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Book Review - Why They Believe A Case Study in Contemporary Polygamy


International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 8, 2017, pages 78-81

Why They Believe: A Case Study in Contemporary Polygamy

Amy Osmond Cook

Reviewed by Arthur A. Dole

San Clemente, CA: Sourced Media Books. 2011/2014. ISBN-10: 1937458156; ISBN-13: 978-1937458157 (paperback), $29.99. 332 pages.

Why They Believe… is a sometimes tedious and redundant text, but frequently informative and a potential boon to scholars.

Amy Osmond Cook published her dissertation at the University of Utah as a case study in contemporary polygamy. Her intent: to answer why the estimated 2,000 members of The Order, a.k.a. the Kingstons, a polygamous group, believe what they do and how they function today. She does not mention her own religious background.

Cook (PhD, University of Utah) is a faculty associate at Arizona State University. She teaches interdisciplinary and communication-related courses such as negotiation, organizational studies, organizational identity/
identification, and methods of interdisciplinary studies. She earned her BA and MA in English at Brigham Young University.

Her paper-cover book includes 264 pages of text and 14 pages of notes. In addition, Appendix A is a three-page report to the Safety Net Committee (a state-sponsored committee established to improve safety in polygamous groups). Appendix B presents six pages of tables, and Appendix C quotes two pages of definitions of organizational identity. Nine pages of references are followed finally by seven pages of Index. No wonder Dr. Cook spent 6 years on this work!

In the face of such abundance, I will be brief, summarizing each chapter, followed by a comment.

Chapter 1. Organizational Identity

Cook begins with the concept of organizational identity borrowed from communications theory in business: Members of a commercial group devote themselves to making a profit. Since The Order has a large business empire in Utah, organizational identity is a promising key to understanding it.

Cook prefers to call the Kingstons a new religious movement (NRM) rather than a cult (too pejorative). She acknowledges but rejects psychology’s emphasis on abuse, and also the sociological focus of cultic studies.

She concludes that “studying organizational identification in the Kingston polygamous organization will yield interesting results about the organization itself . . . polygamous organizations and new [religions] . . . and how rhetoric operates to induce identification within them” (p. 8).

Comment. I speculate that the concept of organizational identity might well be applicable to other new religious groups such as Scientology and the Unification Church. Alternatively, it might reflect a temporary fad in support of privatization.

Chapter 2. the Kingstons

In 1850, Joseph Smith and a handful of followers came upon some golden tablets; these were translated into English as the Book of Mormon and, they claimed, were a supplement to the Christian Bible. Thus Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints (LDS). As a fundamentalist Christian group, early Mormons were persecuted in the Midwest partly because they advocated polygamy. Many fled West and settled in Utah, where they played a major role in developing the territory. In 1890, to attain statehood for Utah, the LDS issued a Manifesto, renouncing the practice of polygamy.

However, a few small groups have persisted in practicing polygamy despite their excommunication by LDS and the threat of legal punishment. Excommunicant Mormon Charles Elden Kingston in 1935 created one such organization, now called The Order, or the Kingstons. Cook describes three major ideological platforms that guide the organization's policies and procedures: communal living, polygamy, and intermarriage (incest).

Comment. Thus the family unit is strengthened and combined with religion and business enterprise. Fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist LDS are blended in the official texts of the Kingston organization.

Within the organization’s hierarchical structure, each female is assigned a number and must please the male above her in rank (husband or father). At the top is the Heavenly Father. Each member of The Order (the elite) is encouraged to become a perfect person who is devoted to family and the organization, who accepts a life of poverty, and whom the Heavenly Father will reward with admission to Heaven—a familiar scheme to make money, and to control and exploit members.

Chapter 3. Theoretical Perspectives and Positions

In this chapter, Cook argues for interdisciplinary theory building, “a tentative framework through which to view possible linkages and connections between theories of uncoerced obedience in rhetoric, sociology, psychology, organizational communication, and organization science”
(p. 107).

