SSE Talks


Phenomenological and Objective Methods in Consciousness Research: The Case of Spirit Mediumship
Jul 29, 2009 at 11:47 PM EST | C. F. Emmons


Charles F. Emmons


Research by parapsychologists and others into consciousness and survival has involved a variety of scientific methods, most of which have tested claims of alleged phenomena such as ESP, NDEs, reincarnation and spirit mediumship by a process of elimination through mundane explanations. In the case of spirit mediumship, spontaneous and semicontrolled readings have been examined for fraud and information leakage through a kind of detective work. Also, Gary Schwartz, a psychologist, has managed to test spirit mediums in the laboratory using a series of protocols continually refined to prevent communication by normal means. Important evidential cases survive the tests, but possible mechanisms for the phenomenon remain largely unexplained except by various theories of hidden order that are consistent with the evidence.

By contrast, sociologists may use methods of studying spirit mediumship that focus on the perspectives of the participants. Participant observation and ethnographic interviews help reveal the social context and the personal meaning of mediumship for mediums and their clients. Listening to the mediums’ own explanations of how they do what they do represents a phenomenological approach. In addition, the researcher can take on the role of spirit medium, thus engaging in “participatory science,” in order to bridge the gap between an objective and a subjective understanding of the phenomenon.

In terms of the sociology of knowledge, such methods present a dilemma for those engaged in investigations at the edge of normal science. Examples of how objective and subjective methods can be combined to yield potentially greater insight are presented in this paper.


Charles F. Emmons, PhD, is a sociologist at Gettysburg College, and author of several books on parapsychology.




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