The market of spiritual masters

Do the decline of the religious institution and the rise of new spiritualities remove the issues of power and authority?? Mr. Wood's investigation into the circles of the “New Age” and London Methodism places the religious fact in its social relations of power in a neoliberal context.

The authority of spirituality under the scrutiny of sociology

Let us designate them by the terms of New Age, spirituality or sotristism, beliefs which are distinguished from monotheistic religions by the fact that they are not governed by systems of institutionalized pastoral authorities are often associated in France with sectarian deviations, and their practitioners considered as such to be under the influence of gurus. In Spirituality and power: the ambiguities of religious authorityhowever, it is against a completely different type of representation of this phenomenon that Matthew Wood scraps: the one, much more idyllic, that the sociology of spirituality English (p. 145 et seq.), according to which these practices would on the contrary have as their only rules individual freedom and autonomy in matters of doctrinal choices. By deconstructing this position and presenting it as the reflection of too great a proximity between observers and promoters of New Age (p. 150), Matthew Wood does not, however, fall back into the first pattern, and uses the tools of sociological objectification to characterize the nature of the authority relationships that he witnessed during his investigations.

English sociologist who died of illness in 2015 at just 45 years old, 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. Applies equally well to New Age that in Methodism, the two main areas of investigation of the book, this approach intends to highlight the different social factors which 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 focuses 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 primary socializations, of socio-professional trajectories in context nolibralis (p. 99), and modes of structuring the contemporary religious field.

New perspectives in the sociology of religions

This return of the social in sociology of religions is articulated more broadly in Spirituality and power around three axes of work on which Yannick Fer returns in his preface (p. 7-24): 1) the characterization of a certain type of authority, encountered during ethnography of practices assimilated to New Ageas non-structuring (non-formative ), the cornerstone of an analysis of the structuring of the contemporary religious field; 2) a putting into perspective of the dominant tradition of 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 collectives and local public authorities; 3) the development of an analysis of the religious fact from the angle of social relations of race who 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 is in fact caught up in a broader concern, as to what neoliberalism does both to religious practices and to the conditions of exercise of the sociology which addresses them.

As a collection of texts first published separately between 2007 and 2016, Spirituality and power is thus teeming with significant propositions, whether it be the notion of partial individual secularization (p. 166) to deal with the paths of religious disengagement with regard to the churches, that of secularization advances (p. 180) to describe the way in which religious organizations are forced to reformulate their practices and discourses to make them acceptable when they participate in public service offerings (p. 198-199), or even examples of convincing dialogues between sociology and anthropology to analyze field data. But above all it is its core idea, namely the notion ofnon-structuring authoritywhich should attract the attention of researchers in the social sciences of religions, but not only.

Lnon-structuring authority spiritual teachers


Before being used to qualify a general relationship to authority in the social space of New Age, this model meets the needs of the analysis of the first field study reported by Matthew Wood. It is in fact first a question of a small meditation group (around 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 through a narrative based on esoteric references. Matthew Wood notes in this context that(e)despite this formal exercise of leadershipLauthority of Lovell (the couple supervising the meditation) was weaksince many participants (including regulars) did not feel concerned about some of the parts of the ritual that the Lovells considered important. (p. 54). Interviews with participants in turn indicate that their meditation practice referred to a multitude of other authorities with whom they had been involved (p. 55), that is to say that they themselves and individually carried out their own interpretation of meditation by evoking other esoteric references and practices than those mobilized by the Lovells.

The other facet of this field reveals the same phenomenon of relativization of authority, this time within the framework of a practice which could nevertheless lend itself to a more asserted charismatic domination: that of the workshops of channeling, during which a presenter pretends to act as an intermediary between spirits and the audience, by presenting herself as possessed. Matthew Wood transcribes here the exchanges during which two channelers deliver messages of a prophetic nature, proclaiming their own authority as possessed (p. 70), holding a speech marked by argumentative turns aimed at convincing the audience, and clearly placing themselves in a position of authority and distance from (their) audience, who had not experienced what she (the presenter) was telling (p. 77) of his possession. However, here again, no authority relationship strictly speaking is built during these interactions nor persists thereafter. The event also takes place in an atmosphere which 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 with the holders 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 which Matthew Wood explicitly takes up, an authority which would have vocation shape the way people practice (p. 92), as would, for example, the pastoral authorities in classical religious institutions. But rather than giving in to the theory of a spiritual DIY carried out in perfect autonomy by practitioners free from any contextual determination, Matthew Wood seeks to analyze this situation in the light of a report fromhomology (p. 116) between these experiences and the other situations in which practitioners of New Age. He then identifies among his investigators the same ambiguity in their relationship to religious authority and professional authority, due to trajectories of social ascension specific to professionalized fractions of the working classesand which generate self-representations characterized by a status ambiguity (p. 119). But these life paths also correspond to engagement careers specific in the New Agemarks by a progressive engagement with a myriad of authorities, perpetuated during subsequent engagementsin such a way that each of these authorities limits the capacity of others to inculcate in a firm and structuring way a specific self-vision 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 would therefore be explained by the fact that the latter, by multiplying practices, influences and references there are for example meditators among the audience of channelers find themselves engaged with multiple authorities (p. 100) which limit themselves, contain themselves, then relativize each other. Matthew Wood concludes that the New Age apparent in this way walk where religious authorities proliferate without being in competition for a monopoly, since followers can link several of them (p. 109). A provision which would, according to the author, be directly influenced by neoliberalism, to the extent that it would have everywhere, including in religion, multiplied the possibilities of distinction and Dindividualization 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 character of authority and its contained, even ironic, mode of exercise are imposed by the proliferation of pretenders to authority, or if on the contrary it is the appearance of first offers immediately not structuring and therefore non-monopolizing which has enabled this proliferation. This theory nonetheless constitutes a valuable contribution to the reflections of sociologists and political scientists on domination and its repertoire of legitimization. Matthew Wood opens up with this title a perspective that would benefit from being worked beyond the borders of the disciplinary subfield for which the work is initially intended:non-structuring authority would not be the preserve of the religious field, and the notion could be used the analysis of other social fields (p. 135). If Wood does not say which ones, social, cultural or political movements without apparent institutional organization and confronted with the same situation of proliferation of offers in terms of practice and doctrine could certainly provide as many favorable grounds for an exercise of transposition.