Archive for July, 2018

Religion: Why do people join cults?

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

We’re currently researching and scripting a couple of films on secularisation and New Religious Movements and a spin-off from this, as you may have noticed, is a range of religion resources either based on stuff we’ve found – NRM Pathways and NRM Characteristics – or stuff other people have already produced.

This post falls into the latter category: a 6-minute animation in the TED-ED series of films, written by American Professor of Sociology Janja Lalich and focused on an overview of religious cults that grew out of her own research in this area.

In this respect you could use the film as a simple introduction to the main features of cults, because it covers some familiar themes:

• A basic definition of a cult

• An overview of cult characteristics

• An outline of why people join cults.

The film also references a couple of the most notorious religious cults in recent times:

• The People’s Temple and Jonestown involving mass “involuntary suicide”.

• Heaven’s Gate involving an apparent voluntary mass suicide (whose website – not all of it’s members “passed over” – is still active if you want to illustrate and investigate the cult further).

New Religious Movements: Five Pathways

Monday, July 23rd, 2018

In a previous Presentation we identified a range of defining characteristics of New Religious Movements and this Presentation compliments this work by identifying and outlining the general characteristics of five different, but frequently interrelated, types of NRM.

The Presentation is based on Daschke and Ashcraft’s (2005) categorisation of “five interrelated pathways” into membership of New Religious Movements, where each route they identify reflects the broadly-unique features of a particular group of NRMs. To this end the Presentation is focused on two areas:

1. Identifying different pathways into NRMs.

2. Outlining the key features of each pathway.

The Presentation functions, in this resepct, to provide both a broad typology of NRMs and a simple overview of their differences. This overview can then be used as the basis for the introduction of examples of different types of NRM, wider discussion of their significance, social impact and so forth.


If you want a few additional notes to expand the Presentation, the five different Pathways can be characterised in the following terms:

1. Perception: This identifies movements that involve a new way of looking at the ‘problem of existence and understanding’. Their focus – and attraction – is on philosophical questions (like the meaning of life).

2. Identity overlaps with perception in the sense it focuses primarily on the Self. However, ‘identity movements’ are less likely to address questions relating to ‘the cosmos’ (the scheme of things) and more likely to focus on human potential – in particular, the development of new personal identities. These movements attract those who seek personal enlightenment through the mastery of certain techniques and practices designed to release their ‘inner spirituality’.

3. Family types focus on the social solidarity aspect of religious practice; their primary attraction is the offer of a sense of community and well-being through the development of close, personal relationships with like-minded individuals. In this category people want to explore different (‘alternative’) ways of living and working, usually by distancing themselves, as a group, from wider society.

4. Society movements focus group solidarity outwards rather than inwards – a major attraction here is the possibility of changing society to align it more closely with the (spiritual) beliefs of the group. This involves transforming social institutions (such as work, school and the family) through the application of a particular moral or ethical code (a ‘design for living’, if you like).

5. Earth movements: The goal here is to transform the whole world. Some of these movements focus on:

• Planet transformation, usually through beliefs in an apocalyptic end to the earth and, from the ruins, the creation of a new ‘golden age’ (whether this is through supernatural or human intervention). Other variations focus on:

• Group transformation – the idea, for example, that the group will be transported to a new planet (what are sometimes called ‘exit-orientated’ movements).

New Religious Movements: 6 Characteristics

Saturday, July 21st, 2018

Basic PowerPoint Presentation, designed for whole-class use, that identifies Barker’s 6 characteristics of New Religious Movements.

The concept of New Religious Movements was initially developed, by writers such as Eileen Barker (1999), to reflect a general unease and dissatisfaction with the contemporary usefulness of the “sect – cult” distinction.

More-specifically, the argument in favour of a looser way of categorising a variety of new religious groupings is based on the claim that their increasing diversity of what are conventionally labelled “sects” or “cults” makes it difficult to maintain both a clear theoretical and empirical separation between the two:

• Theoretically, such is the overlap between sects and cults the distinction “on the ground”, when studying their activities, is less than useful. Woodhead et al. (2005), for example, in their ground-breaking study of religion and spirituality in Kendal, identified “two domains”: the Congregational, consisting of a range of churches and denominations and the Holistic – a wide variety of spiritual practices and beliefs they categorised in terms of their ease of access for potential practitioners: from the low access requirements of yoga (you can simply turn up to class and practice it, with or without any accompanying spiritual content) to the high access requirements of something like Paganism that involves a certain level of commitment in terms of its beliefs and practices. In this sense, therefore, “New Religious Movement” simply becomes a kind of generic term for a range of religious organisations that don’t fit easily into the church or denomination category.

• Empirically, evidence derived from the study of different religious groups and movements suggests they are both increasingly sophisticated in the way they recruit and retain members and internally diverse in terms of how they operate. One reason for this is that globalisation – particularly but not exclusively in the form of the Internet and social media – has allowed new religious movements to diversify in terms of both what they offer to potential and actual converts and how they offer it. Scientology, for example, has been particularly sophisticated in this respect, marketing itself by forging many different types of relationship with members through a wide range of media, old and new.

