Monday, May 16, 2011

Back to the basics: parasociology and parapsychology

Jacques Vallée has long been complaining that he was the only not knowing what is behind the UFO phenomenon. The good news is that is not the only one. Indeed, the UFO phenomenon is a mystery, and in spite of the best attempts of many people, it still remains a mystery.

The real issue, in my opinion, is that the empirical inductive approach towards the UFO phenomenon has reached its course. Observations of the physical aspects of the phenomenon (shape, color, speed, etc.) have not yield any new significant knowledge since the 1970s. I think that the craze during the 1980s and 1990s about Roswell and governmental conspiracies was in part propelled by the fact inductive approaches were not fruitful anymore. The conspiracy approach, a variation of the ETH, was a hypothesis that generated new questions, and encouraged people to seek new types of data (especially classified government documents). Unfortunately for the proponents of the conspiracy hypothesis, it also reached its course as no new knowledge of substance was generated.

Similarly, the observation of paranormal effects in UFO events, explored by people like Vallée, Keel, Randles, Mack, and others also reached its course by the year 2000 (altered state of consciousness, poltergeist events, telepathy, premonition, vision, etc.). The ground-up approach of taking witnesses’ testimony and trying to find out pattern has yielded as much as it could. To keep approaching the phenomenon with the same set of questions and data will, invariably, lead to the same unsatisfying answers. 

To have different questions, leading to analyze a different set of data, and look at older data from a different angle, requires sound new hypotheses. Hypotheses are not things that someone would take out of a hat. They require to be fully justified based on existing knowledge, on rational analysis, and their fundamental assumptions laid open for transparent scientific debate.  

Trying to prove a hypothesis is not equivalent knowing what the phenomenon is, but one has to be careful to not fall into the trap of projecting results where there are no results. It is why any new hypothesis has to be fully explained and justified in a transparent way. Deviations from the original intent can be identified immediately.  

Parasociology and sociology 

Émile Durkheim, the founder of modern sociology, is well-known for defining the discipline as being a "science of institutions", and about "their genesis and their functioning”, in his classical book The Rules of Sociological Method (1895). He further defined institutions as "collective ways of action and thinking" that exist on their own right, outside the individuals, and which have a coercive influence over individuals' consciousness, acting from the outside in.

From this classical definition, it is clear that the "paranormal" can be considered as a social institution. It is made of collective beliefs and practices which tend to impose themselves on individual consciousnesses. In the case of UFOs, for instance, the belief in ET and governmental conspiracies has shaped the field. It is very hard to have a sound discussion about UFOs without having believers telling you how wrong one can be if he or she does not share those beliefs. They can even become aggressive at times. In other instances, this can lead to bizarre and yet very dangerous cults, as Jacques Vallée showed many years ago in Messengers of Deception 

The few sociologists who studied the paranormal, borrowing a lot from the social study of religion, focused on those shared collective beliefs and ways of acting, and in essence considered the paranormal as another social institution (but a close cousin to religion). 

The parasociological approach, on the other hand, is not about looking at a particular social institution, like the various sociologies that emerged over time (sociology of the family, of religion, of gender, of organization, of economic structures, of labor, etc.). Its basic premise is that there is something akin to “social psi” having an influence on societies, which can affect any “collective ways of action and thinking” (i.e. any institution). Hence, the main focus of parasociology is to develop both methodologies to assess the presence of such “social psi”, and a consistent and grounded conceptual framework to generate testable hypotheses. The UFO phenomenon has been selected as a particular empirical object to develop the methodologies and conceptual framework for reasons already explained before. A useful way to extract some of the key assumptions behind the parasociological approach to UFOs is by comparing it with some of the assumptions of parapsychology.

The limits of parapsychology as a model for parasociology 

The general concept of psi has been developed by researchers in parapsychology, and therefore parasociology has to rely substantively on parapsychology. But it is important to underline that there are limits to such reliance. Andrew Nichols provides an interesting discussion on what is parapsychology, and this can be used to contrast it with parasociology.

1. Parapsychology is concerned with individual experiences that are considered as paranormal by both the experiencer and society.  

Parasociology is not particularly concerned with individual experiences, but it is rather interested by events that are socially observed and considered as paranormal. Of course, it is individuals who perceived paranormal events, but the social reception and the context allowing such events to occur are situated beyond the individual. I understand that this view maybe disconcerting for those who do not have training in social sciences, because it is not intuitive. But science is about going beyond the surface of things. 

2. “Parapsychology asserts that such experiences are not, in and of themselves, indicative of psychopathology.” 

Parasociology, also, does not consider that a society experiencing paranormal events is a necessary sign of collective delusion, although social delusion can accompany paranormal events. Furthermore, if social psi might be the outcome of social tensions, it does not have to be the case all the time. I look at the UFO phenomenon metaphorically as a grand scale poltergeist (RSPK), which implies that some sort of tensions would be the main driver. A wider array of possibilities needs to be investigated, such as a “dialogue” between the social unconscious and the collective consciousness that takes a paranormal form on some occasions (like an objectified social dream). 

