Sunday, January 17, 2010

Re-thinking social representations in UFO events

One of the key outcomes of the 1952 Washington D.C. UFO incidents case study is that should UFO waves be akin to Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) events, the notion of “focus person” needs to be revisited. The concept of RSPK, used to replace the too “loaded” notion of poltergeist, has emerged from parapsychology which itself is intimately linked to psychology; the net result is a focus on individuals and small groups of individuals in the explanatory structure. The notion that psi effects could be explained, in part, as an outcome of macro social dynamics is foreign to parapsychology.

This key outcome is certainly a call for firming up some key underpinnings of parasociology, but doing so however, requires taking some distances from a number of assumptions in parapsychology. In this context of taking some critical distances with parapsychology the concept of social representation can become quite handy, as shown below.

Individual psi as a reporting bias

In spite of the notable exception of the parapsychological Global Consciousness Project, which is looking into planetary-wide statistical deviations on inter-connected Random Number Generator, social psi has no room in the discipline. The Project had interesting findings so far, like the night before 9/11. Such observable effects can be construed as social objects because they cannot be explained solely by direct individual interactions. Yet, a global reaction to events like 9/11 is in many ways within the realm of the individual reactions because it is not specific to a particular sense of community, culture, or social class. The fundamental assumption of the Project, unsurprisingly, still resides on the notion that individual unconscious processes somehow aggregate and create an observable psi effect.

The real issue, however, is not whether psi effects are on individual-based or not, but was there any attempt to measure anything else than individual-based psi effect? Parapsychology only found individual-based psi effect because it set up itself only to study the individual-based ones (Global Consciousness Project included), and it is an outcome of its psychology-based ontological preference. In other words, the notion that psi effects are an individual issue is a matter of reporting and not necessarily a matter of empirical finding.

It could also be noted that not only psi can have a sociological dimension, but it can also have socio-physical one. One can particularly think about the ill-defined notion of “haunting”, where psi effects appear to be linked to a location rather than to particular individuals. Although people appear to activate the phenomenon by their presence, the activation is somewhat independent from who is there. Given that it is not individually specific, and yet re-occurring, “haunting” is more akin to a sociological reality than a psychological one. I think this explains why parapsychologists had a historical tendency to ignore such phenomena: they do not have the right approach and tools to look into them.

Sociological analysis and physical reality

One of the arguments proposed by parapsychology to explain its uniqueness as a discipline is that it is at the threshold of psychology and physical sciences. Yet, it is not that unique. Social sciences do use at times physically measurable data to explain social dynamics. For instance, the average size and number of people living in a dwelling are used to evaluate certain hypotheses about family and social class structure. Measurement of urbanization and encroachment of agricultural land play a similar role in the sub-field called “environmental sociology”.[1] The idea here is not only human activities have an impact on the physical environment, but social realities such as class structure or culture will have a direct impact as to how the physical environment is modified (e.g. high grounds for the rich, land divided and cultivated according to either individualist or collectivist schemes, etc.).

Given the above, there are no theoretical reasons as to why psi effects could not be studied from a sociological standpoint, and it is not the unique preserve of parapsychology. And let’s be clear: I do not mean studying how some belief systems influence the perception and acceptance of paranormal phenomenon (which they do). I mean how sociological realities actually shape the psi effects themselves. The UFO phenomenon is probably the most serious case in support of this perspective, and Bertrand Méheust brilliantly opened such possibility 30 years ago. I also mean that social dynamics and conditions activate psi effects: this is the harder part of the project.

Taking it where Méheust left it

Méheust, in his analysis of the older science fiction literature and the UFO phenomenon, looked essentially at what sociologists call “social representations”. His approach looks at how prior plausibility structures were established to provide a particular content to the experience. But social representations are more than that. Bauer & Gaskell (1999) propose that formally, a representation can be characterised as the relation between three elements: subjects, or carriers of the representation; an object, activity, or idea that is represented; and a project of a social group within which the representation makes sense.[2] In the case of UFOs and beyond the prior plausibility structures identified by Méheust, it is (1) the ETH ufologists and their various media (books, articles, Internet websites, Twitter, etc), (2) the strange objects reported to be in the sky, and (3) the ET and conspiracy fans, respectively. What is crucially important, however, is that the objects represented are not something without a referent: the presence of strange objects in the sky is an objective reality. This is a key caveat to avoid falling into the postmodern trap that considers all social representations as simply “language games” or substratum of a larger “meta-narrative”.

