David G. Bromley

Published in
Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins (eds.), Misunderstanding Cults.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001, 318-348.

     The controversy over the cohort of movements referred to alternatively as new religious movements and cults has yielded intellectual and political polarization in academe. The movements at issue have been described as unfairly maligned new religious groups, on the one hand, and as destructive cults, on the other hand. The countermovements opposing these groups have been depicted as unjustly denigrated self-help movements comprised of concerned families and citizens and also as the latest incarnation of anti-religious bigotry. Scholars have divided into two camps, offering what appear to be dramatically different interpretations of the same organizations, actors, and events. Suspicions run deep on each side concerning the logic and loyalties of the other. In this chapter I take an analytic step back from the controversy to inquire why this debate has been so intractable. After all, disputation has now traversed three decades. Written works on contemporary religious movements surely number in the thousands at this point, and affiliation related behaviors are the most intensively researched issues (Rambo, 1993; Saliba, 1990; Snow and Machalek, 1984). Yet, little progress has been achieved in resolving what may be the most volatile dispute in this area of scholarship, the appropriate theoretical framework through which to explain affiliations with contemporary religious  movements. I offer two alternative explanations for the current impasse. The first explanation is that the investigation of religious movement affiliations is an empirical thorny thicket that does not easily lend itself to empirical resolution. The second is that the debate is not empirical at all, but rather is a political imbroglio. I shall argue the second position against the first while allowing that the two positions are not mutually exclusive. The terms brainwashing and conversion are employed here to summarize the political positions of the disputants, whether or not specific actors and narratives employ that terminology.

       To summarize my argument briefly, the dispute centers on individual-group relationships, specifically the appropriate nature and degree of individual embeddedness in religious organizations. Conversion is a symbolic designation that positively sanctions embeddedness while brainwashing negatively sanctions embeddedness. The dispute is a political imbroglio that involves two major coalitions, which I term the religion coalition and the mental health coalition. The disagreement between the coalitions, however, is not nearly as great as rhetorical positioning on both sides would suggest. The protagonists are all professional-managerial representatives of dominant institutions, and the coalitions with which they are associated both are committed to high levels of individual autonomy, voluntarism, and self-directedness. Paradoxically, it is because both coalitions are converging around this commitment that the conflict has intensified. Since both coalitions have formidable institutional power bases and high legitimacy, it appears unlikely that either will achieve total victory. For social scientists involved in the dispute, acknowledging and openly discussing its political basis is important irrespective of the settlement reached. Such an exchange would explore the political dimensions of science and identify the social forces that shape not only the patterning of the social order but also social science accounts as an integral element of that order.


    The case that the conversion-brainwashing dispute is not amenable to empirical resolution rests on a number of problems of theory, methods, and data. I shall illustrate, rather than exhaustively review, this position by briefly outlining several empirical problems in reconciling conversion and brainwashing interpretations. These problems include (1) empirical complexity, (2) observability, (3) theoretical pluralism, and (4) organizational diversity and change.

Empirical Complexity

    Both what are termed conversion and brainwashing traditionally have been treated as if their referents are unitary phenomena. Recent theorizing in each area has resulted in the development of typologies that distinguish subcategories of brainwashing and conversion, although these initiatives have been much more extensive for the latter than the former. One example in the case of brainwashing theory is work by Richard Ofshe and Margaret Singer (1986). They designate two types of thought reform techniques, which they term first and second generations of interest. This typology appears intended to distinguish degrees of invasiveness and identifies the second generation as more destructive because it attacks "core sense of being" (1986:18). Another relatively clear distinction has been drawn between religiously based concepts of deception, which emphasize symbolic
manipulation (i.e., false theology), and secular concepts of brainwashing, which emphasize social and psychological behavioral manipulation (Shupe and Bromley, 1980). There have been few other attempts to develop typologies for brainwashing although there is no a priori reason why distinctions cannot be drawn. For example, references to different types of group processes that constitute brainwashing techniques -- such as ritual chanting, isolation, and authoritarian leadership -- might constitute the grounds for developing typologies. The existing typologies tend to share in common a presumption of compromised voluntarism. It appears that for the moment, however, the primary thrust of scholars pursuing a brainwashing argument is to establish the existence and parameters of a process that is qualitatively different from other influence processes.

     Over the last several decades there have been a number of conversion models that identify different categories of conversion. For example, Lofland and Skonovd (1981) identify five of conversion types based on degree of pressure, temporal duration, affective arousal, affective content, and belief-participation ordering. "Coercive" is one of these modes, although the authors conclude that it is a rare empirical event. Lofland and Richardson (1984) delineate four major types and eleven subtypes of conversion organized by level of analysis and degree of individual agency. Travisano (1970) distinguishes between alternation and conversion as "qualitatively different transformations." Most of the categories of conversion contained in these typologies presume a substantial measure of convert voluntarism.

     The implication in all of these typologies is that brainwashing and conversion have multiple empirical referents. If there are a number of analytically separable processes sharing a "family resemblance," then the irresolvability of the present debate might be attributable in part to observation of different empirical phenomena. There simply are not single positions to be compared to one another. While it might be possible to conduct comparisons of particular types of conversion and brainwashing, any binary choice resolution of the debate would be unlikely.


     There are two associated observability problems, one related to observation of the processes themselves and the other to observation of the individuals participating in those processes. At the core of both conversion and brainwashing theories is the concept of a qualitative, holistic transformation. Snow and Machalek (1984:169) capture this point nicely in summarizing the theory and research on conversion when they write that "The one theme pervading the literature on conversion is that the experience involves radical personal change,...a turning from one viewpoint to another, or a return to principles from which one has strayed" (emphasis added). A variety of social and psychological indicators may be used to empirically measure this putative transformation. Snow and Machalek (1984:172-174) summarize these as changes in membership status, demonstration events, and rhetorical indicators (biographical reconstruction, adoption of a master attributional scheme, suspension of analogical reasoning, and embracement of the convert role).

