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After the American dream: the political economy of spirituality in Northern Arizona, USA

Crockford, Susannah (2017) After the American dream: the political economy of spirituality in Northern Arizona, USA. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.5l3jdmjlr4k5


This thesis examines the ways in which spirituality as a religious form interacts with political economy in the United States. Based on 22 months fieldwork in two small Northern Arizona towns, Sedona and Valle, it traces the way spirituality is enacted by individuals through foodways, bodily practice, and relationships to nature. I argue that it is pursued as an alternative to ‘mainstream’ American values, often summed up by my informants in the ideal of the ‘American dream’. For them, the American dream is that any individual can succeed in a meritocratic system through hard work, increase their economic prosperity from one generation to the next, and pursuing this will lead to personal happiness and fulfilment. Pursuing one’s spiritual path means foregrounding personal happiness and fulfilment often at the expense of economic prosperity. Spirituality is an alternative way of living and of making a living. This renegotiation of traditional American values is held to be the necessary response to the political, economic, and environmental crises of late capitalism. Spirituality is a category of growing salience for many Americans; while its genealogy remains complex and usage fluid, it has come to mean something specific for my informants, referring to what was once known, often pejoratively, as ‘new age’. This thesis delineates the religious form called spirituality, defining it as a constellation of beliefs and practices clustered around the central concept of ‘energy’ as an all-pervasive force; ‘the universe’ as a pantheistic conception of divinity; and progressive stages of enlightenment described as a ‘spiritual path’. The centring of the individual in spirituality mirrors the emphasis on individual responsibility at the heart of neoliberal policies implemented by successive governments since the late 1970s. At the same time, the expansion of agency to all nonhuman actors in spirituality destabilises the notion of human superiority as well as American exceptionalism. In this way, spirituality presents a challenge to dominant discourses in American society at the same time as it is constrained by the limits of those discourses.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2017 Susannah Crockford
Library of Congress subject classification: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
Sets: Departments > Anthropology
Supervisor: Engelke, Matthew and Cannell, Fenella

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