"As Above, So Below": Contemporary British Cosmologies of Spirituality and the New Age

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis draws on fieldwork among practitioners of contemporary spirituality in Hebden Bridge, a small town in Yorkshire, UK, between December 2018 and November 2019. It presents an ethnography of the cosmological understandings and lived experiences of these practitioners, focusing on their language, metaphysics, and praxis. From the 1960s onwards, migration into the declining industrial town of Hebden Bridge created a thriving New Age spiritual community, and which solidified with increasing gentrification, and provides a fruitful case study for the anthropology of religion and spirituality today. Building on diverse ethnographic research in many spiritual practices in the town, this thesis focuses on astrology, Tarot card divination, gong baths, neo-shamanism, meditative yoga, and 5Rhythms ecstatic dance. Analysing interviews, facilitator discourses, in-class instructions, and embodied experiences and practices, this thesis contributes to ongoing debates regarding the ontological turn in anthropology. A diverse thesis that focuses on diverse practices, this thesis explores how contemporary astrology relates itself to gender, and what planets and symbols become in an astrological context. Questions of how anthropologists can understand our interlocutors' epistemologies are explored in relation to Tarot readings, and debates over the ontological turn and difference are addressed with an ethnographically sensitive approach to exploring how difference is created in spirituality in the context of gong baths. Ambiguity of belief in contemporary spirituality is explored in the context of neo-shamanism, where I argue for an expansion of possible ethnographic subjects to include objects that our interlocutors do not provide a clear metaphysics of. This thesis concludes with two chapters addressing the relation between philosophical non-duality on the one hand, and lived appearances of duality in daily life on the other, in two different spiritual practices, touching on themes common to contemporary spirituality in many fieldsites. Drawing from the ontological turn, this thesis argues for a recursive methodology that writes anthropological description through the creation of homologies with ethnographic encounters and fields. I argue that this expands the ontological turn past concerns with concept creation, enabling the reflexivity of the ontological turn to open up anthropology for engagements with broader questions of speculative anthropology and further exploration of the relations between anthropological texts and the fields they are based on. In engaging with these diverse themes, I contribute to anthropology a clear understanding of how the ontological turn can be relevant for the study of religion, in particular contemporary spirituality, through refining recursivity as a methodology. This is particularly useful for contemporary spirituality, which as a highly diverse social movement requires a methodology that is able to approach the relation between the anthropologist and their multiplicity of fields with sensitivity and openness.
Date of Award31 Dec 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJeanette Edwards (Supervisor) & Soumhya Venkatesan (Supervisor)


  • esotericism
  • britain
  • yorkshire
  • western esotericism
  • religion
  • astrology
  • new age
  • ontological turn
  • spirituality

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