    A similar notion is found in theories of brainwashing. One of the primary proponents of the brainwashing approach, Margaret Singer, conveys the sense of a qualitative shift in terms of loss of free will. In legal testimony (Bromley 1988a:276) concerning a former member of the Hare Krishna (Robin George), Singer  at one point concluded that "It's my opinion that she was not at that point freely using her own will and volition (emphasis added)." The process through which individual volition is compromised Singer terms the "systematic manipulation of social influence" (SMSI). Indicators that an individual has undergone SMSI experiences include what she refers to as the five d's: deception of the person, dependence on the organization, debilitation of the individual through group controls and routines, dread (both within the group and of the outside world), and desensitization such that individuals no longer utilize their "old conscience" (Bromley 1988a:276).

     Whatever the set of empirical indicators used on either side of the argument, one pivotal fact remains: the transformation itself is not directly observable. Since the phenomenon is beyond direct observation, the battle revolves around surrogate indicators, most notably individual accounts and behavioral changes. The observability problem is exacerbated by the fact that few, if any, social science studies of brainwashing or conversion actually are based on cases for which the entire process was recorded. At best, observations are of segments of the processes, and usually they are for different individuals at those various points in the process. Data are particularly thin for certain parts of these processes, most tellingly of the actual "moment of transformation" itself. One surrogate indicator commonly employed by researchers is individual accounts, which are used to "fill in the blanks" where observation is segmental. Conversion narratives typically are more strongly bolstered by individuals with movement affiliations and brainwashing narratives by individuals with countermovement affiliations. Each side in essence concludes that the other is relying on the wrong data and is therefore accepting an erroneous view. Shifts in behavioral patterns constitute a second surrogate indicator. Group affiliation typically is accompanied by observable behavioral change, which is then attributed alternatively to manipulated change in internal states or adoption of group appropriate role behavior.

     These problems do not mean that there are no means for evaluating accounts  (Carter 1998; Zablocki 1996) or identifying the source of behavior change. Rather, the point is that because researchers on both sides rely on a patchwork of individual cases, behavioral change, and individual accounts, each possesses the capacity to marshall data of a technically comparable nature. If the essential qualities of the putative transformations are not directly observable and reliance is on accounts and behavior in which various parties have an interest, then alternative interpretations seem likely indeed. In theory these problems could be resolved by improving the validity and reliability of indices and conducting more systematic observation of individuals, but both resolutions obviously encounter a myriad of practical difficulties.

Organizational Diversity and Change

     One of the most common observations about religious movements is the diversity they exhibit organizationally and the rapidity with which they change. Organization varies on a number of dimensions that influence the nature of the individual-group relationships. Some movements are very tightly organized; this is most evident for collectivistic movements that attempt to create self-contained social worlds. Other movements, such as New Age groups, typically are much more loosely organized networks. The potential for individual embeddedness and organizational control probably are greatest in the former conditions. Closely related to this factor is distancing from the social order. Individual-group relationships are likely to be stronger where individuals and groups both are not linked to multiple social networks. Movement case studies indicate that organizational intensity and distancing vary considerably among movements and across specific movement histories. However encompassing movements are as entire entities, there is also organizational layering. One of the most common forms this takes is what might be described in terms of a series of concentric circles denoting degree of movement involvement. At the center of the movement is a relatively small coterie of leadership and highly committed followers, surrounded by a series of other groups of individuals with successively lower degrees of involvement, commitment, and exposure to movement control. Political and geographic divisions constitute other sources of sectorization within movements. Organization and lifestyle may diverge dramatically in different sectors of movements. Movements also vary in size, and membership sometimes shifts dramatically over relatively short time spans as a product of recruitment and defection. Individual-group relationships can be significantly determined by group size; increases in membership yield more complex organization and formal social control mechanisms, for example. The level of charismatic authority varies among movements and within movements over time. There is a significant difference between spiritual mediums, priestly leaders, and prophetic revolutionaries in terms of moral claimsmaking vis a vis movement members.

    Any of these characteristics may change both in direction and rapidity. It is therefore difficult to characterize movements as overall entities or across time with any precision. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that a relatively small proportion of religious movements have been studied at all, and even for those that have been studied, research tends to be for specific periods and sectors of the movement. It is probably fair to state that there is no movement that has been researched continuously and exhaustively through its history. Scholars of a brainwashing persuasion are likely to infer more modal tendencies in individual-group relationships for religious movements than would those of a conversion persuasion, but the empirical evidence that would definitively confirm descriptions of these relationships across movements and movement histories simply does not exist. Generalizations are unlikely to be either valid or reliable. These difficulties would multiply, of course, for generalizations applied across movements.

Theoretical Pluralism

    If individual-group relationships vary because religious movements are heterogeneous and rapidly changing, the theories employed to explain those relationships are equally diverse. There is no single theory of either conversion or brainwashing. Rather, both designations encompass sets of theories, and the within set variance is as pronounced as the between set variance. In the case of conversion designations, for example, some theories describe this process in terms of social role behavior. Individuals simply learn and adopt the normative behavioral patterns of the movement with which they affiliate (Bromley and Shupe, 1979; Bromley and Shupe, 1986). Other theories define conversion in cultural terms, as a change in symbolic presentation. From this perspective conversion is a change in one's "universe of discourse" (Snow and Machalek, 1984). Conversion is also interpreted as a change in social context. The influential Lofland and Stark theory (1965) depicts conversion in terms of diminishing interpersonal ties in one social network and intensifying them in another network. One important feature of all these theories is that they essentially bracket the question of a holistic personal change that underpins traditional religious conceptions of conversion. Each emphasizes individual initiative but also allows both individual and group influence.

