In an Open-Minded Way: Jack Hunter on an Ethnography of Anomalous Phenomena

Posted in > BLACK CADILLAC REVIEW by David on July 18, 2012


“In other cultures, therefore, experiences such as telepathic communication between two individuals, predicting the future in dreams, seeing the dead reanimate, witnessing an apparition, communicating with spirits through entranced mediums, or being afflicted by witchcraft (amongst others) may be considered entirely possible. Many highly respected anthropologists, in conducting ethnographic ?eldwork amongst other cultures, have gone several steps beyond appreciating different modes of thinking about the world and have crossed the threshold into alternate ways of experiencing it. E.B. Tylor, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Bruce T. Grindal and Edith Turner all crossed this threshold during their ?eldwork, and all interpreted and presented their experiences in different ways. Through examining the ways in which these ethnographers documented their experiences, and how their personal world-views accommodated such unusual phenomena, it is possible to gain an insight into both changing academic attitudes towards the anomalous and the mysterious nature of the paranormal itself.” –”Anthropology of the Weird: Ethnographic Fieldwork and Anomalous Experience” by Jack Hunter in G. Taylor (ed.) (2011). Darklore Vol. 6. Brisbane: Daily Grail Publishing. pp. 243-253.

Since the late 60’s and early 70’s parapsychology has sought objective verification for the phenomenon in the laboratory rather than cultivating the experience as a participant in the field.

Jack Hunter, editor for Paranthropology, Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, is working with a group of researchers that are changing this trend. Through ethnographic and participation based research they are discovering new ways to engage with anamolous phenomena that offer alternative avenues for exploration outside of the circular skeptic/believer debate.

D.M.: What got you into all this?

J.H.: I have always been interested in the paranormal, and when I went to university to study archaeology & anthropology I came to the realization that anthropological, and more specifically ethnographic, methodologies provide an ideal means to investigate the paranormal in an open-minded way.

How can the study of anomalous phenomena help our understanding of human experience?

I think the best answer to this question was given by the psychologist William James in the 19th century when he wrote that “no account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” James stressed the fact that our understanding of reality will be limited, and hence fundamentally flawed, if we fail to take into account all aspects of existence — no matter how weird and unusual they are. To ignore these “anomalous” phenomena and experiences is to arbitrarily neglect a facet of the human condition and of reality as a whole.

Did being directly involved in learning mediumistic techniques change your perspective on the phenomenon?

Through participating in mediumship development sessions I was able to directly access personal experiences that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. The few experiences that I did have while developing in this way have enabled me to appreciate to a greater extent the fact there is an experiential reality (at the very least) underlying the beliefs and practices of contemporary mediums.

This opened up new avenues of inquiry and new possibilities for study. It became clear to me that the experiential component is key to understanding the sort of group I am investigating, and that no account of the group would be complete without addressing the experiences of its members (again echoing William James).

How do you think your perspective would change without those experiences in the field?

If I hadn’t had the strange experiences associated with the mediumship development experience, I doubt whether I would have been able to appreciate the experiential component of mediumship traditions.

In studying mediumship in the UK, have you been able to develop an understanding of the differences and similarities between spiritualist mediumship, and trance work in say Afro-Carribean traditions, North African traditions, Asian shamanism, etc.? What are some of those differences and similarities?

Not having conducted fieldwork with Afro-Cuban and African spirit mediums, or Asian shamans, I am not really in the position to definitively state that they are doing precisely the same thing as Euro-American spiritualist mediums.

But, based on my own field research, and my reading of the ethnographic literature pertaining to spirit possession practices around the world, it seems to me that there are similar processes involved across the board. Chief amongst these are alterations of consciousness in the mediums/possessed and the use of bodily performance in the manifestation of spiritual beings.

When I talk about performance I am not implying that what trance mediums do is necessarily fake, but rather that performance is a means by which non-physical entities can be expressed in the physical world. I have discussed this is greater detail in my MLitt dissertation Talking With Spirits.

“By drawing comparisons between ethnographic accounts of supernatural beliefs and contemporary reports of psychic phenomena, such as those investigated by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), (Andrew) Lang demonstrated that the perceived cognitive gap between Europeans and non-Europeans was not quite as wide as had inititally been thought. If modern rational Europeans of high respectability, like the early members of the SPR, had experienced phenomena they considered to be supernormal in nature, then why should the experiences and believes recorded in the ethnographic literanture not also be taken seriously?” — “Anthropology & the Supernatural: From Spirits to Consciousness.” by Jack Hunter in Edgescience, No. 10, March 2012, pp. 14-17.