3. “Parapsychology asserts that paranormal-type experiences are often a source of personal transformation or healing to the individual” 

Parasociology, in theory, is open to the notion that paranormal events can change societies, especially in creating or reshaping religion as a social institution. However, this has not been the present focus of parasociology as it is seeking to establish, first, the possibility of “social psi”. Furthermore, the parallels between individual transformation and social transformation are dubious, especially in the context of large and complex societies. The UFO phenomenon certainly participated in the enlargement of the paranormal institution in Western countries, but did it really transform societies? Not really, as we are still dealing with something quite marginal, socially speaking. Yet, the notion of possible social impact on a particular sub-group should be integrated into parasociology in the future. 

4. Parapsychology accepts that “transpersonal consciousness incorporates other individuals, living and deceased, as well as objects and/or locations which are meaningful to the individual. This transpersonal stratum of consciousness is the source of genuine paranormal experiences, whether experienced consciously or subliminally”. 

Parasociology, as a sociological endeavor, does not see the world as an aggregation of individuals, as psychology and parapsychology tend to do. The social unconscious and the collective consciousness have dynamics of their own that cannot be reduced to individual experiences, be it transpersonal or not. However, parasociology assumes that social psi emanates from the social unconscious and that it can emerge, at times, into the collective consciousness. This view is profoundly modern and sociological in nature, as it assumes that the social realm determines the social. The main addition to this view from parasociology is that not all the social realm is observable by using the traditional methodologies of the social sciences. In other words, if the UFO phenomenon is an expression of the social unconscious, then there is no need to seek an extra-social explanation for it (like the ETs, the Gods, etc).   

5. “Parapsychology asserts that the prudent use of certain techniques (e.g. trance induction, automatisms) may facilitate access to the transpersonal unconscious”. 

Parasociology assumes that there are social conditions more favorable to the emergence of social psi effects, but such conditions remain to be researched. Furthermore, given the very significant logistical and ethical challenges linked to societal experiments, parasociology does not rely on experimental approaches, and has to rely on spontaneous and historical cases.  

6. “Parapsychology assumes no stance on the question of physical measurement or recording of paranormal phenomena. There is no conclusive evidence that physical measures or recording techniques (photography, audio-recording, etc.) are capable of detecting paranormal energies or entities.” 

Parasociology does not pay much attention to the physical dimension of paranormal events, although the presence of physical anomalies is considered as a useful indicator. As well, social synchronicities, which would be considered as a form of social psi, do not necessarily require any physical anomaly to be present. There are many UFO observations that are ignored by ufologists because they turned out to be caused by conventional objects, yet when one looks more carefully, these observations can be synchronistic to either paranormal events or other “genuine” UFO observations. Hence, the parasociological approach rejects the primacy of the physical UFO reality to study the phenomenon. A much wider net needs to be cast to get useful data. 

7. “Parapsychology is a scientific approach [...] However, humanistic parapsychology also incorporates psychological/spiritual development...” 

Parasociology does not espouse any “New Age” beliefs, nor does it accept teleological assumptions about “growth of humanity”. Parasociology remains centered on the original intent of sociology to understand the genesis and functioning of social institution, irrespective of the values one may project into them.  

8. “The task of parapsychology is threefold. [...] parapsychologist seeks to determine whether this assertion is factual, or if the experience is subjective in nature. Next, the parapsychologist analyzes the gathered material, seeking meaningful patterns relating the event to the percipient=s personal history, mythological concepts, etc. Finally, the parapsychologist offers counseling and advice to the percipient [...]” 

The first two tasks of parasociology are similar: (1) asserting the factual or subjective nature of a paranormal event, (2) in light of what is meaningful in a given society. However, parasociology unlike psychology, does not have a clinical aim to offer counseling. A parasociological explanation, assuming that it would be accepted by the larger society may play a role in diffusing a difficult social situation (like a state of panic). But the skeptics are already playing that role. The main difference of a parasociological approach would be a more sensitive and sensible way to diffuse social tensions emerging out of a paranormal event. Yet, given that the “voice of reason” is usually ignored in most fights between skeptics and believers (especially prevalent in the UFO world), any social role for parasociology remains essentially theoretical at this point.

9. “Parapsychological Counseling is client-centered and non-directive, i.e., paranormal experiences should be studied within the cultural and social context in which they occur.” 

Any equivalent for parasociology would be to offer advice to governmental agencies about the relativistic nature of paranormal events; leaving decision-makers determine what would be the best course of action. It was more or less the position taken by Hynek, and in some of the early assessments of the UFO phenomenon (like the 1948 Lipp Report). Here too, such potential for parasociology remains essentially theoretical. 

10. “Parapsychology supports no specific religious interpretation of paranormal experiences, and makes no assertions with regard to the question of conscious survival after death, nor does it assert the literal existence of an objective “spirit world” or of non-corporeal entities, extra-terrestrial beings, etc.”

Actually, here I disagree with Andrew Nichols. What distinguishes parapsychology from the older psychical sciences is the rejection of non-human entities to explain paranormal events. 

Parasociology, as discussed before takes the same approach as parapsychology, and for the same reasons. Involving non-human entities in the explanation prevents any possibility of a scientific approach. Given that non-human entities can call the shots at will, then there is no possibility of establishing patterns as one would do in natural sciences; and given that they are not human, we cannot make any hypothesis based on our common humanity as one would do in social sciences. Non-human entities, as a conceptual notion, lead to a scientific dead end by definition. The parasociological approach remains part of the overall project of the modern scientific institution.

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