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In an Open-Minded Way: Jack Hunter on an Ethnography of Anomalous Phenomena


The following originally appeared on Eyeless Owl.


"In other cultures, therefore, experiences such as telepathic communication between two individuals, predicting the future in dreams, seeing the dead reanimate, witnessing an apparition, communicating with spirits through entranced mediums, or being afflicted by witchcraft (amongst others) may be considered entirely possible. Many highly respected anthropologists, in conducting ethnographic ?eldwork amongst other cultures, have gone several steps beyond appreciating different modes of thinking about the world and have crossed the threshold into alternate ways of experiencing it. E.B. Tylor, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Bruce T. Grindal and Edith Turner all crossed this threshold during their ?eldwork, and all interpreted and presented their experiences in different ways. Through examining the ways in which these ethnographers documented their experiences, and how their personal world-views accommodated such unusual phenomena, it is possible to gain an insight into both changing academic attitudes towards the anomalous and the mysterious nature of the paranormal itself." –"Anthropology of the Weird: Ethnographic Fieldwork and Anomalous Experience" by Jack Hunter in G. Taylor (ed.) (2011). Darklore Vol. 6. Brisbane: Daily Grail Publishing. pp. 243-253.


Since the late 60?s and early 70?s parapsychology has sought objective verification for the phenomenon in the laboratory rather than cultivating the experience as a participant in the field.

Jack Hunter, editor for Paranthropology, Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, is working with a group of researchers that are changing this trend. Through ethnographic and participation based research they are discovering new ways to engage with anamolous phenomena that offer alternative avenues for exploration outside of the circular skeptic/believer debate.

D.M.: What got you into all this?

J.H.: I have always been interested in the paranormal, and when I went to university to study archaeology & anthropology I came to the realization that anthropological, and more specifically ethnographic, methodologies provide an ideal means to investigate the paranormal in an open-minded way.

How can the study of anomalous phenomena help our understanding of human experience?

I think the best answer to this question was given by the psychologist William James in the 19th century when he wrote that "no account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded." James stressed the fact that our understanding of reality will be limited, and hence fundamentally flawed, if we fail to take into account all aspects of existence — no matter how weird and unusual they are. To ignore these "anomalous" phenomena and experiences is to arbitrarily neglect a facet of the human condition and of reality as a whole.

Did being directly involved in learning mediumistic techniques change your perspective on the phenomenon?

Through participating in mediumship development sessions I was able to directly access personal experiences that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. The few experiences that I did have while developing in this way have enabled me to appreciate to a greater extent the fact there is an experiential reality (at the very least) underlying the beliefs and practices of contemporary mediums.

This opened up new avenues of inquiry and new possibilities for study. It became clear to me that the experiential component is key to understanding the sort of group I am investigating, and that no account of the group would be complete without addressing the experiences of its members (again echoing William James).

How do you think your perspective would change without those experiences in the field?

If I hadn't had the strange experiences associated with the mediumship development experience, I doubt whether I would have been able to appreciate the experiential component of mediumship traditions.

In studying mediumship in the UK, have you been able to develop an understanding of the differences and similarities between spiritualist mediumship, and trance work in say Afro-Carribean traditions, North African traditions, Asian shamanism, etc.? What are some of those differences and similarities?

Not having conducted fieldwork with Afro-Cuban and African spirit mediums, or Asian shamans, I am not really in the position to definitively state that they are doing precisely the same thing as Euro-American spiritualist mediums.

But, based on my own field research, and my reading of the ethnographic literature pertaining to spirit possession practices around the world, it seems to me that there are similar processes involved across the board. Chief amongst these are alterations of consciousness in the mediums/possessed and the use of bodily performance in the manifestation of spiritual beings.

When I talk about performance I am not implying that what trance mediums do is necessarily fake, but rather that performance is a means by which non-physical entities can be expressed in the physical world. I have discussed this is greater detail in my MLitt dissertation Talking With Spirits.

"By drawing comparisons between ethnographic accounts of supernatural beliefs and contemporary reports of psychic phenomena, such as those investigated by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), (Andrew) Lang demonstrated that the perceived cognitive gap between Europeans and non-Europeans was not quite as wide as had inititally been thought. If modern rational Europeans of high respectability, like the early members of the SPR, had experienced phenomena they considered to be supernormal in nature, then why should the experiences and believes recorded in the ethnographic literanture not also be taken seriously?" — "Anthropology & the Supernatural: From Spirits to Consciousness." by Jack Hunter in Edgescience, No. 10, March 2012, pp. 14-17.

Did you encounter the "trickster" phenomenon that George Hansen explores in his work?

