Sabine Keller

Chapter 4

Primary Research

The primary research of this dissertation is to examine the aspect and extent of consumption in the New Age movement. Therefore a content analysis of a selection of New Age media is pursued. This research looks at a selection of New Age magazines from Britain and Germany as well as on three health magazines since New Age articles often can be found in related subjects as described in the chapter on New Age, and on a general mail order catalogue for books, videos etc.

It is believed that a media analysis of a selection of New Age magazines will shed a clearer light on the issues than a selection of qualitative interviews, which even though in-depth might only reflect the personal point of view of the interviewee rather than delivering a broader opinion (Kumar 1999) [ see references]. A quantitative research approach involving a questionnaire would have gone far beyond the scope of this research (time and budget wise). New Age can be described as a range of different activities and belief systems (as highlighted in the chapter on New Age) which indicate the necessity of a more extensive research in order to present all different types of New Age and examine their involvement in consumption. A much more extensive sample would be needed however that would exceed the space of this research. In addition it would be rather difficult to identify the New Age audience because the grade of involvement differs widely and may be only temporary as well as not admitted publicly. Also to consider is that New Age activities often overlap with other disciplines (i.e. Health, Ecology etc.) and therefore it becomes difficult to reach the people involved. Participant observation at a New Age fair was considered but rejected because of the lack of objectivity this approach might involve. There would have been to much bias of the researcher towards the anticipated outcomes which might have had a tendency to unconsciously influence the results of the participant observation (Dey 1993). Therefore it was felt that the sample of participant observation needed to be bigger in order to overcome these obstacles. However participant views would have supported the outcomes beneficially (Kumar 1999).

By looking at the printed media for ‘new agers’ the taste and preference of a wider audience could be accessed as well as providing a good basis and orientation for further research that would be inevitably necessary. In addition the commercial aspect of New Age could be examined more extensively (since the magazines include advertisements). However the researcher is aware that also the media analysis involves a certain bias (such as all research does) which only can be overcome by additional research to verify the outcomes (Kumar 1999).

The sample of magazines (see appendix 1) this research looks at provides a fairly wide range of different New Age disciplines (since most of the chosen magazines present various different topics and categories of the New Age movement). This selection is supplemented by three health magazines (Apotheken Umschau, Gesundheit, BIO) in order to examine the extent to which these magazines are dominated by New Age. In addition two specialised New Age magazines (Pagan Dawn, Reiki Magazine) are selected to examine and compare if they differ from the non specialised magazines. Finally one of the biggest German mail order catalogues for books (Weltbild) is looked at to find out how New Age topics enter more and more areas in life.

The content analysis of the research is broken down into four sections (see table1-4 in appendix 2 and the listing of categories of Weltbild in appendix 3). The first table examines the outline of the paper, the format, price and publication dates. The second table displays the advertising space of the whole magazine as well as other commercial activities of the magazine. The third table shows the different New Age topics and articles the magazines have listed. The fourth table shows if the articles in a magazine are predominantly informative or whether there is a hidden sales motive. Finally the different categories of the German mail order shop are displayed and which of them include New Age material (see appendix 3). The research involves quantitative (figures on the advertising space, figures on outline and format) as well as qualitative (content of the articles) elements in order to maximise the research outcomes. The findings then are linked with the theory of the literature review.

Primary Research Outcomes

As table 1 shows (see appendix 2) over 50% of the selected magazines do not support environmental issues (environmentally friendly paper) but submit articles connected with ecology to their content (table 3).
Apart from one exception all magazines use glossy paper and the majority of magazines are full coloured (table 1). This indicates that the format and representation of the paper is as important as the actual content and issues. Topics addressed in the magazines are not taken into account by the magazines own production policy. In addition all magazines point out that they are not responsible for the content of advertising and it might not present the point of view of the magazine. This might hint that ethical issues are less of concern for the magazines than the revenue gained from advertising. Also to consider are the high percentages of advertising space in the magazines. Table 2 highlights that in six out of thirteen cases the figures lie over 20%. The most extreme example is the ‘Kindred Spirit’ with nearly 50%. The only exception of extensive advertising is found in the ‘Gralswelt’ with only 2.43%. These figures might suggest on one hand that there is a strong commercial aspect in the New Age movement and the magazines strongly rely on the advertisements as well as on the other hand it could be assumed that there is a wide audience which has a demand for this market and is willing (and asking for) the advertisements in the magazines.

