewing controversy. The report helped to stave off (and water down) media exposes, and put another wedge between some of the families and their relatives in the group. The scholar’s findings, however, were at odds with other evidence from cross-corroborated, first-hand reports from almost a dozen former members and families of members, documentation from a lawsuit filed several years earlier, and extensive research done by a local investigative reporter, which included access to internal group materials and videotapes that gave direct evidence to support some of the allegations. Nevertheless, the scholar’s report, based on a couple days of visits orchestrated by the group, and supported by a well-paid public relations campaign, as well as legal threats, made it more difficult to shed light on this group’s controversial backstage behaviour.

Some apologists are quick to say that everything from the 913 Jonestown deaths to the allegations of child abuse or sexual improprieties in other groups are nothing but the result of the ‘bigoted and criminal’ anticult movement and a handful of ‘disgruntled and vengeful’ former cult members. Yet, I would argue that such mud merely sullies the waters but does not change the facts. Over the years there has been enough evidence that at least some cultic groups have engaged in illegal and harmful activities, and, on a lesser scale, have created environments held together by intense forms of enforced conformity and rigid methods of controlling and constraining their members. These situations and these aspects of organizational control must not be overlooked if we are to understand these groups and their behaviours, as well as attempt to comprehend the lives and choices of the individual members. We must not be guided by the ‘norms of academia [that] make us reluctant to believe or disseminate negative facets of controversial groups.’11 Rather it is vital to look beyond the surface appeal of any group in order to examine and assess both the individual and societal ramifications and implications. Then, as Barker suggested, one’s interpretation of raw data might ‘become a basis for social action’12 that is preferably positive in nature as opposed to simply being favourable to the group’s perspective.

johnjayreport

The work of scholars in this field can and does have real-life implications. Apologies and whitewashing based on inadequate or biased research may  help perpetuate harm by glossing over or covering up questionable practices and activities, and, at worst, a variety of improprieties, abuses, or crimes. A researcher’s job is to produce knowledge and minimize distortion. Data provided by a cultic group should never be taken at face value, and being courted or toured about by the leadership is probably not a reliable avenue to anything other than a superficial view. Every charismatic group has gatekeepers who control the group’s environment, and many groups have vast public relations operations that send out polished views of their corporate world or public face. Similarly, claims by those who appear to be opponents of the group or merely taking a critical stance must also be verified and cross-corroborated; but they should not be ignored or discounted. If Lofland and Lofland’s13 ‘questioning mind-set’ is recommended in everyday research of ‘ordinary’ situations, then it seems only obvious that such an attitude would be all the more necessary when investigating cultic groups.

Use of Whistle-Blowers in Cult Research

Another important issue in researching cultic groups relates to the use of former members as informants and/or as researchers. Generally, in other contexts, a researcher will pursue information and insights from previous participants or other affiliated persons (e.g., consultants, business partners, investors, project collaborators, fellow-travellers, relatives). But in cult research, whether or not to use former members as sources of information has been a subject of much controversy. This controversy has raised such basic questions as the following: Should former member accounts be sought out, ignored, or overtly discounted and discredited? Are such accounts valid and reliable? Why or why not? Do all former cult members express negativity about their experiences, or just the ones who have been ‘deprogrammed’? Do all former cult members who speak critically about their experiences have an unworthy agenda? Why are some scholars adamant about deriding the accounts of those who are critical of their former group?

I love whitsleblowers

Central to this discussion is the issue of reliability and validity of so-called apostate accounts. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.), apostasy merely means ‘abandonment of a previous loyalty’ or ‘renunciation of a religious faith.’ Yet some scholars appear determined to discredit the testimony of any and all former cult members.14 They label former-member accounts as atrocity tales, and promote the idea that they should never be taken seriously. Instead, such researchers tend to rely on the accounts of leaders and current members, as well as accepting at face value the group’s literature (when it exists) and explanations.

However, other scholars do believe in truthfulness and the value of the accounts of former members. There is a risk in doing so, however—such as being accused of being an anticult-movement sympathizer, not getting published in certain academic journals, not being accepted as a conference participant, being pressured to conform, or, as discussed earlier, being threatened or harassed by the cult in question.

Former-member reports could be regarded as vital to obtaining a more comprehensive picture of certain cults. Especially taking into account the level at which a person functioned while in the group, a former-member informant who was in leadership or had other kinds of access to privileged locations or information is a valued source of information. Wilson noted that the lack of cooperation on the part of leaders or members will influence ‘what can be discovered and how what is discovered is understood.’15 In this vein, Zablocki16 reminds us that ethnographers rarely see anything but front-stage behaviour. The implication of Wilson’s and Zablocki’s comments is that it is even more crucial to gather data from those who have participated in and left a group. Seeing only front-stage behaviour typically means that a researcher will not get to hear members talk about what is really on their minds.

