Thursday, May 21, 2009

Essay on the Sociality of UFOs

This post is proposing a review of the literature surveyed so far on the social dimension of the UFO experience. However, contrary to most sociological research on UFOs, it is not focussing on the socially shared belief in UFO per se. It is not, either, assuming that the debate about the actual reality of the phenomena is to be ignored (or worst, ridiculed). Instead, this review is building on the post on the “Materiality of UFOs”, in which UFOs were described as PEMIEs (Psi/Electro-Magnetic Induced Experiences). In other words, it based on the assumption that the UFO experiences are caused, in part, by factors external to the experiencers that are beyond conventional explanations. It is also based on the assumption that social realities not only provide narrative contents for the experience but also that it might at the source of some of those external factors. The materiality and “sociality” of the phenomenon are therefore understood here as being two interdependent dimensions of the same experience.

The literature that addresses directly the social dimension of the UFO phenomenon is much less developed than the one about its materiality. It is not surprising. Not only the dominant Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) in the ufological literature tends to ignore the social dimension of the phenomenon because it is threatening its core beliefs, but also because many of those who wrote seriously about UFOs tend to have a background in natural sciences or engineering (e.g. Karl Brunstein, Allen Hynek, Jacques Vallée).

This particular literary context presents other challenges. There is also a useful literature that is not directly linked to UFO research. It is the parapsychological research on macro psi effects, which has a lot to offer, and reinforces in many instances the findings found in the limited literature on the social dimension of the UFOs. Hence, wherever it is appropriate, the parapsychological literature is also introduced within this discussion on the sociality of UFOs.

Central role of belief

It is now well established in parapsychology that the belief in the paranormal is an important enabler to produce psi effects. The famous sheep-goat effect identified by Gertrude Schmeidler (1952) is now known for over 50 years. If one believes in paranormal effects (sheep) he/she tends to have higher score in tests, while the disbeliever (goat) tend to have lower scores. It has been replicated numerous times, and it is clear that the cognitive dimension of believing in psi is the key to produce psi effects (Wiseman & Smith 1994). More recently, Heath (2003) also identified that a general positive attitude towards the paranormal is an important enabler for psychokinesis (PK). Batcheldor (1984) and Reihart (1994) also noted that self-convincing through trickery can also be an important way to reinforce beliefs and increase the potential for psi effects to occur. In the same vein, some studies found that a strong proportion of people who saw a UFO had other paranormal experiences before the sighting (Phillips 1993; Spanos et al. 1993; Basterfield & Thalbourne 2001). As well, Rogo (2006) and others have noted that UFO experiencers oftentimes have repeated experiences of sightings. Although more research is needed, it appears that the UFO phenomenon shares the same general characteristics as other psi-related phenomenon with regards to the centrality of belief in the paranormal. According to Spencer (1994), this is correlation is more pronounced in case of people experiencing close encounters. This is an important indicator pointing towards social dimension of the UFO phenomenon.

An interesting empirical illustration of this issue can be found in the Barney and Betty Hill story, as the witnesses provided substantial information about their inner state of being through hypnotherapy. Betty, although she appears to have no conscious interest in UFOs prior to her September 1961 experience, it was clear that from the onset she established that the light in the sky was a UFO (read here: aliens in a spaceship). She immediately linked that experience with the one of her sister Janet, who saw a UFO during the 1950s. Indeed, Betty called Janet on the day she arrived home to discuss her UFO experience. As well, a fact rarely underlined by ufologists is that Betty engaged in informal telepathic experiments with Barney before their UFO event (Fuller 1966: 243-244), and her family has a history of dealing with paranormal events (Schwartz 1983; 273-281). Lastly, she had other UFO sightings afterward in 1966-67 (Friedman & Marden 2007: 211-218). Barney, on the other hand, was clearly struggling to not believe it was an “alien spaceship,” and this inner struggle was obviously perceptible in the debate he had with Betty in the car while watching the UFO in the sky in 1961. This struggle was also obvious while he was under hypnosis with Dr. Benjamin (Fuller 1966: 33, 101, 108). Such a struggle was clearly indicative that he unconsciously accepted the possibility of an “alien spaceships”, but consciously he was trying to resist such “irrational belief”. In the end, they had a different experience. While Betty had a full experience with the aliens and the spaceship, Barney had his eyes closed for most of the event, as they told Dr. Benjamin while being under hypnosis.

The psycho-social dynamics

Another important social dimension of the UFO phenomenon is the actual psycho-social dynamics surrounding the event. Such dynamics has several layers with their own distinct internal logic; as well as showing interdependencies among the various layers.

