Ethnography of Crystal and Spiritual Healers in Northern England

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This book fills a notable gap in the burgeoning literature on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in Western societies. Despite the increased focus on CAM in the social and health sciences, scant attention has been given over to exploring the rise of therapies on the extreme fringe of complementary medicine, such as ‘crystal’ and ‘spiritual healing.’ This book re-dresses the balance and presents an ethnographic picture that takes into account more ‘marginal’ therapeutic modalities in the UK, although, more importantly, this book shows how the study of the marginal gives way to particular insights about the mainstream, such as orthodox biomedicine. Primarily, the book explores the use and practice of ‘esoteric’ healing practices in a Centre for healing in Northern England, and what they represent in the context of the changing role, status, and legitimacy of complementary medicine in the UK and Western societies more generally.

Conventional socio-scientific wisdom suggests that esoteric healing is counter-cultural, in that its emergence is illustrative of ‘New Age’ ideology. The author argues, contrary to this position, that in healing there is a tension. There is a tension between the personalization that healing practices exhibit, and the striving for orthodoxy, both with the Centre itself, and also among the wider healing community. Thus, even apparently esoteric forms of complementary medicine are influenced by the language of science and medicine. This book highlights examples of this mimicry of medicine, and points to a range of explanations for this contemporary social phenomenon. In particular, this book throws into question the conventional biomedicine/CAM boundary and offers some insight into the common metaphorical basis of medicine and healing, and the continued social and cultural influence of biomedicine in Western societies. The book makes a key contribution to the social and health sciences body of knowledge on CAM by exploring its resurgence in the context of wider debates on modernity and postmodernity.


“We have seen a growth in complementary or alternative forms of healing which appear to challenge the hegemony of biomedicine and the ever expanding domain of the medical drugs industry. Dr. Stuart McClean has carried out unusual anthropological and social science fieldwork. Far from the metropolis and wealthy clientele, he examines the use and practice of crystal and spiritual healing in a distinctive centre in the North of England which, in combination with other approaches such as aromatherapy and the use of music, emphasises crystal healing. This is a unique in-depth perspective on such a centre and in contrast to non localised studies with dubious generalizations ... Dr. McClean presents an impressive analysis of a range of postmodern theories which he relates to practices and beliefs about biomedicine and ideas about the body. Postmodernism has seen a decline in trust in standard medicine. Biomedicine de-legitimizes the need for personal meaning in illness. Not only are we confronted with dissatisfaction with depersonalized techniques, but there are also signs that biomedicine is not as neutral and as therefore as scientific as it purports to be ...” – (from the Preface) Judith Okely, Professor Emerita, University of Hull

“ ... The focus of this study is upon the healers and not the clients, upon the collective ethos of the Centre as well as upon the ideologies and practices of the healers. While the ethnographic detail is fascinating in its own right and would make a powerful contribution to this growing field of complementary health, the book’s significance is far more than regional. The author relates his analysis to the development place of CAM healing practices and to the changing conditions of modernity and postmodernity, individuation and individuality, the philosophy of the body, lay beliefs and the human capacity for metaphorization ...” – Dr. Iain R. Edgar, University of Durham

“ ... While there have been numerous books on the professional development of CAMs (such as acupuncture and osteopathy, texts that focus upon the integration of CAM into mainstream health services and on the motivations of people who use CAMs, ethnographies of the more esoteric CAMs are unheard of ... In this book, Dr. McClean allows the reader to step into a world of healing normally hidden to the public. The rigor and innovation in the author’s approach is stunning: this work will challenge accepted notions of what CAM offers users, what healers actually do to create healing and how they understand their work ...” – Dr. Geraldine Lee-Treweek, Manchester Metropolitan University

Table of Contents

Preface by Judith Okely
1. The Resurgence of Alternative Health Practices: Key Debates
2. The Rise of Personalization in Healing Practice: From Modernity to Postmodernity
3. The Vital Energy Healing Centre: Healing Practice and its Relationship to Healers’ Everyday Concerns
4. Healer Classification of Ritual Space: Concepts of Hygiene, Protection and Risk in the Spiritual Environment
5. The Orchestration of Healing I: Creativity, Performance and Role
6. The Orchestration of Healing II: Between Procedure and Performance
7. Healing Bodies: Bridging the Material and the Spiritual
8. Concepts of Health and Illness: Contested Healer Views at the VEHC

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