by Christopher Laursen
British anthropologist Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, went to California’s Esalen Institute in October 2013 to join interdisciplinary scholars to discuss the study of the paranormal.
interview | studies & events
Paranthropologist Jack Hunter’s Esalen Adventure
January 7, 2014
Jack Hunter is a graduate student at the Department of Archaeology & Anthropology at the University of Bristol in England. He has been a leading force in bringing interdisciplinary scholars together to discuss the paranormal in academic studies. He founded Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal in 2010, which, featuring an impressive editorial board, has become a central point for serious discussion on paranormal studies. In October 2013, Jack was invited to the famed Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, from which a large group of scholars shared and discussed their research. Jack also interviewed many of the participants, with thematic podcasts and full interviews now posted online. I caught up with Jack over the Christmas holidays to talk about paranthropology and the get together at Esalen. Christopher Laursen: Could you tell me a bit about "paranthropology" - what is it and how did it come about? Jack Hunter: “Paranthropology” is essentially an anthropological approach to the study of paranormal beliefs, experiences and phenomena. It’s not a particularly new approach, as anthropology has, since its inception in the nineteenth century, traditionally concerned itself with studying magic, ritual, religion, belief and the like - all of which intersect with the paranormal in one way or another. Where paranthropology (as I use the term) may differ from other more traditional approaches in the anthropology of religion, is in the fact that it doesn’t preclude the possibility of genuine paranormal phenomena - in fact it openly explores the possibility that the beliefs and experiences of fieldwork informants might hint at something more than the usual anthropological models of social and psychological functionalism can account for. This approach draws inspiration from parapsychology, which critically examines experiences and phenomena that seem to go beyond the limits of standard psychological models, and the work of anthropologists whose writings have pushed at the boundaries of standard ethnographic theory - anthropologists such as Joseph K. Long, Edith Turner, Patric Giesler, Charles D. Laughlin and others. Paranthropology might also be considered a sub-set of transpersonal anthropology and the anthropology of consciousness, with their emphasis on experiencing culturally significant states of consciousness first-hand.        Christopher: How did "paranthropology" transform into Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal in 2010, and how has the journal been coming along since? Jack: The journal developed as a platform for anthropologists (as well as scholars from others disciplines), who were interested in these issues to share and discuss ideas that might not normally get published. It had a huge amount of support from the outset. I was surprised to find that there are so many people in academia with an interest in these subjects who were simply waiting for an appropriate venue for publishing. One of the things I was most interested in doing with the journal was to provide a place for ethnographers to discuss their own anomalous experiences while engaged in fieldwork, as these experiences constitute a particularly interesting body of data. The journal also seeks to foster an open-minded interdisciplinary dialogue on these issues. So far it has been a very successful project, with each issue attracting over 1,000 reads.  Christopher: You've just recently returned from California where you co- organised a symposium on the anthropology of the paranormal. Could you tell me how that came about, who attended, and what you discussed? Jack: At the tail-end of 2012, Jeff Kripal and David Hufford got in touch to ask whether I would be interested in helping them put together a private symposium at the Esalen Institute on the theme of anthropology and the paranormal - inspired by the topics covered in Paranthropology. The symposium was an off-shoot of a long-running series of symposia hosted by Esalen’s Centre for Theory and Research (CTR), called SURSEM (Survival Seminar), dealing with the question of whether consciousness might survive the death of the physical body. The epic anthology Irreducible Mind, edited by Edward F. Kelly et al., was a product of the SURSEM group’s meetings. David, Jeff and the SURSEM group came to the conclusion that anthropology is a promising discipline for moving forward in thinking about the paranormal in terms that are neither reductive nor dismissive. Naturally I wanted to be a part of this, and so was asked to help select and invite participants. Together we invited fifteen scholars from anthropology, sociology, religious studies and psychology, including anthropologists Paul Stoller, Edith Turner, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Geoffrey Samuel, Susan Greenwood, Antonia Mills and Rafael Locke, sociologist Charles F. Emmons, folklorists David Hufford and Thomas E. Bullard, psychologists Stanley Krippner and Edward F. Kelly, and religious historians Jeffrey Kripal, Ann Taves, Gregory Shushan and Loriliai Biernacki. We were also joined by Esalen’s founder Michael Murphy, and other members of the Esalen board. The symposium took place over four days in the Murphy House, perched on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean. The first day saw presentations from David Hufford on ‘Modernity’s Defences’ against the supernatural, and Tanya Luhrmann on her current research comparing the experiences of voice hearers in Africa and the United States. Paul Stoller told of his experiences as an apprentice to a Songhay sorcerer, and Fiona Bowie  presented a comparative study of afterlife narratives. The final session of the first day was from Jeff Kripal who spoke about the paranormal in the context of the study of religions. The second day kicked off with Ann Taves and her current research into Joseph Smith and the revelation of the book of Mormon, this was followed by Eddie Bullard’s talk on ufology and its place amongst the sciences. Susan Greenwood then gave a paper on her experiences as a practitioner of magic and her experiences with ‘magical consciousness,’ and then I presented a brief historical overview of anthropology’s engagement with the paranormal as an object of study. On the evening of the second day we sat around an open fire in Murphy House and told ghost stories. The third day opened with Antonia Mill’s paper on the rebirth experiences of the Gitxsan and Witsuwit’en and her work with reincarnation researcher Ian Stevenson. Stanley Krippner then gave a particularly entertaining talk on his experiences investigating the Brazilian medium Amyr Amiden. Edith Turner’s presentation followed this, and explored the possibility a self-organising force nudging the process of creation, and then Gregory Shushan gave an overview of his research comparing contemporary and ancient near-death