Commentators routinely point out how difficult it is to define the New Age movement. It appears to encompass a wide array of actors, ideas and practices. Because New Age metaphysics is often imbricated with therapeutic modalities and 'secular' concerns, it is not even certain that it sits easily in the category of religion. At the same time, despite the difficulties regarding the demarcation and categorisation of the phenomenon, surveys of the primary literature have revealed significant continuities between various teachings.
This thesis presents a sociology of knowledge interpretation of the New Age. It seeks to account for social and cultural conditions that have facilitated its emergence in the particular ideological and organisational form it takes. In particular it assesses the relationship of the movement to broader processes of social and cultural change. Integral to the argument is the idea that New Ageism does not
simply reflect such processes, but engages with and contributes to them.
The empirical basis of the work is a survey of New Age discourse as it appears across different genres, media and modalities. Significant ideological continuities are discerned, as is their imbrication with critique of received cultural forms and social arrangements. It is argued that New Age thought is a form of critical theory in the way that it articulates ideas with a logic of social problem-solving. Not only does it offer techniques to improve life-experience in numerous fields, but in so doing it retheorises agency, constructing the true self as a site of higher spiritual and epistemological powers. Processes of realising this inner potential and the diverse benefits it can bring, are often seen as continuous with the need to cast off inadequate knowledge, the moral influences of society and the guidance of rationalistic or dogmatic institutions. The thesis examines how the model
of the 'New Agent'—an actor with a greatly enhanced ability to make decisions pertaining to their lifecourse, practical pursuits and what is 'right for them'—addresses the challenges of self-fashioning presented in a highly pluralised social milieu in which no single source of moral guidance commands obligatory status.
New Age theorisations of the person and society are brought to a consideration of the 'diffuse', ‘amorphous' organisational form of the movement. The individualisation of authority and rejection of normative social institutions are related to the loose movement structure, which facilitates individual 'seekership', the proliferation of the discourse into many variants, and the voluntaristic pursuit of self-fashioning through New Age consumer markets.
Finally, the New Age institutionalisation of alternative values in forms not traditionally associated with religious individual-group
commitments raises broader questions about the social form and functions of contemporary religion. New Age 'therapy' problematises received distinctions between the sacred and the worldly, and between religious institutions and other social institutions. Engaging with theories of secularisation, postmodernism, consumer society and advanced liberalism, the thesis addresses the extent to which the New Age may exemplify a social reconfiguration of the sacred.