Monday, October 17, 2016

Who's Who in the UFO Zoo? - Part 2

The fourth school of thought is the simplistic Psycho-social Hypothesis. This approach has a different focus than the older approaches seen so far. It essentially emerged as a popular idea in the early 1980s. For the supporters of this approach the UFO phenomenon is essentially a mass phenomenon, made of socially shared narratives about UFOs, and alien visitations. These narratives are built on science-fiction literature and cinema, on the thousands of ETH books on UFOs that are essentially acting as rumour mills about aliens. Those narratives are influenced by the commercialization of popular culture, as well as by the decline of traditional religions compensated by belief systems linked to UFOs and aliens. A crucial difference, here, is that these authors are not interested in looking into actual individual observations, except to use the ones that fits their own explanation as illustrations of their theories. For them, the social narratives about UFOs and aliens is what makes people see UFOs in the sky and aliens on the ground in the first place. The magazine Magonia has been a well-known source of publications for this approach. To put it in scientific terms, society (or social and cultural dynamics) is the independent variable, having an influence on the observers (dependent variable) by filling their mind with images of aliens from outer space. As a second order of effect, mundane objects becomes interpreted as aliens from outer space, and by doing so integrates also the Nil Hypothesis into its framework.  

For instance, in the April 1984 issue of the magazine Magonia, Peter Rogerson wrote that “It must be further emphasised that the UFO experience is not ‘all in the mind’ in the sense of being the product of the imagination of isolated individuals. It is a social and cultural phenomenon much more than a psychological one. The whole problem of the content of the kind of experiences I have been discussing is wholly unresolved. Why, for example, should hypnogogic imagery involve ‘faces in the dark’? What are the reasons behind the transcultural stereotyping in UFO experiences? In recent years the interests of the Editors of this magazine have been increasingly concentrated, not on individual anomalous experiences, but on the social context within which such experiences take place, and which generates them. The experiences both condition, and are conditioned by, the beliefs of society by a process of mutual feedback. Within a social context many apparently ‘absurd’ beliefs and experiences have depth and meaning” (Magonia, As noted by Rogerson, the linkages between the individual experiences and the greater social context is not easy to make, and the simplistic version of the psychosocial hypothesis has been criticized on this ground, leading to more sophisticated approaches within the realm of the psychosocial perspective.


The fifth school of thought is in many ways an improved version over the somewhat condescending attitude towards observers that is implied in the simplistic psychosocial hypothesis. Because of that, I would call it the improved Psycho-social Hypothesis. This approach, contrary to all the previous ones, originates mostly from academia and emerged in the 1990s. One well-known authors from this school of thought is the British folklorist David Clark. It is definitely more sophisticated than the simplistic version of the psychosocial hypothesis in that it brings back the experiencer in the analysis, even if its main tenets are similar to the simplistic version of the psychosocial hypothesis. The experiencers are now considered as being candid in reporting their experiences and thus are active agents in creating unwittingly the UFO myth. Similarly, experiencers’ reactions in face of zealous defence officials or scientists trying quell the UFO rumours at all costs are perfectly understandable in taking their own experience even more seriously, and thus in turn reinforcing even more the UFO myth. Clark’s website provides ample evidence of this much more generous attitude towards experiencers ( In scientific terms, both the observers and society are inter-dependent variables, as they influence each other, but in the end, like in the simplistic Psycho-social Hypothesis, there is a second order of effect, where mundane objects become interpreted as aliens from outer space by observers, and by doing so integrates also the Nil Hypothesis into its framework.


In Clark’s book How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth he wrote that he does not “seek to disparage the UFO syndrome as a false belief held by deluded people.  On the contrary, the PSH [Psycho-Social Hypothesis] sees all aspects of ufology … as interesting and worthy of serious study.  It seeks to understand the whole syndrome both as modern folklore and as a myth in the making.” Later he adds “accounts of UFO experience form the core of the syndrome, but the stories do not constitute ‘evidence’. They are folklore. […] Culture—not experience—creates the UFO interpretation but some experiences are independent of culture”. In other words, the actual experience of people is still fundamentally irrelevant, and there are no phenomena to talk about except the myth-making process about UFOs. Clark is often accused of ignoring both the observers’ own experience and that there is a physical substrata linked to the UFO phenomenon and that his approach cannot account for many difficult cases.


The sixth school of thought can be seen as further refinement of the psychosocial hypothesis by bringing back the subject own reality into the phenomenon, and by doing so trying to close the difficult gap between the “psycho” (individual) part and the social (or collective) part of the hypothesis. In this sense, it can be called the sophisticated Psycho-social Hypothesis. It emerged somewhere in the early 2000s. The main tenets of this approach is that UFOs exist both as social reality that influences the inner worlds of observers and social representations of the outer world, but the individual’s inner world is also an important variable that it is not necessarily a “sample” of larger social narratives about UFOs. Hence, according to this approach individual UFO events deserved to be studied in full, including developing a good understanding of the witnesses as people. To put in scientific terms, society is an independent variable, and to a lesser extent the inner world of the observers is also an independent variable, both of which have only a degree of interdependency.


The research conducted by religion scholar David Halperin is a good example of this perspective. In this case, although social dynamics and narratives do play an important role in shaping UFO experiences, the individual observers’ own reality is not dismissed nor ignored. Like in the case of the improved psycho-social hypothesis, influential individuals can indeed shape societal perspectives on UFOs, and therefore what sociologists call human agency is recognized. One can think of George Adamski as an example of someone who created a new genre (the contactees) soon to be copied by many others. This approach is also much less deterministic (and much less condescending) than the simplistic Psycho-social hypothesis, given that it fully recognizes the need to investigate also the inner world of the observers to make a sound analysis of a UFO event. Each UFO event is seen as unique because they are experienced by unique individuals having a unique life history.


For instance, Halperin on his excellent blog Journal of a UFO Investigator, takes great care to look into the information available about the personal life of UFO witnesses: what kind of symbolism would be specifically meaningful to them, what kind of difficulties and tensions they were facing at the time, etc. Furthermore, this approach does not judge the projection of one’s inner world into the outer world as some sort pathology or as the behavior some naïve or ignorant people. We all do this in one form or another, it is not just about UFOs. In a way, this approach resembles quite a bit the writings of Jung on UFOs.


Like with the simplistic Psycho-Social Hypothesis and the improved approach, there is no recognition that an anomalistic phenomenon occurred in any case. This is a significant problem when physical traces can actually be pointed out or very odd anomalies occur, as those approaches do not have any explanation to offer for them.

In the next post, I will discuss the place and role of what I have called the Parapsychological Hypothesis.

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