Believing Impossible Things: Scepticism and Ethnographic Enquiry

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Believing Impossible Things: Scepticism and Ethnographic Enquiry

Fiona Bowie

Quote:Anthropologists have often reported, or even more often experienced but not reported, so-called anomalous events that are consistent with the world-view of the  people they study, but at odds with a Western positivist framework. Edith Turner’s sighting of a visible spirit form leaving a sick woman after a healing ceremony in Zambia is well known (Turner 1992), as is Paul Stoller’s life-threatening encounter with sorcery in Niger (Stoller and Olkes 1987). These personal experiences may be transformative, undermining a view of the world in which such things simply don’t happen. More often    they seem to be relegated to a separate category of ‘things without obvious explanation that happen in the field’, which are not permitted to impinge unduly on the the ethnographer – as with Evans-Pritchard’s strange tale from the 1920s of seeing an unexplained light, interpreted by the Azande in the Southern Sudan as witchcraft, travelling to the hut of a man who was found dead the following morning (1976). Evans-Pritchard rationalized that it could have been a man carrying a torch, but does not appear very convinced by this explanation. When such experiences happen in far-away places, and can at least be understood within a coherent cosmology of a non-Western ‘other’ they are not too threatening, and might even be expected. When African, Native American or other non-Western anthropologists write of spirits, powers and forces that intrude into their lives and shape reality, this too is tolerated within academia. They have, after all,  been shaped by such cultural beliefs and practices, even if ‘benefiting from’ a Western education. What happens, however, when anomalous events are reported from within Western societies? The only acceptable academic approach seems to be to explain them away or more or less subtly dismiss them and ridicule those who ‘believe in’ such impossible things. Simon Coleman found that even researching something as mainstream as Christian Evangelicals in Sweden was enough to rouse suspicions in Cambridge anthropological circles that he might somehow become one of them (and by implication lose academic credibility), a reaction that he would almost certainly not have had if he had studied Christianity in Africa or Asia (Bowie 2003).

Quote:This raises methodological questions concerning the nature of evidence, the role of experience and the persistence of scepticism and denial among scholars when faced with a challenge to their worldview. In this chapter I review some of the possible reasons for dismissing uncomfortable and ‘impossible’ data. The context is a discussion of  physical mediumship in a contemporary Western setting. In many ways physical mediumship – the production of physical phenomena, from moving objects within a room, producing noises and voices, spirit lights, apports (objects that appear or disappear from the séance room), to full physical materializations, usually through the use of ectoplasm, should be one of the most straightforward ‘impossible things’ to verify, or to expose as fraudulent. Physical mediumship is repeatable in strictly controlled settings, and many of the best physical mediums working today are, like their Nineteenth and Twentieth Century predecessors, willing to undergo repeated and uncomfortable  procedures, such as routinely being searched, bound and gagged before going into trance, in order to deflect accusations of fraud and trickery.

Quote:I can well understand, judging from my own reaction, how easy it would be to simply ignore the events of the evening and get on with my life as if such things didn’t and couldn’t happen, to ‘bracket them out’, as they had no reference point with the rest of my life. There is evidence that people quickly often forget even dramatic anomalous events that find no place in their conceptual schema. Another reaction I experienced was a sense of anti-climax that there were no great spiritual revelations. Those who came back from the dead to speak to us had little to say that they could or would not have said when alive. But that is the point, they had died and the medium (with the help of his ectoplasm) was their message. They were present in the room, able to talk to us, and to reassure us that death is the great lie. It was the very physicality of the occasion that gave it its supposed veracity. The challenge to each of those present at David Thompson’s séance was that if death is not the end, what are the implications for the way we live our lives?

Perhaps it is this challenge that often gives the sceptical response its messianic fervour.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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