CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Religious Aspects of Multilevel Sales Organizations

Cristina Gutiérrez (El Colegio de Jalisco, México)
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London. Preliminary version - Do not reproduce without consent of the author.

In 1999, the president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, N.J. Demerath, addressed the researchers that gathered that year in Boston to discuss "The Sacred and the Secular. Discerning Religious Dimensions in the World Beyond Religion." He recalled a Mutt and Jeff cartoon in which Mutt was earnestly searching an area of the sidewalk right under a streetlight. Jeff asked him what he was looking for, and he responded that he was trying to find his keys. "Is this where you lost them?" Asked Jeff. "No," answered Mutt, "I lost them in the middle of the street, but this is where the light is." Likewise, says N.J. Demerath mockingly:

"Too often we look for the sacred under a religious street lamp, when we should be searching amongst other experiences in the middle of the block. Of course, religion itself remains a crucial and compelling substantive phenomenon in its own right. But any probing analyses of its sacred or secular tendencies and consequences must occur within a broader context" " (Demerath, N.J. 1999, p. 4)

For some years now, I have been interested in new age groups and the so-called esoteric nebula, and have therefore researched its specific manifestations in local Mexican society. But, although I have found numerous elements in the new age groups that could well cause them to be considered religions from a sociological perspective, the issue that I now purpose to consider is plainly a business: multilevel businesses.Even worse than Mutt, perhaps I am going all the way to the other side of the street. It seems to me that it is important to attempt to formulate a definition in this regard. I will summarize my lines of interest in the research I am undertaking as a doctoral thesis.

1.- What is a multilevel sales organization?

Probably you have heard of, or dealt with sales organizations such as Amway, Herbalife, Mary Kay or Nikken. These are direct sales organizations. In other words, the salesperson and not the store, directly promotes the product. The salespeople are not employees of the business in the traditional sense, nor are they simply commission merchants. Besides selling the product, they recruit new salespersons, train them, establish a downstream line of distributors that are subordinate to them, and they reap profits from the sales of these subordinates. Depending on their own performance and that of their subordinates, the salesperson or distributor will be promoted within the organization. This means that he will receive special dividends, bonuses, benefits or incentives, such as trips, cars or homes. For example, the Nikken Company has nine levels, beginning with direct distributors on up to the royal diamond. At the higher levels the distributors practically have no more need to sell, because their own line of subordinates and the incentives they receive from the company supply sufficient returns. Having become a business tycoon of sorts, they simply concentrate on supporting the activities of their own line, or they give introductory and motivational seminars in countries where the company plans to begin operations. ?A presentation of the products of a multilevel business is not only an invitation to purchase the product, but more importantly, it is an invitation to become a distributor. The production of the merchandise itself is of much less importance to the dynamics of the company, than the process of selling. In fact, a considerable amount of the products are obtained through independent suppliers. The company is essentially a multilevel-type sales establishment. The role of the salesperson or distributor is not only to master and promote the product, but also to know the business in order to be able to recruit new distributors. Thus, the company requires a training process that is carried on through seminars and testimony sessions. On the one hand these are designed to persuade trainees of the virtues of the product, but on the other promote a spirit of success, self-fulfillment, the virtues of free enterprise and business entrepreneurship. So the inductees are not invited to obtain a means of support as salespersons or commission merchant, but rather to adopt a lifestyle, distributing high-quality products, and in turn, promoting a change of lifestyle in others.The rapid proliferation of this type of multilevel organizations in my city can be considered a part of a process of de-structuring/re-structuring of businesses, the organization of labor and the job market in the context of growing internationalization and competition. All this occurs in the framework of financial neo-liberalism. These companies do not invest in a payroll in order to market their product, but rather only train distribution/advertising/sales agents according to a plan that includes competition, personal improvement and success.An initial survey indicates that they recruit professional people as well as housewives, especially those seeking supplementary income with a flexible schedule, or relief from unemployment. For example, according to the Direct Sales Organization in the United States, where there are more than eight million distributors, sixty percent are women, seventeen percent are couples, and 23 percent are men. (http://etext.virginia.edu/~jkh8x/soc257/nrms/dsotour.html.) Obviously, there are organizations that specifically recruit women to sell to women.In this regard, they are businesses established upon the concept of self-employment as a style of work organization, and the entrepreneur ideology as the precise symbolic framework for the operation of their organization.Those who join do not feel that they are disenfranchised laborers, but rather small businessmen with great aspirations and even a touch of philanthropy.But all this does not mean that the product itself is unimportant. It is possible to find counterparts to many of these products in supermarkets and stores. But the product involves an additional "something" that requires the direct participation of a salesperson with a certain profile in order to achieve the correct application or the full appreciation of its quality. That "something more" is often related to relaxing, energizing, purifying, beautifying characteristics. Something that changes the image, changes the experience of one’s self, or is the evidence of a new focus in life.The marketed product itself thus acquires a symbolic plus: the vital energy, the physical well-being, the optimistic attitude and the esthetic ideal, the successful adaptation to contemporary urban existence. This symbolic plus included in the products that the salesperson promotes is in turn related to the values upheld in the training seminars. The same marketing system sells the product and allows the person to "belong."

