The market for spiritual masters

The authority of spirituality under the sift of sociology

Let them be referred to as “ new-age », « spirituality ” or “ esotericism “, the beliefs which are distinguished from monotheistic religions by the fact that they are not framed by systems of institutionalized pastoral authorities are often associated in France with sectarian excesses, and their practitioners considered as such as being under the influence of gurus. In Spirituality and Power: The Ambiguities of Religious Authorityit is however against a completely different type of representation of this phenomenon that Matthew Wood scraps: the one, much more idyllic, that gives the “ sociology of spirituality » Anglophone (p. 145 et seq.), according to which these practices would, on the contrary, have as their sole rules only freedom and individual autonomy in terms of doctrinal choices. By deconstructing this position and presenting it as the reflection of too much proximity between observers and promoters of new-age (p. 150), Matthew Wood does not, however, fall back into the first schema, and employs the tools of sociological objectification to characterize the nature of the authority relationships he witnessed during his careers. surveys.

English sociologist who died of illness in 2015 aged just 45 [1]Matthew Wood was one of the main representatives of a renewal movement in the sociology of religions, responding to the slogan of “ Bringing Back the Social into the Sociology of Religion » [2]. Applied as well to new-age that in Methodism, the book’s two main fields of investigation, this approach intends to highlight the various social factors that influence the choices of the followers of these practices, and in doing so shed light on the way in which they are indeed framed by forms of religious authority. Thus, where an analysis focused on the only “ private and cultural aspects of the existence of individuals (p. 149) identifies “ situations in which people exercise their own authority (p. 150), that is to say, compose a spirituality “personal in a way apparently independent of any relationship of authority, Matthew Wood rather sees in this supposed freedom the trace of the influence of religious primo-socializations, of socio-professional trajectories in context” neoliberalized (p. 99), and modes of structuring the contemporary religious field.

New perspectives in the sociology of religions

This return of the social in the sociology of religions is articulated more broadly in Spirituality and power around three lines of work on which Yannick Fer returns in his preface (p. 7-24): 1) the characterization of a certain type of authority, encountered during the ethnography of practices assimilated to the new-ageas “ non-structuring » (« not formative “), in the light of an analysis of the structuring of the contemporary religious field ; 2) a reappraisal of the tradition of dominant interpretation of the “ secularization » by paying attention to the paths of religious disengagement and by the ethnography of effective religious practices, their place in the public space and the relationships between certain religious groups and local public authorities ; 3) the elaboration of an analysis of the religious fact from the angle of social relations of race which now cross it, on the grounds that the place of people who have experienced migratory journeys in English religious communities makes it necessary today.

Other more methodological considerations are added, and even reflections on the place of sociology in the contemporary university institution. Because the whole thing is in fact caught up in a broader preoccupation with what neoliberalism is doing both to religious practices and to the conditions of exercise of the sociology that addresses them.

As a collection of texts first published separately between 2007 and 2016, Spirituality and Power teems with significant proposals, whether it be the notion of “ partial individual secularization (p. 166) to deal with the paths of religious disengagement with regard to the Churches, of that of advanced secularization (p. 180) to describe the way in which religious organizations are forced to reformulate their practices and discourse to make them acceptable when they participate in public service offers (p. 198-199), or even examples convincing dialogues between sociology and anthropology to analyze field data. But it is above all its key idea, namely the notion of “ non-structuring authority », which should attract the attention of researchers in social sciences – religions, but not only.

L'” non-structuring authority » spiritual masters

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Before being used to qualify a general relation to authority in the social space of the new-age, this model meets the needs of the analysis of the first field study reported by Matthew Wood. It is indeed first a question of a small meditation group (about fifteen people) meeting in the evening at the home of the couple who directs the practice, that is to say who speaks during the collective meditation to guide it. by a narrative based on esoteric references. Matthew Wood remarks in this context that “ [e]n spite of this formal exercise of leadershipI’authority of the Lovells [le couple encadrant la méditation] was weak “, because “ several attendees (including regulars) felt unconcerned with some of the parts of the ritual that the Lovells felt were important. (p. 54). Interviews with participants in turn indicate that “ their practice of meditation referred to a multitude of other authorities with whom they had become involved (p. 55), that is to say that they proceeded themselves and individually to their own interpretation of meditation by evoking other esoteric references and practices than those mobilized by the Lovells.

