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Monday, June 2, 2014

Networks and Religion: Ties That Tear Down

1. Religious networks can foster conflict. Network ties are often seen as a good thing, but certain types of ties, and in particular, certain patterns of ties, can just as easily lead to conflict as they can to goodwill. A good illustration of this comes from Benjamin Zablocki's (1980) study of utopian communities in the United States. Zablocki and his graduate students located numerous communes and spent time observing and asking questions at each commune. They eventually collected data on 120 and conducted in-depth studies at 60. Partly because of the time at which Zablocki conducted his study, many operated under the assumption that societies where anyone and everyone could love whomever they wanted would be more stable and peaceful and consequently embraced notions of "free love" or what Bennett Berger (1981) referred to as "indiscriminate promiscuity." A few, however, had more restrictive sexual norms, some going so far as to advocate celibacy. Even these communes, however, emphasized the ideal of mutual love; they just had different ideas about how to achieve it.
One of his first discoveries was that communes differed quite a lot in how fully they achieved the ideal of mutual love. The ideology of commune movement was that everyone should love one another, whether or not the loving relationship involved sexuality. But Zablocki observed that not only were some members of a commune loved more than others but that in some communes a higher proportion of members were linked by loving sentiments than in some other communes. These were not just Zablocki's impressions. He was able to say who loved whom and just how many members loved others and were loved in return. And he did this by diagramming the network of love relationships in each commune (Stark 2007, p. 105).
Zablocki asked each member to rate their relationship with every other member of their group on a number of different characteristics (e.g,. loving, jealous, sexual, hateful, etc.), and he only classified a relationship as loving if both members of a pair indicated that it was. Four of these are diagrammed below (Note: the names are from Stark 2007).

If it were true that "free love" societies would be more stable and peaceful, then one would expect the "Guru Group" and "Love Inn" communes to have been the most successful, but just the opposite was true. Groups such as these were the least stable; they had higher turnover and disintegration rates than the more restrictive groups. Why? 
Where there is love there is apt to be jealousy, and where there is a lot of love, there is apt to be a lot of jealousy... Despite the ideology of "love one another," in practice there wasn't enough time, enough energy, or the inclination to actually love everyone equally. Thus, although communes were based on the ideal that everyone would be equal, and although members tried to share all material things in common, they overlooked the fact that love, too, is a valuable "good" and that it is far harder to parcel it out equally than it is to give everyone the same clothing allowance. Thus, many communes were so "full of love" that they burst, often in a spectacular fashion, leaving many bitter ex-members. In contrast, the groups that were the most durable tended to be those that minimized jealousy and emotional entanglements... In regulating or prohibiting sex, of course, these modern communes followed the pattern of successful religious communes throughout history (Stark 2007, p. 106).
2. Dense and isolated religious networks are more susceptible to radicalization and violence. Religious groups that are internally dense and cut off from the broader society are more likely to embrace radical views and engage in violent behavior than are those that are sparse and connected. This is an example of what Cass Sunstein (2003, 2009) calls the “law of group polarization,” which predicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common belief. For example, "in a product-liability trial, if nine jurors believe the manufacturer is somewhat guilty and three believe it is entirely guilty, the latter will draw the former toward a larger award than the nine would allow on their own. Or, if people who object in varying degrees to the war in Iraq convene to debate methods of protest, all will emerge from the discussion more resolved against the war” (Bauerlein 2004:B8).

Marc Sageman’s (2004) study of what he calls the global Salafi jihad (GSJ) illustrates this. He found that people who joined the GSJ were often homesick young men who drifted to familiar settings, such as mosques, looking for companionship. There, small clusters of friends formed. They often moved into apartments together where they underwent a long period of intense social interaction in their apartments and developed strong mutual intimacy (i.e., formation of dense networks). As they became closer, they progressively adopted the beliefs of the group’s most extreme members. This distanced them further from their childhood friends and family, leading to increased isolation and loyalty to the group, which in turn intensified their faith, and they were then ready to join the jihad. Other examples of this phenomenon include Jim Jones's Peoples Temple, the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA), and the Branch Davidians. Over time each of these groups (for different reasons) became increasingly isolated and radicalized and eventually turned violent.

