Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Parasociology defined

Today's post has been graciously hosted on the excellent website Transpersonal Anthropology at:


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Re-thinking social representations in UFO events

One of the key outcomes of the 1952 Washington D.C. UFO incidents case study is that should UFO waves be akin to Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) events, the notion of “focus person” needs to be revisited. The concept of RSPK, used to replace the too “loaded” notion of poltergeist, has emerged from parapsychology which itself is intimately linked to psychology; the net result is a focus on individuals and small groups of individuals in the explanatory structure. The notion that psi effects could be explained, in part, as an outcome of macro social dynamics is foreign to parapsychology.

This key outcome is certainly a call for firming up some key underpinnings of parasociology, but doing so however, requires taking some distances from a number of assumptions in parapsychology. In this context of taking some critical distances with parapsychology the concept of social representation can become quite handy, as shown below.

Individual psi as a reporting bias

In spite of the notable exception of the parapsychological Global Consciousness Project, which is looking into planetary-wide statistical deviations on inter-connected Random Number Generator, social psi has no room in the discipline. The Project had interesting findings so far, like the night before 9/11. Such observable effects can be construed as social objects because they cannot be explained solely by direct individual interactions. Yet, a global reaction to events like 9/11 is in many ways within the realm of the individual reactions because it is not specific to a particular sense of community, culture, or social class. The fundamental assumption of the Project, unsurprisingly, still resides on the notion that individual unconscious processes somehow aggregate and create an observable psi effect.

The real issue, however, is not whether psi effects are on individual-based or not, but was there any attempt to measure anything else than individual-based psi effect? Parapsychology only found individual-based psi effect because it set up itself only to study the individual-based ones (Global Consciousness Project included), and it is an outcome of its psychology-based ontological preference. In other words, the notion that psi effects are an individual issue is a matter of reporting and not necessarily a matter of empirical finding.

It could also be noted that not only psi can have a sociological dimension, but it can also have socio-physical one. One can particularly think about the ill-defined notion of “haunting”, where psi effects appear to be linked to a location rather than to particular individuals. Although people appear to activate the phenomenon by their presence, the activation is somewhat independent from who is there. Given that it is not individually specific, and yet re-occurring, “haunting” is more akin to a sociological reality than a psychological one. I think this explains why parapsychologists had a historical tendency to ignore such phenomena: they do not have the right approach and tools to look into them.

Sociological analysis and physical reality

One of the arguments proposed by parapsychology to explain its uniqueness as a discipline is that it is at the threshold of psychology and physical sciences. Yet, it is not that unique. Social sciences do use at times physically measurable data to explain social dynamics. For instance, the average size and number of people living in a dwelling are used to evaluate certain hypotheses about family and social class structure. Measurement of urbanization and encroachment of agricultural land play a similar role in the sub-field called “environmental sociology”.[1] The idea here is not only human activities have an impact on the physical environment, but social realities such as class structure or culture will have a direct impact as to how the physical environment is modified (e.g. high grounds for the rich, land divided and cultivated according to either individualist or collectivist schemes, etc.).

Given the above, there are no theoretical reasons as to why psi effects could not be studied from a sociological standpoint, and it is not the unique preserve of parapsychology. And let’s be clear: I do not mean studying how some belief systems influence the perception and acceptance of paranormal phenomenon (which they do). I mean how sociological realities actually shape the psi effects themselves. The UFO phenomenon is probably the most serious case in support of this perspective, and Bertrand Méheust brilliantly opened such possibility 30 years ago. I also mean that social dynamics and conditions activate psi effects: this is the harder part of the project.

Taking it where Méheust left it

Méheust, in his analysis of the older science fiction literature and the UFO phenomenon, looked essentially at what sociologists call “social representations”. His approach looks at how prior plausibility structures were established to provide a particular content to the experience. But social representations are more than that. Bauer & Gaskell (1999) propose that formally, a representation can be characterised as the relation between three elements: subjects, or carriers of the representation; an object, activity, or idea that is represented; and a project of a social group within which the representation makes sense.[2] In the case of UFOs and beyond the prior plausibility structures identified by Méheust, it is (1) the ETH ufologists and their various media (books, articles, Internet websites, Twitter, etc), (2) the strange objects reported to be in the sky, and (3) the ET and conspiracy fans, respectively. What is crucially important, however, is that the objects represented are not something without a referent: the presence of strange objects in the sky is an objective reality. This is a key caveat to avoid falling into the postmodern trap that considers all social representations as simply “language games” or substratum of a larger “meta-narrative”.