Whistle02

Many researchers in this field insist on the need for triangulation (using multiple sources of varying viewpoints), although few seem to practice what they preach. This lack of thoroughness has been reinforced by those who strive to delegitimate the entire category of former-member accounts. For such researchers there are two types of former members: (1) ‘good’ former members (called leave-takers) who leave the group quietly, and (2) ‘bad’ former members (labeled apostates) who voice discontent about their experiences.17 Here is but one example of this crude typology:

“The apostate is a defector who is aligned with an oppositional coalition in an effort to broaden a dispute, and embraces public claims-making activities to attack his or her former group. Unlike typical leavetakers whose responses range from indifference to quiet disenchantment, the apostate assumes a vituperative or hostile posture and pursues a moral campaign to discredit the group.”

Bromley,19 Wright,20 Lewis,21 and others put forth the notion that so-called career apostates (those bad former members) have won over and influenced the views of journalists, commentators, and, hence, the general public. Yet, I have seen no evidence of any solid effort on the part of those scholars to ascertain, for example, what percentage of former members actually even speak out about their groups, much less in the exaggerated form attributed to them. It is my contention that the image of the vengeful, fabricating apostate has a shabby foundation.

St. Anthony's Feast Day, January 17, 1997.
Many monks & nuns have left Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, not a few under bad circumstances and “without a blessing.” However, most are afraid to speak about the true nature of what took place behind closed doors.
In the monasteries it is taught that the most ideal way for someone to practice Orthodoxy is through blind obedience to a Geronda (or Gerondissa).
Former monks & nuns who have spoken out are quickly dismissed by the monasteries as deluded, disgruntled ex-monastics who never did obedience.

Former members are reluctant to speak about their experiences or participate in public forums—not because they do not have important experiences and insights to share, but rather because they are self-critical, cautious, stigmatized, and fearful of lawsuits. In many instances, those who have decided to speak publicly or write about their experiences have chosen not to identify the group or name the leader.

In the end, former members have provided invaluable insights into complex phenomena, making important contributions to our understanding of cults and charismatic relationships.22

Monks and nuns from the various monasteries under Geronda Ephraim during St. Anthony Monastery’s Feast Day (ca. 2006)
What was your daily life like in the community?

The Issue of Reflexivity Bias

Reflexivity bias can occur when the researcher is also a member or an ex-member of the cult being studied and therefore sees the cult in part as reflected through his or her own internalized cult worldview and/or memories of cult experiences. Clearly, such researchers have the benefit of having had an inside look, which can provide insight into other similar situations and is a vantage point not often shared by others. Yet, the insider perspective can also colour what the researcher sees and the conclusions she draws. Along with the opportunities afforded by insider status, doing research on a cult with which one had been affiliated poses a set of unique challenges.

First, and most obviously, it is important to openly acknowledge any personal interest in the subject in general, any personal experiences that may influence objectivity, any residual cult or anticult point of view, as well as any bias one may have concerning the group being studied.23

Reflexivity

Researchers who have been members of the groups they are studying have the considerable advantage of already knowing the cult’s private ‘language.’ They know what the leader means by his or her often-coded utterances. They know where to look, and what veils to shake loose. They are familiar with the effect of the leader’s words (spoken or written) on the devotees. They have lived with and shared the group’s attitudes towards outsiders. They may even be aware of the false claims, the tricks, the devices used to sway and convince. For example, in one group, words were manipulated to serve the leader’s sexual urges, so that ‘meditating with swami’ meant engaging in sexual activities with him.24 That usage was understood only by those in his inner circle who were expected to participate in the sexual behaviour. Someone from outside listening to an adherent of this particular swami, or observing behaviour around the ashram, probably would not catch on to the subterranean world of words, glances, gestures, relationships, and so on, whereas a former-member researcher stands to grasp more precisely the meanings of statements and actions.

The ability to comprehend a cult’s literature or spoken word is also enhanced by having shared the insider perspective.

Naturally, as with any research, a former member’s memories and perceptions must be corroborated, and triangulation becomes critical. But having been there lends a perspective and provides insights not otherwise possible. Ultimately, I see no problem in former cult members conducting research on their own group or any other so long as ‘experiences prior to entering the field [are] subjected to analytic reflection.’25

How to Get a Peek Backstage When the Cult Doesn’t Want You To

Cults are private organizations and deserve respect for their privacy. It follows from this that when a cult says ‘No, thank you’ to a request for research access, the ‘no’ response should be respected.  And, perhaps even more obviously, a researcher does not have the ethical right to infiltrate a cult’s circles by pretending to be a devotee. However, it does not follow from this that cults have the right to play it coy with researchers and show the pretty side while hiding the ugly. Researchers have rights too; and, once a researcher has been invited in, there is nothing wrong with trying to see behind the masks and the facade. Doing so during any but the briefest stay at a cult is far from impossible, but it does require that the researcher keep her wits about her.