This suggests that authorities can take certain steps to lower the probability that groups will radicalize. Perhaps the most important thing to do is to keep potentially radical groups tied to the wider society. The State of Oregon successfully did this in its dealings with the Rajneeshpuram, an intentional community that settled in central Oregon in the 1980s. According to Marian Goldman (2011) although the community had the potential for large-scale violence (it had a large cache of semi-automatic and biological weapons), it never did because the State maintained ties with the group.

If a group has already severed its ties with society, then it becomes important to reestablish them. Although this can be accomplished in multiple ways, access to the political system may be the most effective. As Hafez (2003:208) notes, this encourages groups to “become more like political parties and interest groups, and less like social protest movements or revolutionary groups.” Indeed, he argues that the “politics of institutionalization may explain why communist and green parties in Western Europe were willing to make “historical compromises” and abandoned revolutionary strategies, even if some of them did not completely abandon revolutionary rhetoric” (Hafez 2003:209). This may also explain why the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922 marked the beginning of the end of the Southern wing of the Irish Republican Party (IRA). Although it did not grant Ireland complete sovereignty, it did provide political access to those who had previously fought for Ireland’s independence, and membership in the IRA fell from 14,541 members in August 1924 to 5,042 members by November 1926 (English 2004:46).

A third course of action is more difficult—minimizing government interference and harassment, as well as media scrutiny and public ridicule—but it can be done. Take, for instance, Oregon’s attorney general’s strategy for minimizing government interference and public harassment of the Rajneeshpuram community:
It limited formal intervention based on stereotyping and general fear of the Ranjeeshees, and it curtailed informal anti-cult attacks proposed by some opposing groups and the local media. Throughout the escalating conflict, the state of Oregon actively pressed for legal solutions to all accusations of criminal activities and violation of civil laws at Rajneeshpuram. This was a principled legal position that also reflected respect for the social and legal skills of the Rajneesh representatives… Throughout [the group’s] sojourn in Oregon, the attorney general’s representatives carefully monitored activities as Rajneeshpuram and at the same time tried to calm insurgent local opponents (Goldman 2011:318, 319).
This is not to suggest that individuals and groups should not be prosecuted for criminal behavior, but it can be done while still respecting religious freedoms. For example, after members of the Aum Shinrikyo (Aum) released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing twelve people and causing hundreds of illnesses, the Japanese government pursued those who were guilty of the crimes but it did not outlaw the group. “Rather than criminalizing the Aum religion, the government allowed it to continue and prosecuted only the individuals who engaged in criminal activities that hurt or aimed to hurt others. This action defused the violent side of the religion without further radicalizing the group (Grim and Finke 2010:213).

This last example highlights one last course of action: policy makers should promote religious freedom. Grim and Finke (2010) have empirically demonstrated that, net of other factors, government restrictions on religious freedom are positively associated with religious persecution and violence, and Hafez (2003:206) has noted that repression did not work in Syria, Tunisia, Iraq, and resulted in higher rates of violence in Algeria, Egypt, Kashmir, the Southern Philippines, and Chechnya.


  • Bauerlein, Mark. "Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual." The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12 2004, B6-B10.
  • Berger, Bennett. 1981. The Survival of a Counterculture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • English, Richard. 2004. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. London, UK: Pan Books.
  • Goldman, Marion S. 2011. "Cultural Capital, Social Networks, and Collective Violence." Pp. 307-23 in Violence and New Religious Movements, edited by James R. Lewis. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Grim, Brian J., and Roger Finke. 2010. The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hafez, Mohammed M. 2003. Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
  • Sageman, Marc. 2004. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Stark, Rodney. 2007. Sociology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
  • Sunstein, Cass R. 2003. Why Societies Need Dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Sunstein, Cass R. 2009. Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Zablocki, Benjamin D. 1980. Alienation and Charisma. New York: Free Press.

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