     There is a corresponding diversity among brainwashing theories. The most general frameworks are related to thought reform and coercive persuasion theories (Lifton 1989; Schein and Baker 1961). These theories describe religious movement affiliations as the product of a deliberate, systematic, manipulative, authoritarian program of social and physical environment control (Singer and Ofshe 1990; Cushman 1986). Other theories of movement affiliation are constructed around control over mental/cognitive functioning. Conway and Siegelman (1982), for example, have offered an "information disease" theory that attributes affiliation to a cybernetic trauma that compromises normal cognitive functioning. Several theories are based on the exercise of influence over affiliates through manipulative use of trance and hypnotic states (Verdier, 1977; Katchen, 1992). Finally, there are theories that define analyze affiliations as inappropriate types of social relationships. Sirkin and Wynne's (1990) concept of "relational disorder" and Zablocki's (1998) concept of "high exit costs" exemplify this type. All of these theories share in common a focus on group-induced, deleterious effects on individuals affiliated with religious movements. While they admit some measure of both individual and group influence, the latter is asserted to be more powerful and determinative of outcomes.

    For both conversion and brainwashing theories, then, there is limited agreement on the core process that is being observed, the dynamics involved in the process, or the consequences of process. If the dynamics of individual-group relationships are complex and fluid, it is difficult to define what constitutes the essential or most relevant data. It seems perfectly possible that a number of theories on both sides would receive empirical support in their own terms. Under these conditions, it is difficult indeed to envision any "critical experiments" that would yield an empirical resolution of the debate.

    All four of these problems, or others that might be added, surely are legitimate and complicate the problem of fashioning and confirming summary statements about individual-movement relationships. However, these problems, singly and in combination, are not unique to this area of inquiry; they are "normal problems" that pervade many areas of scientific inquiry. And even if agreement is reached on some specific issues, the larger dispute will remain. The intractability of the conversion-brainwashing debate does not derive from these issues. Rather, I shall argue that while the debate is carried on in terms of empirical questions, these issues provide a veneer of scientific objectivity in a debate that is fundamentally political in nature.


    The argument I am developing does not challenge the actuality of individual transformative experiences. There is compelling evidence that such events do occur, that they are pivotal in the lives of individuals who experience them, and that they play a significant role in the social dynamics of some groups. There is also convincing evidence that both individuals and organizations are integrally involved in accomplishing such transformative experiences. And the empirical problems I have delineated do not preclude descriptive and interpretive agreement with respect to transformative experiences in specific groups. The current conversion-brainwashing debate is about much more than these matters, however; it concerns morally advantaging and disadvantaging certain kinds of  individual-group relationships by designating them as conversion or brainwashing. Cast in political terms, the issue is not about the nature of transformative experiences, it is about the moral assessment of those experiences.

    Brainwashing and conversion share a common heritage that traces historically to the concepts of spiritual conversion and demonic possession. Both concepts describe individual embeddedness in agentic relationships. In each case individuals are defined as having encountered a transcendent power, an "otherness," that reshapes their intentionality such that it becomes coterminous with the intention and purpose of the other (Swanson, 1978). It is the nature of the "otherness" that distinguishes the spiritual and demonic. In the former, individuals are defined as unifying with an emancipating transcendent power, which facilitates their progress toward expressing what they ultimately are or should be. In the latter, individuals are defined as unifying with a subjugating transcendent power, which progressively alienates them from what they ultimately are or should be. Historically, agentic relationships in the Judeo-Christian tradition involved individuals embedding themselves in religious communities unified around commitments to transcendent purpose. This tradition juxtaposed communities founded on spiritual unity with alternative, demonically centered communities that posed a constant threat to any loss of individual or collective commitment.

    Tracing the meanings of conversion and possession as those have been understood during various historical periods is beyond the mandate of this chapter, but the contemporary legacy of these designations is central to my argument. In its current usage, religious conversion continues to refer to uniting with a liberating transcendent power. In moral terms, to label an event as conversion is to assert (1) a change from less desirable to more desirable conduct and (2) that the convert is now more capable of appropriate self-regulation as a result of coincidence of individual and positive transcendent purpose. These conversion designations are religiously authorized. While possession designations continue to be applied in some religious traditions brainwashing is a secular designation that derives specifically from Cold War era political conflict. In its current usage,
brainwashing refers to uniting with a subjugating transcendent power. The nature and degree of transcendence is more limited in most brainwashing theories, and transformations are the product of human agents. In moral terms, to label an event as brainwashing is to assert (1) a change from more desirable to less desirable conduct and (2) that the brainwashed individual is now less capable of acceptable self-regulation as a result of coincidence of individual and negative transcendent purpose. These symbolic designations, labels if you will, are employed to positively or negatively sanction individual-group connections of a particular kind -- individual embeddedness in agentic relationships. Each designation commands the highest level of authority when individual, organizational, and external network interpretations of individual-group connections coincide. In the case at hand, of course, there is contention rather than agreement between various parties over the proper designation of individual-group relationships in religious movements.

    There are several components to the political imbroglio thesis. First, I present evidence indicating the political nature of the conversion-brainwashing debate. I then identify the core issue in the debate as embeddedness in agentic relationships. There is a pronounced contemporary trend toward problematizing agentic relationships across social institutions. I link the intensification the brainwashing-conversion debate to this trend. Finally, I define the mental health and religion coalitions as the two sets of disputants. The rhetoric in the debate notwithstanding, scholars in the two coalitions occupy similar social locations and defend comparable positions within their respective coalitions. It is because the coalitions occupy similar locations but defend different institutional interests that the debate remains intractable.

The Politics of Science in the Brainwashing-Conversion Debate

    Despite efforts to maintain the brainwashing-conversion debate as a scientific disagreement, there are a number of indications of its political character. I make this case by reanalyzing the empirical thorny thicket explanation in political terms; contending that brainwashing and conversion are historically rare designations, which are the product of particular political circumstances; maintaining that conversion and brainwashing are uncommon individual events even within the current sociopolitical context; demonstrating that the actual usage of the two designations is highly ideological in character; presenting evidence that high descriptive agreement does not necessarily yield interpretive agreement; and, correspondingly, showing that theoretical consonance does not produce descriptive convergence.

