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Anthropology and anomalies: A brief history of explaining (away) the supernatural

Jack Hunter, editor of Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, has just published a fascinating article at Reality Sandwich about the history of anthropological approaches to making sense of anomalous and seemingly supernatural experiences. In addition to tracing the long legacy of strategic decisions by various scholars and thinkers that led to the attitude of wholesale rejection and reductionist explaining-away that still characterizes the intellectual and scholarly mainstream today, he also underscores the shortcomings of this attitude and previews the fact that, after a century’s reign, it is now starting to lose its grip on the collective conversation and worldview.

The article goes beyond the category of merely recommended to enter the realm of the flat-out necessary. Here are some key excerpts:

[S]ocial-functionalism [is] a theory which suggests that supernatural beliefs (as well as other social institutions such as kinship systems, economic systems, and so on), persist only because they perform specific functions for a given society. This position developed from the writings of Émile Durkheim, who argued that religious beliefs and practices are essentially a form of social glue that help to ensure the cohesion and solidarity of social groups…. The social-functional perspective, then, combined with the Tylorean misinterpretation hypothesis, seemed to provide an all-encompassing explanation for the persistence of apparently irrational supernatural beliefs. The traditional social-functional approach fundamentally ignored both the significance of subjective experience for believers (attributing any psychical experiences that might be had purely to self-delusion), and the possibility that genuine psi phenomena might exist.

… The unusual phenomena investigated by parapsychologists, and the range of altered states of consciousness and supernatural beliefs encountered during ethnographic fieldwork, are aspects of the world in which we live and the cultures that have developed in it, and as such should not be ignored by the social sciences. Although we are a long way from the outright acceptance of paranormal phenomena as valid subjects for serious investigation by mainstream anthropology, it is promising to see that both contemporary anthropologists and parapsychologists are coming to realize the mutual benefits each discipline can receive from the type of interdisciplinary collaboration suggested by Andrew Lang at the end of the nineteenth century.

— Jack Hunter, “Supernatural or Natural? Anthropology and the Paranormal,” Reality Sandwich, October 4, 2012

Note that this article also appears as the introduction to the Paranthropology second anniversary anthology. Additionally, be sure to see David Metcalfe’s interview with Jack, which sheds further light on these matters: “In an Open-Minded Way: Jack Hunter on an Ethnography of Anomalous Phenomena.”