Teenage Witches

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In his review of Helen A. Berger and Douglas Ezzy. Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007), Brian J. Gibbons had the following to say:

This is a study of a relatively new phenomenon: the rise of the teenage witch since the 1990s. Berger and Ezzy have studied ninety adolescents and young adults from the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, all of whom have identified themselves as ‘‘witches’’ for at least a year. The authors give a clear picture of their route into the modern witchcraft movement, its role in helping them to construct a sense of selfhood, and its impact on their ethical and political outlook. They locate the phenomenon in the conditions of postmodernity: globalization (including the importance of the Internet), ‘‘the death of grand narratives,’’ and the growth of relativism.

There is little in this book that will surprise anyone acquainted with young witches. We learn that both the Internet and books play a major role in introducing them to witchcraft and in developing their beliefs. The teenage witches form a community of sorts, but it is often a virtual one; they are less likely than their older coreligionists to be part of formal groups such as covens. While the possibilities offered by instrumental magic often play a part in interesting them in witchcraft in the first place, most appear to move on to a more spiritual understanding of the movement, which represents ‘‘a technology of the self ’’ (p. 112).” (p.210)

“Whatever its limits as a sociological survey, this book is thoroughly enjoyable to read, introducing the reader to a group of thoughtful, ethically concerned, and charming young
people.” (p.211)

Ref: Brian J. Gibbons (2008) Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, Volume 3, Number 2, Winter 2008, pp. 210-211 (Review)

Amy L. Best, meanwhile (and I hope I’m not overquoting from this review!), describes it as “an engaging and thoughtful investigation into the world of teenage Witches.” (p.270) She goes on:  Berger and Ezzy define Witchcraft as an earth-based religious movement associated with Neo-paganism and belonging under the broad category of new religious movements (NRM) that have gained in popularity. The book is organized thematically with a series of vignettes that sit nicely alongside the  substantive chapters. The vignettes allow readers to understand the complexities and consequences of becoming a Witch for young adults, the different spiritual paths they follow, and the narrative and identity sense-making involved in the formation of their mystical worldview. The stories are highly personal, reflecting the diverse circumstances that led to an interest in Witchcraft. In the substantive chapters, readers are introduced to a number of salient themes that will no doubt be familiar terrain for sociologists of religion: the process of conversion, the formation and meaning of community, and the importance of the self. In the book’s theoretical opening, special mention is given to the centrality of the self in late modernity, a period they identify as marked by increased rootlessness, the expansion of global media forms, the ubiquity of the market and commercial influence and subsequent emergence of a spiritual marketplace, and preoccupation with self inquiry, reflexivity, and transformation. Drawing upon the work of Anthony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman, Ezzy and Berger show that growing interest for young adults in Witchcraft is an expression of a post-traditional social order where individualism has all but triumphed over more traditional collectivities. Young adults turn to Witchcraft, arguing in search of a worldview or “personal myth” (p. 231) that will serve as a kind of cognitive map for social action.

Berger and Ezzy see the media and Internet as central to understanding the process by which teenagers come to participate in Witchcraft and thus is a theme given considerable attention. They successfully demonstrate that contemporary Witchcraft, more than any other religion, is inseparable from the media of late modernity.” (p.270)

“We have witnessed a bevy of images of teenagers from Harry Potter, to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer who wield magic to defeat evildoing. These images have come to occupy a more visible place in our collective imagination, helping to explain a shift in the cultural orientation whereby Witchcraft is presented in more positive terms and is therefore far more accessible to young adults.” (p.271)

“Most [of these young witches] profess to be solitary practitioners of their faith; few are involved in covens. Most are informally trained, having learned about Witchcraft from books and the Internet. Berger and Ezzy characterize Wiccans as a community of interest, that is a “group of people who interact around an area of mutual concern” (p.158). This community of interest is entirely without a centralized authority structure and is fluid in form and membership and thus there is no formal channel to becoming a Witch. For most of the teen Witches interviewed, their initial interest in Witchcraft developed independent of any organization. They are highly selective of which aspects of Wiccan spiritual practice they chose to observe. They draw heavily upon the ethical system Witchcraft provides as they develop a worldview to guide them in their social conduct. They embrace a relational ethics and radical empathy rooted in the Wiccan rede, “if it harm none, do as thou will.”  Yet, this worldview does not translate into a set of political commitments as is the case for earlier adherents. Involvement for older Wiccans was tied to feminist and environmental commitments and was an expression of a distinct political orientation. For young Wiccan’s there is little political basis to their participation. Most expressed a deep respect for the earth and tended to recycle, but few saw their religious beliefs in political terms and few reported being involved in any collective environmental group. Likewise, few identified themselves as feminists. Most expressed support for gender equality, assumed a stance of openness toward homosexuality and other “alternative lifestyle choices,” but more as a worldview than as a set political priorities.” (p.271)

Ref: Amy L. Best Review: Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self, by Helen A. Berger and Douglas Ezzy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007. 278pp. $21.95 paper. ISBN: 0813540216. Contemporary Sociology 37, 3, pp.270-271

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