Inside the altar during Divine Liturgy at St. Anthony's Monastery (AZ)
Inside the altar during Divine Liturgy at St. Anthony’s Monastery (AZ)

Various scholars have presented useful suggestions to help pave the way. More than a decade ago, Balch26 offered a comprehensive guide for the kind of data needed in the studies of these groups. His hope was that these categories would become standard. The categories are (1) demographic characteristics of membership, (2) historical development, (3) structure and content of belief system, (4) leadership, (5) social organization, (6) relationship between members and outsiders, (7) economic system, (8) material culture, (9) patterns of everyday life, (10) talk, (11) sexual relationships, (12) child-rearing, (13) deviance and social control, (14) recruitment strategies, (15) commitments demanded of members, (16) socialization techniques, (17) conversion experiences, and (18) defection. Balch argued that too often in published studies many of those topics were ignored or touched on too lightly to be useful for comparative purposes. In agreement with that perspective, I believe that researchers would be making a far greater contribution to the study of cults if they kept those categories in mind as they went about their work.

More recently, Balch and Langdon had these suggestions: ‘First, scholars who study alternative religions need to be familiar with the charges against them before they begin collecting data. Second, they should not take members’ claims at face value, however reasonable they seem. Third, they need to interview defectors and other critics to get different viewpoints, although here too they must be aware of hidden agendas. Finally, whatever the source of information, statements presented as fact need to be corroborated and verified with independent evidence.’27 Those four points, in my opinion, could serve as an invaluable guide for researchers of cults and controversial new religious and social movements.

  1. Watch how people relate to each other, and especially how they act around the leader.
  2. Ask tough questions—about money, about sex, about decision-making procedures, about time away from the group, about independent thinking. Be ready with specific questions, and don’t let them get deflected or turned back on you. Insist on specific answers, and don’t accept digressions or evasions. Get examples. Consider speaking with former members beforehand, so that you as the researcher will be armed with the types of probes that should generate some useful data.
  3. Look carefully at all mechanisms of conformity and control. Study the living quarters, clothing style, and speech and mannerisms to assess the extent of individual expression. Find out about group dynamics, criticism sessions, confessionals, or other means of using group processes to enforce conformity through humiliation, guilt, shame, and various means of influence and peer pressure.
  4. Determine how the group tolerates—or does not tolerate—dissent. Assess how former members are regarded, whether current members have access to former members or critical reports, and how much contact there is with families and other ‘outsiders.’ Also, find out if there is an internal justice system, a mechanism for feedback, and also one for appeals.
  5. When evaluating documents, use the same reflexive and critical thinking as in any other project. Be sure to review both external (for public consumption) and internal (for members only) documents; in the latter category, there are likely to be tiers of documents meant for members at ascending levels of commitment or trust. Using questions such as those posed in basic research texts would be a good start: ‘How are documents written? How are they read? Who writes them? Who reads them? For what purposes? On what occasions? With what outcomes? What is recorded? What is omitted? What does the writer seem to take for granted about the reader(s)? What do readers need to know in order to make sense of them? The list can be extended readily, and the exploration of such questions would lead the ethnographer inexorably towards a systematic examination of each and every aspect of everyday life in the setting in question.’28
  6. Fact-check everything you can. Group lore transforms easily into self-perpetuating myths that serve the cult’s image. It is important to look beyond the obvious, and use multiple sources of information and verification, including going outside the confines of the information provided by the cult and/or its archives.

Overall my advice is, be more like state investigators who drop in on nursing homes unannounced. Assume that things will be hidden, or prettied up. Be on the lookout for less-than-obvious findings and nonverbal cues. Charismatic leaders don’t need to hold a gun to their followers’ heads to get them to comply, but charismatic magic does only part of the job. Thus, explore specifically how the system works to bind members to the group and/or leader. Who are the key players and what are the crucial interactions? Where and when do they take place? How can you, the researcher, gain access to that?

Cult_8

As Lofland and Lofland cautioned, ‘The researcher is bound to doubt and to check and to hold all claims as simply claims. This creates an unavoidable tension between social scientists, group members, and any champions of those members.’29 An objective look that does not gloss over what is there requires being aware of the ways in which cultic groups can cover up or tone down. To reveal or write about these realities is not an attack on religious deviance or non-mainstream behaviour; rather, it is offering a more complete look at complex phenomena. Whether or not a researcher takes the next step of also providing a critique of certain social practices is an individual choice.

