In this theoretically oriented paper, I argue that research in the social sciences, particularly that which focuses upon the means of providing services to members, points toward a set of rational and less-rational motives for membership. I compare and contrast the organization of membership joining in clubs, neotribal enclaves, and cults. My purpose is to identify not only the similarities and differences among the three groups, but also how the dynamics of the first two groups shed light upon the motives (both rational and problematic) for those who join the third, cults. The paper reflects my findings that all three groups grow membership in order to increase their range, power, and future reach, and each claims to provide members, for a price, with future benefits not easily obtained elsewhere. In dealing with cult-member organization, it is vital for us to distinguish secretive, deceptive, and member-isolating service organizations from relatively open experiments for those seeking to bolster or transform a faltering identity. The work concludes with two suggestions on how to use the umbrella concept of club, enclave, and cult membership-organization framework to inform cultic studies.
Keywords: cults, experiential services, club goods; neotribal enclaves, membership reach, problem cults.
In this paper, I align, contrast, and develop a comparison of three very different service-
or membership-based organizations—club, neotribal enclave, and cult—all of which claim to provide benefits for a price to members (Gutek, Cherry, Bhappu, Schneider, & Woolf, 2000; Psathas, 1999). From an organizational-membership perspective, most researchers place the rational-choice club (Buchanan, 1965; Gilboa, 2010) with its commercial logic at one end of the membership-organization continuum and cults at the other, with enclaves in between. The reason for the clear split between the rationality of clubs and the problematic rationality of cults is simple. Clubs function in voluntary, most often commercial, markets (Sandler & Tschirhart, 1997). Members who are not pleased with their club membership can terminate it, albeit with some added costs. What, in the membership organization literature, are called neotribal enclaves (Maffessoli, 1996; Robards & Bennett, 2010), whether of the face-to-face or online variant, are viewed as hybrids, some of which resemble clubs, and others, problematic cults (Melucci, 1989). In cult-membership discussions, the cult or zealous self-help organization (Galanter, 1990) is portrayed as secretive, responsible for brainwashing or programming members with deceptive signals, and, once members are inducted, for creating conditions that both isolate the members from earlier contacts and raise the psychological costs to them of exiting the cult (Coates, 2013; Freckelton, 1998).
The focus upon membership-oriented, experiential service organizations in this paper is informed by two literatures. The first focuses on the manner in which the service or postindustrial revolution (Bell 1976; MacDonald & Sirianni, 1996; Kumar, 2009) has substantially altered the role of the consumer from customer to organizational member. As customers, consumers take no direct part in the division of labor that creates the goods they purchase. Thus, automobile customers can order special or customized options in their purchase. The customers are not on the assembly line creating the car. The same cannot be said of members in experiential services who, despite paying for the privilege, become part of the service organization. Readers who work in colleges and universities understand that for one to successfully engage in knowledge transfer requires the involvement and commitment of the student/member. The second literature picks up on this inclusion of the member and asks the two-pronged question, “How are members organized differently in varying types of member-based services?” (Tombs & McColl-Kennedy, 2003) and “Of what relevance is this variation upon a theme?” (Czepiel, 1990; Pine & Gilmore, 2011).
This paper examines the manner in which varying service organizations integrate customers as loyal members, and the means the organizations use to retain these members and grow the organizations (Bittner, 1995; Mills, 1986; Svensson, 2006). To this end, the work is divided into four sections. In the first section, I outline a stepwise set of seven criteria, which provides an overview of the stages faced by varying experiential service organizations that are seeking long-term loyal members who contribute to the success of the organization. In the second section, I apply the seven criteria to what is considered the rational-choice or market-embedded club model of membership alignment. Subsequently, I apply the criteria to less rational yet highly fluid and affect-centered neotribal enclaves such as motorcycle clubs and virtual communities. In the fourth section, I focus on the application of the seven criteria to cults. In the conclusion, I point toward the usefulness of including cults in the membership-organization discussion by offering two cult-related speculations that emerge from this framework.