The object in a social representation, however, does not solely define the content. It is a combination of social interactions that stabilizes the content. For example, in the case of perception of non-human entities in UFO-related events, the social representation has more or less stabilized towards the “Greys”. This stabilization is not solely a matter of the object. If one looks at the data, even today, there is still a great variety of “alien” shapes. The ufologists emphasizing some events over others (the Barney and Betty Hill case in particular) and assigning such events to UFOs (which is much more presumed than actually perceived, even by the witnesses themselves), and their fans asking for more of it had much more impact than the actual contact with the “object”. In sociology, it is described as anchoring and objectifying the phenomena in trying to transform something unfamiliar into something familiar, and then institutionalizing the “new familiar”. Some might say that it is simply a repeat of the psycho-social hypothesis (PSH), but such idea is incorrect.

Even if people who have apparitional experiences still report a variety of forms and shapes, the Grey form is somewhat more common, sometimes at a great level of details in terms of content. Individualist-based explanations (hence, derived from psychology) cannot account for this important empirical data. Each individual has a different personal history, and therefore a commonality in detailed content cannot be accounted for through a psychological explanation. On the other hand, the spread of social representations is milieu specific. What it means is that the Grey image might be circulating in mass media, but that does not mean it is a meaningful representation for everyone. It is certainly meaningful for science fiction fans and UFO buffs, but it is of little interest for everyone else. The fact that many percipients of Grey events are not science fiction fans or UFO buffs can be construed as an outcome of two separate processes.

The first one is based on what they perceived, and some particular details that they remember; while the second is based on making sense of their experience after the fact. The details are often the most resilient part of the experience, while the overall description of the event tends to change over time, especially when the percipients come into contact with the ETH ufological community (i.e., what was not making any sense is re-interpreted after the fact as meeting the ETs). The second process is one that has been emphasized by the defenders of the PSH, while shrugging at the “detail” issue. Conversely, the defenders of the ETH have emphasized the “detail” issue and carefully ignored their role in the “making sense” process. Once again, they are both right and wrong.

The sociological “making sense” process does occur. There is no doubt about it and it has been documented by a number of people.[3] Yet, the annoying details remain. However, the key question that is never asked is: what are those “details”? For one, there is no physical corroboration found, to this day, which could confirm the physical reality of such details. These details, therefore, are essentially visual pieces of information acquired through non-normal means. And, information acquired through non-normal means is the precise definition of ESP (Extra Sensory Perception). What this all means is that social representations are complex and multi-layered constructs, and that they can also have a paranormal dimension to it; social representations and paranormal effects are not mutually exclusive categories. That’s the mistake of defenders of both the PSH and the ETH.

The concept of social representation has therefore some serious potential to develop a true sociological understanding of psi effects. The key appears to be in layering the concept, which is flexible enough to carry through non-conventional explanations of fringe and odd empirical data. In a way, this is reinforcing the parallel made many posts ago about an “Einsteinian” sociology, which like in physics it is mostly useful to deal with data outside mundane life, as Newtonian physics (or sociology) is good enough for it.

Post specific references

[1] For more please see Mehta, Michael and Eric Ouellet (Eds). (1995). Environmental Sociology: Theory and practice. Toronto: Captus Press.

[2] From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_representations.

[3] For a good overview of this issue, see Schnabel, Jim. (1994). Dark White: Aliens, abductions, and the UFO obsession. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Eric Ouellet © 2010

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

53rd Annual Parapsychological Association Convention

53rd Annual Parapsychological Association Convention
Enclos Rey, Paris, France
July 22-25, 2010

The 53rd Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association (PA) will be held from Thursday evening, July 22, through Sunday noon, July 25,2010, at L’Enclos Rey, Paris.