     Let us begin by reformulating the empirical complexity arguments to reflect a political interpretation. First, if there are not single processes or patterns of behavior that correspond to what are termed brainwashing and conversion, then what the terms provide are symbolic umbrellas that positively or negatively sanction diverse phenomena. The umbrellas can be deployed to privilege a broader or narrower range of relationships. For example, some scholars argue that physical coercion is the requisite division point between the two processes while others contend that psychological coercion is admissible. The former position encompasses more relationships under the conversion umbrella, and the latter expands the coverage of the brainwashing umbrella. To put the matter more pointedly, to either disregard empirical diversity under one umbrella or empirical similarities between symbolic designations is a political act. Second, if the putative phenomena cannot be observed but rather must be inferred, very different inferences about the same events are possible. This, of course, is precisely what has occurred. In some cases dramatically opposed interpretations are offered for the same individual's experiences, and the same individuals offer opposed interpretations of their own experiences at different times. These competing accounts are a product of the social locations in which they are framed, and privileging one set over another is a political act. Third, if social scientists are proposing an array of processes under the rubric of each of the two concepts, then some or all may occur empirically in different degrees, for different groups and individuals, and at different moments and locations. This would mean that there are a variety of routes by which the same outcome may be reached. What individuals share, then, are destination points and the evaluative labels that are attached to them. Fourth, if socialization and control practices vary substantially within subunits of movements, across time in the same movement, and among different movements, then summarizing them through either lens is to prospectively apply a single, evaluative label to disparate events. Attributing specific, limited patterns of either type to an entire movement or set of movements constitutes political sanctioning rather than interpretation. In sum, I would argue that what have been treated as empirical complexities actually serve as proxies for political disagreements.

    Brainwashing and conversion as important social and psychological designations are the product of a very specific historical context and in that sense reflect a particular set of political arrangements. For example, such designations make little sense in culturally homogeneous tribal groups where there are no alternative groups with which to ally. In contemporary society, neither designation in its traditional usage is likely to apply to mainline churches since theological variations are minimal and individual commitment levels are modest. Indeed, brainwashing and conversion designations are most likely in a religious economy in which individuality is pronounced; there is some degree of religious pluralism, with no single group holding hegemonic control; legitimacy is granted to a range of religious groups, so that shifts in loyalty are acceptable; and there are contesting groups that are accorded less legitimacy, such that moral ranking is called for. This set of these conditions must be relatively unique historically. There is very good evidence that the foundational element of both designations, conceiving of individuals as autonomous entities and as the constituent building blocks of the social order, is unique to modern, western societies (Geertz, 1974). The implication is that these designations  have emerged as political settlements between various political coalitions.

     Both conversion and brainwashing, as described in the ideal types of these designations, probably are also empirically rare as individual events even within their specific historical contexts. The scenario in which individuals experience a sequence of events that constitutes a major transformative moment and this moment thematizes identity and activity across the remainder of an individual's biography is exceptional. Each thus constitutes an archetypal event or sequence that is used to symbolize and to positively or negatively sanction the range of actually occurring individual-group connections. Further, attributing subsequent behavior to conversion or brainwashing begs key motivational questions. The reality is that individual-group connections vary greatly, and the reasons for their stability or change shift over time. As we have already noted, research on conversion indicates that there are a variety of modes through which that process occurs and that individual-group connections involve different types
and levels of involvement. Similarly, research on influence processes indicates a variety of techniques and that these have quite variable effects (Cialdini, 1985). From this perspective both brainwashing and conversion serve as metanarratives, political narratives that privilege certain relational forms over others.

     The way in which conversion and brainwashing are actually employed as designations is revealing. There are numerous institutional arenas through the social order in which high control, encapsulation, and identity transformation occur that do not evoke a brainwashing designation. These settings are considered "functional" to the social order, and assessments of individual participation range from rehabilitative to honorific. In each case there is a considerable body of research that discusses organizational practices and individual impact in neutral to favorable terms. Examples include military training (Dornbusch, 1955; Endleman, 1974; Zurcher, 1967), convents and monasteries (Ebaugh, 1984; Hillery, 1969), secular and religious communes (Kanter, 1972), medical training (Becker and Greer, 1958; Davis, 1968), mental hospitals (Karmel, 1969), and prisons (Etzioni, 1961). Even where outcomes contravene legitimate institutional objectives, such as police interrogation methods that elicit false confessions, coercive processes have until quite recently been tolerated and avoided a brainwashing designation (Hepworth and Turner, 1982; Zimbardo, 1971). By contrast, where the form of organization is contested and deemed
illegitimate organizational settings receive brainwashing designations.  Examples include socialist regimes, POW camps (Lifton, 1989; Schein and  Baker, 1961), religious movements, controversial therapies, shepherding movements within established churches, and some conservative churches (Danzger, 1989; Estruch, 1995; Tobias and Lalich, 1994; Yalom and Lieberman, 1971). One clue to the political nature of these designations is that for each concept there is a conspicuous absence of positive terminology that refers to the reciprocal condition. What, for example, is the language for describing favorable brainwashing or desirable deconversion in their traditional meanings?

    Another way of glimpsing the political nature of this debate is to pose the question of what would happen if members of the opposed camps could agree on the empirical observations. Would observational agreement yield interpretive agreement? I think not. In fact I would argue that empirical agreement already is greater than either side cares to acknowledge. The problem in arguing this point is that there are few cases in which any group affiliation practices have been studied by an array of different researchers. The Oakland Family of the Unificationist Movement is one case for which a number of social scientists and other individuals have produced accounts of the affiliation process during the same time period (Ayella, 1975; Barker, 1984; Edwards, 1979; Kemperman, 1981; Lofland, 1977; Taylor, 1983). This is an important case because the Oakland Family clearly was the Unificationist's most productive unit in terms of producing affiliates and it was also the most controversial component of the movement, both internally and externally. What is most striking about the accounts of this setting is the degree of basic descriptive agreement on matters such as the nature of the initial recruitment process, setting in which designated events occur, sequence of events, roles specific actors play, methods of exerting influence, orchestration of events, and even outcomes. The descriptive agreement on events contrasts dramatically with the interpretive disagreement on the meaning of those same events. To put the matter another way, in the accounts produced by observers and participants alike the variance is primarily in the adjectives rather than the nouns. In some accounts authors conclude on the basis of roughly comparable information that individual-group relationships constitute conversion, in others they are deemed brainwashing.