Did you encounter the “trickster” phenomenon that George Hansen explores in his work?

I would say so. The trickster really rears its head when it comes to trying to pin-point precisely what is going on in physical mediumship demonstrations. In the gloom of the seance room it isn’t easy to tell what is going on: an air of uncertainty is generated. I have come to view this, however, as an essential component in the paranormal experience.
As Hansen suggests, drawing on the ideas of Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner, seances are periods of liminality and anti-structure in which clear-cut distinctions break down.

As an observer it becomes very difficult to distinguish between reality and what might be termed trickery: our usual modes of interpretation cease to be adequate. I think this, whether conscious or unconscious, is a deliberate aim of the seance — to develop a social situation in which such distinctions break down, which in turn may lead to alterations of consciousness in the participants and to “paranormal” experiences.

After studying the phenomenon of spirit possession in the field, do you have further insights into how/why lab work with anomalous phenomenon and abilities has been difficult?

This is an interesting question and brings to the fore, I believe, a really significant issue for paranormal research — the role of emotion and participation. When we look at first-hand accounts of paranormal experiences, including many of the experiences reported by ethnographers in the field, we see that such experiences, more often than not (though of course there are always going to be exceptions), occur during periods of emotional arousal.

For instance, the classic example of a paranormal experience — the crisis apparition — is often associated with the intensely emotional period immediately preceding the death of a loved one. Poltergeist cases are usually associated with the emotional turbulence of puberty, or with individuals experiencing some form social liminality.

The most elaborate paranormal experiences recorded by ethnographic anthropologists often take place at the climax of emotionally intense rituals (see for example the descriptions on pages 12 through 15 of the October 2010 issue of Paranthropology). Emotional intensity of one form or another, therefore, would appear to be a fairly recursive element of many different forms of paranormal experience.

Now, when we come to look at the lab-based experiments of parapsychology, particularly after the development of J.B. Rhine’s methodologies, we find none of this, infact we find quite the opposite: a deliberate attempt to generate a sterile, controlled and unemotional environment in which to verify the existence of psi phenomena. When we look at it from this perspective it is remarkable that modern parapsychological experiments achieve positive results at all (this could perhaps be considered testament to the strength of psi phenomena: that psi can even make itself known in conditions entirely removed from the environment in which it naturally manifests).

I’m not the first person to notice this by any stretch of the imagination. Ernesto de Martino, an Italian philosopher and historian of religion, described just this disconnect between the traditional, spontaneous, paranormal experience and the phenomena produced in the laboratory when he wrote in 1968 that “in the laboratory, the drama of the dying man who appears… to a relative or friend, is reduced to an oft repeated experiment — one that tries to transmit to the mind of a subject the image of a playing card, chosen at random,” this, he suggests, represents “an almost complete reduction of the historical stimulus that is at work in the purely spontaneous occurrence of such phenomena”. In other words; the drama of real life is ignored in the laboratory experiment.

This is where ethnographic approaches are able to shed light on the paranormal, through documenting its occurrence in the midst of the social drama which allows it to manifest in its most elaborate forms.

How has working with the Paranthropology journal changed your perspective on the field of anomaly studies?

Paranthropology was set up as a means to encourage greater, and more open, dialogue amongst anthropologists on issues of the paranormal. Many anthropologists have encountered “anomalous phenomena” in the field but have been unable to express their experiences in the professional academic journals for fear of ridicule.

A field anthropologist recently told me that he had been warned against publishing an article on seemingly paranormal phenomena by university colleagues because it was “threatening” to the “basis of scientific rationalism.” Paranthropology aims to provide a platform for anthropologists to discuss these issues openly. It also aims to develop an interdisciplinary dialogue between anthropology and other disciplines including folklore and parapsychology so that a more holistic understanding of the paranormal can be developed.

Working on the journal has proven to me that interdisciplinarity is the route towards gaining an understanding of the anomalous.

Do you have any other projects you are working on in the field?

I am involved in a group, the Afterlife Research Centre, based at the University of Bristol, which aims to promote ethnographic approaches to the study of the afterlife through a method that we have termed “cognitive empathetic engagement” (see the website for a more details exploration of what we mean by this).

Members of the group are researching afterlife beliefs, primarily in the context of mediumship traditions, in a variety of different cultural settings. We have organized a conference at the University of Bristol and are aiming to publish a book on the ethnography of spirit mediumship.
Jack Hunter is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Bristol, studying Spiritualist groups in the city. His undergraduate dissertation also at Bristol concerned the practice of contemporary trance and physical mediumship at the Bristol Spirit Lodge. Jack produces a regular on-line newsletter exploring anthropological and other academic approaches to the paranormal.

Paranthropology and Other Narrative Approaches to the Paranormal

Posted in > BLACK CADILLAC REVIEW by David on April 20, 2011


“In theory, science should welcome anomalies as the harbingers of new discoveries. The scientific intelligence should derive joy from being surprised by new and hitherto unexplained phenomena. After all, isn’t that what science is all about?”
–Joseph M. Felser: Outsiders, Anomalies, and the Future of “Forbidden Science.”

John Keel, one of the most well known investigators into the outer realms of fortean experience, was quite vocal on how often these experiences are attended by fraud or foul play, and yet, to his dying day, he was a believer. He knew that the narrative structure of anomalous activity is often more important than the scientific veracity of its evidence. In exploring the story of unexplained events, the interplay of coincidence and phenomenon can develop far beyond what any rational theory holds on to.

The narrative nature of unexplained phenomenon is not easily dealt with in a society seeking efficiency at all cost. Our corporations and economic entities like their schedules set and secure, our legal and judicial branches enjoy clarity (even if that clarity is linguistically profuse and nearly incomprehensible), and most of our scientists like things logically sound and reducible to results that are easily monetized to fund their future research.

This is where the scientific study of anomalous phenomenon breaks down, it’s difficult to secure funding to study something so slippery, especially when the results that do surface are not easily monetized. The new discipline of paranthropology has emerged as a way to look at these phenomena through their cultural and personal evidence, rather than seeking to secure a hard theory for their materialization. It is a specified version of what the anthropologist Charles Laughlin describes as ‘transpersonal anthropology‘, explicitly looking at events and experiences that fall under the purview of
what is commonly called paranormal.

I discovered it recently when Jack Hunter, who runs the Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, mentioned his graduate work on the Society for the Academic Study of Magic listserv. He did a study of Spiritualism where, rather than just look at the movement’s history, or conduct a sociological survey, he actually went in and trained with Spiritualist groups in order to enter a mediumistic trance state.

Using the methods of ethnography to explore anomalous phenomenon is not part of the regular procedures of parapsychology. Since the late 60’s and early 70’s parapsychology has sought objective verification for the phenomenon in the laboratory rather than cultivating the experience as a participant in the field.

The change in methodology presented by paranthropology mirrors approaches that have been successfully used by researchers in exploring indigenous societies, especially in the areas of ritual and magic.

Anthropology has long been the home of fringe experience. Researchers encountering other cultures are met with belief systems and experiences that run counter to their own expectations. Ethnography and immersion have proven the most successful means for overcoming this by allowing researchers to fully explore a culture from within its own understanding.

The power of this method can be seen in the resurgence of interest in the use of psychedelics for therapeutic means. What western science failed to embrace in the laboratory fifty years ago has been forced into recognition by anthropologists and researchers who have consistently shown that psychedelics play a major role in the cohesion of many indigenous societies.

Studying the contemporary history of psychedelics shows the dangers of trying to monetize something that is, by nature, destabilizing. Psychedelics tear apart a person’s set patterns; when national intelligence agencies poured funding into psychedelic research in hopes of finding the key to mind control they found instead that psychedelics break down control factors. As an initiatory element this destabilization is useful to ritual contexts where new elements are introduced to replace what has been unmoored, but without this ritual setting the results are not as predictable and can be terrifying or even damaging.

Anomalous phenomenon has a similar characteristic. As Jacques Vallee, and other scientists taking a reasoned approach to studying the unexplained, have shown, experiences with the unknown are often traumatizing and life changing. To move from the daylight world of objective experience into the twilight world of the unexplained can be deeply disturbing. It leaves one without an objective measure for reality, puts one outside the boundaries of what is easily explainable, and can make one an object of ridicule and rejection.

As I opened the door, Alex (Tanous) smiled and extended his hand. Suddenly I froze, remembering that this psychic was known for something else — an uncanny ability to foretell death. He once told me he got his most accurate death impressions when he shook somebody’s hand. Hey! I thought, I don’t want to shake this guy’s hand.  Instead I threw my arms around him, and we embraced. And as we embraced, I thought to myself in rapid succession — “I don’t want to believe Alex can do any of these things!” And then, “I don’t believe he can!
Nine Reasons to Fear the Paranormal, Michael Grosso.

The original methodology of the Society for Psychical Research used the tools of anthropology and philosophy more often than it did those of psychology, or the hard sciences, in its investigations. When reading over the journals from the late 19th century they are comprised mostly of recounted tales, second hand information, metaphysical speculation, and book reviews.

What hard science there is amounts to photographic evidence, and specialists in the art of illusion and sleight of hand debunking or affirming the legitimacy of mediums. The story always remained at the forefront of their investigation, because the story was the motivating factor to the phenomenon.

George Hansen, who worked with the Rhine Research Lab and Psychophysical Research Laboratories in the Forrestal Research Center located in Princeton, New Jersey, has written extensively on the consistent struggle in the parapsychology world to maintain credibility in the face of phenomenal experience. One of the unanticipated side effects of the research has been that when results are achieved, or seem close to being achieved, things start to happen that destabilize the research. Divorces, job loss, suicides, lack of funding, or blatant frauds end up ruining years of inquiry. It’s one thing to study traditional or religious groups that have some element of the paranormal in their practice; it’s a totally different thing to study it within the context of every day life where
there are no bounds to the experience, and no set structure for how it should be interpreted.

One element of this is the fringe nature of the phenomenon. Many of the people drawn to studying it, or who are themselves being studied, are already on the fringes of society. Having stepped outside of the norm they are ripe for destabilizing events, and not always ready for their consequence. Another element seems to be that those who go in to study it with solid beliefs already in place are either shaken to the point that they become ‘true believers’, dropping all scientific credibility and distancing themselves from what is considered legitimate research, or they become rigid debunkers to protect their own sanity and credibility. In many cases nothing happens at all, or the results are not repeatable, making it impossible to gather a baseline of data for reasonable comparison.

The area of fraud also provides a difficult hurdle in anomaly research. Even in cases where laboratory tests seem to indicate positive effects, at one point or another some bit of trickery or lax research controls seem to emerge in place of legitimate ability. In traditional cultures the use of sleight of hand and showmanship is well known as part of the shamanic repertoire. To the Western mind this appears as fraudulent; however traditional healers will explain the necessity of such tricks and techniques to distract and engage the spirits. Even when sleight of hand is apparent in anomalous phenomenon, the interplay of events often shows that there is something more going on, but to justify this in the laboratory, under strict scientific methodology, is impossible.

The concept of paranthropology is an attempt to approach these events from another angle where there are different measurements for credibility. This is closer to the phenomenological approach recommended by Joseph M. Felser, associate professor of philosophy at Kingsborough Community College/CUNY, in his essay Philosophical Sensitives and Sensitive Philosophers: Gazing into the Future of Parapsychology.  Felser recognizes the inherent difficulties of fitting anomalous phenomena into any set theoretical structure. Rather than trying to explain them through predetermined theories, or fit them into dogmatic belief structures, he sees a value in exploring the phenomena experientially.

This is also the approach that Jeffrey Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, takes in his recent work Authors of the Impossible. As he says on the website for the documentary based on the book:

The paranormal, it turns out, is as much about meaning as matter. And we — not as surface egos, but as some still mysterious force of consciousness — are its final authors. If the paranormal, though, is as much about meaning as matter, as much about the subject as the object, then science can never truly grasp it, for science must turn everything into an object and cannot treat questions of meaning. We thus need a new way of knowing, a way that can embrace both the sciences and a new art of reading ourselves writing ourselves.

Whether or not they are provable in a laboratory setting, anomalous experiences remain a part of life for a surprising number of people. Gallup polls show that 17% of the population in the United States claim to have had a UFO experience. The Baylor Religion Survey, as detailed in NYU Press’ recent publication Paranormal America, shows that, in the United States, 45% of women and 32% of men believe in the existence of ghosts,
and 31% of women and 28% of men believe in telekinesis. Taking into account the various categories of paranormal possibilities close to half of the population believes in, or claims to have experienced, something out of the ordinary in their lives.

These statistics show that the paranormal is a significant motivating factor in how our culture develops and understands itself. The hope fostered in the formation of the SPR was that by investigating these experiences we would be lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Ultimately the secrets of anomalous experiences, whether they are purely psychosomatic or actually based in fact, go right to the heart of the secrets of human experience itself.

To quote the 17th century philosopher Thomas Vaughan, withthis considered, it cannot be thought unreasonable and certainly not unseasonable, if a Society conscious of the Truth, and skilled in the abstruse principles of Nature, shall endeavor to rectify the world: for hitherto we have been abused with Greek Fables and a pretended knowledge of Causes, but without their much desired Effects.” Although the root causes of such phenomenon may remain sub rosa, and unattainable by the prying eyes of science, those that would approach them in humility, without prejudice, and with a narrative eye for meaning, will find much to explore.