The deadline for the receipt of all submissions is Monday April 12, 2010. Submissions received after this date will be considered only in exceptional circumstances. Abstracts of all accepted submissions other than workshops will be included in the convention booklet, provided that they are received before the deadline.

All submissions to the 2010 PA convention, except proposed workshops, must be submitted electronically. They should be emailed, as attachments, to the chair of the Program Committee, Dr. Nicola Holt, at nicola.holt@uwe.ac.uk. Authors who are not online or who for some other reason cannot meet these requirements should contact Dr. Holt prior to submission, either by mail: c/o Department of Psychology, University of the West of England, Frenchay Campus, Coldharbour Lane, BS16 1QY, or by phone: +44 1173281420.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The 1952 UFO wave and Washington D.C.: A case study in parasociology (Part 3)

This is the third and last part of the case study. The first and second part explored the July 1952 UFO incidents over Washington D.C. using Walter von Lucadou’s MPI. One of the key elements of the MPI is the focus person, at the centre of poltergeist events (RSPK). On the surface, the 1952 UFO events do not seem to have one. However, a more in-depth look, using a parasociological approach, can help to find the missing piece of the 1952 puzzle.

The focus persons of the 1952 events: the symbolic clues

The events of 1952 left several symbolic clues that require further exploration. First of all, the 1952 wave, given the reporting structure, was essentially an American event as the sightings were from the United States and where U.S. troops were stationed (with a few exceptions). From a MPI perspective, the pragmatic information (or message) was destined to people in the American people. As well, the events got the attention centred on Washington D.C., and from a MPI’s perspective it is a good indication that the focus was on D.C. and therefore the focus persons should be in or around D.C. As von Lucadou wrote about RSPKs, “whether he fools his environment or uses psychokinesis, the agent can be assured that all eyes will be on him (or the phenomena) during the surprise phase.”[1]

Another important element is the choice of disturbances. The message was conveyed using strange objects in the sky near the capital of a superpower engaged in a Cold War against another superpower (the Soviet Union). It is quite clear that the message was aiming for the attention of people in the military, as they would be necessarily involved in such circumstances. The fact that the phenomenon “insisted” (i.e. lasted two weekends) is also an indication than the larger society was the another audience for the message. But like in many RSPK events, the environment does not understand the message. Once again, as von Lucadou noticed, “but does the environment understand his cry for help? Naive observers search for all possible causes to "explain the unexplained", but they do not recognize its meaning.”[2] Instead, aliens in flying saucers and weather inversions are sought for by the naive observers and the critical observers, respectively.

It is also important to note, in light of Bertrand Méheust’s seminal research on science-fiction and the UFO phenomenon[3], that the selection of objects that could pass for spaceships might be indicative that the focus persons belonged to the “Amazing Stories” generation, i.e. white males who were teenagers and young adults in the 1930s and early 1940s. It is also the same generation who was conscripted to fight during the Second World War.

Another very important part of the symbolic message is the timing. The Washington D.C. events matched the timing of the Democratic National Convention that occurred in Chicago, and selected Adlai Stevenson as the Democrat’s presidential candidate. The convention spanned from 21 July to 26 July, hence two nights before the first UFO incident and the night after the second one. It is very important to note that the both GOP and Democratic conventions were televised and covered by 3 of the 4 national TV networks of time, and when half the American population had a TV set.[4] The symbolic timing of the UFO incidents, given the important political events occurring at the same time, is suggestive of “don’t forget about me” for the 19-20 July incidents, and of “hey, you forgot about me” for the 26-27 July incidents.

Finally, as von Lucadou described, there are active and passive RSPKs. The active ones tend to bring the destruction of mundane objects (the boiling pot of anger), while the passive ones tend to be expressed via various messages to attract people’s attention to the plight of the depressed individual who cannot speak up. The 1952 Washington D.C. incidents were certainly not destructive, and imply that we should look for a bunch of depressed people who were somehow muzzled.

Putting the pieces together

The generic portrait of the focus persons, given the available clues, would be adult white males who are likely veterans of WWII, living near and around Washington D.C., who felt depressed and muzzled, trying to get the attention of the military, the Democrats, and society in general.