The shared psi event at the local level

One of the interesting speculations of Berthold Schwartz (1983) is that the context of multiple witnesses of UFO sightings appears to be a telepathically shared psi event. Such event could occur irrespective as whether the UFO is a materialized phenomenon through PK effects or simply a transfer of images and feelings through ESP without having any particular material basis. This phenomenon of telepathically shared psi effects is known for quite some time in parapsychology, and can be traced back to the landmark study of Gurney, Myers and Podmore (1886) Phantasms of the Living. Warcollier (1928, 1962) also noted that images can be communicated to a wider group through telepathic means. Favre (1978) also proposed a similar set of ideas for various types of apparitions, to include UFOs and alien sightings. This notion of telepathically shared psi effect certainly requires further research, but it is an interesting hypothesis to investigate as it highlight that psi induced events are not only related to the individual but it is also a micro social event.

The active nurturing of the phenomenon

Spencer (1995) notes that UFO events, and close encounters in particular, appear to be very strange and hard to describe events, but that witnesses ultimately end up interpreting them as “aliens-in-spaceship” events because it provides a convenient set of notions to describe something that is beyond description. Some authors have found that experiences very similar to the UFO ones have been interpreted in other cultures in different ways (Harvey-Wilson 2001, Vallée 1969). However, it is important to note that for such interpretation to emerge, the social and cultural conditioning existing in Western societies about the ETH is required especially through the diffusion of the science fiction genre. In other words, if a society provides appropriate “plausibility structures (Goode 2000), then we can collectively nurture such conditions to interpret psi events as “aliens-in-spaceship” events. In this regards, it is important to underline that historically witnesses first talked about strange objects in the sky, and it was only after a few years of speculations about the possibility that they might be of extra-terrestrial origin that close encounters with aliens were reported.

In parapsychology, Walter von Lucadou (1995) and von Lucadou & Zahradnik (2004) have develop an interesting model to understand the social dimension of poltergeist events that could be borrowed to study UFO events. Although their model is more akin to social psychology (i.e. small groups), there is a number of links that can be made with the sociological dimension of nurturing the “aliens-in-spaceship” scenario. For them, it is clear that a poltergeist is a psi event that tends to last longer because the focus person and his/her immediate entourage are confirmed in their belief that there is an evil spirit in their house. Among the people who play an important role in reinforcing such particular belief are what they called the “naive observers” (i.e. self-appointed psychics and parapsychologists). The naive observers are in a way shielding the phenomenon from disbelief so that the focus person and his/her entourage continue to maintain the conditions necessary for the poltergeist event to occur. One cannot escape thinking that the ETH ufologists play the same role as the naive observers, but at a societal level. Von Lucadou’s model appears to be even more applicable to the repeat abduction scenario, as individual ufologists who study particular cases only reinforce the belief by the experiencer that they were abducted by aliens.

One could also see some interesting similarities between what Spencer found about the mythmaking process of UFO construed as “aliens-in-spaceship” and the parapsychological experiment of creating from scratch a ghost by Owen and M. Sparrow (1976), as described in their famous book Conjuring up Philip. Nurturing plausibility structures, therefore, can be construed as working both at the small group level, as well as at the societal level. Furthermore, it can be speculated that when the two levels are in line, with respect to their content, then there is a reinforcing effect. The active participation of people, either as individual, circle of believers, or socially shared belief, appears to be key in producing psi effects.

Social anxiety and UFOs

The notion that UFOs represents some sort of reaction to socially shared anxieties constitutes the core of Jung’s (1958) analysis of the UFO phenomenon. However, it appears that this issue can be analyzed from two distinct angles. First, Pierre Viéroudy (1977) and Martin Kottmeyer (1996) found a correlation between national crises and UFO waves. As well, it can also be said that UFO-like events such as the Marian apparitions in Fatima in 1917 were occurring during a national crisis, i.e. the first deployment of Portuguese troops on the Western front (matching almost perfectly the spread of the apparitions), which was completely occulted by ufologists who studied the events (such as Fernandes and D’Armada 2005). Jacques Vallée (1992), who visited the USSR in its last days, speculated that the UFO wave they were experiencing at the time might be caused by the incoming national crisis.

Second, it is also possible to see the UFO phenomenon as the expression of a general anxiety about technology and its impact on our lives (Méheust 1978). In this case, the phenomenon appears to have developed a dynamics of its own, where it is quite difficult to predict sightings, as they may be linked to a multitude of factors hard to measure and monitor.

