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In a recent article here on TDG, Jack Hunter described some of the paranormal experiences of anthropologist Edith Turner, when working among the Ndembu people of Zambia (see: “Anthropology of the Weird“). Today I was browsing through a book I helped publish last year, Communing with the Gods: Consciousness, Culture and the Dreaming Brain, by Charles D. Laughlin, Ph.D. (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK), and came across some quotes from Turner on what she sees as flaws in how anthropologists do their work:

Members of many different societies, even our own, tell us they have had experience of seeing or hearing spirits. Let us recall how anthropology has dealt with the question in the past. Mainline anthropologists have studiedly ignored the central matter of this kind of information – central in the people’s own view – and only used the material as if it were metaphor or symbol, not reality, commenting that such and such “metaphor” is congruent with the function, structure, or psychological mindset of the society… the neglect of the central material savors of our old bete noire, intellectual imperialism. What is pitiful is the tendency of anthropologists from among the Native peoples themselves to defer to the western view and accordingly draw back from claiming the truth of their own religion. The mission of western anthropologists to explain the system in positivist terms at all costs, which thereby influences a new elite, is oddly similar to the self-imposed task of the more hidebound religious missionaries who are also sworn to eliminate their hosts’ religion…

Laughlin discusses this problem in terms of the “don’t go native” rule in anthropology – which, in many ways, comes from a foundation of staying objective and thinking rationally, which is a state of mind very far removed from the beliefs and practices of many non-Western cultures. But, as Laughlin says (and Jack Hunter’s essay shows), “the simple fact is that these [transpersonal/paranormal] dream phenomena do seem to occur in the experience and data of ethnographers”.

The danger for the ‘scientific’ anthropologist? “One’s brain mediates one’s states of consciousness, and one is only able to reach a new state of consciousness when the circuitry of the brain has transformed into a new configuration. Once the new configuration is developed, there is no going back.” Scary stuff indeed for the committed rationalist…

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