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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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