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Anthropology: Spiritualist Ethnographies, Supernatural Signs, and the Subjectivity of Experience



Anthropological research often questions the difference between what people think they experience, and reality. We can potentially learn more from subjective interpretations of the world, as understandings shift rapidly in our world. Once unquestioned doctrines may become unbelievable, many of these revolving around death and spiritualism. Cultural understandings of the afterlife and the impermeability of existence are extremely diverse, and teach a lot about cultural values and norms. In many cultures, people who are responsible for connecting us to possible other realities are often respected and rank highly in social strata. The way we view the world is not often as straightforward and objective as we think, and physical senses and memory are often socially shaped. Discounting things that appear to be untrue can be considered to be ethnocentric in some circumstances, and ignores the underlying factors that encourage these beliefs (Bowie).

A shaman or similar medium.
Image Credit: Adobe


Mediums are significant individuals in many cultures. They are responsible for mediating between different understandings of experiences, and relaying messages either to or from them. They may hold many titles, and may be viewed as being legitimately connected to other realms, or viewed as fakes by others. The role of a medium can be witnessed in most global religions, as well as in smaller contexts like a local psychic. Whether or not they are believed, these individuals often fascinate us. Many people pay to experience contact with mediums, or invest their time into religious activities to seek the advice of spiritually-minded individuals. They also are commonly portrayed in various mediatory forms, such as through television, novels, or on the internet. Mediumship often fulfills purposes of healing, guidance, and even entertainment.

Physical Mediumship

One of the most well known forms of mediumship in western society is physical mediumship. This practice dates back to the early 1800s, when spiritualism became popular. This movement was controversial, as it sought non-religious answers to questions that would previously be answered in churches. Many original periodicals about spiritualism are still available today through online preservation (IAPSOP). These mediums use various physical objects, which may be described as props, to perform their rites. They often involve the presence of physical substances like ectoplasm, as well as spirit trumpets and other devices that were believed to channel spirit voices. While the legitimacy of occurrences during these gatherings is often questioned, the cultural dimension is often ignored. The interest for these events was in the supernatural nature, but also tied to bereavement and loss. The perceived ability to communicate with the dead provides many comforts related to mortality. This positive factor likely explains the prominence of these beliefs across cultures. Not all people who attend these events believe in it as a religious experience however, like other forms of communication with the deceased (Bowie).

an old illustration of a table-moving seance, a form of physical mediumship during the spiritualism movement
Image Credit: Berean Research

Spiritualist movement

The spiritualist movement was originally popularized during the 1800s during the Victorian period in England. It likely originated due to changes in social organization. This occurred as society became more secular during the industrial revolution and early capitalism. During this period, appeals to other realms became popular means of expressing grief, and were a popular form of entertainment. The spiritualist movement was largest during this era, after which skepticism increased. However, globally churches and groups exist dedicated to spiritualism today. These modern variations incorporate traditional religious and other spiritual influences. Anthropologists like Meintel have studied these modern groups through participant observation. These groups can be extremely diverse and reflect globalized urban environments. The core purposes of spiritualism still remain however. Groups tend to be organized around beliefs in mediumship and spirits. They also use these functions to negotiate grief and fear during everyday life (Meintel). While many individuals hold some curiosity about the existence of other realities and afterlives, these practices are often taboo. Pervasive scientific discourses often shape how we express superstitions in modern life. This skepticism can often downplay these fascinating parts of culture by primarily questioning their legitimacy.

a flying chair prop during a physical seance
Image Credit: Oddee

Seances and scrutiny

Many aspects of seances that are performed by physical mediums have been subject to criticism and questioning. While many would consider all supernatural reports to be hoaxes, research attempts have occurred that have raised interesting findings. Dating back to the 1800s, research institutions like the American Society for Psychical Research have attempted, with varying success, physics. Famous medium Leonora Piper was known to produce results that at the time were unable to be explained by scientific observation. Since, attempts to disprove groups like the Felix Experimental Group have also proved difficult. In this cases, mediums seemed to bring up information they could not have known otherwise, and produced physical effects while being restrained and monitored. While this may sound like science fiction, and it is not objectively proven that what was recorded was genuine, results like this baffle social scientists seeking to make the world seem less foreign. Similar inexplicable experiences have been witnessed with mediums from other cultures by anthropologists (Bowie). Difficult subjects like this are best suited to the understandings of anthropology, as the cultural immersion and ethnographic field methods of the discipline assist in understanding subjective experience. This is not to say that all truth and objectivity should be discarded, but that one should question the taken for granted in society. In anthropology, such questioning is essential to gathering a full understanding.

an obviously fake ghost costume is shown, to represent the questioning of reality.
Image Credit: Quora