In addition the commercial aspect of the New Age magazines is highlighted through the fact that the majority of New Age magazines (table 2) as well as one of the health magazines (‘BIO’) provide their own mail ordering service or/and offer additional services (i.e. New Age travelling). In the case of ‘Kindred Spirit’ products of their mail order shop are presented on ten pages of the magazine. This might indicate that also in New Age religions goods and services are not only provided for their original (utilitarian) purpose or need (in this case to enhance the spiritual belief or awareness of a person) but to gain profit. In this sense the New Age magazines are not liberated from capitalism and thus a form of commodity fetishism (as they provide not only information but their goods and services to gain additional profit).

As displayed in table 2 there are a wide range of advertised areas in the New Age magazines. These include more trivial areas such as travelling to much more personal concerns like life improvements and personal consultations of mediums. Also of interest is that the majority of advertisements address a demand to improve health or deliver healing (including trainings) which might be the key market since health might be one of the few areas people cannot fully control by themselves. This topic could also be identified as important in the analysis of the content of the magazines (table 3) where most articles were related (even though sometimes in a far fetched approach) to health and life improvements (i.e. in ‘Esotera’ how witchcraft helps one to improve one’s life situation and how alchemist recipes support health and the recovery of the individual). Heelas (1998) stresses the importance of a ‘fit body’ as well as ‘well-trained mind’ to a sort of ‘body forever’  (19998:71) cult with unlimited experience and opportunities.
This might indicate that even bizarre disciplines can be approved by the audience if linked with the right motivation and treaded out of context as well as the demand of the readership for simplified or distorted information. The importance of the alternative health field is pointed out by Birch (1996) where it is argued that alternative health practices add stability and security to the life of the client in a postmodern world. Birch (1996) examines four examples of alternative health groups all focusing on a concept of self-discovery which will lead to personal changes and thus is understood as a form of healing where body, mind and spirit are treaded together in order to gain an improvement in life as well as in body condition. It is stressed that the major response and attendance of these groups is a result of advertising. It is indicated that in this way the groups can be accessed practically by everyone (if the fee can be afforded) (Birch 1996).

The postmodern aspect of New Age is highlighted in table 3 which shows that apart from the specialised magazines (‘Pagan Dawn’, ‘Reiki Magazine’) and the magazines on health (‘Apotheken Welt’, ‘Gesundheit’, ‘BIO’) the selected New Age magazines include a wide range of juxtaposing and often contradictory topics in their content. Articles on paganism and witchcraft (thus sometimes in disguise under a health aspect) can be found in the same issue with an article on Christianity or World religions. This suggests that the readers of these magazines are interested in a wide range of New Age information and activities and like the idea of choosing freely out of the potpourri on offer. A ‘new ager’ might commit to a selection of contradictory or distorted New Age practices (i.e. practicing Yoga exercises regularly while consuming meat and alcohol) at the same time (Bruce 1996). This could be compared with Lyotard’s (1984) example of postmodern culture.

‘One listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and “retro” clothes in Hong Kong’ (Lytoard 1984:76).

In this sense Heelas (1998) points out ‘that the postmodern cultural pressure, while intensifying the search for ‘peak-experience’, have at the same time uncoupled the search from religious-prone interests and concerns…’ (Heelas 1998:70).

