Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Should sociologists study the paranormal?

By Madeleine Castro
The paranormal is a subject often found in popular media, and commonly perceived as a form of entertainment. It is not a subject usually covered by sociologists and, at first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was as it should be.
You might think that paranormal experiences are reported by few people, and only by those who are psychologically impaired, delusional, attention-seeking, gullible, or liable to misinterpret ordinary events.  

You may assume that paranormal phenomena either imply processes outside of sociology’s scope (physical or psychological ones, for example) or hint at a level of profundity which sociology is not best equipped to comment on (philosophical or metaphysical issues). For these reasons, many sociologists are likely to have considered paranormal experiences to be outside their purview.

Weighing up the paranormal as a worthwhile subject of study also leads to consideration of its perceived place in ‘serious’ research and the effect of this subject on one’s professional standing (see for instance, these blog posts by Dr Sara MacKian and Prof Charles Emmons about precisely this issue). In a sense, the paranormal is somewhat tainted as a subject; and deemed likely to blight an academic’s reputation. At the very least it is unlikely to be taken seriously.

This could partly be the result of the highly visible, well organised voices of sceptics, who seek to debunk the paranormal and ‘expose’ fraudulent claims (the website of The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, CSI, illustrates this very well).

Given all of this, why would sociologists want to research this subject? 
As our article demonstrates, there is justification for studying the paranormal sociologically and there are many aspects of genuine social interest requiring further investigation.

In 2009, over 4,000 British adults aged over 16 were interviewed in person[1].  They were asked whether they had experienced any of the following:

·         Telepathy (mind-to-mind communication with another living person)
·         Extrasensory Perception or ESP (knowledge of concurrent events or information without the use of the known senses)
·         Mystical experiences (often involving a sense of oneness with the universe, awareness of a numinous presence and altered perceptions of self, space and time)
·         After death communication or contact with the dead (visual, olfactory or auditory encounters with the deceased or a sense of their presence)

Almost 37% of British adults reported at least one paranormal experience. This is a sizeable minority and illustrates just how common reported paranormal experiences are. It shows that there are sufficient people reporting these experiences for them to be of interest to a study of society.  However, it is not only the quantity of people that are important but also the social demographics, which add weight to the case for sociology’s consideration.

We found that women, those living in the South West and those aged between 35 and 64 yrs were more likely to report paranormal experiences overall (see the article for more detailed results).  It is here we can begin to employ sociological ideas to articulate these findings. For example, women are more likely to report paranormal experiences, but how might we understand this sociologically?

Historically, other surveys have shown similar findings with women having higher reporting rates of such experiences. Previous explanations for these kinds of results have tended to be fairly naive or unconvincing.

One such explanation included the idea that women are more naturally intuitive or ‘person-oriented’. However, contemporary sociology is unlikely to accept an explanation such as this based on essentialism. Other explanations include the social marginality hypothesis or compensatory approach, which decrees that those with lower social status will be more likely to report paranormal experiences as a means of escaping their relatively poor social standing. However, there is little supporting evidence for this theory and it conceals a problematic assumption: namely, that women have a straightforwardly lower social position than men.

Instead, there is more to be gleaned from research on similar topics. For instance, findings from research on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and new age consumption suggest that women are more likely to engage with both (e.g. Adams et al 2003, Mears and Ellison, 2009, Saher and Lindeman, 2005). It also appears to be important whether an individual has community ties or interpersonal networks which uphold similar beliefs.

What these studies suggest is that there is no simple reasoning which explains the relationship between being a female and the increased likelihood of reporting paranormal experiences. It is likely to be a more nuanced picture influenced by a variety of factors such as interpersonal connections, lifestyle, spiritual choices, consumption and practice.

Whilst connecting these ideas comprehensively with our quantitative study is not possible, and would require more qualitative work to establish, it does begin to point to some of the more complex and interesting ways in which sociology could contribute to a much more complete social understanding of paranormal experiences.

Research on lifestyle, consumption, and contemporary spiritualities, not to mention ageing and the life course could play an important part in furthering this understanding. So too could material on space, place and location, for instance, particularly if we consider the findings relating to differential levels of reporting of paranormal experiences by age and region.

It was sociologist Andrew Greeley (1975, 1991) who first suggested that ‘the paranormal is normal’. We update and restate this – the paranormal is (still) normal – and renew his call for systematic sociological work in this area.

Adams, J., Easthope, G. &  Sibbritt, D. (2003) ‘Exploring the relationship between women’s health and the use of complementary and alternative medicine’, Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 11 p. 156–168.

Greeley, A. (1975) The Sociology of the Paranormal: A Reconnaissance. London: Sage.
Greeley, A. (1991) ‘The paranormal is normal: A sociologist looks at parapsychology’, Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 85 p. 367-374.

Mears, D.P. & Ellison, C.G. (2000) ‘Who Buys New Age Materials? An Examination of Sociodemographic, Religious, Network, and Contextual Factors’, Sociology of Religion 61 p. 289-313.

Saher, M. & Lindeman, M. (2005) ‘Alternative medicine: A psychological perspective. Personality and Individual Differences’, 39 p. 1169–1178.


[1] This research was carried out for the University of York by Ipsos MORI. For more details see the article in the August edition of Socresonline.

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