Sociology of Contact

Robert E. Bartholomew, and George S. Howard. UFOs and Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery. Prometheus Books, 1998.
In their introduction to this important and fascinating book, Bartholomew and Howard make a provocative and important point, if UFO reports are literal descriptions of extraterrestrial hardware, then they are of much less interest, at least for psychologists and sociologists, than if they are not. It is when people start reporting things which aren't there, that things start to get really interesting.

For the psychosocial ufologist straight forward accurate reports of alien spaceships wouldn't be all that much more interesting than accounts of sightings of trams. OK, if like the editors of this journal you are into tram-spotting, but rather boring for the rest of us, and telling us nothing of the human condition. But reports of flying trams, with pretty wings and piloted by leprechauns, and we are into the much more interesting realm of psycho-social ufology.

This study in psychosocial ufology is divided into two parts. The first, and most successful is a study of the history of waves of sightings in the sky of objects interpreted as being representative of the avant-gard technology of the period; placed in the cultural context of the time. The examples given are the American airship of 1896/7, the related claims to have witnessed a telecommunications balloon, lighted by a powerful electric light, sent up by Thomas Edison, and sightings in Canada of what was taken to be a balloon piloted by the Swedish explorer Andree; the airship sightings in New Zealand and America in 1909, in Britain in 1912113; war and spy plane scares in South Africa, Canada and the United States during the first world war; the 1946 ghost rockets, with a mention of the 1930's ghost plane panics; and finally the early years of the modern UFO legend.

While some of these panics have been written about before, much of this material, based on the researches of Eddie Bullard, Nigel Watson and co-workers, Svahn and Liljegren, and others, is presented in a commercially published book for the first time. Importantly they show that what was often previously presented as isolated anomalies or misunderstood examples of the modem UFO phenomena, were autonomous social panics, which can only be understood in the social context in which they occurred; the published claims to have invented an airship which preceded the 1896/7 `panic', the looming fear of attack by Germany which generated most of the airship waves; the Swedish fear of the Soviet Union which generated the ghost rocket sightings, and the similar fears which dominated the first year or two of the flying saucer age.

In each of these cases, ambiguous lights in the sky, ranging from bright stars and planets to a variety of meteorological phenomena which would normally be overlooked, are as it were seen through new eyes. The authors perhaps do not bring out clearly enough the unifying factor behind all of these `panics', the simultaneous threat and promise of the future. In each case the ambiguous stimuli are seen as the products of the coming years technology, the futuristic airships, the missiles and eventually the spaceships. It is as if the future were being glimpsed out of the comer of the eye.

This future may be seen as exiting promise as in many of the American airship stories, or as dangerous threats from the technological advanced other, whether pre world war one Germany, the Soviet Union, or the Martians (who appeared playing, very much the second fiddle to the home-grown inventors, as early as 1896/7). Today we have the grays and other `alien nations' whose technological signs and wonders simultaneously excite with notions of scientific power beyond measure, and evoke the dread that `they' are about to take over our lives for ever.

This ambiguity was captured in the hoax/short story by Alexander Hamilton and his friends. The airship, symbol of America's technological, urban future, rustles a cow, symbol of the agrarian past. In the glare of the airships light he sees two men, a woman and three children and cannot decide whether these 'people of the future' are angels or devils.

Even today obscure lights in the sky may not always be interprdcd in terms of alien spaceships. 25 years ago Magonia's predecessor the Merseyside UFO Bulletin featured reports of the 'phantom helicopters' variously interpreted in the contexts of the fears of the period, including rumours of drug or immigrants smuggling, IRA terrorists and the deepening industrial crisis. Similar phantom black helicopters have folklores all of their own in the States, where they are seen as harbingers of the UN invasion.

Of course ambiguous lights in the sky are not always interpreted in technological terms, and it would have been interesting to see Bartholomew and Howard's analysis of the 1905 Welsh revival `sightings' This absence is perhaps tied in with the main failure of this section of the book, the poor historical grasp of longer periods of time, which enables them to come up with ridiculous statements such as there was 10,000's of documented fairy sightings in the nineteenth century, and that lots of scientists in that century believed in fairies and witches. This blinds them to the clearest parallel of the nineteenth century, and one that has not been studied as a mass craze, the growth of spiritualism.

Starting with ambiguous stimuli (in this case sounds such as rapping) interpreted au harbingers of a hybrid technological (the telegraph) and supernatural future (the afterlife), the new movement became a mass craze, gaining millions of adherents. As with today's ufology there were demands for Congressional enquiries, there were respectable witnessess and scientific investigators, an escalation of the strangeness of the claims, the messages from the supernaturals describing futuristic utopias, etc.

The mediums of the nineteenth century would have made a good lead into the second half of the book, which discusses fantasy-proneness, for many of them exhibited the same features. This half of the book is, I think rather less successful, mainly because the authors have not really developed their ideas much since they first introduced them about a decade ago. Looking at their own list and catalogue of contactee and abduction cases, there are some that come within the relatively benign definition of fantasy proneness they use, which emphasises the normality of those involved, in the case of other abductees and many contactees we seem to be seeing something with some similar features but much less under control; where fantasy perceptions and narratives are not controlled and recreational, but are intrusive, dominate the experients life, and seriously affect their well-being.

Probably just as LITS reports are generated by a wide variety of external stimuli, abduction and contactee narratives are generated by a wide variety of neurological events and psychological states ranging from the benign yo the highly pathological.

Though Bartholomew and Howard may not always have got it right, they should be congratulated for the attempt to add a brick or two to the psychosocial scaffolding, and providing cogent evidence for the most general psycho-social `hypothesis', that rumours of strange things in the sky can exist in the absence of extraordinary things, other than what is already there and normally unnoticed. That there were no airships in 1897 or 1909, no rockets in 1946 and no spaceships now.

Of course going beyond this to properly testable hypothesis may be a long, excruciatingly slow task, with many false starts and blind alleys. Human psychology and society may in the end be just too complex for any kind of easy 'testable hypothesis', and the content of rumours and visions will always be largely, in the province of cultural analysis or art rather than science (though I wouldn't by surprised if some evolutionary psychologist didn't have a stab); but this would be no excuse for giving up and invoking grays or boggarts. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, first published in Magonia 67, June 1999.

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