Furthermore the examination of the articles shows that the content of the articles is in most of the cases based exclusively on a single source of reference (with the exception of the ‘Pagan Dawn’ which included a range of references to their articles). The purpose of the articles seems only to be a short taster of a topic rather than an objective and comprehensive presentation. It could be argued that in this way information is distorted or commodified with less information value. In this way the content of the selected New Age magazines could be described as shallow and unevaluated. This might give a hint to the demand of the audience which suggests that the readers are only prepared for easy digestible information out of a range of topics which allows them to experiment free to their taste and choice without deeper commitment (Bruce 1996/Wilson 1976).

The idea of free choice of one’s belief and spiritual activities is supported through the high number of advertisements on seminars, trainings and workshops in various areas in the magazines. Access to these courses is extremely easy and does not include any commitments (except to pay for them) or preconditions which allows the individual to tailor lifestyle or spice up life with an exotic activity (Wilson 1976). In addition in contrast to traditional religions (where one has to convert to another belief) the commercial aspect of the New Age movement provides the possibility for the individual to experience and pursue totally different and may be contradictory practices. Through the commercialisation and the following client – provider situation (Bruce 1996) the whole relation between a religious institution and an individual is changed. The institution or individual provider cannot ask for authority rather than meeting the clients demands and satisfying the clients expectations. In this way the individual gains power through turning towards the commercialised New Age movements. Heelas (1998) describes ‘that any similarity between such movements and religious churches or sects is purely superficial…they are products and integral parts of the ‘counselling boom’’(1998:71). It is argued that the only target is to create the ‘perfect consumer’ (1998:71) with the maximum demand of new experience (Heelas 1998).

Another interesting outcome of the research presented in table 4 shows the commercial aspect that lies very often behind the articles themselves. It seems that the only purpose of many articles is to promote a certain article or service. The information value of the articles is pretty thin and only serves as a taster to motivate a purchase of a New Age (or spiritual) product or tool or relates to a training or workshop. In only five of the thirteen magazines was the number of predominantly informative articles higher compared to the articles with an advertising aspect. In the remaining eight magazines the two different types of articles were either balanced or in the cases of ‘Kindred Spirit’ and ‘Mensch & Sein’ extremely small. This again suggests that the readership of New Age magazines seems to express a demand for becoming constantly inspired by new techniques and New Age tools.
However articles which refer to a new method or belief and are based on the material of a recent book (or give a taster of the book) are not considered as ‘advertising articles’, if they had been included, the number of articles with commercial background would have been almost 100%. The only exception was the ‘Pagan Dawn’ where all articles are based on a range of references of often old books. This could mean that the demand for pure information rather than the promotion of new products and services could be higher for the readership of specialised New Age magazines. This point could suggest the possibility for further research on the segmentation of New Age consumption. It rises the questions whether ‘core’ members of New Age are more likely to reject commercialism and whether new participants overcome the commercial aspects after getting more interested in a particular branch of New Age.

Also to consider are the categories under which the different articles are listed (table 3). Categories like Medicine or Science can be found which might indicate a certain scientific value of the article to the reader. It could be suggested that this variety of partly scientific sounding categories provide the readership with the impression of gaining a wide range of knowledge in all sorts of disciplines in regularly purchasing New Age magazines. This might indicate a postmodern aspect of decentralisation as well as the presentation of superficial distorted information (York 2001).

Alternatively the increase of categories under which New Age books or New Age equipment is listed is covering a wide area as the outcomes of the analysis of categories of a general mail order shop for books (see appendix 3 ‘Weltbild’) showed. The majority of categories included New Age books or items and even a category listed as ‘phenomena’ was dedicated exclusively to New Age. Similarly the health magazines examined in this research (‘Apotheken Umschau’, Gesundheit, ‘BIO’) focused almost entirely on alternative healing and bodywork (table 3). This might suggest that parts of the New Age movement are more and more approved or at least attract interest from the majority of people and thus become identified as a market.