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Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults Paperback – September 15, 2004
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"Janja Lalich combines unusual empathy for true believers with broad and balanced scholarship and incisive interpretations of overall cultic behavior. Her work illuminates much that goes on not only in charismatic cults but in larger, destructive movements and extremist governments in our troubled world."Robert Jay Lifton, author of Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World
"At a time when politicized religion is rocking the world in often violent ways, this arresting study of totalizing ideological movements offers a new perspective. It revives the terms 'cult' and 'brainwashing,' often discarded by social scientists, and gives them new meaning as descriptions of cultures of 'bounded choice.' This intriguing notion is applied to two quite different movements: the suicidal Heaven's Gate group and a radical American organization of young Marxists. This book is timely and certain to be widely discussed. But it cannot be easily dismissed-for its author is not only a sensitive social scientist but also a former member of one of the groups. Hence this book speaks with a voice of both thoughtful reason and gripping experience."Mark Juergensmeyer, author of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence
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This book is well written and worth the price.
Lalich's sketches of the cults are interesting but cursory and marred by frequent use of conclusory language to gloss over details (for instance, she refers often to the Heaven's Gate cult's tendency to go on "bizarre diets" without ever describing them, and she accuses DWP head Marlene Dixon of writing increasingly incomprehensible communiques without quoting from them). But there is enough basic information for Lalich to get her thesis across, which is, after all, the point.
I am not sure she convinces me of her thesis, though. It seems awfully general to me in its broadest strokes. Sure, choices narrow once one commits -- that's true of everyone, all the time. And the basic mechanisms she cites -- charismatic leadership, transcendent ideology, and implicit and explicit social controls -- are equally general, especially in her interpretations. "Charisma" has to be defined very broadly to encompass both the magnetic leaders of the Heaven's Gate cult and the drunken and abrasive leader of the DWP, and, eqally, "transcendent ideology" can mean anything if both Heaven's Gate's apocalyptic supernatural beliefs and the DWP's attempt to form a political cadre to hasten Marx's communist revolution count. It's true that anything you put your heart and soul into can be considered transcendent, but that defines the term so generally it's no longer useful, if you ask me. The "social controls" mechanisms are equally general.
Lalich tries to make a virtue of this generality by pointing out that her theory is broad enough to encompass political terrorism and erroneous foreign policy, or, for that matter, anything bad that people do. I even noticed that personal charisma, a demand for total commitment, and social control mechanisms would explain the dynamics of a violent domestic relationship as well as they explain cultic behavior. But Lalich seems unaware that her framework and terminology could also be stretched to fit not just bad, but also good, social situations -- for instance, British steadfastness in World War II.
So what I think happened is that in her attempt to include all cults within her framework, Lalich created one so broad that she accidentally described general human behavior instead of separating out cult behavior. It's an interesting framework and there is a certain value to it, and it is clearly the product of deep thought and study; I'm just not sure it does what Lalich wants it to do.