2.- In what sense can they be considered religious organizations?

One of the most inclusive definitions of this quasi-religious and para-religious phenomenon is the one given by Arthur L. Greil: "they are phenomena that cannot be identified with the popular notion of religion, but are similar to it in some important aspects." (Greil, 1993, p. 156) What are these religious aspects?a) They seek to create a community with distinctive values: a symbolic boundary is established between those who belong to the organization and those who do not, based on an absolute loyalty to the product, and the exaltation of certain values, such as success, free enterprise, and especially an attitude of confidence in the future, based on the infallible character of the individual’s effort in the accomplishment of any goal. The so-called American dream. To show that one shares the values is belonging to the company, which is "ours" and which is even frequently called a family. Since these values are related to the activity of the business, the evidences of financial prosperity are very important. They are the proof of belonging to the community of the elect. The company frequently supplies these symbols in the form of benefits or incentives to those in the upper levels: luxury cars, trips to exotic destinations, etc. One example may be more than eloquent:

Mary Kay’s mission is to enrich women’s lives. We will do this in tangible ways, by offering quality products to consumers, financial opportunities to our independent sales force, and fulfilling carreers to our employees. We will also reach out to the heart and apirit of women whose lives we touch. We will carry out our mission in a spirit of caring, living the positive values on which our company was built. Integrity, Enthusiasm, praise, Leadership, Quality, Teamwork, Service, Balance in our lives with God, Family and carreer in harmony" ( www.marykay.com)

b) They establish an ascending hierarchy up to the sacred level of their founders or leaders, or even the upper-level salespersons or distributors. By sacred, I am referring in this case to the reverential attitude toward them, the adoption of their biographies as models to emulate, the unlikelihood of a critical perspective, the attitude of followers of a leader with charisma. The web sites of companies like Mary Kay or Nikken devote considerable space, not only to the astronomical figures of the company, but also to the life of the founder, who is considered a constant source of inspiration and recognition.c) Their meetings and seminars include markedly ritualistic elements, such as sequential collective acts of a symbolic nature which confirm an attitude of reverence for common objects or values. There is singing, hand clapping, testimonies are given exalting the virtues of the product and the life transforming effects in the distributors since having joined the company. Those who take these stands receive collective approval. Promotion to higher levels is announced at award granting events at the company headquarters, where there may well even be a "Hall of Fame" in which the name of the distributor is registered and then publicized in internal journals and on the web site of the company. The following testimony of a high-ranking couple in Amway is revealing

"In the Amway business, everyone has the chance to buid up their own business —no matter what their circumstances or who they are. The only condition is that they have to like working with people. They have to be willing to take their lives into therir own hands and stand out from the masses. This requires growing self-confidence in one’s "now" and one’s future" Michael & Gabriele Meier.www.amway.com

3.- Religion as a debatable category in modern times. The birth of authenticity processes.

