9. ‘Seeking’ as the ‘Soul of the Plot’: An Analysis of Three Vernacular Narratives

Vernacular Knowledge - Contesting Authority, Expressing Beliefs - Ülo Valk

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.


I argue that the role of the ‘seeker’ and practices of ‘seeking’, especially (but not only) in the field of New Spiritualities, constitute a late modern tradition of practice. Rather than a personal and idiosyncratic form of behaviour with minimal salience, seeking is better understood as a collective mode of thought and practice by means of which receptive subjects adapt to the radical pluralisation of late modern religious authorities. To support my case I discuss three vernacular biographies from different regions of the UK as post-1945 case studies. Drawing on a theoretical framework based in the work of Vladimir Propp and Walter Burkert, I argue that, despite substantive differences, each biography shares a common structure of a search for symbolic goods in the face of multiple competing authorities. I conclude that seeking is a late modern vernacular tradition with historical and anthropological roots.

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Sutcliffe, Steven. 9. ‘Seeking’ as the ‘Soul of the Plot’: An Analysis of Three Vernacular Narratives. Vernacular Knowledge - Contesting Authority, Expressing Beliefs. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. Oct 2022. ISBN 9781781792377. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=29220. Date accessed: 28 Oct 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.29220. Oct 2022

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