Sociology of the Paranormal

Erich Goode. Paranormal Beliefs: a Sociological Introduction. Waveland Press, 2000.

Aimed primarily at an undergraduate audience, this book, based on the author's courses in the Sociology of the Paranormal at the State University of New York, should be of interest and value to anyone who wishes to understand the roots of the clash between science and a variety of paranormal claims. Not overtly taking sides, though the perceptive reader will gather that he is sceptical of many paranormal claims, Goode points out the differences in world view between many paranormalists and many scientists, which make mutual agreement or even comprehension very difficult. For example while the scientific community generally works in terms of repeatable and at least formally falsifiable general laws and trends, paranormalists tend to appeal to personal experience, and ideas of the irreducible minimum.

He distinguished between a number of approaches to the paranormal:
  • the violator who argues paranormal phenomena exist and they are examples of the violation of physical laws, either because they are just exceptions to the rule, or because some higher power suspends them;
  • the subsumer who argues that paranormal phenomena exist but will be explainable by a future extended science, they do not fundamentally contradict the scientific world view;
  • the deducer who argues that paranormal phenomena exist are a largely compatible with existing science and that scientists are prejudiced in not looking at their claims;
  • the dimensionalizer who argues that paranormal phenomena exist and belong to a whole separate realm outside the purview of science;
  • the radical sceptic who argues that all claims, paranormal or otherwise, should be examined case by case strictly on their own merits;
  • the ignorer who argues that paranormal claims are not valid, and are thus not worth bothering about;
  • the debunker who argues that paranormal claims are false and pernicious and should be opposed;
  • the social constructionist who argues that the truth or falsity of the claim should be secondary, our real interest should be in the social reasons why people believe certain things.
I'm not sure that list really exhausts the options, another stance might be that of provisional scepticism which argues that while paranormal claims are currently unlikely or very unlikely, we should be prepared to change our minds if sufficiently good evidence comes along. Of course many people adopt bits of a number of those views, perhaps taking different positions on different claims. Goode notes several varieties of paranormal claim, the isolate or crank with their own personal cosmos; the religious (e.g. creationism); the client practitioner based (e.g. tarot, astrology, psychics etc), the quasi scientific such as parapsychology; and finally, grassroots such as ufology. Again there is a fair degree of overlap.

In examining the various social surveys of belief in the paranormal, Goode rejects the view that these beliefs can be reduced to notions such as personal pathology or 'mass hysteria', indeed the paranormalist world view is in many ways the natural one, it is the scientific world view which requires as it were a re-educating about how we should look at the world. It requires an effort not to see the world in terms of wills and meaning. What does emerge in the poll samples are a moderate inverse relationship between traditional religious and 'modernist-paranormal' and new age beliefs, and a very sharp divergence between the significantly high fundamentalist responses among both Protestants and Catholics, and the significantly high modernist scores among Jews (higher than among those answering to no religious affiliation). I suspect that a British sample would see much lower scores for traditional religious beliefs such as creationism, but higher for some new age beliefs, and for belief in ghosts.

Goode notes that despite a shared rejection of 'the hegemony of science' paranormalists have shown little interest in post modernism, this is because, Goode, argues, paranormalists do not adhere to radical relativism or doubts about whether there is universal 'truth' beyond the texts. They know their beliefs are true. In an appendix Goode reproduces some essays by his students on their paranormal beliefs, though he warns that these should not be thought of as representative selection, they indicate that talk of 'new age beliefs' may be very inaccurate, their paranormal beliefs are very traditional indeed, premonitory dreams, guardian angles, gods providences in small events, omens etc., not UFO abductions and remote viewing. The view that 'traditional beliefs' perished with industrialisation looks increasing suspect.

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