Skepticism, Modernization, and Social Research

Skepticism can at times be useful to challenge out of date ways of existing. Social change is inevitable, and many believe that these changes are generally for the better. In recent years, non-inclusive ways of living for example have been challenged greatly. This has helped improve many issues perceived in various institutions. This skepticism and pursuit of societal progression can have negative effects as well. Often, the pursuit of modernity alternatively disadvantages individuals in periphery nations, who may be considered un-modern. Individuals in nations across the world still practice beliefs that would be rejected due to empiricist discourse. However, these beliefs are not always “backwards”, despite their juxtaposition with modern expectations. Ritual practices, for example, are now taboo in many cultures, and their positive effects are often disregarded due to a perceived lack of legitimacy. In anthropology, many researchers actively counter-act such a viewpoint. Often, these actions perform beneficial purposes. While religious doctrines may be associated now by many with a lack of inclusion and the past, they also provide genuine good for adherents. For example, they cement solidarity within religious communities and assist with grief. While some flaws exist that exclude individuals who defy social norms, these forms of cultural expression should not be disregarded altogether. Other forms of spiritual understandings and modernized institutions fulfill these same historical purposes still while improving traditional flaws. Spiritualist groups are one example of a taboo line of thought that is more widespread in modern society than it appears. The process of agnostic social science can help us understand these subcultural groups. Agnostic social sciences aims to reduce pre-established conclusions to understand social activity through its participant’s understanding. Some activities that appear irrational hold very rational purposes after all, as described.

Epistemology and the Occult

Enlightenment era ideals can often make social sciences like anthropology attempt to preserve a sense of factuality, when often this is not the most important thing. The impacts of occult phenomena through cultural and social influences matter more than whether or not they are actually occurring. Interpretive anthropology is a school of thought that can be used with topics like this. Interpretive theorists view cultural activities as symbols or texts that can teach us about the people who value them. Allowing a slight sense of belief of these possibilities can allow the observer to understand these activities as an insider would. This process is called the emic perspective in anthropology, as it attempts to understand the local’s view. As anthropology has grown as a discipline, it has attempted to become more emic, incorporating relativism and reflexivity into the field’s methods. Writing off the unfamiliar, the improbable or the strange limits one’s understandings, and should be avoided in anthropology. In anthropological fieldwork, there have been reports by numerous anthropologists that they experienced inexplicable phenomena. These experiences widened their understandings of culture, cosmology and related social formation of truth (Bowie).

a sign welcomes you to Rachel, Nevada, home to rumours of alien abductions and the research of anthropologist Susan Lepselter. The sign is covered in stickers and mentions potential aliens.
Image Credit: ABC

Unexplained Phenomena and their Resonances

Susan Lepselter is an anthropologist who focuses on the study of contemporary folklore and legends, and the communities that surround them. Some of her most significant research centered around those who felt they had been abducted by aliens. This subculture was largely based in Nevada, near Area 51, where tales of aliens dominated local discourse. While many would write these individuals off for their inexplicable beliefs, Lepselter aimed to understand common themes amongst their narratives, to understand what actually mattered. Most individuals in society would likely write these stories off, potentially using analogies of tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorists. These forms of supernatural narratives are often stigmatized more than other “irrational” worldviews. However, the veracity of these claims should be the prime focus. Instead, interpretive anthropologists analyze how the past and lived experiences of these individuals shape these tales. Lepselter observed that many of these individuals had struggled due to socioeconomic class issues, and that others had experienced abuse and difficult upbringings. She describes the resonances of these supernatural stories as relating to the collective losses and pains of these storytellers (Lepselter). These resonances of cultural fears and struggles tend to be latent in most supernatural tales and cosmologies.

The Social Impacts of Spiritualism

The study of supernatural and spiritual realms is an essential aspect of understanding cultures. Across the world, almost all cultures at various points have understood the world through these terms. Concepts like spirit possession have popped up in hundreds of cultures (Hunter). This is often through beliefs in mediumship, the afterlife, and the influence of positive and negative forces. Due to the ubiquity of these beliefs in human history, they clearly serve important roles. Philosophical questions of mortality have frequently consumed public fascination throughout the span of recorded history. The presence of rituals and shamanistic figures in most cultures is tied to these fears likely. As humans regularly experience grief and death, these function as healthy ways to approach mortality. Death will always remain an element of embodied human experiences.

Significance to Anthropology: Understanding Lived Experiences

Whether or not there is an afterlife, and if mediums are legitimate is generally inconsequential. The true meaning comes through how our subjective understandings interpret these diverse phenomena. As socially constructed behaviours, they are real in their impacts on lived experiences. If a medium does not truly hold a tie to the afterlife, the illusion of such would still help with grieving and closure. It is unnecessary generally to diminish these beliefs of individuals that do not fit into our worldviews and cosmologies. A true anthropological approach involves encountering what is unfamiliar and strange, and seeking to make it approachable. Despite spiritualism being largely taboo in many modern societies, the dismissal of its adherents is unproductive. There is clearly a reason that these beliefs have persisted, and their legitimacy is largely unrelated to such a discussion. Beneath these narratives, there may be truth of spiritual phenomena, and this has been studied in depth. The causes for humans wanting to believe in these faith-based potentialities can be equally enlightening. Underneath these practices hide cultural fears that make up what it means to be a human, and what it means to experience the uncertainty of loss.


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