Interrogating the Notion of “Cult” as a Social Formation in Asian Religions

Valerie Yeo Announcement
Subject Fields
Anthropology, Asian History / Studies, Cultural History / Studies, Religious Studies and Theology, Southeast Asian History / Studies


Interrogating the Notion of “Cult” as a Social Formation in Asian Religions
21-22 October 2021, online

In popular culture the word ‘cult’ is usually used in a derogatory sense to denote an exclusive and secretive new religious movement (Galanter 1999; Schaler 2015). However, the terms ‘cult’, ‘temple cult’ and ‘deity cult’ have an entirely different usage in religious studies, referring to popular followings of temples, deities, gurus, teachings or practices which are not necessarily secretive and often enter into mainstream religious practice. Studies of these types of cults range in historical period and geographic location and come from multiple disciplinary traditions: not only religious studies, but also anthropology, sociology, history, Asian studies and literary studies. Whether referring to the 16th century development of Confucian cults (Murray 2009), the role of obscure Bengali cults in contributing to religious literature (Dasgupta 1946), arguing for the centrality of ancestral cults in Chinese society (Ahern 1973), describing the spread of the cult of Guangze Zunwang from China to Southeast Asia (Tat 2009), or the current rise in village guardian cults in Northern Vietnam (Hung 2016), these studies each identify one unit of analysis as the “cult”.

However, are each of these conceptualizations of ‘cult’ referring to the same social-cultural configuration?

What, in fact, is a temple/deity cult in the context of Asian religious traditions? And how does membership in a temple/deity cult contribute to people’s sense of self and sense of belonging in the world?

This workshop will bring together a diverse group of scholars who are at the forefront of researching temple/deity cults in Asia, both historic and contemporary, in order to theorize this prominent form of socio-religious grouping.

For this workshop, we seek papers framed around the following questions:

  1. How is a temple/deity cult defined in specific religious contexts?
  2. What are the bonds of affiliation that come to constitute a temple/deity cult? How are they sustained and how do they change over time?
  3. How is a temple/deity cult similar or different from other forms of religious and secular association (for example, “secret societies” and brotherhoods, foundations, rotating credit groups, clubs, alumni associations, mutual aid societies, martial arts groups, dance troupes, etc.)?
  4. How is membership in a temple/deity cult determined?
  5. How is the development of the temple/deity cult influenced by:
  • National and local contexts
  • Transnational connections and networks
  • Laws and regulations governing religious affiliation and practice
  • Specificities related to the temple or deity
  • Literary canons, myths, and oral traditions
  • Other social structures and their membership systems

The English term “cult” is both vague and ambiguous, yet commonly used to represent social formations, ritual communities and religious configurations that are expressed through different terms in local languages in practice. Cult, therefore, is an etic category use to describe social phenomenon which have their own emic understandings and terms. Variously used to describe a movement, a following, a lineage, a sect, an order, a clan, a guru-disciple relationship, or other kinds of communities of devotees, the term “cult” is a catch-all term used to categorise both loosely institutionalized and fluid formations of religious practice. In order to unpack this term it is essential to look at the history of its use in religious studies, and scrutinize case studies of religious groupings identified as “cults’.

The term cult also tends to imply an internal unity or homogeneity. But how accurate is that implication is in the context of the lived experiences and practices of members of temple/deity cults in Asian religious groupings. For example, do people who worship the same deity necessarily consider themselves part of a temple/deity cult? Why or why not? How and how not? For this workshop, we seek papers that can provide evidence of the activities, behaviours, or initiations that would come to constitute cult status? What cannons, physical structures or artefacts would provide evidence? Would it be useful to create a typology in order to understand the varieties of traditions, and the processes of formation, transformation and dissolution of temple/deity cults?


Paper proposals should include a title, an abstract (300 words maximum) and a brief personal biography of 150 words for submission. Please use the paper proposal form and send it to Ms Valerie Yeo at by 30 April 2021.

Please also include a statement confirming that your paper has not been published previously, it is not committed elsewhere, and that you are willing to revise your paper for potential inclusion in a special issue submission (in collaboration with the workshop organizers and other participants). 

Successful applicants will be notified by the end of May. Panel presenters will be required to submit drafts of papers (4,000-7,000) words by 30 September 2021. These drafts will be circulated to fellow panellists and discussants in advance. Drafts need not be fully polished. Indeed, we expect that presenters will be open to feedback from fellow participants.


Dr Emily Hertzman Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
Prof Kenneth Dean | Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

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Valerie Yeo
Asia Rseearch Institute, National University of Singapore


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