Membership-Driven Service Organization
Service organizations can be aggregated into what social scientists call the tertiary or service sector of the economy (Peneder, Kaniovski, & Dachs, 2003). Those interested in the “service revolution” have posited the emergence of a postindustrial, knowledge-based society in which cocreation (Vargo, Maglio, & Akaka, 2008), the involvement and participation of clients in proactive processes, is a game changer (Sanders & Stappers, 2008). These theorists have been drawing attention to the migration of employees to and the discretionary spending of consumers in organizations that, at the end of a day’s work, produce nothing tangible (Schettkat & Yocarini, 2006). The primary (farming, mining, and hunting) and secondary (manufacturing) sectors of the economy remain vital, but both require fewer personnel, particularly in the more advanced economies. As well, they take more of the public’s discretionary spending, thus putting pressure on what in the more advanced economies are called rust-belt workplaces (High, 2015). This push away from the prototypical model of the industrial firm is exacerbated by the fact that, within the service revolution, there is a further shift within services toward experience-based services. The explosion and application of explicit and technology-embedded knowledge (Kandampully, 2002) to primary, secondary, and nonmember-based services means that there seems to be something in experiential service organizations that departs from models that are used to explain other, once-more-dominant organizations (Vargo, Larsch, & Morgan, 2006).
The experience-based services that focus upon the inclusion of the member in the division of labor within the service organization require varying degrees of personalization, trust, and member participation (Bettencourt & Gwinner, 1996; Johnson & Grayson, 2005). These organizations remain labor intensive not only in the sense evoked in the industrial society, of requiring many workers. They also stretch the industrial concept of labor in the term labor-intensive (Sweet & Meiksins, 2012) so that, in the service-society literature, labor includes all those who, like members and member volunteers, become part of the work process in experiential-based service, even if they are not paid. This reality becomes particularly important as the service-based society extends from
the more recognizable professional-services organization (Von Nordenflycht, 2010) to one in which members’ involvement itself in the services is central (Malhotra, Morris, & Hinings, 2006).
The literature highlighting the member-based service organization argues that, as examples, the furnace-repair person or the service clerk in the electric utility completes tasks that are more easily converted to technology (Meuter, Ostrom, Roundtree, & Bitner, 2000) than tasks for which the service organization requires clients’ participation or membership (Anderson et al., 2013). This characteristic is not present with human services that clubs, neotribal enclaves, and cults provide. These groups must integrate, to varying degrees, a pay-for-service membership by satisfying the paying members or those who, as third-party payers, pick up their tab (Long, 1988) Third-party payers (Marasco, 2008) such as insurance companies, government agencies, or philanthropic foundations, play a vital role in organizing member-based services. In instances of third-party payers, the member-based service organization keeps an eye on both the participating members and the satisfaction of the institutionalized third-party payer.
The literature upon which my work is based draws attention to the membership-based service organization for two reasons: First, these organizations are the wave of the future (Castellacci, 2008; Jaw, Lo, & Lin, 2010); and second, the theory of the industrial firm predominant in explicating the factory-based version of the industrial society fails to capture the flexibility experiential services employ in organizing members. To fill this void, an interdisciplinary set of case studies that looks at variations in how to organize members within experiential services has emerged (Gluckler & Hammer, 2011; Silvestro, Fitzgerald, Johnston, & Voss, 1992). These studies run the gamut across the public and private sectors. Subjects include voluntary members, such as those who buy into a gated community and pay for the privilege; whereas nonvoluntary members, whether those in court-appointed self-help groups or insurance-mandated attendees in post open-heart-surgery life-adjustment sessions, rely upon payments from third parties. From managing membership in the wealthiest exclusive country clubs, to membership in online home-exchange platforms, to membership in Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watcher’s, Scientology, or other potentially life-changing organizations, experiential human services develop strategies to organize and monetize the resources they receive from their members (Kindstrom & Kowalkowski, 2009).
- With regard to the organization of members, the varying human services (Collier & Meyer, 1998; Matthing, Sanden, & Edvardsson, 2004), albeit with differing priorities, focus upon what we can view as necessary criteria. These seven criteria, culled from the literature on membership-based service (Mills & Margolies, 1980; Sampson & Frohle, 2006), are applied with different emphasis across varying service organizations. The seven criteria of human- or membership-based services are
- Signaling. The membership-based service organization must signal its existence and, in so doing, differentiate itself from others. Membership success with certain populations (see targeting) generates a preferred and repeated signal.
- Targeting. The membership-based organization must not simply get the attention of prospective members; it also must make sure that the organization’s message (replete with benefits for joiners) reaches those most likely to hear the message. Once the message is heard, the organization attempts to get prospective members to sample (see frontline induction) the human service and convert to members.
- Induction. The human-service organization requires loyal members willing to escalate their commitment to the organization over time. However, to ease neophytes into the organization, a frontline-induction process that demonstrates requirements for entry and offers a foreshadowing (accurate or not) of the future (see membership socialization) is offered.