The other facet of this terrain reveals the same phenomenon of the relativization of authority, this time within the framework of a practice which could nevertheless lend itself to a more assertive charismatic domination: that of the workshops of channeling, during which a host pretends to be the intermediary between spirits and the audience, by staging herself as possessed. Matthew Wood transcribes here the exchanges during which two channelers deliver prophetic-looking messages, proclaiming their own authority as possessed (p. 70), holding a speech marked by argumentative turns aimed at convincing the audience, and placing themselves clearly “ in a position of authority and distance vis-à-vis [leur] audience, which had not experienced what it [l’animatrice] told (p. 77) of his possession. Nevertheless, here again, no authority relationship, strictly speaking, is built during these interactions or persists thereafter. The event also takes place in an atmosphere that appears to the participants themselves as playful. Basically, observes Matthew Wood, there would only be something like “ a form of alleged authority (p. 180).

These descriptions therefore distinguish a relationship to the repositories of knowledge spiritual “breaking with the model of a relationship of authority” structuring » (« formative “), that is to say, in line with Michel Foucault’s theory of subjectivation that Matthew Wood explicitly takes up, an authority which would have vocation to “ shape the way people practice (p. 92), as pastoral authorities would do, for example, in classical religious institutions. But rather than giving in then to the theory of a spiritual tinkering carried out in perfect autonomy by practitioners free of any contextual determination, Matthew Wood seeks to analyze this situation in the light of a report of “ homology (p. 116) between these experiences and the other situations in which the practitioners of the New Age. He then identifies in his respondents the same ambiguity in their relationship to religious authority and to professional authority, due to trajectories of social ascent specific to the “ professionalized fractions of the popular classes », and which generate self-representations characterized by a « status ambiguity (p. 119). But these life paths also correspond to engagement careers » specific in the new-agemarked with “ a progressive engagement with a myriad of authorities, continued in subsequent engagements “, so that “ each of these authorities limits the ability of others to instil in a lasting and structuring way a specific vision of self and the dispositions or habitus associated with it (p. 53).

A form of neoliberal authority ?

In short, “ non-structuring authority which manifests itself in the social space of practitioners of new-age can therefore be explained by the fact that the latter, by multiplying the practices, influences and references – there are, for example, meditators among the audience of “ channelers –, find themselves committed to “ multiple authorities (p. 100) which limit, contain, then relativize each other. Matthew Wood concludes that the new-age thus resembles a “ market » where religious authorities proliferate without however being in competition for a monopoly, since the followers can attach themselves to several of them (p. 109). A provision that would be, according to the author, directly influenced by neoliberalism, insofar as it would have everywhere, including therefore in religion, multiplied the possibilities of “ distinction ” and D'” individualization through the consumption of goods and services from an expanding economic market (p. 127).

This proposal of course leaves a number of open questions. Ambiguity remains, for example, as to whether (and if so how) the non-structuring nature of authority and its contained, even ironic, mode of exercise are imposed by the proliferation of claimants to authority, or if, on the contrary, it was the appearance of the first non-structuring and therefore non-monopolizing offers that allowed this proliferation. This theory nonetheless constitutes a valuable contribution to the reflections of sociologists and political scientists on domination and its legitimizing repertoire. As such, Matthew Wood opens up a perspective that would benefit from being worked on beyond the borders of the disciplinary subfield to which the book is initially intended: the “ non-structuring authority would not be the prerogative of the religious field, and the notion could be used to analysis of other social fields (p. 135). If Wood does not say which ones, social, cultural or political movements with no apparent institutional organization and confronted with the same situation of proliferation of offers in terms of practice and doctrine could certainly provide as much fertile ground for an exercise in transposition.

Matthew WOOD, Spirituality and power. The ambiguities of religious authority, Geneva, Labor et fides, coll. “ Investigations », preface by Yannick Fer, translated from English by Juliette Galonnier and Gabrielle Angey, 2021, 320 p., €24.

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The market for spiritual masters

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