The diversity of research methods in sociology is dictated by the nature of the subject it researches, society. Any individual sociologist will have to make appropriate choices within that diversity for any particular project. This is what a great sociologist, C. Wright Mills, called ‘intellectual craftsmanship’, an essential quality for successful work which cannot be reduced to a set of recipes.
Eileen Barker’s study The Making of a Moonie is an excellent example of intellectual craftsmanship in sociology. This is not just because of the variety of methods it uses but also in the way the outcome of her research so clearly goes beyond everyday understanding. Her work is much more than intellectual inquisitiveness, which may be intrusive in things social. Often research is the morally responsible thing to do when a topic is shrouded in prejudice.
Barker was drawn into her research partly because the Unification Church was already publicly controversial. Founded by the Revd Sun Myung Moon in North Korea after the Second World War it spread to the United States in the 1960s and was later accused of brainwashing its members, generally known as Moonies, and therefore threatening the traditional family.
For a sociologist this image of the dangerous cult links to a long-term debate within the discipline about the direction of social change and in particular the place of religion in a secular world. When the contemporary world is widely considered to be modern and beyond religion the fact that people become members of religious groups itself brings that view of the world into question. At the same time the public anxiety which this arouses is itself an issue for inquiry. Becoming a Moonie is a fraught social phenomenon.
Barker gained the confidence of a group of Moonies. She tells us how she did this. Her participant observation went through three stages. The first was watching and listening, ‘doing the washing up in the kitchen was always a good place for this’. Then she interacted with members by taking part in conversations. Finally she began to argue with them and ask awkward questions.
Often her participation got her into difficulties, like attending a workshop where she was asked to give a presentation on the purpose of the coming of the Messiah. She did so to such good effect that one person present said that she now fully understood that the Revd Moon was the Messiah. Barker explained she did not herself believe this, but it made no difference to the others. She never pretended to be anything other than a sociologist to the people she studied, which meant that reactions to her varied from the accepting to the hostile. But as a sociologist she also represented a link between her subjects and outsiders. Sometimes she found herself drawn into mediating between a Moonie and anxious parents. This in itself says something about the role of the sociologist in contemporary society. There is a need for dispassionate observers with no axe to grind who can be trusted to tell it how it is to them, trained in eye and mind to work according to academic and professional standards.
In this respect the contrast between Barker’s approach and that of the journalist is instructive. The stories in the press about the Moonies were almost wholly about the outrage of parents. They might be ‘factual’, but the facts were those as seen by one of the parties to a conflict. Indeed a newspaper article entitled ‘They took away my son and raped his mind’ became the subject of a libel action by the British Moonie leader against the Daily Mail for false accusation of ‘brain-washing’. He lost, and that issue of brainwashing is central to Barker’s book. She seeks to establish by close observation how in general people become Moonies. Clearly they didn’t accept that they were ‘brainwashed’, but then their accusers say that is a symptom of their condition. Barker, through close and enduring contact with Moonies without herself subscribing to their beliefs, was seeking to establish a fund of evidence distinct from any that could be brought by the interested parties to a dispute. She was effectively working from the assumption that the sociologist can achieve a certain kind of objectivity.
For her purposes participant observation was not enough. In order to discover whether Moonies were controlled in some illicit way she began by interviewing people who were not in her initial group and eventually distributed a questionnaire to all British members of the Church, gaining 425 replies. She compared those who joined after taking part in introductory workshops with those who didn’t, and collected a total of 217 questionnaires. To do this she had to gain access to membership lists. But she also wanted information from people similar to Moonies in many respects who did not join the movement and obtained 110 questionnaires from other sources too. Then, because her work concerned the process of becoming and not becoming a member, contact with those in relations with Moonies was also vital, so she followed up parents and entered into exchanges with the anti-cult movement, with the press and with government officials. But it was not just people who were her source of information. She took their beliefs seriously enough to read and study their publications in depth and treated their accounts not just as personal opinions but as religious statements set in a complex doctrine.
One notable feature of Barker’s study is the way it spans a divide in sociological research which often is regarded as unbridgeable, or at least separating two incompatible camps, the qualitative and the quantitative. In the one corner the touchy, feely, understanding type of approach, in the other the hard-nosed, no-nonsense, yes/no, make-up-your mind approach to facts. The first is sometimes called ‘interpretative’, the second ‘positivist’. These also correspond broadly to the two types of sociological research mentioned earlier, the survey and observation.
In point of fact Barker’s study illustrates the way these approaches are complementary and overlap such that they are incomplete without each other. She needed to know just how typical members’ experiences were to make judgements about the Moonies as a whole, and she needed equally to enter into profounder contact with some to make sense of the more general responses of the many.
In the end Barker concluded that the Moonies were not strikingly different from any other minority religious group. The factors which predisposed people to join were far more important than any unusual technique of persuasion the Moonies might have. The question we are left with at the end is more one of the need to explain the reaction to the Moonies of the wider society than it is to explain the Moonies. Here some wider sociological assumptions about modern society are also brought into question. This again illustrates a thrust of sociology. Its approach to methods is also designed to throw up uncomfortable findings, to disturb taken-for-granted assumptions and to contribute to the continual updating of our understanding of society.
It is the nature of society which dictates the methods we use to find its reality and, because that nature is continually reformulated in and through people’s social relations, we can never regard it as fixed and immutable. What counts as facts arises out of those relations. They are social constructions and performances though none the less real for that, and those facts are themselves central to our achievement of understanding of other people. If we say that sociology as a science is concerned with the way people struggle to make society we do not go far wrong. At the same time we can see that sociology can easily become an element in that endeavour.
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