     In some respects at least, the theoretical frameworks through which social scientists interpret the organizational and individual patterns as brainwashing and conversion are not as opposed as they appear. For example, the central elements of transformative social movements (Bittner, 1963; Kanter, 1972; Kornhauser, 1962; Bromley, 1997a, 1997b) are quite similar to what Robert Lifton (1989) refers to as thought reform. Briefly, transformative movements engage in deconstruction and  reconstruction of the cultural legitimation system and destructuring and restructuring of the dominant institutional order. With respect to cultural legitimation, these movements proclaim an ultimate reality that clashes dramatically with the reality constructed by the dominant social order. Constructing a vision of ultimate reality (Lifton's "sacred science") typically involves developing a special language that recasts conventional meanings, creates a symbolic universe that adherents share, and serves as the lens through which the dominant social order is viewed (Lifton's "language loading"). This vision of the ultimate contrasts sharply with the realities of the dominant social order, which is described in morally derogatory terms (Lifton's "demand for purity") and sometimes condemned to destruction (Lifton's "dispensing of existence").

     The future social order that transformative movements seek to model is proclaimed against the existing social order. In order to maintain this proposed order against the power of existing realities, these movements typically establish strong, relatively impermeable boundaries (Lifton's "milieu control") and engage in heavily ritualized lifestyles. Some rituals are organized to morally distance affiliates from the social order against which resistance is being mounted and to eliminate the corrupting effects of participation in that order (Lifton's "cult of confession). Others are intended to demonstrate the active intervention of transcendent power in everyday life (Lifton's "mystical manipulation") and to remove the "pollution" associated with a corrupted social order through purification rituals. The high level of mobilization and vision of imminent transformation yield a sense of urgency and commitment in such movements that legitimates asserting movement ideology against the apparent reality of
individual experience and movement demands against individual needs (Lifton's "doctrine over person"). There is not even disagreement on the attribution of intentionality to the implementation of these processes. Transformative religious movements clearly reject the dominant social order and seek to create a social environment in which the alternative reality is sustained against the dominant social reality. One component of this process is fostering identity transformation in affiliates that is consistent with the model of social reality being constructed. The two theoretical frameworks therefore do not differ nearly as much in their respective analyses of the structure and dynamics of religious movements as in the language employed in the analysis.

     The difference in linguistic patterns between the two camps, both in terms of observational and theoretical accounts, is informative. Where the brainwashing theorists see individuals being disciplined, conversion theorists observe disciples. What the former regard as captivity, the latter perceive as captivation. What is humiliation to brainwashing theorists is humility from the perspective of conversion theorists. Brainwashing theorists describe religious movements as coercive communities, penitentiaries, while conversion theorists describe communities of penitents. Whether affiliates of these movements are assessed as thralls or enthralled is a function of the political location from which the narratives are constructed. The theories serve as political narratives in the sense that they are working from conclusions to data.

     If the disagreement is political rather than observational and theoretical, it becomes clearer why it is not easily resolvable. The problem is not the absence of some set of crucial experiments. The differences are of political commitments rather than "scientific" observations. Efforts on both sides to  invoke the imprimatur of science and politics are predictable. As the primary knowledge legitimation system of the contemporary social order, science is a major source of power. If either side can cloak itself with the mantle of scientific legitimacy, knowledge and power are seamlessly united.  This argument does not, however, lead to the conclusion that the debate is intractable because there are profound differences between the two sides. To the contrary, what makes this case intriguing is that while there are differences, the commonalities between the protagonists far outweigh the differences. And further, there is evidence that the differences between the two sides are narrowing. Paradoxically perhaps, it is because the differences have narrowed that conflict has intensified. In order to develop this argument, it is necessary to identify the core issue and convergence of the two coalitions around that issue.

Agentic Relationships: The Core Issue

    The core issue in the brainwashing-conversion debate is agentic relationships that are developed and sustained through individual embeddedness. One of the foundational processes in the historical development of what I refer to as contractually based social order (or, alternatively, "modernity") is disembedding of individuals from tight-knit communities, which creates heightened individuation (Bromley, 1997a). Individuation describes a structural situation in which there is a high level of organizational and role differentiation as well as consciousness of self vìs a vis the roles one plays and the environment in which one operates. The normative attributes around which individuality is currently defined and defended across the social order include autonomy, voluntarism and self-directedness. Preserving autonomy means avoiding personal embeddedness in any relational context that might compromise independent selfhood. Voluntarism involves exercising choice; individuals are defined as free when they have options and exercise choice between those options. Self-directedness involves the rational pursuit of individual interests or self-actuation. As institutions move in this direction, agentic relationships that involve individual embeddedness in any social context are suspect and require evidence that they meet these three standards. Any relational form that embeds individuals by compromising these attributes is defined as detrimental to individual well-being and therefore as illegitimate. The common referent that links conversion and brainwashing is agentic relationships.

     In its strongest form, conversion connotes unifying with a positive transcendent force. For example, the narrative of Paul on the road to Damascus continues to be invoked as the archetype of conversion. As Richardson (1983:1) observes, "Traditional views of Paul's conversion attribute agency or cause to an omnipotent God...it was assumed that Paul did not act under his own volition, but was temporarily incapacitated by the actions of some outside force." The implications are that an external force operated unilaterally to reorient Paul's volition and behavior and that the result was an agentic relationship. Swanson (1978:255) adopts similar language in defining charismatic influence. He writes that such influence is "experienced through our having a special kind of  relationship to the superordinate entity that we encounter. The entity has an existence and a creative role apart from our own. We can participate in its existence and activity if we make its purposes our own or if those purposes, by some means, replace our own vision of reality in the shaping of our action." Concerted efforts to create such relationships by religious groups are at least implicit in typologies of conversion. The "revivalist" motif in Lofland and Skonovd's (1981) conversion typology, is defined as a transformation that occurs in a short time, with a high level of emotionality involving love and/or fear, in the context of a high level of group pressure. More broadly, the notion of agentic relationships is integral to a number of religious roles such as monks, nuns, missionaries, disciples, and devotees
     Brainwashing theories also revolve around agentic relationships, simply from the opposite position. Brainwashing involves unifying with a negative transcendent force that reorients individual volition and purpose. Since brainwashing is a secular theory, the nature of the transcendent force is not quite parallel to its counterpart in conversion theory. The forces at work are powerful secular forces that exceed the individual's capacity to cope with them. Singer and Ofshe (1990:190), for example, assert that thought reform programs "are organized to destabilize individuals' sense of self by getting them to drastically reinterpret their life's history, radically alter their world view, accept a new version of reality and causality, and develop dependency on the organization, thereby being turned into a deployable agent of the organization operating the thought reform program" (emphasis added). Similarly, Zablocki (1998:220) states that "The brainwashing conjecture argues that there are conditions under which members of a religious organization may be systematically resocialized to become deployable agents of that organization with strong internalized disincentives for leaving" (emphasis added).