- Membership socialization. As members become active in the division of labor in the human service, they must be taught what to expect, how to behave, and their role in meeting the organization’s resource requirements (see model stabilization). The smoother and more successful the membership socialization is, the greater the organization’s ability to attract more members will be.
- Model stabilization. All member-based organizations require two forms of stabilization. First, they require resources from their members or their members’ agents or third-party payers; second, they require behavior stability and shared values. Service-model stabilization removes the start-and-stop urgency of the service organization and enables it to establish self-directed strategic direction.
- Strategic direction. When a membership-based organization has the luxury of setting its own strategic direction, it requires, within varying degrees of participation, the assent and involvement of the members. It achieves this assent by developing an ongoing means of membership inclusion in governance.
- Membership reach. With recurrent resources at hand, those entrusted with service-organization leadership negotiate or seek a means of mediating two distinct means of membership reach. The first method fixes upon increasing the identification of its members with the ideology and belief system of the organization; the second treats members as lower participants and hires professionals to run the organization.
Club goods and services, neotribal enclaves, and cults all organize their membership with these seven building blocks. Each, however, creates a unique configuration. Clubs magnify the rational choices (Scott, 2000), rational being understood as within a cost-benefit market logic. Neotribal enclaves highlight the role of affect, similarity in lifestyle, and flexibility in both their face-to-face and online-platform (social media) formats (Riley, Griffin, & Morey, 2010). Cults attenuate the liminal aspects of identity transformation, for a price, through cult membership (Singer and Lalich, 1995).
Club Goods and Services
Within member-based services, the club or club goods and services (Adams & McCormick, 1987) best exemplify the market-based (as compared to psychological) rational-choice model (Smith, 1991). In a market context, clubs offer services to a set of paying members (Stauss, Chojnacki, Decker, & Hoffmann, 2001). Club services within this model of membership organization run the gamut from total institutions, such as gated communities, to those with role-related membership, such as with gym memberships. In the club model, members are different than customers (Mills & Morris, 1986) and, as will become more evident when we examine neotribal enclaves and cults, this involvement becomes less owner-member focused as the service loses its commercial focus. In the club, members differ from consumers because they are an unpaid part of the division of labor and in varying degrees are coproducers (Chan, Lim, & Yam, 2010). Thus, a member of a gated community not only buys in but also must adhere to the rules of the community. These rules and the assurance that they will be upheld provide members with the promise that those less likely to follow the rules will be kept on the other side of the gate. The same holds true for gyms. In the club, members pay for services (in capital or sweat equity) if they decide that they want more benefits from their membership than would be the case either elsewhere or without such payment. Thus, rational choice arises because in club organizations prospective members can choose among alternatives (Leeson, 2011).
With regard to signaling, clubs compete with other member-seeking service providers. As such, they must create and, over time, strategically change a set of signals that not only highlight the benefits of club membership but also make clear why a rational decision maker will select this set of benefits. Clubs signal their benefit package by focusing on particular club aspects and downplaying others. The truthfulness or accuracy of signals clubs send varies. Some overpromise and try to lock members in. Others, given the competition, largely deliver the benefits they signal. Thus, some clubs stress a convenience signal, others a price signal, and still others a status or luxury-brand signal. The key to signaling in the club-membership model is to efficiently target the signal to the prospective member. On the whole, the less commercially rooted the signal, as is the case in social enclaves and cults, the more the signal focuses on the social (belonging)
and spiritual/religious (identity-transforming) benefits to prospective members.
Targeting in club membership is rooted in the recognition that prospective members hear or pay attention to signals when those signals are either easily heard or capture one’s attention. Members join clubs that they believe suit their lifestyle or the lifestyle to which they aspire. The rational-choice model suggests that markets push member-based organizations toward narrowcasting, or targeting their signals, not only as an efficiency measure, but also because those who join must get along. Throwing members of a rogue motorcycle club into the same gated community as members of a family-values club, for instance, is unlikely to yield promising, sustainable outcomes. Targeting requires that clubs set up clear and repeatable techniques with trained personnel along the service-organization boundary that separates prospective members from committed ones. We can think of the rational-choice club as a mechanism that converts targeted clients into paying members via a form of frontline induction.
