“Herding Cats”: Vernacular Knowledge, Epistemological Relativism and the Problem of “New Age Spirituality”

Contesting Authority - Vernacular Knowledge and Alternative Beliefs - Marion Bowman

Steven J. Sutcliffe [+-]
University of Edinburgh
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Steven Sutcliffe, University of Edinburgh, is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He specialises in the study of alternative religion in modernity and in the modern history of the study of religion/s. He is author of Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices (2003), co-editor (with Ingvild Sælid Gilhus) of New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion (2013) and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond New Age: Exploring Alternative Spirituality (2000). He also edited Religion: Empirical Studies (2004) and is a co-editor for the Bloomsbury Advances in Religious Studies monograph series. His current research includes the archive of the Scottish conscientious objector and ‘simple life’ practitioner, Dugald Semple (1884-1964), and the social and cultural history of the Gurdjieff-Ouspenskii movement. He is President of the British Association for the Study of Religions between 2015-2018.


In previous publications I explored reasons why it has been so difficult to mobilise ‘new age’ beliefs and practices as an identifiable ‘new religion’ or ‘new religious movement’ despite their robust presence in modern societies. I focused on the relative lack of the necessary organisational features to sustain and authorise a stable formation, the fissiparous effects of the multiple authorities operating within the field, and the discursive effect of the ‘world religions’ paradigm which undermines the status of new age and related vernacular expressions. In this chapter I analyse the workings of the ‘knowledge economy’ underpinning new age beliefs and practices. Drawing on data from new age texts and personal testimonies, I explore the principles of everyday epistemological practices, focusing on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of knowledge production in the uncertain field known as ‘new age spirituality’. I want to argue that, despite clear evidence that new age practitioners are socialised into a collective logic of practice, the ‘market’ in new age ideas and beliefs, and the epistemological principles required for practitioners to operate successfully within it, create a centrifugal effect. The result is a form of epistemological relativism which, like the socialisation of practitioners, is relative and qualified. This helps to explain the fuzzy ‘hallmark’ of new age representations which can be understood as the effect of the conflicted, incomplete and unresolved dynamic between individual and group (at the social level), and particular and universal (at the cognitive level), rather than constituting a unique substantive problem. In other words, new age spirituality is not a ‘special case’ but a particular instance of the operating logic of a wider vernacular knowledge economy. The centrifugal effect of this relativistic epistemology further explains the structural ‘failure’ of the new age/holistic/mind-body-spirit ‘movement’. But in doing so, paradoxically it supports the ethnological vitality of vernacular knowledge, since the same mechanisms which explain why it has been such a headache to organise an authoritative and replicating movement from new age ‘elementary forms’, account for its enduring attraction for ‘individuals’ within and across more formative formations.

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Sutcliffe, Steven. “Herding Cats”: Vernacular Knowledge, Epistemological Relativism and the Problem of “New Age Spirituality”. Contesting Authority - Vernacular Knowledge and Alternative Beliefs. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Oct 2021. ISBN 9781781792377. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=29220. Date accessed: 05 Jul 2020 doi: 10.1558/equinox.29220. Oct 2021

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