[3]A Profile of New Agers: Social and Spiritual Aspects(*) (1)

Article excerpt

Introduction

The social profile of New Agers is known: urban educated middle-class and middle-aged, a majority of whom are women (Champion 1993; Rose 1998). However, this portrait is based on quantitative analyses, and as Rose (1998: 20) claims: `We will become better informed [about New Agers] once more qualitative evidence is gathered'. The aim of this article is thus to provide a qualitative and richer analysis of thirty-five interviews of New Agers conducted in Melbourne in 1996-97.

For this paper, I refer to New Age Spirituality (NAS) as a belief in: monism (a paradigm which recognises a single ultimate principle, being or force underlying all reality); the human potential ethic (the teleology of a better or superhuman being, also referred to as self-development) and gnosis (a quest for the knowledge of the universe or of the self, the two being sometimes interrelated; see Possamai 1998). I voluntarily omit other types such as neo-paganism (see Possamai 1999 for more information on the difference between NAS, neo-paganism and other alternative spiritualities).

It is important to note before addressing the qualitative analysis that my thirty five informants almost fit with the description drawn from the quantitative research as presented above. The only difference is that my sample was gender balanced. My method of selecting people for interview is referred to as a `network sampling' (Ballis 1995: 224), i.e. since `[New Age movements] operate through word of mouth and extensive networking links' (York 1995: 224), I networked in Melbourne; however, I did not restrict myself to only one network of New Agers.

I have tried to comprehend the different perspectives and practices of my interviewees to avoid the study of NAS from a single vantage point. I have found to specialise in one specific type of activity, such as astrology, automatic writing, Buddhism, channelling, crystals manipulation, feminist spirituality, meditation, naturopathy, numerology, palmistry, reiki, spiritualism, Tantrism, tarot and urban shamanism. This list actually understates the diversity of practice.

At the beginning of each interview I asked the participant how they followed their particular spiritual path (or spiritual journey). Other questions were:

* What are the resources you have employed or employ to follow this path? What groups are you going to? What are you studying? What books are you reading? What techniques or meditations are you using? ... (If there have been some changes of methods in the life trajectory: Why?)

* Why did you choose these resources and not others? Why do you think that these could help you better than other techniques?

* Where do you think this path will lead you?

* If you were to advise someone who wants to set out on a spiritual path, what would you say?

While analysing the interviews for this article, I wanted to answer the following questions: Who are New Agers (from a sociological point of view) and what are their defining features? How do they organise themselves and what are the details of their organisation--if they have any--and how does it operate? How do people become New Age actors and how do people strategise in or towards NAS? These questions are inspired by Lofland's (1995: 37) list of generic propositions used in ethnographic research. The interviews were thematically analysed to give an answer to these questions. Other analyses of these interviews on anti-modern, modern and post-modern values can be found in Possamai (1999).

It is also important to note before going further that this article follows Heelas' (1996: 9) and Introvigne's (1996: 48) argument that NAS is not a new religious movement (NRM), and it voluntary omits the literature on NRM for that reason. A comparison between NAS and NRM would take us too far afield.

Who are New Agers? The New Ager as a conflictual actor

Anne and William have been chosen as case studies because of their pertinent explanations of the conflict they experienced with any sort of religious organisation. …