Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What is parasociology?

Short explanation: Parasociology is a new branch of sociology dedicated to the study of how societies and paranormal or “psi” phenomena interact. In other words, parasociology is to sociology what parapsychology is to psychology.

Full explanation: To understand what parasociology is, it is important to explain first what sociology is, and how this discipline has studied the paranormal so far.

Sociology 101
Sociology is the mother discipline of all social sciences. Its original focus was to explain how societies are possible, and how can we live together in large and complex groups? It is no surprise that sociology emerged during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. Western societies were becoming rapidly and increasingly complex and urbanized, causing major changes such as less people involved in agriculture and more involved in industrial waged labor; rapid demographic growth and its associate pressures on public infrastructures; creation of a large business owners class and labor unions to defend the interest of industrial workers; a lesser role for religion, etc.

The first sociologists, such as Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, looked into how the new industrial society was able to continue existing in spite of major social changes. They emphasize different aspects: Marx focused on the dynamics of social class conflicts; Durkheim emphasized the evolving role of social institutions such as religion; while Weber looked into how shared understanding and acceptance of cultural patterns (such as working for bureaucratic organizations) contribute to maintaining societies together.

Over time, sociology became more specialized. A series of sub-disciplines emerged to provide a more detailed account of how narrowly defined social phenomena play their part in making society possible, such as sociology of the family, sociology of the professions, political sociology, sociology of science, sociology of gender, sociology of religions, etc.

Starting with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, sociology took what many called a “critical turn.” For many sociologists, the discipline was not only there to understand social phenomena, but also to change society by uncovering and denouncing unfair social patterns such as colonialist attitudes, sexism, racism, etc. In many ways, sociology has been effective, as Western societies became more aware of these injustices, and implemented measures to address them such as maternity leave programs for women protecting their job, zero-tolerance programs against racism in school, etc.

Sociology, however, has become victim of its own success. Most social injustices are now well-known and well-researched, and at least partly addressed through various public welfare programs. Hence, many sociologists are now digging for increasingly minute issues and injustices that are quite irrelevant for the majority of the population such as alternate sexuality, radical eco-feminism, economic disparity among trans-gendered communities, etc.

ParasociologyParasociology, first of all, breaks away from sociology’s increasing social irrelevance by going back to its fundamental question: what makes society possible? One may ask what this has to do with the paranormal? Well, paranormal phenomena have been described and discussed in one form or another as far as written records go back in time. They might have been described under other names such as magic, shamanism, miracles, etc. But they are a permanent fixture of human societies. Then, it is not irrational to think that the paranormal may have something to do with making society possible.

Early sociologists and anthropologists, like Marcel Mauss and Herbert Spencer, noticed the important role that magic and religion play in human societies. They extensively studied magical practices in so-called primitive societies (primitive to be understood here as “primal”, i.e., structured like the first human societies in history). But their main focus was the belief in magic and how such belief plays a role in structuring social interactions (e.g., the social role of the shaman in a tribe). This approach to the paranormal was extended later on to the study of Western societies through researches on beliefs in UFOs, ghosts, etc. Sociologists doing this type of research are usually considered as belonging to the sub-disciplines of sociology of religion, and sociology of knowledge and science (when it focuses on the belief in “pseudo-sciences” such as ufology, psychic research, etc). Sociologists conducting this type of research, with very few exceptions, tend to be either uncommitted about the existence of paranormal phenomena or reject them outright as superstitions.

Although the study of beliefs in the paranormal has its own merit, and it is likely that paranormal phenomena cannot have an objective reality without first having people subjectively believing in them, but let’s be absolutely clear here, parasociology is NOT primarily about studying the belief in the paranormal. Instead, parasociology takes note of the substantial amount of work done in parapsychology. Like parapsychologist Dean Radin has shown in his recent books, paranormal phenomena do exist beyond any reasonable doubt. Thus, we are now beyond the point of trying to prove their existence. It is now time to understand how they work. This constitutes a fundamental distinction with previous sociological works on the paranormal.

If parasociology builds on parapsychology, it is also different from it. Parapsychology, being a sub-discipline of psychology, emphasizes the individual dimension of paranormal experiences. The collective or social dimension remains largely unstudied with a few exceptions. The most notable of these exceptions are parapsychological research projects like Global Consciousness, and those who propose a new understanding of Carl Jung’s concept of collective unconscious. In this last case, the concept of collective unconscious (which has the same origins as Durkheim’s conept of collectiove consciousness) is construed as going beyond supposing that we share, as individuals, “hard wired” archetypes, and accepts that the collective unconscious is much dynamic and actively interacting with the social environment.

Inspired by these researches in parapsychology that highlight the possibility of a social “psi”, parasociology, then, posits as its central hypothesis that paranormal or “psi” phenomena are observable outcomes of one of the social “glues” that make society possible.

Copyright © 2008 Eric Ouellet


gypselefae said...

Are there any colleges or universities that offer parasociology as either a major or a course?

Eric Ouellet said...

Hello gypselefae,

Unfortunately, the notion of parasociology is pretty much of my own doing, so there are no courses on the topic yet. There are a few universities and colleges that offer things like "Sociology of the paranormal" and "Anthropology of the paranormal", but their focus is on paranormal beliefs and the sub-culture of paranormal "buffs".

There are a number of courses in parapsychology available around, and some instructors may touch on the social dimension of psi phenomena. That's probably as good as it gets.