In the case of clubs, induction involves the development of techniques and service employees (sometimes veteran members) to ease the clients into their new role as participants, either as paying members or at the behest of third-party payers. The frontline induction eases the neophyte’s fear of commitment, lack of fit, and economic concerns. Those in the club can invite prospective members to sample events. Testimonials and word-of-mouth communication from veteran members and service providers is intended both to answer the neophytes’ questions and allay their concerns. The frontline induction in one club competes with that in others. Thus, purchasers of gated-community or gym memberships may visit other gated communities or gyms before committing. This same idea, shopping around before committing, is less prevalent in the induction into enclaves and cults. In these groups’ more commercialized organization of member services, getting the prospective client into the group takes priority over socialization.
The socialization of neophytes into loyal repeat members requires that the new members learn how to become members in good standing in the club community. The rational-choice club model recognizes the centrality of members (or their agent, the third-party payer) in its formulation. Therefore, members who sustain their payments or commitments—whether these be in cash, sweat equity, or future access to wills and estates—enable the club to sustain itself and in so doing continue its signaling, targeting, and frontline induction. Retaining members and having them become fully committed, loyal members is essential to the long-term stability of the club. Note that the economic reasoning in the club model is apparent. In the enclave or cult, however, economic dynamics may at times challenge the ideological direction and promise of member benefits; thus, growth and financial success may challenge the online enclave’s promise of membership privacy. As a result, a cult in pursuit of financial success may create tension with its call for sacrifice and lifestyle downshifting of its members while the cult turns wealthy.
In rational-choice club services, model stabilization arises when the club becomes a viable, continuing entity. The viability relies on the degree to which the club can sustain itself, whether by membership contribution or third-party sponsors. Over time, the club becomes reliant not only on its resource stability, but also on the public’s perception of the club’s legitimacy and the services it offers. Model stability becomes problematic, even if resources can be found, when the club is seen as offering outlawed or societally questioned services. For example, a child-pornography club suits the first condition; but a club that provides services to swingers or for spouse exchange, while legal, can be seen as socially questionable. Model stability becomes problematic when the human service must use either secrecy or shadow markets to send out its signal, induct and socialize members, or develop relations with sponsors or fully committed clients. The club model of organization, focused as it is upon rational choice, turns to the club to set a self-directed strategic direction.
In a club-membership organization, the greater the club stability, the more the strategic direction of the club is set by its leaders. However, with member-based services, even when those services are commercialized, as in clubs, the service organization must get its members to either assent to the future strategic direction of the club or, more intriguing from an operational point of view, participate in the governance and establishment of the organization’s strategic direction. The owners or managers of the gym must take into account the paying client’s reactions; the gated community will likely require the inclusion of its members in key strategic decisions. When one considers clubs, particularly given their commercial concerns, it is important to recognize that some extend their reach and involvement by appealing to ideological positions that seem at odds with the commercial ethos. But just as commercially oriented corporations align themselves with stakeholders by “going green” and claiming to be reinvesting in society via corporate social responsibility, so too some clubs set such benchmarks as strategic direction to attract, align, and satisfy members.
Reach in all experiential services requires not only satisfying members and the third-party payers, but also extending the organization’s membership reach. The club variant offers two distinct ways to achieve this. The first follows the commercial orientation: The club can extend its member reach by opening multiple locations, franchising, even going global. Memberships and accompanying loyalty programs enable travelers on Star Alliance or other clubs to earn points, which increase their privileges as members—priority gating, club-lounge access, and the like. The more commercial the club, the more it hires professionals to run the service organization and treats members as transitory but essential participants. The more ideological the club gets—for example, the paying members of Greenpeace—the more the organization extends its reach by having its belief system aligned with that of its members. As shall become more apparent as we address the organization of neotribal and cult membership organizations, those at the helm increase their reach either by opening membership to wider numbers but diluting the commitment required (neotribes), or by carefully monitoring membership to assure a high degree of commitment and identification with the cult.
Unlike the rational-choice model, in which business is the focus of rationality, business plays a role in neotribal enclaves, but the membership is more rooted in the rationality of socio-emotional connectivity (Magee & Tiedens, 2006) and the manner in which that connectivity impacts one’s sense of identity (Babacan, 2006). Neotribal enclaves organize membership along two lines: The first is in face-to-face groups (Fiol & O’Connor, 2005), as with the members of a motorcycle gang, or in the monthly meeting, such as that of a reading group. In face-to-face enclaves, the organizing focus is upon sharing aspects of experience, which pales when one experiences alone (Nohria & Eccles, 2000). The second format uses social media and the Internet to generate virtual communities (Baragh & McKenna, 2004), which bring together interactors who share membership and therein a form of network connectivity (Ellison, 2007). The face-to-face model flourishes in increasingly urbanized contexts marked by mobility; it reflects the replacement of stable and enduring friendship bonds traditionally found in the neighborhood by membership in voluntary associations. The online or virtual communities provide their fluid and changing members with a sense of connectedness and belonging in which the ease of entry and parameters of the group are no longer bound by the face-to-face requirements.