I would say so. The trickster really rears its head when it comes to trying to pin-point precisely what is going on in physical mediumship demonstrations. In the gloom of the seance room it isn't easy to tell what is going on: an air of uncertainty is generated. I have come to view this, however, as an essential component in the paranormal experience.
As Hansen suggests, drawing on the ideas of Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner, seances are periods of liminality and anti-structure in which clear-cut distinctions break down.

As an observer it becomes very difficult to distinguish between reality and what might be termed trickery: our usual modes of interpretation cease to be adequate. I think this, whether conscious or unconscious, is a deliberate aim of the seance — to develop a social situation in which such distinctions break down, which in turn may lead to alterations of consciousness in the participants and to "paranormal" experiences.

After studying the phenomenon of spirit possession in the field, do you have further insights into how/why lab work with anomalous phenomenon and abilities has been difficult?

This is an interesting question and brings to the fore, I believe, a really significant issue for paranormal research — the role of emotion and participation. When we look at first-hand accounts of paranormal experiences, including many of the experiences reported by ethnographers in the field, we see that such experiences, more often than not (though of course there are always going to be exceptions), occur during periods of emotional arousal.

For instance, the classic example of a paranormal experience — the crisis apparition — is often associated with the intensely emotional period immediately preceding the death of a loved one. Poltergeist cases are usually associated with the emotional turbulence of puberty, or with individuals experiencing some form social liminality.

The most elaborate paranormal experiences recorded by ethnographic anthropologists often take place at the climax of emotionally intense rituals (see for example the descriptions on pages 12 through 15 of the October 2010 issue of Paranthropology). Emotional intensity of one form or another, therefore, would appear to be a fairly recursive element of many different forms of paranormal experience.

Now, when we come to look at the lab-based experiments of parapsychology, particularly after the development of J.B. Rhine's methodologies, we find none of this, infact we find quite the opposite: a deliberate attempt to generate a sterile, controlled and unemotional environment in which to verify the existence of psi phenomena. When we look at it from this perspective it is remarkable that modern parapsychological experiments achieve positive results at all (this could perhaps be considered testament to the strength of psi phenomena: that psi can even make itself known in conditions entirely removed from the environment in which it naturally manifests).

I'm not the first person to notice this by any stretch of the imagination. Ernesto de Martino, an Italian philosopher and historian of religion, described just this disconnect between the traditional, spontaneous, paranormal experience and the phenomena produced in the laboratory when he wrote in 1968 that "in the laboratory, the drama of the dying man who appears… to a relative or friend, is reduced to an oft repeated experiment — one that tries to transmit to the mind of a subject the image of a playing card, chosen at random," this, he suggests, represents "an almost complete reduction of the historical stimulus that is at work in the purely spontaneous occurrence of such phenomena". In other words; the drama of real life is ignored in the laboratory experiment.

This is where ethnographic approaches are able to shed light on the paranormal, through documenting its occurrence in the midst of the social drama which allows it to manifest in its most elaborate forms.

How has working with the Paranthropology journal changed your perspective on the field of anomaly studies?

Paranthropology was set up as a means to encourage greater, and more open, dialogue amongst anthropologists on issues of the paranormal. Many anthropologists have encountered "anomalous phenomena" in the field but have been unable to express their experiences in the professional academic journals for fear of ridicule.

A field anthropologist recently told me that he had been warned against publishing an article on seemingly paranormal phenomena by university colleagues because it was "threatening" to the "basis of scientific rationalism." Paranthropology aims to provide a platform for anthropologists to discuss these issues openly. It also aims to develop an interdisciplinary dialogue between anthropology and other disciplines including folklore and parapsychology so that a more holistic understanding of the paranormal can be developed.

Working on the journal has proven to me that interdisciplinarity is the route towards gaining an understanding of the anomalous.

Do you have any other projects you are working on in the field?

I am involved in a group, the Afterlife Research Centre, based at the University of Bristol, which aims to promote ethnographic approaches to the study of the afterlife through a method that we have termed "cognitive empathetic engagement" (see the website for a more details exploration of what we mean by this).

Members of the group are researching afterlife beliefs, primarily in the context of mediumship traditions, in a variety of different cultural settings. We have organized a conference at the University of Bristol and are aiming to publish a book on the ethnography of spirit mediumship.

Jack Hunter is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Bristol, studying Spiritualist groups in the city. His undergraduate dissertation also at Bristol concerned the practice of contemporary trance and physical mediumship at the Bristol Spirit Lodge. Jack produces a regular on-line newsletter exploring anthropological and other academic approaches to the paranormal.

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