Comment. In this chapter, I found Cook hard to follow, redundant, and overgeneralized. As I understand her as she uses five or six different specialty languages (vernaculars), she addresses the question, “How does a NRM (The Order) function?” Cultic theorists and researchers may be excited by these different, deductive approaches. Other readers may prefer to skim.

Chapter 4. Methodology

To understand the rhetorical processes used by the Kingston organization to instill identification, Cook applied a retrospective interview technique to 14 members and 14 former members. Participants’ replies were recorded and transcribed. Cook and another rater analyzed the transcripts along with relevant organizational documents: “To analyze these texts I employed three theoretical methods: . . . extended metaphor analysis; classical Aristotelian analysis and . . . Burkean-inspired analysis of identification strategies” (p. 108).

The author identifies interviewees by participant numbers and uses samples from the transcripts to illustrate findings. The appendices present a variety of tables, including definitions of key terms. She reports interrater reliability (Cohen’s Kappa), but does not mention the qualifications and training of the second rater.

Comment. These methods differ from my experience with case studies used by psychologists, sociologists, social workers, and business specialists. Rather than collecting data to build theory (inductive reasoning), Cook used theories to analyze and interpret her findings (deductive reasoning). She omitted sample characteristics, and failed to account for the possible effect of interviewer behavior or characteristics. Bias?

Cook’s attempt to compare members with former members is flawed by uncontrolled variables such as the participants’ age, gender, and experience with polygamy. Statistics are limited to frequencies and percentages. On the positive side, researchers may be challenged by her work to experiment with deductive qualitative approaches.

Chapter 5. “Kingdom of God”: The Organization and Order

When Cook applied extended metaphor analysis to the Kingston organization, she described it as a “hybrid organization with three fully integrated dimensions: normative (church), utilitarian (business), and family” (p. 141). For example, Figure 1, “Organizational Rhetoric (by Or. Dimensions),” includes 19 citations about spirituality, 15 concerning business, and 13 concerning family.

Cook supplemented her quantitative analysis with theories, the voices of participants, observations, interpretations, and scripture. She noted her attempt to remain neutral in the dispute between advocates of polygamy and the Attorney General.

Comment. In her blending of the quantitative and qualitative, Cook was clear, articulate, and informative about the Kingdom of God. I encourage cult researchers to experiment with this deductive approach to case study.

Chapter 6. Aristotelian Analysis

Cook discusses the results when she applied Aristotelian analysis. The behavioral component fits well, she argues, with Aristotle’s revision of the soul as bipartite. This explains why all four psychological components of occupational identity, and also four sociological processes (Lalich’s bounded choice) work together. In addition, Aristotelian analysis highlights rhetorical types, decision premises, and rhetorical appeals. When Cook compared 14 current members with 14 former members on the frequency of rhetorical appeals, the former members cited 128 and the current members only 35.

Comment. From my perspective as a social scientist, I am amazed at Cook’s intellectual gymnastics. Relying primarily on participants’ responses to the retroactive interviews and selected documents supplied by the Kingston organization, she has used deductive thinking and interpretation within a classical system of logic. Is Aristotelian analysis a Procrustean bed or a productive new approach to cultic research? Can further research validate her results?

On a positive note, both the participants’ views and many of Cook’s interpretations were interesting and provocative. For example, she claimed that her analysis of rhetorical appeals supports Margaret Singer. According to Cook,
“. . .new religious movements use persuasive tactics that focus on emotion and suppress reasoning. . .” (p. 181).

Chapter 7. Burkean Identification Strategies: Bounded Choice

In this chapter, Cook extends Aristotle’s rhetoric as it applies to the process of identification in respect to her sample of the Kingston organization. She analyzes concepts proposed by Kenneth Burke, an American philosopher, Rob Van Dik, a professor of social psychology, and Janja Lalich, Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University and ICSA member. Cook concludes that aspects of identification are related to Burke’s theory of logology and Lalich’s system of bounded choice. Van Dick’s affective, cognitive, behavioral, and conative dimensions of identification influence and control members. She shows “how they are used to create member loyalty in thoughts words, and action” (p. 238). From childhood on, these identification strategies lead to loyalty to family, to the Kingston group, to the Kingdom of God, and to the charismatic Heavenly Father.

