Engaging with the Church of Scientology and the Free Zone in the Field

Challenges, Barriers, and Methods


  • Aled J. Ll. Thomas The Open University Alt-Ac.UK




Scientology, Free Zone, fieldwork, methods, online


An increasing number of scholars are turning their attention towards the study of Scientology, the New Religious Movement founded by L. Ron Hubbard. Such studies tend to focus on the institutionalized Church of Scientology (CoS). However, of increasing importance to the study of Scientology is the rise of the Free Zone—a category for groups of individuals who identify as Scientologists but practise outside the CoS. The CoS and Free Zone have experienced a turbulent history. Both groups often view one another with suspicion, raising debates concerning legitimacy and Scientological heresy. Successfully navigating between both the CoS and Free Zone in the field requires a careful approach on behalf of the scholar. Furthermore, working with both the CoS and Free Zone individually also presents specific challenges, particularly in terms of gaining the trust of fieldwork participants. This article draws from the author’s fieldwork with both the CoS and the Free Zone as a case study of the challenges faced when conducting fieldwork with minority groups in direct opposition to one another, and explores ethnographic issues that have arisen in the contemporary study of Scientology.

Author Biography

Aled J. Ll. Thomas, The Open University Alt-Ac.UK

Aled J. Ll. Thomas is a co-founder of Alt-Ac.UK and a Visiting Fellow at the Open University. He has recently completed his doctorate on the topic of Auditing in contemporary and Free Zone Scientologies. His research interests include fluid forms of contemporary religion, material culture, and lived religion. He has presented papers on his research at conferences in the UK, Europe, and USA. He is the author of the forthcoming Free Zone Scientology: Contesting the Boundaries of a New Religion.


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How to Cite

Thomas, A. J. L. (2020). Engaging with the Church of Scientology and the Free Zone in the Field: Challenges, Barriers, and Methods. International Journal for the Study of New Religions, 10(2), 121–137. https://doi.org/10.1558/ijsnr.41396