Several definitions for the term have been put forward. The term "secret society" is generally used to describe fraternal organizations that may have secret ceremonies and means of identification and communication, ranging from collegiate fraternities to organizations described in conspiracy theories as immensely powerful, with self-serving financial or political agendas.
A purported "family tree of secret societies" has been proposed, although it may not be comprehensive.
Alan Axelrod, author of the International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders, defines a secret society as an organization that:
- Is exclusive
- Claims to own special secrets
- Shows a strong inclination to favor its own
David V. Barrett, author of Secret Societies: From the Ancient and Arcane to the Modern and Clandestine, uses slightly different terms to define what does and does not qualify as a secret society. He defines it as any group that possesses the following characteristics:
- It has "carefully graded and progressed teachings"
- Teachings are "available only to selected individuals"
- Teachings lead to "hidden (and 'unique') truths"
- Truths bring "personal benefits beyond the reach and even the understanding of the uninitiated."
Barrett goes on to say that "a further characteristic common to most of them is the practice of rituals which non-members are not permitted to observe, or even to know the existence of." Barrett's definition would rule out many organizations called secret societies; graded teaching is usually not part of the American college fraternities, the Carbonari, or the 19th century Know Nothings.
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