Although any interpretation is always a risky task, the “best guess” for the focus persons would be the World War II veterans hired in the Federal Public Service after the War through the Veterans’ Preference Act of 1944. The act had many sections, but one was involving that “Preference would apply to civilian positions — permanent or temporary ;— in all departments, agencies, bureaus, administrations, establishments, and projects of the Federal Government, and in the civil service of the District of Columbia.”[5] In other words, D.C. was indeed a hub of WWII veterans working in the Federal Public Service. Needless to say, the vast majority of those people were adult white males under 40 years of age.

The next question to answer is whether these people were depressed and muzzled. The early 1950s were the days of McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the Federal Public Service was one of the first targets of this anti-communist witch hunt. At the time, the public servants were under the so-called loyalty program instituted by President Truman, and where one could lose his or her job quite easily if they were suspected of any unwarranted sympathies. Indeed depressing, especially for people who risked their life for their country just a few years before and who then were under intense suspicion of treason. And, of course, as public servants they could not really speak up. Depressed and muzzled was a fair description of the early 1950s public service climate.[6]

Even more interesting is the dates of implementation of the loyalty program. It was instituted by the Executive Order 9835 of 21 March 1947, and was publicly announced in December 1947. However, the existence and content of the Executive Order was discussed in the press at the end of May 1947.[7] It is a notable synchronicity that the modern UFO era started just three weeks later in June 1947 in Washington (State) after the military were seeking help...[8]

Another important issue is that the McCarthyism era started to decline when McCarthy wanted to extend his witch hunt into the military during the Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954. McCarthy went too far. After that attempt, he was censured by the Senate, a rare thing in the U.S. political system. Could it be that the WWII veterans unconsciously knew, already in 1952, that the military was above the witch hunt and they were seeking its help?

Although the loyalty program was instituted by President Truman, a Democrat, the new leadership in the Democratic Party was certainly not warm to McCarthy. The D.C. Democrats elected Averell Harriman as their delegate to the Convention, an uncompromising liberal.[9] As the Convention was about to start, Senator Kefauver was the leading candidate, but there was intense rumours that Adlai Stevenson would eventually announce himself as a candidate. Kefauver was head of anti-organized crime committee, and not known for being a liberal. On the other hand, if Stevenson was clearly a conservative,[10] he profoundly disliked McCarthy, as he showed during the electoral campaign of 1952. The suspense was lifted on the first day of the Convention, when Stevenson accepted his nomination as a candidate for the Democratic ticket. Stevenson was eventually elected as the Democrat candidate for the 1952 presidential election, and his acceptance speech pronounced at the end of the Convention is still considered as one of the most important political speech of American political history. Yet, this speech that “electrified the nation” did not talk about what he will do about McCarthyism, except this oblique remark towards the end: “Help me to do the job in these years of darkness, of doubt, and of crisis which stretch beyond the horizon of tonight's happy vision, and we will justify our glorious past and the loyalty of silent millions who look to us for compassion, for understanding, and for honest purpose. Thus, we will serve our great tradition greatly.”[11]

Like in most RSPKs and UFO cases, those for whom the message is intended do not understand it.

The physical traces

The July 1952 incidents left some physical traces through the radar tracking devices. Only a small minority of UFO cases show some sort of objective physical traces. Yet, to this day all those traces, without any exception, have never provided any explanation on the origin of UFOs. As Jacques Vallée noted already in 1977 while discussing some classical cases, “It seemed to be artificial sand created from grinding together stones of different origin. Well, to a physicist that may not mean too much. It’s an indication of something that turns out to be absurd. [...]In that sense, yes, there is physical evidence. But if you mean physical evidence in the sense that we’re going to discover somebody’s propulsion system from it, I would have to say I don’t expect that to happen”[12]. Indeed, Vallée could not be more correct; 30 years later nothing has changed. The real question is why Vallée was right then and still is now?