With regard to signaling, both face-to-face and online neotribes stress the benefits to accrue to prospective members. However, unlike in clubs, in enclave signaling it is clearer that the draw is the social cohesion and benefits of belonging. The term tribal refers to the manner in which the contractual bond of the club is replaced by the handshake or warm regards of those who like one another. In the rational-club model, in contrast, the dimension of affect is downplayed or treated as a form of emotional labor (Ashforth & Humphrey, 1993). In the neotribal enclave, membership is tied to the desire to connect with others. The signal is modulated through two portals. In the first portal, the connection signal in organizing face-to-face neotribes such as the motorcycle gang and the reading group stresses the centrality of benefits that accrue to those who have friends, and therein viable social support. The second portal, through the online community, signals the benefits of network connections. Network connections extend one’s reach and can serve both instrumental (e.g., finding a job or date) and social (e.g., participating in a bereavement group) functions. Therefore, targeting in neotribal enclaves, although present, is far less important than in either the club or the cult.
Neotribal enclaves employ a different membership-targeting strategy than clubs or cults. Clubs attempt to create brand, which connects with prospective members. In contrast, cults target those frustrated by the way their self-styled identity is received. Neotribes in the face-to-face format target by word of mouth and extensions of friendship. Online enclaves, however, target by increasing the ease of access and participant commitment. Many online enclaves aggregate attention or, in their business-model jargon, “gather eyeballs,” and then charge third-party payers for advertising on the platforms created. Targeting is not as essential for enclaves as it is for clubs; like the cult, the enclave relies upon the induction process. In enclaves, induction is complicated because the beginning of membership is less marked than it is for clubs. One can typically ease into it as one learns the ropes and grows one’s connective links.
Induction in the neotribal enclave is relatively open. Here, the organizational boundary between the service organization and the prospective member is less formal than in the club. Existing members, as in the book group or motorcycle gang, can invite others in for a look. Online communities are often open, thus attracting not just member participants but also lurkers. One can be a member or participant in a neotribe and exit without too many complications. The neotribal enclave does not typically demand a high degree of commitment. Thus it is expected that members in both face-to-face and online enclaves will likely vary their commitment over time and, as is the case with online communities, have simultaneous, multiple memberships. The frontline induction, prevalent in the club model, is pushed into member socialization, where the experience of belonging sets in.
Neotribal membership socialization is rooted in establishing the mores and norms of connectivity in a particular enclave or community. Thus, in terms of these mores and norms, what it means to be a trustworthy friend and interlocutor in the reading club likely differs from those meanings in the motorcycle gang. In the online community, socialization is accomplished via the use of affect—increased attention or isolation by the face-to-face or online community to the member. The term neotribal suggests that these new tribes, whether they are showing their affiliations with motorcycle-club jackets or, more germane to the reading group, the importance of Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous prose, get a sense of belonging via shared membership. Socialization in enclaves is clearly a two-way street. Prospective members want in, and existing members may accept them with varying degrees of interest. In online enclaves, some contributors receive little if any reaction; others become central hubs. Similarly, in face-to-face enclaves, some feel unappreciated, even ostracized, by their lack of recognition. The neotribal enclave achieves membership stability when the face-to-face or online community satisfies its members’ desire to belong and give of themselves to the enclave and others within it.
While it is true that neotribal enclaves achieve model stabilization when they satisfy members, complications ensue when either form of enclave is directly or indirectly sponsored. Thus the role of Facebook, Twitter, and other owner-platform players on which online enclaves are built not only generates commercial club effects but also exacerbates these as it seeks to empower, maintain privacy, and remain responsive to members. In the case of face-to-face clubs—the sponsorship of, say, Harley Davidson or Kawasaki—sponsorship complicates matters. Pushing a particular product or brand, all the while signaling socioemotional benefits for members as members (not as product owners), creates tension. In these instances, the model becomes stabilized when the club tendencies—benefits to the sponsors—and the members’ benefits are seen as compatible. And when the enclave takes on characteristics of the cult, alignment of product or ownership benefits with the ideological and spiritual targeting of would-be members becomes even harder to project smoothly into the future.
