ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Anthropology and parascience

Contact Convenor: Jean-Yves Durand

Instituto de Ciências Sociais, Universidade do Minho
Campus de Gualtar, 4710-053
Braga, Portugal.

Panel abstract

Abroad as well as "at home", anthropology has always been attracted by paranormal phenomena and the people who deal with them, oscillating between the identification of superstition or credulity and an empathic approximation often verging on involvement. On the other hand, anthropologists have started to take Western science and its public understanding as legitimate objects. They now generally consider that all types of knowledges, regardless of their empirical efficacy, should be approached from the same standpoint. But this repatriation of an attenuated Great Divide debate seems to bring forth an intriguing inversion of the former dissymmetry, as if parascience were less constructed than science, immune to black-boxing, and undeserving of an analysis that reaches beyond a few "mere" psychological explanations. If the unlikeliness of such a notion as "public understanding of parascience" was not taken as self- evident, would the phrase sound as oxymoronic as it does?

Striving to steer clear of the Science War pitfall, the panel will take stock of recent ethnographies not of "the paranormal" but of parascience in action: the activity, and not only the discourse, of its individual and institutional practitioners as well as debunkers. In some fields, such as medicine, alternative theories and practices are proliferating in such a way that usual positions of hegemony and dissent appear to be shifting. This suggests the necessity to reassess the difficulties anthropology encounters in the "efficacy" question, and the way it has examined the interaction between diffuse knowledges and scientific authority. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the possible public intervention in this area by a discipline inevitably seen as a promoter of ethnoknowledges of all kinds. The issue looks especially relevant in the light of the current social redefinition of the terms, conditions, and goals of scientific practices. 

Astrology, science, and culture: the rediscovery of enchantment

Roy Willis

Astrology excites both huge popular interest and the contemptuous hostility of the scientific and scholarly establishment in roughly equal measure.  Anthropologist Roy Willis and social historian Patrick Curry examine the whys and wherefores of this interesting state of affairs.  They posit an innate drive in Homo sapiens (the 'dialogical animal') to order the phenomenal universe as narrative accounts ('myths' in anthropological parlance); in every culture worldwide these 'cosmic' stories are perceived as visibly animating the heavens.

The authors show that what became 'Western' astrology has, from its beginnings in Mesopotamia 2500 years ago, possessed a chameleon-like ability to adapt to the currently dominant worldview.  They see presentday astrology as a divinatory practice, rather than the pseudo-science its enemies, and some astrologers, present it as being.  As such, it offers interesting parallels with non-ordinary methods of  knowing ritually employed in other cultures, including our own in pre-modern and pre-historic times, and offering privileged participation in the divine task of worldmaking.

In presenting their argument for astrology in a re-enchanted, re-animated, polytheistic world, the authors mount a powerful attack on the scientistic presuppositions of this ancient and beautiful craft's scholarly detractors.

The occulturation of performance: the Mandi Minyak in Malaysia

Douglas Farrer, National University of Singapore

This paper introduces the concept of “occulturation”, tackling the attribution of magic to secular, though esoteric practises.  Since the Second World War, in Malaysia members of a martial arts organization Silat Gayong have dipped their hands into cauldrons of boiling oil (the mandi minyak).  Apparently, prayers prevent the oil from burning people.  Interpretations of this type of phenomena include ritual heat, war magic, and rites of invulnerability.  Whereas placing the hands in boiling oil was once understood to prove invincibility it is now presented as a bath in healthy oil to relieve aches and pains.  The enchantment or disenchantment of the event seems to be a matter of who perceives and defines the situation, and is related to their character, beliefs, and group membership.  I argue that people misinterpret the liminal (ritual) for the liminoid (theatre) and vice versa, and this is cross- and inter-cultural.  Thus, Western outsiders may confuse play and performative work, hence missing the real magic of silat, which is the technology to transform the body/self to attain psychophysical power.  Similarly, where the uninitiated perceive performance as magic they miss the pragmatic function of the oil, which is to condition the hands of the martial artist.

Science, spiritualism, and the new age: the legacy and persistence of forging contact with spirits

Matthew Wood, University of Surrey Roehampton

It has often been noted that the ‘New Age Movement’ is a site for the appropriation of scientific discourses, which seeks to place them within wider ontological spheres of meaning.  Whilst this holistic re-interpretation of healing, biology and physics has resulted in much scholarly study of official ‘New Age’ discourses, both parascience in action and unofficial discourses have received little attention.  This has meant that the importance, in many alternative religious networks, of making contacts with spirits has been overlooked, especially in terms of traditions that draw upon spiritualism.  This omission has important consequences for an anthropological understanding of parascience within the West, because spiritualism was a dominant area both for parascientific practice and enquiry, and for debunkers.

