Happy New Year wishes to all PF’s colleagues, friends and supporters! It will be an exciting year for PF as we seek to refine existing programs and create new ones. We, therefore, urge you to continue to check back to this Blog. Our reference to “Onwards and Upwards” refers to the motion of our undulating spiral logo, Founder Eileen J. Garrett’s personal talisman, which illustrates our intent to move forward in our 66th year of operation.
PF is extremely proud of our support of students and researchers as they seek to fashion their unique contributions to the science of parapsychology. One such individual that fits that description is Jack Hunter, who was awarded the 2010 Eileen J. Garrett Scholarship. We recently extended a Scholarly Incentive Award to him and he has submitted a description of his endeavors that we’re including below. It’s fine work, I am sure you will agree.
Stay tuned as the Board of Trustees will shortly make its formal decision concerning PF’s return to our Grant and Award program.
Jack Hunter is an anthropologist exploring the borderlands of consciousness, religion and the paranormal. His doctoral research with the University of Bristol examines the experiences of spirit mediums and their influence on the development of self-concepts and models of consciousness. He is the founder and editor of Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, the author of Why People Believe in Spirits, Gods and Magic (2012), the editor of Damned Facts: Fortean Essays on Religion, Folklore and the Paranormal (2016), and the co-editor with Dr. David Luke of Talking With the Spirits: Ethnographies from Between the Worlds (2014). He also teaches A-Level Religious Studies and Sociology at North Shropshire College.
Scholarly Incentive Award Report (2015-16)
(Department of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Bristol)
In 2015 I was awarded a scholarly incentive grant by the Parapsychology Foundation to help towards paying my University fees, which was immensely helpful. I am currently in the final stages of writing up my PhD thesis, which explores the role of anomalous experiences amongst contemporary trance mediums in the development of models of mind and consciousness (see below for an overview of the research project). I had initially intended to finish the thesis in the Spring of 2016, but work and family issues (including having our first baby), have pushed my deadline back somewhat. The final deadline for submission of the thesis is October 10th 2017, so I will definitely have the thesis finished and submitted within the next academic year. I have since been assigned two new doctoral supervisors (owing to a reshuffle within the department of archaeology and anthropology), which should help to speed up the final writing-up process.
With the support of the Parapsychology Foundation, I have been able to continue my doctoral studies while also teaching Religious Studies and Sociology part-time at a local College, as well as the anthropology of religion at the University of Chester. I have also participated in a number of conferences and events, where I have been able to disseminate my research findings to the wider academic community. Support from the Parapsychology Foundation over the course of my studies has also enabled me to continue to produce a free on-line journal called Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, which is widely recognised as a leading publication at the forefront of anthropology and parapsychology. I have also published several books, both under my own Psychoid Books imprint, and through other established publishers, and numerous academic research papers and book chapters. None of this would have been possible without the support of the Parapsychology Foundation, for which I am immensely grateful.
The following is an overview of my doctoral research project:
Mediumship, Self and the Mind-Body
This research project consists of an ethnographic study of contemporary trance and physical mediumship at a nondenominational Spiritualist home-circle in Bristol, UK, known as the Bristol Spirit Lodge. The research explores themes of personhood (how experiences of trance mediumship for both mediums and sitters affect the development of models and conceptions of the self), performance (how the body is used during spirit mediumship performances to manifest the presence of disembodied, deceased, personalities), and how spirit mediumship performances and experiences influence participants’ conceptualisations of the mind-body relationship, and what happens to the self following the death of the physical body. In essence this research examines some of the experiential foundations for the belief in the survival of bodily death and an afterlife, based upon ethnographic observations and interviews with mediums, the spirits they embody and regular participants in séances.
Home-circles for the development of trance mediumship (which have recently seen an increase in popularity), represent an active effort to explore the extents and limitations of consciousness (including the boundaries between life and death — ʻtranceʼ — ʻtransireʼ — ʻto go acrossʼ), and provide an opportunity for participants to define for themselves the nature of human personhood and consciousness based upon first-hand experimentation. Scientific debates over the nature of consciousness and its relation to the physical body (including whether consciousness can survive the death of the body), have never been more culturally pervasive, and are intimately connected with the perceived opposition of science and religion that currently dominates mainstream Western culture. Groups such as the Bristol Spirit Lodge operate at the borderlands of both science and religion, and are an example of how this contemporary debate is played out in the field, away from academic institutions.
Some of the key concepts that emerge from the Lodgeʼs experimental process of consciousness exploration include the notion that aspects of consciousness are immortal and that the dead continue to exert an influence on the living after the death of the physical body, the idea that the body and self are porous rather than rigidly bounded, perhaps best understood in terms of fields, and an understanding that consciousness is a fundamental property of matter (panpsychism), rather than a byproduct of physiology (as the dominant materialist philosophy suggests), so that some form of survival of consciousness is to be expected.
One area that the research project focusses on specifically is the frequently assumed distinction between so-called ‘Westernʼ (Individual) and ‘Non-Western’ (Dividual) models of the self. This research suggests that this classical distinction is overly simplistic, with practices such as trance mediumship in Western cultures leading to the development of models of the self that would usually be considered ‘Non-Western.’ This points towards a much greater degree of intra-cultural variation in self-concepts within contemporary Western cultures than has hitherto been described and, moreover, suggests that the sense of self derives as much from experiential factors as it does from cultural influences.
In addition to these areas of inquiry, the research also seeks to develop a methodological and theoretical approach to the so-called ‘paranormal’ (a category into which the concepts of ʻafterlifeʼ and ʻimmortalityʼ frequently fall), that does not aim to explain away, or reduce the experiences and folk-theories of research informants (which has been the dominant attitude toward such phenomena and experiences within mainstream academia), but that instead critically engages with them in an open-minded and empathetic fashion, drawing on the ethnographic approach of anthropologists of religion such as Edith Turner (immersive participation) and Fiona Bowie (cognitive empathetic engagement), in an effort to understand how they impact peoples’ understanding of the cosmos and their role within it. As a part of this area of inquiry I have developed the notion on ‘ontological flooding.’
The research also fits comfortably into an emerging trend within the humanities more generally of taking the ‘paranormal’ seriously as an area of valid social research, perhaps best exemplified by the recent work of historian of religion Jeffrey J. Kripal, and the experientially grounded approach to the study of supernatural beliefs advocated by folklorist David J. Hufford. The research also draws inspiration from the pioneering work of anthropologist Antonia Mills on reincarnation beliefs and experiences, and parapsychologist Stanley Krippnerʼs ethnographic research on shamanism and mediumship.
This research project has relevance to social anthropology, cross-cultural psychology, religious studies, performance studies, the anthropology of religion, the anthropology of consciousness, and comparative psychical research (paranthropology).