     From a political perspective, one of the major means through which the positive and negative sanctioning of conversion and brainwashing is accomplished is through connecting those designations to legitimate and illegitimate organizations and activities. The positive sanctioning of conversion is achieved by linking religious movements to the morally advantaged category of "religion" (represented as "churches"). As positively sanctioned institutions, churches are presumptively pro-social in character. Problematic episodes tend to be treated as uncharacteristic of the essential purposes of the institutional form and do not in and of themselves undermine their legitimate standing. Contemporary movements are linked to the status of church through various theories, such as church-sect theory. Radical forms represent revitalization or the first stage in the process of institutionalization. The negative sanctioning of brainwashing is attained by connecting religious movement to the morally disadvantaged category of
"pseudo-religion" (represented as "cults"). As a negatively sanctioned form, cults are presumptively anti-social in character. Problematic events are treated as characteristic of their essential purposes and confirm their illegitimate standing. Movements are linked to the status of cult through various theories of entrepreneurial and pathological formation. Radical forms represent the development of organized subversion.

Problematizing Embeddedness

     The brainwashing-conversion debate has intensified because over the last several decades agentic relationships created through embeddedness have become a source of increasing contention. The dominant institutions within American society have moved rapidly in the direction of disembedding individuals from the social contexts in which they operate. These various developments throughout the social order have the effect of preserving autonomy, expanding requirements for voluntarism, and promoting self-directedness. Consider the following.

    One of the most important developments in fostering individual autonomy is increasing constraint on the legitimate use of coercion. For example, armed forces boot camps have dramatically reduced the amount of physical "intimidation" allowed, traditional fraternity "hazing" has been all but eliminated, corporal punishment in public school systems has been prohibited, pressure is mounting to designate any physical punishment of children in families as abusive, physical force by one marriage partner against the other is legally actionable, and use of deadly force by police officers is more closely monitored and more often challenged (Bromley and Cress, 1998; Cohen, 1998; Thompson, 1997).

    In a variety of areas in which voluntarism is regarded as potentially problematic more explicit evidence of assent is being mandated. Recent judicial rulings requiring that individuals be informed of their rights before police interviews and legislation establishing requirements for "truth in advertising" and "truth in lending" are examples of this trend. These kinds of initiatives are particularly visible in sexually related behaviors. Sexual harassment regulations hold organizations accountable for a "hostile working environment," institutions of higher education have adopted policies requiring evidence of explicit agreement in dating intimacy, and recent reforms in rape statutes have shifted the burden of proof from victim to perpetrator by basing judgements on degree of coercion used rather than on amount of resistance offered.

    The mandate for self-directedness is evident in the creation of a new spectrum of disorders and syndromes through which individuals are evaluated as having lost this attribute. For example, "compulsions" or "addictions" to work, sex, food, money, drugs and alcohol, exercise, religion, and even the Internet have been identified. Most notable is "codependence," or addiction to relationships. These designations define new forms of inappropriate embeddedness in which identity and sense of worth are too closely tied to another individual. Books with titles such as Codependent No More (Beattie, 1987), Painful Affairs: Looking for Love Through Addiction and Co-dependence (Cruse, 1989), and Leaving the Enchanted Forest: The Path from Relationship Addiction to Intimacy (Covington and Beckett, 1988) offer analyses, warning signs, symptoms, and treatments designed to reassert selfhood. The most recent versions of therapy correspondingly diminish the power of therapists and expand the power of clients as a means of insuring self-directedness. For example, contemporary "brief therapy" shortens the treatment period and attributes individual problems of living to a "bad story" through which clients are thematizing their lives. The task of the therapist becomes to assist the client in developing a better, more empowering narrative (Bauer and Kobos, 1987).

     Parallel developments are occurring in mainstream churches. There has been a pronounced decline in institutional authority and a corresponding increase in individual autonomy, voluntarism, and self-directedness vis a vis churches. Sacred narratives are being loosened to emphasize individual empowerment, fulfillment, and freedom. Rituals do not invoke transformative encounters with transcendent power but rather tend to be constructed as aesthetic dramas that urge on participants moral lives and activities. The churches themselves organize as voluntary associations, with a service orientation toward parishioners; clerics function in a therapeutic role that is designed to accommodate a high level of individuation. Roof and McKinney (1987:67) observe that "The subjective aspects of faith have expanded as ascriptive and communal attachments have declined." For their part, parishioners make decisions about religious participation voluntaristically on grounds of personal needs and preferences. As Hammond (1992:169) puts it, "Greater numbers of persons now...legitimately look upon their parish involvement as their choice, to be made according to their standards. That involvement is now calculated as rewarding or not by individually derived equation." By contrast, mainline denominations sanction movements within their own ranks that accentuate individual embeddedness. For example, movements such as Opus Dei in the Catholic tradition, resurgent Orthodox Judaism, and shepherding in some Protestant denominations have met with denominational resistance (Blood, 1985; Committee of Evangelical Theologians, 1985; Enroth, 1992; Hume, 1985). The language sanctioning embeddedness is that of  uthoritarianism, exploitation, and abuse rather than brainwashing, but the common denominator is individual disempowerment through embeddedness (Enroth, 1992; Wellwood, 1987). As Ronald Enroth writes in Churches that Abuse (1992:30, 235), abusive religion "fosters an unhealthy dependence of members on the leadership" and "Unquestioning obedience and blind loyalty are its hallmarks."

