Religion and religious gatherings have taken the centre stage of criticisms during the COVID-19 pandemic for their role in the mass spread of the virus. Concerns over religious festivals and religious gatherings that came about during the time of social distancing advised by almost all governments across the world are perfectly understandable. But what is difficult to understand is the question that why would people knowingly put themselves into serious danger.
Why would anyone indulge in such risky behaviour when the whole world is grasped by the fear of the virus? What makes some people flock to the grocery stores to hoard things quickly so that they may not have to risk their lives on daily basis while there are others who didn’t turn a hair?
If we are able to understand the elements and the process with which they create high levels of engagement, trust, social bonding and conviction in organised religions, cults, sects and extremist organisations, we might get some insights that could have positive applications in organisations. Simultaneously, these insights would also give us some clues on curtailment of such organisations from self-destructive and socially destructive behaviours. I am going to look at the functioning of close-knit religious organisations through the lens of social network analysis to bring some clarity to the congregation of Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), the Islamic group which organised their gathering in Mid-March in Nizamuddin.
Social network analysis or Organisation Network Analysis is the mapping and measuring of relationships and flows among people, groups and organizations. Social networks play a central role in religious life because it is through these social networks that the recruitment and retention of members as well as the diffusion and radicalisation of religious ideas and practices happens.
Religious groups recruit members through their social ties. So, many a times more than embracing an ideology, it is about aligning oneself with the ideology and beliefs of one’s family and friends. Some organisations, specially extremist ones develop these social ties for recruitment through social media as well. This means that the newly joined member has already got some trusted mentors in the organization. This makes the integration of the new member easier and faster than it normally would have been. At the same time, there is a level of exclusivity which means that one cannot just appear for a walk-in interview and become a part of the group. This relation with exclusivity makes the social ties in the group stronger since the day of joining itself.
Like all human groups, people of faith tend to cluster with similar others, and this clustering can help explain why some people are more prone to leaving such organisations than others. People who gravitate towards the centre or core of the cluster mostly remain with the organisation and people who remain in the periphery of the cluster showcase more attrition. This is because people who are in the periphery of the social network have fewer ties within the organisation than the people in the core of the organisation. This clustering which occurs on the basis of similarity in faith also creates an “us and them” mentality. Many a times, people who are in the periphery of the network are willing to go the extra mile in order to get into the core of the network. Because of this reason, the trust amongst the members of the group is higher in comparison to that in any random social group.
Being part of a dense network, where people have strong bonds not just with the leader or leaders but also with one another also creates a sense of well-being, belongingness and happiness. This has other implications like the members of this organisation have less ties and bonds with people who do not belong to their organisation thus they fail to understand others’ worldviews and different perspectives. This often leads to not giving much importance to what others are saying but giving uttermost importance to what the members of their organisation say. The understanding of this equation explains the reason why many such organisations did not bother about warnings from civic bodies around social distancing and continued to follow the practices that were dearer to their organization or leader.
Once we understand these organisations from a social network perspective, we would be able to deal with them more effectively. Most of the times, it’s fruitful to identify bridges and take their help to influence the members of the organisation. In social network, term “bridges” means people who connect two clusters of networks, associate the organization to the world and influence all the clusters. It is easy to get information from people who are in the periphery hence identifying people on the periphery of the network could also turn out to be a helpful strategy that might help us in understanding the organisation.