By drawing upon ethnographic research in the British East Midlands, this paper looks at the continuing legacy of spiritualism, in terms of groups and individuals whose parascientific practices include channelling, holistic healing and divination.  It will explore how scientific hegemonies are challenged by practitioners’ drawing upon a variety of religious and secular resources.  It will also look at how, in contrast to both emic and etic official models, holism is frequently perceived and enacted in terms of combat between spiritual powers or beings.  Such analysis points to how the persistence of these forms of religiosity in the West is to be understood, and how it may be compared to the concomitant spread of Pentecostalism.

The adequacy of scientific notions in the translation of indigenous concepts: nyama as "energy"?

Maria Luisa Ciminelli

Cultural change in Western scientific imagery frequently has a litmus paper effect in anthropological understanding, making the observer appear beneath the observed.  A century ago, various human sciences used Energy as a theory-constitutive metaphor.  Several authors have stressed the role played by Western conventional metaphors of Force/Energy in the reification of  the notion of mana in ethnological literature.  Nonetheless, the adequacy of the scientific concept of "energy" in the translation of mana-terms has received little attention.

The notion of nyama, a Bamana (Mali) mana-term, has been explored on the basis of fieldwork in the Beledugu region in 1992-1993, 1999 and 2000.  Results so far elucidate different anthropological aspects of nyama, which appears to be close to the notion of taboo and is characterised by moral and ethical features that have not usually been highlighted by ethnographic research in this area.  Some original individual interpretations of the notion appear to be inspired by the influence of Islam and of Western scientific culture.  A large corpus of linguistic data makes it possible to compare two different registers of conceptual metaphors, respectively pertaining to the concept of nyama among the Bamana and to the concept of Energy or Force in the West.

Parascience at the NIH? Energy healing and evidence-based evaluation

Paula Davis

The status of energy medicine as “frontier science” within the National Institutes of Health presents a fascinating study of the shifting boundaries of science and parascience in the United States.  Energy healing includes a range of therapies (Qigong, Reiki, Brennan Healing ScienceÔ) that posit the existence of a low-intensity energy field surrounding the human body (aura, subtle energies), and conceptualize healing as manipulation of this field.  Central tenets of energy healing are metaphysical notions of the body, time and agency that produce “new age” therapeutic concepts such as past life experiences, distance healing and intentionality.  Both anthropology and Biomedicine have so far failed to engage this metaphysical dimension, albeit for different reasons.

The NIH paradigm of evidence-based evaluation has emphasized instrumentation detecting the human aura and substantiating healer’s claims regarding its manipulation, effectively re-defining energy healing as electrical phenomena and rendering the metaphysical unsubstantiated or simply irrelevant.  Likewise, anthropology, with its emphasis on the economic distribution of these therapies and critique of the cultural appropriations made by some “new age” practitioners fails to consider energy healing as more than a diffuse system of fanciful claims ­ a parascience.  Anthropology offers the prospect of epistemological equality-a useful framework for integrative medicine, but potentially threatening to Biomedical hegemony.

Double-blind or double-bind: ethnography of the paranormal, or social study of parascience?

Jean-Yves Durand

Drawing on the papers of the panel, as well as on a research about the current uses of rod- or pendulum-dowsing (in southern France, Portugal, and New England), and keeping in mind recent trends in anthropological thought (such as the new interest in phenomenology), the convenor will attempt, somewhat foolhardily, to pull together the strands of a particularly fragmented area of inquiry.

Anthropology has generally labelled the "extraordinary experiences" of its informants, and sometimes of its own practitioners, as "magic", "superstition", "self-delusion", etc.  In its current partial turn to Western fields, it encounters hetero-knowledges whose proponents are reluctant to be so swiftly socially and culturally sited.  In part because of the epistemological and ethical difficulties ensuing from its relativist tenet, the discipline then appears to hesitate between the project of an ethnography of the paranormal and that of a social study of parascience.  If parasciences may point at limits and shortcomings of scientific practice, and if they constitute areas where new instances of social institution of knowledge are negotiated, it looks important to scrutinize the way ethnographers deal, in that context, with such notions as empathy, experience, evaluation, genuineness, evidence, efficacy, among others.