    The shift in normative institutional relationships is accompanied by reassessment of different social forms by social scientists. Traditional forms of social organization that involved a high level of individual embeddedness have come under theoretical attack and contemporary forms defended. For example, in his book Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992:202-203) Robert Edgerton writes: ...the belief that folk societies...were more harmonious and hence better adapted than larger, more urbanized societies is so ancient and deeply entrenched in Western thought that it has taken on the quality of a myth, a sacred story not to be challenged. In this story, folk community was said to consist of emotional sharing, personal intimacy, moral commitment, social cohesion, and continuity over time. This sense of community, this harmony, was said to make possible the stable, positive adaptations that small-scale populations made to their environments. Due largely to the size and heterogeneity of urban centers, this sense of community-of common purpose-that had directed and united small-scale societies was lost.  Not so, he asserts. He concludes (1992:15) that "Traditional beliefs and practices may be useful, may even serve as important adaptive mechanisms, but they may also be inefficient, harmful, and even deadly." In a similar vein, Lewis Coser (1991:19) refers to "the modern conceit and the modern nostalgia of types of Gemeinschaft relationships whether it is found in Toennies' work or in that of modern cultural critics who, being alienated in the world of modernity, dream Rousseauistic dreams of the beauty of communities of noble savages."

     One of the seminal statements in contemporary sociology on strong and weak connections between individuals and groups is Mark Granovetter's widely cited article, "The Strength of Weak Ties" (1973). Based on a study of two urban communities he argues that "weak ties" between individuals create more information availability, adapatibility, opportunities, and mobility since individuals' knowledge bases and social network connections are more extensive. Rose Coser builds on the perspective reflected in the work of Edgerton and Granovetter in her book, In Defense of Modernity. She asserts (1991:71) that "In groups that offer complete security, in which role partners hardly change, and in which mutual expectations remain stable, there is relatively little opportunity to innovate or to weigh alternatives of thought and behavior. A gemeinschaft is such a group." She then links embeddedness in folk and contemporary societies through Lewis Coser's (1974) concept of "greedy institutions." These social forms share in common the feature that "individuals are cut off from current or prior cathected relationships on the outside and thus are made dependent on the institution that claims their moral allegiance and the totality of their efforts" (1991:73). She continues, "The gemeinschaft is greedy to the extent that it absorbs individuals in unidimensional relationships, depriving them of the opportunities to confront multiple and contradictory expectations that would make them reflect about their roles" (1991:74). Such groups, she claims, have less survival value in the modern world as they isolate individuals; limit opportunities, social mobility and complex mental abilities; and are ineffective in dealing with crises. Wilbert Moore (1966) reaches much the same conclusion in his analysis of utopian groups, which he contends violate basic survivability principles by virtue of being sexless, too uniform, and overly static. The moral undesirability of embeddedness is clearly evident in the concepts of dependence, greediness, absorption, and low survivability.

     There are, of course, voices of dissent and countertrends. The most persistent resistance emanates from conservative religious traditions that are constructed around a strong family-church network in which individuals are deeply embedded. In these traditions individual freedom is understood as "freedom to" carry out the divine plan and is measured by individual commitment. Individuals can only be protected and fulfilled by being embedded in a strong community of believers where this connection to the divine can be continuously maintained. From their perspective, individuals can accomplish little on their own initiative; it is through submission to divine purpose as members of a community that all things are possible. In her description of conservative Christians Ammerman (1987, p. 78) observes that, Conservative Christians "expect church and friendship and everyday life will form a seamless whole. They expect the people and activities of the church to dominate and define their lives." It is precisely  the conservative religious groups that have been growing most rapidly over recent decades, and Dean Kelley (1972) argues that these churches are growing because they offer "strong religion." From the perspective being developed here, the characteristics of strong religion he enumerates (e.g., self sacrifice, high demand, identification of individuals with collective goals) constitute embeddedness in agentic relationships. This is not the direction of the dominant institutions, of course, but it is important to note that resistance to that order extends well beyond contemporary religious movements.

Coalitions in Conflict

     Although the dominant institutions in western societies have moved rapidly toward rooting out individual disembeddness, conflict remains over how individual essence and individual-group relationships will be authorized. Pursuant to the present argument, I distinguish two loosely organized coalitions, the religion and mental health coalitions. Constituent partners in the former coalition tend to include the religion movements, some denominational bodies, religious liberty organization, and religion scholars working from a structural perspective. Institutional authorization derives from the assertion of a transcendent power that is the ultimate source of individual essence and social relationships. The constitutional level privileging of religion presents a formidable obstacle to challenging this source of authorization. Constituent partners in the latter coalition tend to include the religion countermovements, a segment of mental health professionals, some regulatory institutions, and religion scholars working from a social psychological perspective. Institutional authorization derives from the assertion of the individual as the fundamental reality upon which all social relationships are constructed. The recent expansion of provisions in state and national legislation defining and protecting individual rights against institutional claims has created strong momentum toward extension of such provisions across all institutional sectors. Although there are numerous individuals and groups that do not conform to this profile, the two coalitions do offer competing definitions of and authorization for individual-group relationships.

     While there is potential for intense conflict between these two coalitions, several factors operate to significantly reduce the actual conflict. First, there has been a major accommodation between church -- through which religious relationships are authorized -- and state -- through which therapeutic relationships are authorized -- (Williams and Demerath, 1991). Mainline churches do not seriously challenge state legitimacy, and state agencies privilege religion.

    Second, there has been convergence in the organization of therapy and religion. Most notably, mainline clergy have adopted pastoral counseling roles based on therapeutic principles, and a number of therapeutic traditions have moved toward sacralizing selfhood. The day-to-day practice of counseling therefore does not differ dramatically under the two sources of authorization. Tension is at the level expected between competitors offering similar services.

