Social Science Research Council Research AMP Mediawell

Cultivating Online and Offline Pathways to Enlightenment: Religious Authority in Wired Buddhist Organizations

Cheong, Pauline; Huang, Shirlena; Poon, Jessie P.H.
Information, Communication & Society

In light of expanding epistemic resources online, the mediatization of religion poses questions about the possible changes, decline and reconstruction of clergy authority. Distinct from virtual Buddhism or cybersangha research which relies primarily on online observational data, this paper examines Buddhist clergy communication within the context of established religious organizations with an integrationist perspective on interpersonal communication and new and old media connections. Drawing on in-depth interviews with Buddhist leaders in Singapore, this paper illustrates ways in which priests are expanding their communicative competency, which we label ‘strategic arbitration’ to maintain their authority by restructuring multimodal representations and communicative influence. This study expands upon previous research by Cheong et al. (in press, Journal of Communication) and finds that constituting Buddhist religious epistemic authority in wired organizational contexts rests on coordinating online–offline communicative acts. Such concatenative coordination involves normalizing the aforementioned modality of authority through interpersonal acts that positively influences epistemic dependence. Communicative acts that privilege face-to-face mentoring and corporeal rituals are optimized in the presence of monks within perceived sacred spaces in temple grounds, thereby enabling clergy to perform ultimate arbitration. However, Buddhist leaders also increase bargaining power when heightened web presence and branding practices are enacted. The paper concludes with limitations and recommendations for future research in religious authority.