experience accounts. After this Jeff Kripal, Ann Taves, Paul Stoller, Antonia Mills, Eddie Bullard and myself gave a community presentation about our symposium in the Huxley room. On the final day of the gathering, Rafael Locke and Edward F. Kelly  gave an overview of parapsychology’s main findings and explored the benefits of first-person approaches to the study of psi phenomena. Charles Emmons then presented a paper on ‘Methodologies of the Mysterious’ highlighting the broad spectrum of approaches to the study of anomalous phenomena, this was followed by Geoffrey Samuel’s paper on the concept of the subtle body in the context of Tibetan Buddhism and Loriliai Biernacki’s paper on Indian perspectives on the paranormal. On the evening of the last night we had a wonderful meal in Murphy House, watched the sun set over the Pacific, and then went down to the hot springs to relax under the stars. It was a wonderful experience. Christopher: One of the things that has come out of the gathering at Esalen is a two-part podcast (links to Part 1 and Part 2) on The Religious Studies Project website, as well as the full interviews you did with participants. In the first part of the podcast, several of the speakers discuss the challenges of carrying paranormal studies into mainstream academia. Jeffrey Kripal and Ann Taves both say that one must adapt their passions for the paranormal into existing academic disciplines, more specifically, in fields that are actually hiring right now. Once you have the job and proven yourself through the academic accomplishments you've made, then you can push forth on their passions as central to your research.  (Of course, the humanities in general has a pretty tight job market, and entering a doctoral program, it can be hard to predict where things will be three to six years down the road.) Charles Emmons further suggested that the skills one gains in graduate school along with one's interest in the paranormal can be adapted to a variety of fields, not only academic studies, but perhaps palliative care in preparing people for death, near death experience research, cultural studies, and so forth. There certainly are more and more graduate students in the humanities exploring paranormal experiences now thanks to the new wave of humanities scholars over the past decade or so who have brought these topics further into mainstream academia. For me doing my doctoral studies, it's been a very exciting process that just seems to get stronger with each year. Being a graduate student yourself, and one who is very much making your own path in the field through paranthropology, I'm wondering what you thought of the responses you got to the relationship between academia and paranormal studies, and also in the time you have been studying the topic, how has it changed, opened up, or been challenging? Jack: I wasn’t too surprised by the cautious approach advised by the majority of participants. The paranormal (and even parapsychology) is still very much a taboo subject in academia, particularly when taken seriously. But there are ways of tackling the topic head on while still maintaining academic respectability, and there is a growing community of scholars who are doing it. This is one of the reasons anthropology is so well suited to an open-minded exploration of the paranormal - as a discipline it has been very open to taking alternative ways of conceiving of the world seriously. Religious Studies also serves as a useful discipline for exploring the paranormal, as Jeff Kripal stated in my interview with him, there is hardly an aspect of religion that can’t be linked with the paranormal in some way. It’s also useful to try to understand the paranormal as a component of a wider perspective, rather than as an isolated subject - the paranormal is, after all, complex, deeply embedded and multi-faceted. I also agree with Charlie Emmons about possible adaptations to other fields, such as palliative care. This has been one of the main focuses of David Hufford’s work over the years. As for the job market, I hope things are changing, and that those of us who chose to take the paranormal seriously won’t be treated unfairly when applying. The field seems to be flourishing at the moment, which I hope can be taken as a good omen for the future. Christopher: Did you find the different disciplinary backgrounds of the speakers in tension with one another given their different approaches, were these speakers pretty much already familiar with each other, or where there interdisciplinary breakthroughs evident in the process of discussions? Jack: We had all circulated our papers before arriving at Esalen, so we were all pretty much aware of everyone’s position from the outset. There were definitely differences in terms of the ways that things were approached between disciplines, though. One of the tensions that I noticed was the tendency to be distracted by definitions, which often seemed to halt our discussions in their tracks. For example, in a discussion about near-death experiences (NDEs) it is very easy to fall into the trap of constantly attempting to define the term without ever achieving any sort of consensus, which in itself prevents the discussion from making progress. This happened a couple of times over the course of the symposium, and could have something to do with tensions between those who generally adopt a textual approach, and those who are more concerned with lived experience in the field. This happened with a couple of other terms, including ‘paranormal’ and ‘religion’ (terms that have been debated for years without any definitive conclusions), which prevented us from digging deeper into the experiences themselves. But these were only really minor issues and didn’t distract from the overall sense of excitement amongst the participants to be in such a wonderful place discussing such interesting stuff.    Christopher: At this point, what have you personally taken away from the gathering at Esalen? Any clues on where this meeting of wonderful thinkers may lead? Jack: I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Esalen provided an incredible setting for the meeting, and it was so wonderful to be able to meet up with such an exciting group of scholars. It was great to be able to meet people whose books and papers I had found so inspiring, useful and interesting. I felt like I was learning so much just listening to the discussions that took place during the daily sessions. I hope that the meeting will lead to the publication of a proceedings of some description, as the papers were all so interesting, and that we can all stay in touch and continue to work together on these subjects. 
Jack Hunter.
The participants, from left to right, back row: Michael Murphy, Susan Greenwood, Jane Hartford, Jeffrey Kripal, Raphael Locke, David Hufford, Charles Emmons, Jack Hunter, Thomas E. Bullard, Stanley Krippner, Edward F. Kelly, Loriliai Biernacki. Middle row: Edith Turner, Tanya Luhrmann, Ann Taves, Deb Frost. Front row: Geoffrey Samuel, Antonia Mills, Fiona Bowie, Sam Yau, Frank Poletti, Paul Stoller, Gregory Shushan.
Big Sur sunset.  Photo by Rosie Thomas
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