The term ‘New Age’ has evolved in meaning over the years. We think of it as a relatively new term, but it in fact is not. The term became associated with Theosophy through Alice Bailey’s writings in the early 20th century, and continued evolving from there. But the modern concept we are familiar with, largely emerged through ‘60s counter culture. The components that make up New Age are extremely diverse causing definitions of the term to be equally as diverse. In the scholarly realm, New Age is characterized by:
- Shopping, spiritual market
- Inbuilt resistance to organization
(Taves & Kinsella 2013: 84-85)
These are common themes academic literature on New Age phenomena. They are also highly contested with a multitude of positive and negatives stances for each theme. However these points of significance as identified by academic scholars become much more telling when held in juxtaposition with major components of New Age thinking identified by New Agers. According to John Button and William Bloom, New Age thinking is largely made up of the following components:
- Through the revelations and insights of contemporary science, we are beginning to understand that matter is composed of dancing waves of energy, and that every particle and movement of the cosmos is related to every other. Science is also determining that there is a continuum between matter and consciousness, and that the two are not separate.
- Within psychology there is a growing understanding of the potential of the human psyche and consciousness. It is being increasingly recognised that a major purpose of human existence is to achieve psychological integration and fulfillment and that this dynamic is fuelled and guided by each individual’s ‘inner’ or ‘core’ self.
- Within holistic medicine and healing, it is accepted that illness and health can only be understood and treated in relation to the whole person and their own unique life story.
- The green movement has clearly demonstrated that the delicate and intimate interrelationships between all living beings on the planet, recognising that the planet too is a living being in its own right.
- The accelerated pace of social and political change and the global electronic communications revolution have brought events and traditions from around the world into our cultural consciousness.
- Being part of this global village has opened access to all the world’s religious and mystical traditions, and increasingly we are coming to understand the underlying unity of all spiritual paths. We can appreciate the rich tapestry of different approaches, honoring the wisdom of native traditions and the esoteric teachings of the mainstream religions.
In my experience observing New Age phenomena, I see the relevance of both constructs. Neither can be easily identified as wrong. But the difference suggests that researchers and their subjects are focused on different things, and designate significance by different requirements. The quotes above illustrate how researchers focus on structure and function, while participants are more concerned with content. Considering that many researchers interested in New Age phenomena come from a social science background, it is not surprising that they tend to focus on how New Agers operate.
But themes deemed significant by subjects must be given ample attention by researchers. This is imperative to gain an emic perspective and develop an understanding of subjects’ belief and decision making systems. In the early days of social research, scholars imposed their reasoning for beliefs and actions over the reasoning of their subjects. In the field of New Age research especially, I fear this ineffective and damaging trend is alive and well. Balancing scholarly interests with areas of importance identified by subjects will yield more thorough and unbiased studies.
Button, John & William Bloom. “Introduction” in The Seeker’s Guide: A New Age Resource Book, edited by J. Button & W. Bloom. London: The Aquarian Press, 1992, pp. 11-17.
Taves, Ann & Michael Kinsella. “Hiding in plain sight: the organizational forms of ‘unorganized religion’” in New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion. Edited by S.J. Sutcliffe & I.S. Gilhus. Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2013, pp 84-98.