In addition, there are huge organisational and behavioural differences within categories like ‘sect’ and ‘cult’: they’re not simple, homogeneous, classifications and it may be more useful to reflect their multi-layered diversity by being more selective in how we categorise them.

As well as questioning what the categories “sect” and “cult” denote – the supposedly essential features by which they can be differentiated – Barker also suggests we need to consider how these labels have increasingly acquired particular, frequently pejorative, connotations in both the media and wider society: the term “cult”, for example, has, she argues, come to have almost a wholly-negative meaning, “often implying bizarre beliefs, sinister and deceptive practices, mind control or psychological coercion and, perhaps, sexual abuse and violent tendencies”.

In this respect, Barker argues the sect – cult distinction should be replaced by a much-looser form of categorisation, namely New Religious Movements, “defined as groups which have become visible in their present form since the Second World War, and which are religious in so far as they offer an answer to some of the ultimate questions traditionally addressed by mainstream religions: Is there a God? What is the purpose of life? What happens to us after death?”.

To help students get to grips with what Barker identifies as 6 major characteristics of New Religious Movements I’ve bundled them together in a simple PowerPoint Presentation.

Longitudinal Studies: Animated Explanations

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

Longitudinal studies

Although longitudinal studies, such as Wikstrom’s PADS (“Peterborough Adolescent Development Study”: 2002 – 2010) research – designed to understand how families, schools and communities shape young people’s social development – are a well-established and hugely-valuable source of comparative data, teaching them as part of an a-level Sociology research methods course can be a little, shall we say, dry?

To make things a little more interesting, therefore, you might want to have a look at this series of five, short (around 1 minute each), animated films designed to provide an easy introduction to the joys of longitudinal research.

Overview: This Introduction to longitudinal studies is probably a good place to start, both because it’s basically the beginning and it outlines what they are, what they do and how they can be used. In this respect, the animation introduces three basic ideas:

• different types of longitudinal study (such as cohort studies and household panel studies).
• how data is collected.
• how studies can be used (specifically in relation to social policy).

Subsequent films pick-up and develop these general ideas in terms of:

design – with a focus on sampling.

types of longitudinal study.

data collection tools.

How longitudinal data is used for research.

Throw-in a few limitations of longitudinal studies –

• Time: the PADS study, for example, was carried-out over a 10-year period.

• Cost and management: Wikstrom’s study involved managing a diverse group of around 30 student investigators and academic collaborators.

• Attrition rates – over a long period of time people may gradually leave the study.

• Sample degradation: although you may begin with a representative sample this may degrade over time as and when people leave. This may gradually erode the study’s representativeness.

– and you’ve got the basis for a complete longitudinal lesson.

Don’t thank me.

Someone’s got to do it.


ASPIRES 2 is a contemporary example of a longitudinal study designed to “study young people’s science and career aspirations”.

It’s of interest sociologically because a major objective has been to “understand the changing influences of the family, school, careers education and social identities and inequalities on young people’s science and career aspirations.”

Understanding Media and Culture: Free Textbook

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication (to give it its full title) is a textbook, released under a Creative Commons licence by the University of Minnesota, that’s free to read, copy and share – which makes it especially useful for schools / colleges or students on a tight budget.

Under this particular licence you’re also free to adapt the work in any way you like (“remix, transform, and build upon the material”) and what this will mostly mean is that if you want to chop chapters or sections out of the textbook you’re free to distribute these in any way you like (you just can’t charge anyone for the privilege).

In terms of content, the main body of the text dates from 2010 but there has been some updating in 2016 (particularly around the impact of new technologies) which makes it pretty up-to-the-moment as far as textbooks go.

The emphasis on media and culture means that most of the text is given-over to an analysis of the cultural impact of different types of media, both old (books, newspapers, film and television) and new (video games, entertainment, the internet and social media). Each type is given their own discrete chapter which, among other things, looks at their broad development, relationship to culture and, perhaps most-interestingly, how they have been impacted by the development of new technologies.

The remaining chapters deal more generally with a range of areas: concepts of culture, media effects (there’s coverage of a range of theories dealing with direct and indirect effects), globalisation, the relationship between the media and government and a final section on the future of the mass media.

Each chapter also has its own learning objectives, brief summary and short exercises. Whether or not you find these useful is, as ever, a moot point. I’m personally not a big fan, but Publisher’s love them so we probably have to learn to live with them.

Or ignore them.

It’s your choice.

Finally, one obvious drawback, as far as UK teachers and students are concerned, is that the cultural focus is largely North American. This means that many of the chapters draw on materials and examples that will be unfamiliar to any but an American audience and UK teachers who decide to use these chapters may want to take advantage of the aforementioned editing privileges afforded by the CC license.

If you think you might be able to live with this, the textbook’s available to:

Read online
• Download in a variety of ebook formats (such as mobi and epub) or as a pdf file.