Comment. Cook draws on a theoretician/
philosopher, a sociologist, a German social/vocational psychologist, and other specialists to interpret how and why. As in the preceding chapter, she uses relevant participant-interview statements and official documents to illustrate her deductions.

Chapter 8. Conclusions

In this chapter, Cook summarizes her theoretical findings as an in-depth exploration of organizational identification within the Kingston organization; members changed over time. By showing how identification occurs in the Kingston organization, she hoped to understand NRMs in general. She also wanted to show how classical rhetoric is applicable to our postmodern world.

Among other conclusions, Cook was “completely mesmerized” by the Kingstons,
“thunderstruck” by their effectiveness, “saddened” that former members felt mistreated. She wanted to let each side speak for itself, and to be fair and unbiased. Recognizing the conflict also between The Order and the Utah Attorney General, she concluded that the question of abuse in the practices of polygamy and intermarriage “will remain a contested issue”
(p. 251); so too whether or not the Kingstons’ economic practices abuse some of its members, especially girls and women.

The Kingston organization was masterful, she argues, in its development of organizational identity through veneration of the charismatic leader. “While spiritual development is stressed in The Order, the structure of the family is tightly controlled; it is run like a corporation”
(p. 223), with the strongest emphasis on economics. In sociological terms, the Kingston organization is a sect and “a new religious movement (or cult) in psychology-based literature” (p. 259).

Comment

Cult theorists and researchers will find in Why They Believe: A Case Study on Contemporary Polygamy a wealth of possibilities. To describe the whys and hows of this Mormon sect, Cook describes definitions, concepts, laws, rules, and the like of organizational identification theory (I counted more than a hundred such variables in Appendix A). She added depth and nuance from observations, participants’ interviews, a brief history of the Kinston family from Jesus to Joseph Smith, and official documents. Her multidisciplinary approach strengthened her deductions and recognized diversity, complexity, and variety.

As a psychologist and skeptical cultural Christian, I found that her use of organizational identification theory may have created serious methodological problems. Her descriptions of her sample of participants were minimal and included no specific mention of age, marital status, education, hierarchical rank, and so on. The 24 interviewees were not randomly selected, and there were too few to describe a population of about 2,000. She presented no evidence of the validity of the retrospective interview technique. How were the raters selected and prepared? What were their relevant characteristics, such as religious background? How familiar were they with organizational identification theory? In my opinion, it is premature for Cook to generalize about the Kingstons or all NRMs.

Is The Order a cult, a new religious movement? I agree that, so far as the evidence about this sample is concerned, yes, it does resemble a cult. These members were brainwashed, were tightly controlled by a charismatic leader and an illogical belief system, and were expected to donate their property and earnings to the group. Evidence of harmfulness or goodness is incomplete.

 In my experience as an academic, most dissertations are hard to write and hard to read. They are not usually written to teach or to entertain, but rather first to please a committee of specialists within a particular university department and then to impress the members of a particular academic discipline—members who are professionals, future employers. and colleagues. In this instance, sociology applied to communications in business organizations is possibly a temporary fad. Perhaps also it reflects a popular political struggle: Advocates of privatization vie with supporters of government for control of schools, prisons, health care providers, and so on.

For cult researchers and theorists, the challenge in reading Why They Believe. . . is to separate the important from the jargon. For example, as a further test of deductive approaches, let’s encourage lawyers, political scientists, linguists, and hypnotists to submit case studies of new religions. What about encouraging experimental social psychologists to compare new religions on the effectiveness of hierarchical versus bottom-up democratic problem solving? These finding invite a well-designed quantitative study that might correlate variables and compare members with former members.

Finally, I hope to read a briefer and clearer version by Cook of what this new religion does, and why. I am sure that those interested in Mormonism and polygamy, along with former Kingstons and feminists, will find it especially informative.