The object in a social representation, however, does not solely define the content. It is a combination of social interactions that stabilizes the content. For example, in the case of perception of non-human entities in UFO-related events, the social representation has more or less stabilized towards the “Greys”. This stabilization is not solely a matter of the object. If one looks at the data, even today, there is still a great variety of “alien” shapes. The ufologists emphasizing some events over others (the Barney and Betty Hill case in particular) and assigning such events to UFOs (which is much more presumed than actually perceived, even by the witnesses themselves), and their fans asking for more of it had much more impact than the actual contact with the “object”. In sociology, it is described as anchoring and objectifying the phenomena in trying to transform something unfamiliar into something familiar, and then institutionalizing the “new familiar”. Some might say that it is simply a repeat of the psycho-social hypothesis (PSH), but such idea is incorrect.

Even if people who have apparitional experiences still report a variety of forms and shapes, the Grey form is somewhat more common, sometimes at a great level of details in terms of content. Individualist-based explanations (hence, derived from psychology) cannot account for this important empirical data. Each individual has a different personal history, and therefore a commonality in detailed content cannot be accounted for through a psychological explanation. On the other hand, the spread of social representations is milieu specific. What it means is that the Grey image might be circulating in mass media, but that does not mean it is a meaningful representation for everyone. It is certainly meaningful for science fiction fans and UFO buffs, but it is of little interest for everyone else. The fact that many percipients of Grey events are not science fiction fans or UFO buffs can be construed as an outcome of two separate processes.

The first one is based on what they perceived, and some particular details that they remember; while the second is based on making sense of their experience after the fact. The details are often the most resilient part of the experience, while the overall description of the event tends to change over time, especially when the percipients come into contact with the ETH ufological community (i.e., what was not making any sense is re-interpreted after the fact as meeting the ETs). The second process is one that has been emphasized by the defenders of the PSH, while shrugging at the “detail” issue. Conversely, the defenders of the ETH have emphasized the “detail” issue and carefully ignored their role in the “making sense” process. Once again, they are both right and wrong.

The sociological “making sense” process does occur. There is no doubt about it and it has been documented by a number of people.[3] Yet, the annoying details remain. However, the key question that is never asked is: what are those “details”? For one, there is no physical corroboration found, to this day, which could confirm the physical reality of such details. These details, therefore, are essentially visual pieces of information acquired through non-normal means. And, information acquired through non-normal means is the precise definition of ESP (Extra Sensory Perception). What this all means is that social representations are complex and multi-layered constructs, and that they can also have a paranormal dimension to it; social representations and paranormal effects are not mutually exclusive categories. That’s the mistake of defenders of both the PSH and the ETH.

The concept of social representation has therefore some serious potential to develop a true sociological understanding of psi effects. The key appears to be in layering the concept, which is flexible enough to carry through non-conventional explanations of fringe and odd empirical data. In a way, this is reinforcing the parallel made many posts ago about an “Einsteinian” sociology, which like in physics it is mostly useful to deal with data outside mundane life, as Newtonian physics (or sociology) is good enough for it.

Post specific references

[1] For more please see Mehta, Michael and Eric Ouellet (Eds). (1995). Environmental Sociology: Theory and practice. Toronto: Captus Press.

[2] From

[3] For a good overview of this issue, see Schnabel, Jim. (1994). Dark White: Aliens, abductions, and the UFO obsession. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Eric Ouellet © 2010


Alex said...

great post! I think you're right about individualist psi can be (I guess a reflection of our culture), then again might just be easier to study/convince.

Also, consider: Effects of Group Practice of the Transcendental Meditation Program on Preventing Violent Crime in Washington, DC: Results of the National Demonstration Project, June-July 1993

alex at

Eric Ouellet said...

Thanks Alex for your comment and suggestion.

I have quoted another research from the same group in Israel.