Successfully setting strategic direction in enclaves is tied to the flexibility of neotribes. Flexibility in strategic direction means that neotribes expect and build their commitments to fit a set of shifting life options. Change is central to members. For instance, book-club members change books, genres, and membership over time. The online community of volunteers who put out Wikipedia not only continually update and introduce new content, but they also do so on changing technologies and with a roster of altering volunteer contributors. In the rational-choice approach of clubs, owners or club leaders embrace change that involves commercial benefits, called innovation. In contrast, they treat disruptive innovation as a threat. The enclaves that take on some of the qualities of the cult are even less flexible. Their doctrine remains rooted in a consistent tradition, often a version of clarity or purity, that is attainable by seekers but denied those who fail or refuse to see the light.
Neotribal membership reach is clearly different in both the face-to-face versus online enclave and in the more commercially run rather than ideologically driven enclaves. Face-to-face enclaves, such as small villages, retain a reach geographically constrained by the community members’ desire to physically meet. When the face-to-face enclave marries with the commercialism of the club, it becomes possible to adapt the service to the locale of such branches and even at times franchise them. Face-to-face enclaves that adopt cult characteristics are less tolerant of regional adaptation, but when these actions are borne by a strong mandate to grow, these enclaves seek converts and new inductees by subtly modifying the cult doctrine to accommodate different aspects of the local face-to-face culture. With regard to online membership reach, the more commercially oriented the enclave, as determined by the centrality of owners and sponsors, the greater the interest in the enclave in capturing large numbers. However, a paradox ensues. Large numbers mean economic success, but they push the members’ search for benefits into a tailspin as connectivity moves from the shared and personal to the more superficial and anonymous.
When online enclaves take on facets of the cult, their reach is restricted by the ideological search for others who share a similar doctrine and value system. Cults, new religious movements, and, most interestingly, terrorist groups, however, are discovering in the online enclave a facet for inducting isolates or lone-wolf members—those more at home with an imagined online membership than is possible in the face-to-face version.
Membership organization in cults can be divided into three recognizable research streams. The first generally reflects an appreciation for cults and frames them as new or emerging religious, spiritual, or life-changing services (Coates, 2012a). The second stream reveals a mixed view of cults (Langone, 2000). As in the first view, cults can be appreciated when they assist members in dealing with problems or issues that are not easily or fully handled elsewhere (Coates, 2012b); in contrast, cults are treated as problematic when they prey upon the psychologically weak, socially needy, and spiritually isolated. In the third perspective, there is no positive position: Cults deceive (Richardson & Introvigne, 2001). They foster groupthink (Wexler, 1995). More often than not, they request that cult members follow a strict doctrine of totalism (Anthony, Robbins, & Barrie-Anthony, 2002; Lifton, 1991), which ultimately creates or extends and exacerbates personality and social/psychological problems (Jenkinson, 2008; Rodríguez-Carballeira et al., 2015).
Cults must signal their story in a manner that attracts want-to-be members. Although the signal varies, cult stories tend to promise transformation, even transcendence. Like clubs and enclaves, the cultic organization signals that membership is worth the price. Those who align cults with clubs feel comfortable with this premise and insist that it is the members themselves who must determine whether or not they are satisfied and would like to continue. Those who align cults with enclaves buy into the club reasoning when the cult signal is open, transparent, and appears to show comfort with members who exit. Those with this perspective take umbrage with cults whose signals are unclear, whose workings are secretive, and who create barriers to client exit. Cult signals are treated as social problems when they are seen as hiding the costs of membership, encouraging cult forms of body or mind control (sleep deprivation, diet, drug use, or extreme exercise), and not only curtailing exit but also prohibiting cult criticism.
Membership targeting by cults that are club-like is commercialized to the point that some hire commission-paid recruiters to locate prospective members. The more that the cult takes on a doctrine or ideology considered controversial and operates with what appears to be secretive methods, the more that targeting prospective members becomes complicated. As with enclaves whose legitimacy is questioned, not only is model stability questioned, but targeting requires nuancing, as well. The cult with a questionable public image must get its message to prospective members. In targeting, it attempts to circumvent its critics. Thus, event sampling or “looking into joining” avoids the critics through employment of a “by invitation” targeting procedure. The cult seeks to reduce the critics’ interference by culling the target sample into pools. In the earlier sessions, those who raise strong criticisms in a public manner are put to the side for more careful induction, while those who indicate little or no resistance are passed on to the next session, in which greater controversy is expected. Last, the cult seeks to use the energy of the critic in establishing the credibility of the cult. Cult insiders insist that the existence of critics and opponents establishes that the cult is a force for change and transformation. The cult provides the prospective members with a sample of like-minded others willing to take on these irksome and disrespectful forces.