We could tentatively say that multilevel organizations contain religious elements, or that they at least appear to be religions by a popular definition; a social image of religion, even though strictly speaking they are not, they are businesses.Even by the definition of those involved, this religious nature is vigorously denied. Can we ignore the disagreement among these sociological definitions of religion, self-definitions and social definitions? No. Will we ever be able to agree upon a definition of religion? For the time being that appears unlikely as well. The basic struggle of sociologists has been to arrive at a classification of substantive definitions of religion (those which refer to the body of beliefs in reference to supernatural o non-empirical reality) and functional definitions (which refer to the function of providing an individual with a sense of belonging and an ultimate meaning for existence). The substantive definitions have been criticized for disguising the specific historic reality of judeo-christianity and church organization as a universal category. The functional are rejected as being so all-inclusive that they allow apples and oranges to be cast in the same unproductive bag with golf, Opus Dei and Islam. (McGuire, 1987,p. 5-11)

Some prefer to maintain a safe distance from both positions and affirm:

"The error made by proponents of both substantive and functionalist definitions is to assume that "religion" is a phenomenon which exists in reality and that any belief or practice could be permanently labelled as being either religlious or not religious if only we could agree upon an acceptable definition." (Greil 1993, p. 163)And of course, the perfect definition is still unavailable. But beyond the academic circles, we witness a struggle by various organizations to be considered religious (a prime example being Scientology) or non-religious (groups such as EST or Transcendental Meditation) whose objection hinges on possible advantages or disadvantages that the legal context of each country provides for religious or secular institutions, (Greil, 1996) as well as the legitimacy afforded to the one who holds this attribution.I believe it might be safe to affirm that the category of religion itself has become debated and debatable. In the midst of the proliferation of religious options, the problem of authenticity has emerged. This involves the whole process by which ideas and practices become accepted as genuinely religious. (Lewis Carter, 1994) This comes as a consequence of modernity, or perhaps more accurately according to Giddens, as a consequence of the reflective nature of modernity. (Giddens, 1994, p. 46)In the absence of the anchorage provided by traditional institutions such as churches, we can distinguish a parallel fluidization of beliefs, their practical ubiquity, as Luckman (1987) suggests, as well as the meditative character of the word "religion." The attention focused on those extra-ecclesiastical forms in which the religious nature is debated and debatable allow us to:

(Greil 1993, p. 163)Greil recognizes a distinction between religions, quasi-religions and para-religions, in such a way as to grant importance to three elements: the social concept of religion, the distance of these phenomena in relation to religion, and to the group self image.

"the terms "para-religions" and "para-religious" refer to ostensibly nonreligious entities that share features in common with religious organizations as well as to secular projects that nonetheless deal with matters of ultimate concern"

These might include, for example, the phenomena of nationalism or the passionate devotion to some sport or team as a way of life.

The same author states,

. This includes groups that are deliberately ambiguous regarding their sacred o secular nature. From this point of view, Alcoholics Anonymous, Scientology, and many New Age and occult groups are quasi-religious. In short, they are "sort of" religious in that they more or less self-consciously straddle the boundary between the sacred and the secular" (Greil, 1993,p. 156)According to these categories, it becomes clear that multilevel sales organizations could be correctly defined as para-religions considering that, just as religious organizations, they promote belief in common framework of supreme values, but they manifest as a secular project, a company, a business. Further yet, Bromley and Shupe (1990) have described direct sales organizations such as Amway, Herbalife, and Mary Kay, as "quasi-religious corporations with cultic characteristics." In a very tell-tale way, almost reminiscent of the anticult controversy, the consolidation of an anti-multilevel movement is beginning to take shape, made up of former members that now publish on the internet, their experiences and research on what they call the "true face" of these companies. Naturally, I trust I have learned something about the Mexican controversy in recent years, so as not to be caught up in it now by reason of the sale of cosmetics. My interest pursues a different direction, which I will attempt to clearly define.I believe that the adoption of terms such as analogical religion (Hervieu-Léger, 1991), para-religion, and quasi-religion, even though they may be denounced for not providing a clear and uniform definition of religion, or being very superficial in their analysis, does remind us of the discursive nature of the term religion, and refers us to the current shifting of beliefs from the distinguishable limits of the religious institution toward more fluid forms. The logic of these forms is yet to be explored.The adoption of these terms and of a systematic follow-up of the phenomena has allowed North American scholars, for example, to detect the manner in which quasi-religious and para-religious organizations are playing a greater and greater role in the United States, and how people seem to be expressing their significant experiences in the context of institutions that Americans do not think of as typically religious. (Greil, 1993, p. 166) This is a feature which helps us understand the course of secularization itself, or the shape of the sacred in post-modernism, even while it leaves unsolved the classic question of the definition of religion.