    Third, there are major divisions within each coalition. For example, liberal and conservative denominations divide internally over the acceptable degree of religious authorization; conservative denominations support higher levels of embeddedness but reject the theological tenets of contemporary religious movements. The mental health coalition divides over the approriate stance of therapy toward religion as well as the types of religious practice that are salubrious. Such divisions are critical to the dynamics of the brainwashing-conversion dispute because they have prevented either coalition from achieving sufficient cohesiveness to mount a major challenge to the other.

     Fourth, the major actors in the religion and mental health coalitions share key attributes in common. They are credentialed by similar institutions, occupy professional-managerial positions in their respective institutions, and are linked into larger networks that operate on similar organizational principles. These similarities render the dispute even more perplexing to participants in both coalitions. Each side appears genuinely nonplussed at the position of the other, in part because there probably are few other issues on which they would divide so dramatically. Many participants in the religion coalition, for example, define themselves as ardent proponents of legal measures to prosecute various forms of abuse, and many participants in the mental health coalition regard themselves as dedicated defenders of religious liberty.

     Finally, most scholars adopt moderate stances within their respective coalitions. There is a continuum of positions within each coalition on individual-group relationships. In the religion coalition, the definitions of conversion range from those asserting the absolute reality of a connection between the individual and spiritually liberating transcendent forces to those depicting conversions as socially constructed experiences forged jointly by convert and group. In the mental health coalition, the definitions of brainwashing range from those asserting the connection between transcendent enslaving forces to those depicting brainwashing as inappropriately constrained relationships. The "strong conversion" and "strong brainwashing" positions are held predominantly by movement and countermovement activists. For the most part, scholars on both sides do not defend those positions. Rather, the scholarly debate is being conducted in terms of "weak conversion" and "weak brainwashing" positions. That is, scholars on both sides tend to explain individual-group relationships in terms of some combination of personal and organizational characteristics. In the conversion model, individuals are depicted as in protest against the dominant social order and the groups constitute vehicles of social protest. Models of individual-group relationships that are constructed in terms of role theory, experimentation, alternation, and conversion careers all reflect this orientation. In the brainwashing model, individuals are depicted as vulnerable, and the groups constitute inappropriate exploitive responses to this vulnerability. Models such as relational disorders, high exit costs, and spiritual abuse exemplify this perspective. Currently there appears to be consensus on the issue of physical coercion. Neither coalition will positively sanction behaviors or accounts that are directly attributable to such coercion.
     The two coalitions continue to divide, however, on the key issue of authorization. A Sarbin (1973:185) notes, relinquishment of one identity and formation of another is integral to all "systems of conduct reorganization." The dispute is over authorization of that process. The mental health coalition constitutes a threat to the religion coalition in (1) defining ultimate selfhood in secular terms, which poses a challenge to transcendent authorization, and (2) asserting the individual right to challenge institutional claims, including religious claims, in the name of defending selfhood. The religion coalition presents a threat to the mental health coalition by (1) asserting a transcendent authorization, which effectively trumps therapeutic authority, and (2) asserting the individual right to submit to institutional claims, particularly religious claims, in the name of expressing selfhood. In the present engagement the mental health coalition is on the offensive while the religion coalition seeks to preserve established privilege. The religion coalition cannot afford to concede much ground. Conversion is a foundational process in the logic of religious authorization; whether or not most mainline churches actually produce conversions is largely irrelevant. To submit conversion authenticity to mental health tests and to disclaim the right to prophetic protest would undermine religious authority. On the other side, the mental health coalition is unlikely to discontinue efforts to extend mental health claims. To privilege religious claims against the right of the individual to resist them or against damage to individual integrity would undermine therapeutic authority. Each is likely to attack the other at its point of greatest vulnerability, "individual subjugation" and "religious intolerance," respectively.

    Social science scholars in the religion coalition resonate with its logic in regarding religious movements as authentic resistance to the dominant social order. In this view, the source of protest is the contradictions in that order. Excesses by religious movements are tolerable only in the sense that they are preferable to an extension of state power against protest movements under a mental health banner. If there is a caution from the conversion scholars to the brainwashing scholars it is to avoid demonizing social protest. Social science scholars in the mental health coalition resonate with its logic in regarding religious movements as an exploitation of vulnerabilities in the conventional social order. From this perspective, the source of countermovement opposition is the contradictions within the movements themselves, which promise freedom and produce encapsulation under the protection of religious freedom. Excesses by countermovements are tolerable only as they constitute a defense of fundamental individual rights and a refusal to permit the blanket privileging of any group adopting a religious appellation. The caution from brainwashing to conversion scholars is to avoid sacralizing abuse.


     The conversion-brainwashing debate has polarized scholars for several decades, purportedly as a result of intractable empirical issues. I have argued while empirical problems abound, these are not the source of the protracted dispute. Rather, I contend that the conversion-brainwashing debate is a political embroglio. As employed in the academic debate brainwashing and conversion have been used as symbolic umbrellas through which to morally advantage and disadvantage certain forms of individual-group relationships. The core issue in the debate is embeddedness in agentic relationships. The conflict has intensified as agentic relationships have been problematized across social institutions and, paradoxically, because differences between the mental health and religion coalitions have narrowed. There is more than a little irony in the conversion-brainwashing debate. At the end of the day, both sides are endorsing individual autonomy, voluntarism, and self-directedness. In the brainwashing camp this means resisting embeddedness that undermines those qualities, while in the conversion camp it means endorsing embeddedness as precisely the means for realizing those qualities. Nonetheless, key differences remain as the coalitions defend alternative sources of authorization and tacitly accept the different costs associated with expanded religious or state authorization. Although an early resolution of the dispute seems unlikely, even to debate the political differences openly rather than through the veil of scientific objectivity would constitute a measure of progress. It is just as important to reintegrate the brainwashing-conversion debate into the broader disciplinary and political conversations currently taking place over individual-group relationships. Unless this occurs, the sociology of religion will have relegated itself to an intellectual cul de sac and missed the opportunity to inform and be informed by the broader intellectual community.


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