View on existing typologies

Stark and Bainbridge(1985) argued that none of the typologies of new religious movements, sects, churches and denominations developed by other sociologists are a sound basis for categorisation because they all use correlates (sets of characteristics that tend to be found together in the same organisations) rather than attributes (characteristic that an organisation must have according to its definition) to distinguish organisations.

Thus they call for an abandonment of typologies, and claimed that religious groups can be compared in terms of a single criterion: the degree of conflict that exists between them and the wider society. Such a definition allows clear comparisons and changes over time to be described.

Their own typology

Stark&Bainbridge(1985) argued that there are different kinds (rather than ‘types’) of religious movements.

Sect: offshoot of an existing religion as a result of division or schism within that religion.

Cult: defined in terms of its novelty in a particular society. There are three types of cults according to their degrees of organisation

  • Audience cult: least organised, may hold occasional meetings, e.g. Astrology believers share the common belief but do not necessarily know each other as they don’t have massive gatherings.
  • Client cults: more organised, usually offer services to the followers, e.g. Scientology offers to clear ‘engrams’(repressed memories of painful experiences) for followers
  • Cult movements: many client cults can develop into cult movements for their most dedicated followers, e.g. members of Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide when an comet crossed the sky in 1997, holding the belief that such act would bring them to heaven.


  • Although Stark and Bainbridge considered their own typology as superior to others, they are criticised for being over-simplistic as they only consider the degree of tension between them and the wider society. Other factors such as the extent to which the religion tolerates other religions(McGuire 2002) are not addressed in their categorisation.
  • Moreover, they seemed to contradict themselves as their typology is also inadequate - some groups do not meet all the characteristics of the three types of cults they suggested.
  • McGuire(2002) said those typologies can be useful ‘in helping us to understand how these collectivities come into being, develop, have a social impact, and change - both internally and in relationship to the larger society’ but ‘we need to resist the tendency to use these categories rigidly’.

Also by Stark&Bainbridge

Rational choice theory


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