4.- A work proposal.

Current inquiry of religious matters attempts to discover trends in the rearrangement of the sacred in modern times. I feel that the proliferation of religious options, the so-called "religious migration" (Díaz Salazar, 1994), or the shifting of beliefs over institutional boundaries, which leads to "a la carte" religion (Champion, 1995), and the tendency toward privatization of religion (Berger, 1973) have proved to be fruitful developments. However, the intention of this examination of the para-religious in multilevel businesses is not simply to confirm that there are even more options in the spiritual supermarket. It is geared towards exploring the redefinition between the public and the private spheres, and the shift from the sacred to the secular, frequently toward small transcendencies that relate, not so much to the experience of the hereafter, but of the here and now (Luckmann, 1987). Success, the body, health, beauty and well-being, along with a marked empathy with the logic of the capitalistic economic system, seem to be viable substitutes for religious inclinations. But I insist, it is not merely a capitalist religion to be explored as one more religious congregation. I believe hypothetically, that its emergence and success is surrounded by other phenomena whose relations I desire to explore.In the first place, joining a multilevel organization is a decision motivated by a desire to increase income through a job within a specific organization or company. Therefore, it is necessary to explore it as work organization. This inquiry should be conducted from the perspective of the organization, as well as from the experience of the individual.Secondly, on a symbolic level, I wish to pursue the exploration of two realms: a) the array of values set forth in the company training processes, demonstrations, seminars and meetings, as well as the appropriation of these values in the lives of the distributors or salespersons, and the importance granted to them in their work and lives; and b) the realm that I have called the "symbolic plus" of the products that they promote. I sense that both realms are wholly compatible, transforming the demonstration sessions into an invitation to purchase and join, and an act of symbolic consumption.In the third place, it is necessary to explore the relationship between these products and proposed values, and the consumer mindset promoted through the media, whose messages may become a kind of structure of virtual plausability, both for the decision to purchase, as well as for the decision to join and continue within the organization, seeking new consumer capacity as well as a new lifestyle.Fourthly, I would like to explore the manner in which these values that are promoted through training and purchasing, can function as adapters to an urban life with new styles of socialization where anonymous relationships are the norm (Augé, 2000), and where it is possible to reinvent oneself by means of an image.In fifth place, it is necessary to consider that membership in these organizations and the adoption of their proposed values, does not originate in a tabula rasa: it is inserted into multiple molds of worldviews, ethics and institutional membership, probably in force and co-existent in the individual. I think, for example, in his religious identity, in his gender identity. Are these restructured in order to produce a new framework for the interpretation of a vital experience–a new identity? Are some sort of "booths" set up within that framework, which can be used according to circumstances and specific roles? It will be necessary to observe the processes of possible restructuring of meaning and reordering of "belonging" generated within the individual. We should also explore the limits of coherency within the symbolic and cognitive framework of the individual in this increasingly complex society. It may well be that the coherent individual is not a realistic representation of the individual but rather a model required by the power of the institutions (Wolf, 1999) and/or by those of us who attempt to analyze him in an ordered and systematic way.In conclusion:This work proposal is born out of the focus of a particular discipline–the sociology of religion. But its ramifications involve greater issues, which as you may have observed, have not been fully defined: the sacred, the beliefs, the symbols, the interpretative frameworks. If your professional restlessness is not hypercritical, I hope to continue reporting on my progress in future meetings.


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The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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