Cult member induction is difficult to separate from cult socialization. This challenge arises because cult membership is best understood from the member’s perspective as a process of identity transformation and through this the elevation of one’s self-worth (esteem). Induction and those organizing it are dealing with what Turner (1977; 1995) and those following his work call liminality (Beech, 2010; Thomassen, 2009) in the drama of identity transformation. Liminality refers to the anticipation of new (positive) possibilities if one goes through a well-marked ritual or discipline. This is one of the reasons cults are frequently associated with new religious and spiritual movements. Those seeking new, bolstered, or modified identities hold two things in common: They are not only dissatisfied with the status quo, but they also are in the throes of casting about for alternatives. These alternatives often require sacrifice and a distancing from the forces, factors, and families associated with the liminal-seeking cult member’s past and troubled identity.
With regard to socialization, cults vary in the degree to which they claim to transform the identity and lifeworlds of committed members. Some are greeted with social approval and, like Alcoholics Anonymous, group counseling and psychotherapy. Socialization in these cults resembles that in the face-to-face enclaves. In search of greater global reach and ease of access, these cults are going online and beginning to take on the socialization regimes of online enclaves. The cults that align themselves with large identity transformations and cling to secrecy and membership isolation from earlier contacts have been experimenting with a closed socialization process since the advent of secret societies and ideologically committed insider enclaves. This socialization in the face-to-face cult takes members after their induction and places an image of the successful transformation in either a living (guru/master) or legendary exemplar. The new members increase their commitment and often detachment from earlier habits, life-style remnants, and personal contacts as they ascend toward fulfillment—a resemblance in mind and body to the exemplar. The online format is used less to socialize members to the cult than either to locate potential inductees or, as in the case of lone-wolf terrorists, to utilize the liminal search of the socially and psychologically disconnected to attention-getting tasks.
In their rational-choice versions, cults are businesses and become stable with a resource build-up. Cults with social-enclave characteristics achieve model stabilization when the member community is capable of regenerating itself, particularly across generations. Cults that take a strong ideological position and focus upon a tight induction and closed socialization process achieve stability in two very opposite manners. The first, more typical of the “problem” cult, becomes more and more secretive, inward looking, and doctrinaire over time; but it learns how to solve the intergenerational succession problem. Closed cults do this by placing a premium on cult members having large numbers of children, often starting at a relatively early age. Other doctrine-based cults encourage cult members to selectively proselytize, often going into a sort of cult diaspora in search of those who are disconnected and in a liminal state in other cultures or lands. Those who bring in high numbers of new members are accorded status and often moved up and further along toward the cult exemplar.
With regard to strategic direction, the nature of the exemplar at the heart of “bliss” or success in the story of transformation in the ideologically driven cult is that which the cult strategy seeks to protect. It is the core. The same cannot be said for club-leaning cults. Instead, they will dilute the signal, modifying the induction process and even the interpretation of the exemplar to gain more or higher-paying members. The enclave is much more tied to an ideology, but one that is and must be revised as enclave succession shifts the interpretation of the exemplar from generation to generation. The cult with enclave-leaning propensities evolves and largely admits of revision to its doctrine. The revisions enable the retention of high solidarity and affect in a community whose culture is not fixed. The strategy of the doctrinaire cult is to protect its core value—the virtues embodied in the exemplar and the process necessary for cult members to become more exemplar-like. The exemplar can be embodied in a version of a person and a life once lived, or in the utopian version of a community.
In the doctrinaire cult, membership reach is restricted to the select. In this sense, cult reach in doctrinaire cults is tied to true or genuine believers. These individuals have embraced the core doctrine, moved forward to embody the exemplar, and in so doing, earlier in their transformation within the cult, have acted as an exemplar for others. While club and club-leaning cults reserve “select” status for high-paying, elite, or celebrity members, the same does not hold true for the others. Thus, in the enclave, in both face-to-face online and the enclave-leaning cult, membership reach grows—the former in a rational economic context, the latter via diffusion and acceptance in larger numbers. The more problematic the cult becomes, the more it holds out an exemplar and set of genuine believers who are not aligned with the dominant population. In this way, terrorists groups are increasingly theorized as part of the cult family. They not only recruit those who are dissatisfied with the status quo, but also hold out as moving toward the good, exemplars at odds with the dominant population. The call, ongoing with cults seen as having problematic reach, is clear: They should be regulated; the education of prospective members is required; the cults should be monitored, audited, or policed in a more systematic and rigorous manner.