The macro social dynamic and the collective unconscious

The notion that UFOs would be an objectified expression of the collective unconscious is not a new one, and was contemplated by Jung (1958). A few other authors have made such a suggestion (Freixedo 1977; Viéroudy 1977, 1978a, 1978b, 1983; Méheust 1978; Stupple in Fuller 1980; Rojcewicz 1987), but none of them has pursued it to any significant extent. What these authors imply is that collectively, through shared unconscious processes, we produce macro level PK effects (including materialization) that are partially autonomous from the individual witnesses. As well, our commonly shared frames of reference provide a specific content to these PK effects (i.e., drawing from existing plausibility structures). UFOs and aliens are thus understood as PK effects specific to our technological world dreaming of deep space exploration. To understand how the collective unconscious could be producing PK effects, one has to search into a literature further remote from the study of UFOs and parapsychology.

Collective unconscious and social unconscious

These two terms have been used interchangeably, and in the sociological literature it appears to not cause much problem if one is doing so. However, psychologists do make a distinction between the two. The collective unconscious is a concept directly linked to Carl Jung and his followers. Although there have been some attempts to link his concept to sociological analysis (Staude 1976, Greenwood 1990, Main 2006), it remains essentially a psychological concept. The problem with Jung’s concept is that it is a very rigid one that identifies a number of specific archetypes (deep genetically rooted ways of thinking and feeling) which have failed to be empirically tested when it comes to socially-shared ways of thinking and feeling. Societies have shown instead very wide diversity in this regard. Yet, Jung’s concept is still useful because it opens a door to the study of paranormal effects through the notion of synchronicity (see Main 1997 for a detailed discussion). For Jung, synchronicity is a correlation between two events that are not linked by a cause-and-effect chain, but that are meaningful to each others. Jung proposes that synchronicity is an expression of the collective unconscious “making thing happen”.

Hansen (2001), a parapsychologist, proposed that paranormal events are a particular expression of the collective unconscious under the archetype that Jung named the trickster. The trickster is a metaphorical description of our dealing with ambiguity. As the human mind is not able to comprehend the entire reality, we have to make assumptions, to speculate, and belief in a lot of things to go through life. The net result is that our relationship to reality is always marked by a fair degree of ambiguity. The trickster is therefore this common human experience of having other parts of our mind challenging in unexpected ways the conscious but improvable assumptions we made about reality to deal with its inherent ambiguity. For Hansen, psi effects occur when the trickster archetype is activated because it creates a liminal zone between old certainties and new certainties. Within that liminal zone, for a brief period, everything becomes possible, including psi effects. It is in this context that Hansen considers that UFO events occur when the trickster archetype is activated within the collective unconscious at the social level. Although Hansen provides an interesting analytical approach to the UFO experience, it remains too generic, like all other attempts to link Jungian archetypes to the sociological analysis.

To develop a less generic approach to understand the impact of the collective unconscious, there are a number of avenues that remain to be explored. For instance the work of sociologists like Castoriadis (1975) and Leledakis (1995) on how social innovation occurs through the unconscious and the imaginary, and the work of people involved in group analytics such as Powell (1991), Dalal (2001), Zeddies (2002), and Thygesen (2008), may provide further thought to develop a more comprehensive model as to how the collective unconscious work. Such a model may, in turn, help to understand the processes behind the generation of social psi.

A proto-model

Based on the literature surveyed so far, it is possible to propose a tentative modeling of the social dimension of the UFO phenomenon. It appears that all three usual levels of analysis (i.e. individual, group, and society) have a part to play in various PEMIE events. It is not to say that they always play a role in each case, but they all can potentially play a role. It could be speculated that the most spectacular PEMIE events such as major Marian apparitions would occur only when the three levels are aligned cognitively and emotionally.

The proposed model could construed as a concentric graph moving from the most concrete elements of the experience towards the most subtle and yet most structuring elements. As well, two distinct sets of variables seem at play. One set I would qualify of cognitive, which includes individual beliefs, small group nurturing of the phenomenon, and the societal plausibility structures. The second set is more in line with other enablers to psi effects such as individual sensitivity to the paranormal, telepathic sharing, and social anxiety within the collective unconscious.

This remains, of course, only a tentative first cut at modelling UFO events based on the literature surveyed. However, it appears quite clear that the social dimension of the UFO experience cannot be ignored, and it appears to play a fundamental role in defining the phenomenon.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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