The full article can be read here:

NOTES

  1. See Balch, Robert W., What’s Wrong with the Study of New Religions and What Can We Do About It?, Balch & Langdon, How the Problem of Malfeasance Gets Overlooked in Studies of New Religions, 1998. Barker, Eileen, New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, 1995. Carter, Lewis F., Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram: The Role of Shared Values in the Creation of a Community, 1990. Singer, Margaret Thaler, Cults in our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives, 1995. Tobias & Lalich, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships, 1994. Wilson, Bryan R., Methodological Perspectives in the Study of Religious Minorities, 1988. Zablocki, Benjamin D., Distinguishing Front-stage from Back-stage Behavior in the Study of Religious Communities, 1997.
  2. The topic of researcher as potential convert has been adequately covered by Marybeth Ayella in ‘They Must Be Crazy’: Some of the Difficulties in Researching ‘Cults,’ http://abs.sagepub.com/content/33/5/562.extract
  3. Hammersley & Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice,
  4. Carter, Lewis F., Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram: The Role of Shared Values in the Creation of a Community,
  5. Ayella, Marybeth, ‘They Must Be Crazy’: Some of the Difficulties in Researching ‘Cults,’
  6. In some research textbooks the effort at derailing Wallis’ work on Scientology has become a case example of meddling in a researcher’s results and conclusions (see, for example, Hammersley & Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice, 1996: 283-4). Being the target of one of these campaigns is never fun. Such experiences have been described by Julius H. Rubin in Techniques for Suppressing Information Used by New Religious Groups, According to Rubin, because the leadership was displeased with what they considered to be critical reports of their group, Rubin was characterized as an enemy and sued for defamation, and other attempts were made to discredit him. In another instance, when Kent’s study on the leader of the Children of God (now The Family) was at the page proof stage, the article was withdrawn from an academic, peer-reviewed, annual publication because of the aggressive actions and threats towards the publisher (Kent & Krebs, Academic Compromise in the Social Scientific Study of Alternative Religions, 1998). Other incidents of harassment and intimidation of researchers and critics are recounted by Singer. Efforts such as these, whose aim is the control and suppression of information, tend to have a chilling effect on research.
  7. Barker, Eileen, New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, 1995, pp. 49-50.
  8. Barker, Eileen, The Scientific Study of Religion? You Must Be Joking!,
  9. Wilson, Bryan R., Methodological Perspectives in the Study of Religious Minorities, 1988, p. 238.
  10. In the article Wilson uses ‘religious minorities,’ although it is clear that he is referring to new religious movements, cults, and sects.
  11. Carter, Lewis F., Carriers of Tales: On Assessing Credibility of Apostate and Other Outsider Accounts of Religious Practices, 1998, p. 229.
  12. Barker, Eileen, New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, 1995, p. Xi.
  13. Lofland & Lofland, Analyzing Social Settings: A Guide to Qualitative Observation and Analysis,
  14. See, for example Bromley, David G., The Politics of Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements,
  15. Wilson, Bryan R., Methodological Perspectives in the Study of Religious Minorities, 1988, p. 230.
  16. Zablocki, Benjamin D., Reliability and Validity of Apostate Accounts in the Study of Religious Communities,
  17. Zablocki, Benjamin D., A Sociological Theory of Cults,
  18. Wright, Stuart A., Exploring Factors that Shape the Apostate Role, 1998, p. 109.
  19. Bromely, David G., The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles,
  20. Wright, Stuart A., Another View of the Mt. Carmel Standoff,
  21. Lewis, James R., Self-fulfilling Stereotypes, the Anticult Movement, and the Waco Conflagration,
  22. See, for example, A Collective of Women,
  23. See Burawoy, et. al., Ethnography Unbound: Power and Resistance in the Modern Metropolis, 1991; Sobo & de Munck, The Forest of Methods, 1998; and Steier, Frederick, Reflexivity, Interpersonal Communication, and Interpersonal Communication Research,
  24. Betz, Katherine E., No Place to Go: Life in a Prison Without Bars,
  25. Hammersley & Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice,
  26. Balch, Robert W., What’s Wrong with the Study of New Religions and What Can We Do About It?,
  27. Balch & Langdon, How the Problem of Malfeasance Gets Overlooked in Studies of New Religions, 1998, p. 207.
  28. Hammersley & Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice, 1996, pp. 173-74.
  29. Lofland & Lofland, Analyzing Social Settings: A Guide to Qualitative Observation and Analysis, 1995, pp. 154-55

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