What, in my view, is important in introducing cultic-studies researchers and analysts to a set of variations in service-member forms of organizations is that doing so places cults as a member within a useful umbrella concept: member organization. An umbrella concept enables those studying heretofore analytically separate entities to make connections. Although the connection between cults and new-religious spiritual and even therapeutic movements is established, that connection between cults and other member-dependent service organizations has not been. Thus, cult-related discussions often fail to see some cults as having the rational-choice components of the club, or, vice versa, some clubs as being far more cultlike and problematic. The variability of options in the organization of membership one achieves by focusing upon membership—signaling, targeting, induction, stabilization, strategy and reach—generates suggestions as to where emerging trends in cult-membership organizations are likely to occur.
As noted in the introduction, two suggestions that employ the model may help demonstrate the utility of this discussion for cult researchers. First, it is apparent from the experimentation in online neotribal enclaves in everything from e-commerce to online education that the use of online platforms will become a greater component in the future of cults. Given the breakdown of membership-organization components, this reality points in two directions for students of cults: Cults may bifurcate into what organizational theorists call an ambidextrous or a two-platform-based model. One platform holds the core business; the other explores new options for member signaling, targeting, induction, and socialization. In cults, this is likely to take the form wherein the core business remains the protection for and buildup of a system of true believers. The experimentation occurs in the use of the Internet and educational, attention-getting, online videos and events to capture a large pool of potential members, which can help to support the cult’s core. The ambidextrous cult strategy enhances cult reach as the core retains a marked resemblance to the classic cult, and the new exploratory stream extends cult reach in efforts to establish a wider pool for member induction, socialization, and membership reach.
A second implication for cultic studies that grows out of putting clubs, enclaves, and cults beneath the same umbrella is, in my view, the manner in which face-to-face cults are beginning to hold themselves out as having a social, mental, or spiritual component largely unavailable in clubs, or in online enclaves or cults. In this view, face-to-face enclaves may become more like nonproblematic cults. By borrowing the concept of mindfulness and applying it to the positive outcomes they claim for those who join a face-to-face group that focuses upon, say, meditation, yoga, slow food, hiking, vegetarianism, and other lifestyle-conferring identities, these emerging entities are grabbing the attention of those who are seeking to bolster their identity via membership in a group that opposes, at least in lifestyle claims, the materialism of the status quo. Lifestyle opposition confers new identity without one having to commit to activist forms of protest. In contrast, the club has difficulty opposing materialism. And online platforms, whether they lean toward the enclave or the cult, are too tied to technology and third-party sponsors to ease the anxieties associated with these factors. Cults deserve close scrutiny and watchful analysis. A static and simplified understanding of membership organization as it takes hold in varying cult forms detracts from an in-depth understanding of how these groups adapt over time. And too much may go unwatched.
Why problematic cults are unwatched is at the heart of the concern in this work. Cults can be important experiments, or they can create pressing social and psychological problems, or both.
The face-to-face enclave begins to shade into the cult when it espouses an exemplar at odds with the status quo; attracts those in a liminal condition, excited by the possibility of identity transformation; enforces the belief that to become an authentic member one must move inward toward mastery and toward the exemplar; and reinforces cutting off contact with nonmembers or believers to distract from the accomplishment of the successful transformation. It is clear that most clubs that provide yoga, meditation, or other forms of mindfulness are just that—clubs. They are rational-choice businesses, yet they are not autonomous with face-to-face communities. Others are face-to-face enclaves. The trajectory that provides us with an understanding of enclaves as they take on cultic characteristics is vital. This knowledge serves as an early alert, especially for those individuals most concerned when a cult turns from an interesting experiment to a dangerous, secretive, deceptive organization that is programming those who are reaching out for help.
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About the Author
Mark N. Wexler, PhD, is University Professor Management at Business Ethics/Simon Fraser University and President and Senior Partner at The Perimeter Group in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Address all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
 I would like to thank Judy Oberlander for her assistance, and Dr. Michael Langone and two anonymous International Journal of Cult Studies reviewers for their valuable aid in revising this paper.