An Introduction to Paranormal Anthropology

This is a brief lecture I put together in 2016 while I was assisting with a course on the Anthropology of Religion. This post is my outline for the lecture.

What is Paranormal Anthropology?

Paranormal Anthropology- -An interdisciplinary branch of anthropology with close ties to concepts from the anthropology of religion and consciousness, as well as sociology. Closely related to parapsychology, which lab tests experience of anomalous phenomena.

It is a specified version of what the anthropologist Charles Laughlin describes as ‘transpersonal anthropology’, explicitly looking at events and experiences that fall under the purview of what is commonly called paranormal (Metcalfe, 2011)

Personally love this field, because it places the researcher in an interesting oscillation between perspectives of science, magic, and religion, seeking objectivity in subjectivity. It really is a wild ride for the mind.

(As anthropologist Edith Turner puts it, there is a ‘cringe factor’ for anthropologists when it comes to talking or writing about religion. It is easier to bracket it out, to ignore people’s actual experience, including our own, for fear of ridicule, or in order to appear objective or scientific. In fact there is nothing scientific about ignoring what matters to people, in failing to take seriously explanations given for phenomena, or in dismissing our own intuitions and perspectives. We need to have the courage, in Turner’s words, to treat religious experience as ethnographic fact.)

Anomalous Phenomena

Topics which are typically considered to be outside of norm, or on the fringe. They are usually designated to be outside the scope of normal science, due to the difficulty in empirical measuring)


  • Telepathy
  • Precognition
  • Near Death Experiences
  • Reincarnation
  • Apparitional Experiences

Afterlife Research Centre

The Afterlife Research Centre (ARC) is an international network of researchers exploring anthropological and ethnographic approaches to the study of the afterlife, the spirit world, mediumship, trance, possession, shamanism, healing, and religious experience. Founded in 2007 by Dr Fiona Bowie (the author of our textbook for this course) and a group of research students working in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol, the ARC became a growing independent network of researchers from the UK and elsewhere in the world.

Cognitive Empathetic Engagement

The methodology used by the ARC is referred to as Cognitive Empathetic Engagement. According to the ARC, this methodology requires the researcher make an imaginative leap in order to see and interpret the world through the eyes of those they are studying.

CEE does not aim to expose phenomena as untrue, but to explore them as an integral part of everyday human life.

Cognitive: no valid constraints to normality, must be viewed from cognitive perspective of source.

Empathy: Do not have to agree, but attempt to understand form their pov

Engaging: Get the insider perspective whenever possible!

One important thing I do want to point out is that Some already existing work of anthropologists falls under the concept of paranormal anthropology, specifically the experiences of E.B. Tylor and Evans-Pritchard, and is also reminiscent of Durkheim claims to all religions being true.

Why Study Anomalous Experiences Using Anthropology?

According to David Metcalf, writing for Reality Sandwich, “Anthropology has long been the home of fringe experience,” and we are often left with more questions than answers. Normality is a matter of perspective.

Jeffrey Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, takes in his recent work Authors of the Impossible. As he says on the website for the documentary based on the book:

“The paranormal, it turns out, is as much about meaning as matter. And we — not as surface egos, but as some still mysterious force of consciousness — are its final authors. If the paranormal, though, is as much about meaning as matter, as much about the subject as the object, then science can never truly grasp it, for science must turn everything into an object and cannot treat questions of meaning. We thus need a new way of knowing, a way that can embrace both the sciences and a new art of reading ourselves writing ourselves.”

Jeffrey Kripal

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