5. New religious movements and ethnography

Stefania Palmisano

Stefania Palmisano, PhD, is Associate Professor in the Sociology of Religion at the University of Turin, Italy, where she teaches the sociology of organization and the sociology of religion. Her research includes religious experience in mainstream religions, alternative spiritualities, New Religious Movements and the relationship between spirituality and care in Italian healthcare system. She is the author of Exploring New Monastic Communities: The Re-invention of Tradition (Ashgate, 2015), co-editor with Nicola Pannofino of Invention of Tradition and Syncretism in Contemporary Religions: Sacred Creativity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and (with Nicola Pannofino) Contemporary Spiritualities: Enchanted Worlds of Nature, Wellbeing and Mystery in Italy (Routledge, 2020).

Marco Castagnetto

Marco Castagnetto is PhD candidate in social research at Link Campus University in Rome and teaching fellow in Religions in the Globalized World at the University of Turin. His research focuses on New Religious Movements in sociological perspective, Western esotericism studies, traditionalist European neo-paganism and alt-politics, and the soteriological philosophies of India (mainly advaita vedānta and mahāyāna Buddhism). In 2020 he authored The lotus and the sword. Aurobindo Ghose’s thought and its reception in the West (Milan: Franco Angeli), confronting the Indian philosopher’s political and spiritual assertions with the most influential thinkers of Western traditionalism.

As a growing phenomenon affecting both the internal cultural productivity of world religions and the participatory turn (Ferrer and Sherman 2008) of the unchurched spiritual seekers (Fuller 2001), New Religious Movements (NRMs) represent a challenging field for the socio-religious scholarship addressing and further investigating religious and spiritual frames in the era of multiple globalizations and metamorphosing religious pluralisms.

Our panel aims at contextualizing and debating the analytical potentialities and critical issues of ethnography in researching NRMs, interpreted as characterizing phenomenon of the plural religious narratives of contemporary societies, encouraging inter-disciplinary papers that mobilize local and global understanding of NRMs.

As a relatively little used practice in the sociological study of NRMs, ethnography shows fuzzy boundaries between qualitative and quantitative analysis which, however, remark the pivotal liveliness of its application. The tension between participant and analytic perspectives (Hammersley 2006) makes it possible to depict the NRMs’ framework complexity by intersecting different expertise that converge into the interpretation of ethnographic data.

Building on the argument that NRMs are complex structures made of mediated relations and negotiated contents, we suggest that research on NRMs in the global era – conceptualised as a multi-faceted paradigm – would widely benefit from organizational ethnography insights, thus gaining momentum from context-sensitive approaches, multivocality (Ybema et al. 2009), and action-meaning circulation in the everyday life of religious groups (Rosen 1991).

In order to analyse these movements, it is important to generate an understanding on their emergence within the context of the countercultures widespread in the Sixties and the Seventies, and within the process of subjectivation and privatization of religion (Casanova 1994) that shapes contemporary narratives and perceptions of sacredness and olistic wellbeing. In this perspective, we also welcome papers approaching so called contemporary spiritualities (Heelas and Woodhead 2005, Palmisano and Pannofino 2021) as ethnographic objects relocating the traditional spaces and times of religious experience to the self, the new communities and the web mediated communication. 

The panel offers a twofold epistemological trajectory:

  1. It examines the main theoretical and methodological issues within which it is possible to construct an ethnographic ethics for NRMs studies: defining the NRM’s naturally occurring settings or field (Brewer 2000), reflexivity and interpretive description (Geertz 1973), in-group and out-group relations, outside structures and inside agencies, discourses on social stigma.
  2. It aims at discussing specific case studies to test limitations and potential benefits of ethnographic research tools, underlying the fullness of the complexities of contemporary religious perimeter.

Research questions

  • What are the methodological advantages and disadvantages of ethnographic research in the New Religious Movements frame?
  • How can we interpret ethic, political, and power representation issues in NRM through ethnographic lenses?
  • How methodological insights from organizational ethnography could contribute to new epistemic tools in this field?
  • How netnography – as a web-based participant tool – can contribute to understand how NRMs negotiate authority, religious assumptions, gender equality issues and institutional relations through the Internet?
  • Does the researchers-actors relation express contents that are co-generated with organization members?

New Religious Movements, organizational ethnography, netnography, religious studies, participatory turn, religious pluralism

Sub-disciplines: Sociology of religion; Religious studies; Organizational ethnography; Gender studies; Digital sociology

Selected bibliography
Arweck, Elisabeth. 2006. Researching New Religious Movements. Responses and Redefinitions. London & New York: Routledge.

Aupers, Stef e Houtman, Dick (eds.). 2010. Religions of Modernity. Relocating the Sacred to the Self and the Digital. Leiden: Brill.

Besecke, Kelly. 2014. You Can’t Put God in a Box. Thoughtful Spirituality in a Rational Age. New York: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Heidi A. 2021. Digital Creatives and the Rethinking of Religious Authority. Abingdon & New York: Routledge.

Clarke, Peter. 2006. New Religions in Global Perspective. Abingdon & New York: Routledge.

Dawson, Lorne L. «The Cultural Significance of New Religious Movements and Globalization: a Theoretical Prolegomenon». Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37(4), 1998: 580-595.

Goldman, Marion. 2012. The American Soul Rush. Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege. New York & London: New York University Press.

Landy, Joshua e Saler, Michael (eds). 2009. The Re-Enchantment of the World. Secular Magic in a Rational Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Partridge, Christopher. 2004/2005. The Re-Enchantment of the West. 2 voll. London & New York: T&T Clark International.

Saliba, John A. 2003. Understanding New Religious Movements. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press/Rowman and Littlefield.

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