The word "shaman" is of Tungus origin, its definition, however, has become increasingly obscured by individuals making unprofessional claims. Furthermore, shamans may be called differently outside of North Asia, e.g., "sangoma" among the Zulu, "babalawo" among the Yoruba, and "kahuna" in Hawaii. Manifestations of shamanism may also differ from one ethnic group to another.
To establish generally applicable criteria, we decided to call only those practitioners "shamans" who (1) access alternate states of consciousness at will (this is an important feature because medicine men do not go into trance and can, therefore, not be called "shamans," (2) fulfill needs of their community which otherwise are not met (i.e., use holistic approaches in contrast to Western-trained physicians who are caught in the confines of their own discipline), and (3) are meditators between the sacred and the profane (i.e., encode ineffable messages).
The need to come into the presence of the Divine is deeply rooted in the human soul. Since time immemorial, those seeking a spiritual connection have developed methods and disciplines to come "to know God." In each culture, therefore, spiritual disciplines are available to those who look for them. Most people, however, have neither the inclination nor the time for "spiritual practice." they seek mediators who have developed the ability to access and to manifest the Divine.
As mediators, shamans operate on a number of different levels. (1) Socially, they are citizens like everybody else, (2) spiritually, they enjoy a higher position on account of their relationship to the Divine; and (3) during rituals, they operate on intermediate levels, between the spiritual and the human world. Shamans protect, on one hand, the spiritual world from being polluted by human weaknesses and channel, on the other hand, spiritual energy in a beneficial way, not to overtax the capacity of their clients.
When existential emergencies show overwhelming dimensions, when politicians lose the confidence of their constituency, when priests do not consider the needs of their community, when psychotherapists and physicians treat symptoms and not their patients, because they don't have the time or feel constrained by "scientific" considerations, when underlying imbalances in an individual's physical, emotional, mental, social, moral, and spiritual levels remain unattended, then the search for spiritual help begins and will even produce new shamans.
In sum, shamanism is very much alive today. It has stayed accessible whether we look without or within. Shamans are called to fulfill vital roles. They heal by removing imbalances and restore the connection between the sacred and the secular. They continue to ritualize the process of transformation.
For further information, esp. the Annual International Conference on the Study of Shamanism and Alternative Modes of Healing, on Labor Day weekend, at the Santa Sabina Center, San Rafael, California: