23 May 2021

THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE SUPERNATURAL

Jack Hunter, Spirits, Gods and Magic: An Introduction to the Anthropology of the Supernatural, August Night Press, 2020.

Spirits, Gods and Magic is another example of a trend in several areas of academia and the social sciences – as in the work of Jeffrey J. Kripal and Arthur Versluis, to name but two – that calls into question the model of reality on which Western science, and much else, has long been based, chiefly because of science’s rejection of areas of human experience that don’t fit the model. 
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As Jack Hunter sums it up: ‘According to the dominant Western scientific paradigm – essentially a form of materialist reductionism – paranormal events are simply not possible because they breach fundamentally accepted laws of nature (as defined by science).’ It’s no longer the case that those studying the paranormal, parapsychological or mystical feel duty bound to force their research to fit that paradigm; rather, it’s the paradigm itself that is being increasingly revealed as being not fit for purpose.

Hunter is a research fellow with the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales and the Parapsychology Foundation in New York. He’s also the editor of Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal. In Hunter’s description, paranthropology ‘accepts the possibility that the objects of supernatural beliefs may have some form of independent ontological reality’.

In Spirits, Gods and Magic he’s aiming to start a conversation between anthropologists and parapsychologists, introducing them to each other and getting them to shake hands, sit down together and swap ideas. So the book is a short – 100-page – introduction to both disciplines, setting out the common ground between them, although the bulk, around two-thirds, is devoted to the anthropological side.

It’s not just that Hunter thinks that parapsychology has something to teach anthropologists; anthropology, in his view, has much to teach parapsychology. Indeed, he takes the paranormal research community to task for having neglected the evidence from anthropology and the insights it offers. By writing the book he ‘seeks to re-dress the balance by considering paranormal phenomena through the broader – more holistic – frameworks of social anthropology and related disciplines.’

Parapsychology has always been bedevilled by the problem of trying to bring what are essentially spontaneous phenomena into the lab, whereas, as Hunter writes, ‘manifestations of psi and the paranormal in real-life contexts are often far more powerful, bizarre and complex than anything recorded in parapsychological laboratories.’ Such phenomena are, however, part and parcel of anthropology and ethnography, which study the rituals and other practices that make up the social drama in which reports of psychic and paranormal happenings, often in their most extreme forms, play a big part.

Hunter begins with a survey of the ‘anthropology of the supernatural’, the attempts to define and explain beliefs in supernatural beings and experiences – the ghosts, spirits, gods and demons of the title, but also including fairy folk, apparitions of the Virgin Mary and ostensible extraterrestrial encounters, as well as those with ‘apparently sentient entities while under the influence of psychoactive substances’ as reported by the likes of Terence McKenna.

He summarises the history of anthropology and ethnography, looking at the way the methodologies used to study supernatural beliefs have evolved from the early ‘armchair anthropologists’ such as Sir James George Frazer, who based their theories purely on written accounts. In the early twentieth century, that gave way to fieldwork, with ethnographers living alongside the peoples they were studying while maintaining what was considered a proper distance to maintain objectivity. 

Recent decades have seen the emergence of ‘participant observation’ and ‘immersive fieldwork’, in which the researcher dives into the rituals and engages in the same consciousness-altering practices such as the partaking of psychoactive substances. According to Hunter, participant observation is now ‘the central pillar of contemporary ethnographic theory and practice.’

There’s a chapter on the overlapping phenomena of shamanism and spirit possession, in which Hunter finds that Western academic views have resulted in a ‘narrow oversimplification’: ‘To remove spirit possession, or indeed any supernatural practice or experience, from its cultural context and interpret it in alien terms is to lose sight of the true nature of the experience, and what it means to those who undergo it.’

He then examines magic and witchcraft, including current Western manifestations in neo-paganism and wicca, describing immersive fieldwork that shows ‘there is an experiential, lived, reality to such systems of practice and belief that simply cannot be ignored.’


Hunter cites experiences such as those of Bruce T. Grindal among the Sisala of Ghana, who was freaked out by seeing a corpse get up and join in the dancing at its own funeral, and Edith Turner’s witnessing of a Zambian witchdoctor extracting an entity – a grey plasma-like blob – from a possessed woman, which is ‘perhaps the most widely discussed ethnographic encounter with the paranormal, and has been very influential to the emerging generation of anthropologists of the paranormal.’

Hunter then moves on psychical research and parapsychology, beginning with a decent 14-page potted history of the subject. He admits that he’s emphasised the ‘pro’ side of the argument, while acknowledging (perhaps not entirely convincingly) that the sceptics make an important contribution to the field.

In the final chapter, ‘Towards an Anthropology of the Paranormal’, Hunter advocates ‘an approach to the study of paranormal experiences, phenomena and beliefs that integrates the findings and methodologies of both anthropology and parapsychology’, proposing, for example, that parapsychologists adopt some of the methods employed by ethnographers.

It’s not just that the findings of the two disciplines challenge the ‘assumed dominance of the materialist-scientific worldview’; Hunter raises the question of whether the worldview emerging from them is better at explaining reality. Hunter – again similarly to the likes of Kripal – sees paranormal events and experiences as giving important clues and insights into the nature of reality itself.

Or should that be realities plural? Hunter refers to the ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology, a recognition that it’s not simply a matter of different cultures with their different beliefs, but of different worlds.

Hunter writes that he intends Spirits, Gods and Magic to be an easy read – which it is – and to encourage researchers in both camps to ‘expand their perspectives’ – which I hope it will. It’s unlikely to cause a rethink on the part of a sceptic in matters paranormal, or a diehard materialist-reductionist, but it does the job it sets out to do, introducing the two disciplines to each other and showing the relevance each has for the other. For those of us outside the two professions it gives a fascinating insight into a trend that doesn’t just take the paranormal and anomalous seriously but sees it as key to understanding ourselves and the world – or worlds - we live in. – Clive Prince

1 comment:

Phil said...

a Zambian witchdoctor extracting an entity – a grey plasma-like blob – from a possessed woman

Ectoplasm? Huge if true.