The answer is puzzlingly simple: like in the case of RSPKs events, the objective physical traces of UFOs are made of natural and human-made material available to the focus persons. In the case of 1952 Washington D.C. incidents, although we will never know for sure, the most likely candidates are earthlights. The witnesses described orange balls of light, and in a few cases they were seen as white-bluish. One witness saw something at dawn and it looked like silvery balls. These are the classical descriptions of earthlights, and are a very common culprit in unidentified UFO cases.[13]

In RSPK cases, no one questions the “ordinariness” of the objects that are moved or destroyed psychokinetically, even in the rare cases where materialization and teleportation are described by the witnesses. Now that we know better about a number of natural phenomena like earthlights, the same attitude should prevail for UFOs and their physical traces.[14] In the end, the material aspects of UFOs are of a secondary importance as they will not help us to understand the phenomenon, because they are not the phenomenon itself. What is crucial, what actually constitutes the phenomenon is the strange behaviours of the objects (in cases where there are objects), and the symbolic message that is carried through the strange behaviours.


John Keel was wondering at the end of the 1960s if UFOs might be just a large scale poltergeist. I think his intuition was right, although he came to assign the poltergeist to non-human entities rather than to the human capacity to influence matter psychokinetically. Forty years later, by integrating the most advanced model to understand RSPKs, we are getting closer to show that UFO waves are indeed explainable as RSPK, and this without invoking the involvement of improvable non-human entities (including the ETs). This is not the final proof, of course, and given the inherent elusiveness of psi phenomena, it is extremely unlikely that a positivist and materialistic proof can be ever produced. The best hope for an explanation is through indirect analysis, as models like the MPI can provide.

The linkages between parapsychology and ufology always have been a difficult one, even if in the 1970s there were some serious attempts to do so. One of the key issues of this linkage is, I think, the different levels of analysis. Parapsychology, as an extension of psychology, focuses on the individual. The UFO phenomenon, on the other hand, has clearly a sociological dimension if only because apparently identical sightings can occur within a few hours of each others, at several locations over a large country, or even several countries. The MPI is built on a social psychology foundation which makes it more amenable to study the UFO phenomenon. However, a truly sociological (or parasociological) perspective is required to provide a complete analysis, as in the case of UFOs the focus person can be a social group instead of an individual. This case study has at least shown that a comprehensive perspective that goes much beyond physical traces is required to study the UFO phenomenon seriously.

References for part 3

[1] Lucadou, Walter von and F. Zahradnik. (2004). “Predictions of the Model of Pragmatic Information about RSPK”. Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association Convention 2004 (99-112), p. 103.
[2] Idem.
[3] Méheust, Bertrand. (1978). Science-fiction et soucoupes volantes. Paris: Mercure de France.
[4] N.a. (1952). “Television in Smoke-filled Rooms”. The Economist (19 July): 166.
[5] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veterans'_Preference_Act.
[6] Schrecker, Ellen. (2002). The Age of McCarthyism. New York: Palgrave, pp. 25-27.
[7] For more, see http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2006/fall/agloso.html
[8] There is at least another example of a large scale paranormal phenomenon starting in the “in between period” of a significant radicalization of a state security apparatus. The apparition of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France, occurred on 11 February 1858, in between an assassination attempt against the emperor Napoleon III on 14 January 1858 and the implementation of a law that gave French police extensive powers to arrest and incarcerate anyone, without trial, suspected of not being loyal to the government (Loi de sûreté générale) on 19 February 1858 (and getting imperial sanction on 27 February 1858).
[9] N.a. (1952). “Democrats Wait for a Bandwagon”. The Economist (28 June): 888.
[10] N.a. (1952). “American Survey: Genral and GOvernor”. The Economist (2 August): 285.
[11] The full speech transcript can be found at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/adlaistevenson1952dnc.html
[12] Clark, Jerome. (1980). “A Conversation with Jacques Vallée”, in Curtis G Fuller (ed.), Proceedings of the First International UFO Congress, (139-152). New York: Warner, p. 142.
[13] For a more detailed discussion on what is known about the material dimension of UFOs, please refer to my post “The Materiality of UFOs” graciously reproduced on the PSICAN website at http://psican.org/alpha/index.php?/20090308225/Ufological-Information/The-Materiality-Of-UFOs.html
[14] For a more detailed analysis of the similarities between RSPKs and UFO events, please refer to Rogo, Scott. (2006) [1977]. The Haunted Universe. San Antonio: Anomalist Books.

Eric Ouellet © 2010