Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Different Phenomena of the Social History of UFOs and Other Weird Things

On Monday, I started the section of my class on UFOs, slightly behind schedule. One of the points that I wanted to get across was a frustrating thing that I see all too often when columnists and sometimes academics pontificate on "the phenomenon": the broad brush appeal to big causes.

What I mean by this is the tendency people have to want to sweep the whole thing away with a pat pseudo-psychological or sociological or common sense explanation. For example, in his social history of UFOs, Watch the Skies, Curtis Peebles (1994) suggests that UFOs are more likely to be seen, and waves and flaps appear, in times of uncertainty. The vast majority of the book is a straightforward accounting of the changes in UFO beliefs and in UFO advocate groups, but in the last chapter, Peebles borrows the notion from Otto Billig ( ) that flaps and waves of UFOs appear in times of vague, poorly defined crises. He then proceeds to note crisis after crisis and fears, from the McCarthy era to economic downturns to presidential campaigns. This is a just-so story of the worst sort. Depending on how you define it, every day of our lives is a vague, poorly defined crisis, in fact several are probably going on simultaneously. Had Peebles not pushed this back to Ezekiel's Wheel and the Babylonian Captivity, I might not have to be so harsh. Yes, visionary experiences can arise from times of crisis, they're part of what anthropologists (in particular Anthony Wallace) call revitalization movements. But as in Wallace's excellent study, Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, he points out the specific details, how Handsome Lake's visions came from the specifics of the Seneca having sold their land, being on new land, and becoming desperate and destitute. And furthermore, how influences specifically from neighboring Christian farmers were incorporated into Handsome Lake's visions. This level of detail is needed before even beginning to suggest a correlation.

A question I get asked all the time by academics is if I've read Carl Jung's (1978) writings (they typically haven't) on flying saucers. I have, and they're terrible. Mystical claptrap on how the saucer, being round, is a symbol of oneness in a dangerous age. Jung works largely with dreams and artwork that is only tangentially linked to UFOs. And yet because of Jung's name, this is top-shelf stuff. Saranov (1981) pciks up the torch and jumbles up a bunch of vague similarities between 19th century Airship stories and various folktales, says it is all symbolic of something, and calls it a day.

The list continues. Lawson (1984) is regularly cited for his idea that the Gray image is actually a memory of birth, of sterile doctors appearing strange in the eyes of a newborn. Of course, if you haven't actually read the article, you might not realize how heavily symbolic and divorced from attempts to verify the hypothesis the study actually is. Donald Warren's (1970) article in one of the world's most prestigious journals, Science, argues that people who are out of their expected social status or under social stress (aka educated white men in under-performing jobs and "Negro" women) will be more likely to see UFOs as a form of rebellion against the status quo. The article isn't much cited these days, as you might imagine, though George Cowgill (1971) took Warren to task the following year in Science by suggesting that what Warren found was statistically weak and did not explain sightings but explained interpretation (more on this below). Saler (Saler, Ziegler, and Moore 1997) leaves the details of Roswell to his co-authors and mostly talks about general notions of myth in his book on different versions of the Roswell Incident.

Many of these studies fail on one or two levels. First, they typically show minimal research into the topic before popping off. Second, presumably because of the first, they have no idea what they are studying. As an archaeologist, we are trained and constantly reminded that we must understand what it is we are studying as data: observations we make of remnants of material culture that have been modified by an unknown number of factors over the course of centuries or millennia. In addition to dealing with rigor in making our observations, we have to understand and communicate how we are making the bridging arguments that take us from broken bits of pottery to statements about past events and cultural trends. The studies would benefit from such explicit reasoning.

What is being studied? Where do the data come from? As I told my students, we can study people who are interested in UFOs and ideas about what they are. We can study people that create artwork (for mass media entertainment or not) inspired by or featuring UFOs. We can study people (ufologists and others) who have changed their lives in some fashion because of UFOs, in order to study them or otherwise engage the topic. We can study people who join religious groups that have beliefs concerning UFOs (contactees, a topic that has been studied extensively by anthropologists and sociologists because it is similar to small scale groups they have traditionally studied). And we can study people who report seeing UFOs.

What we cannot do is try to make those all the same people. Because if you do, your carelessness will simply muddy the water, and you'll just end up telling yourself a just-so story. These are different phenomena requiring different tools and theories to study. This happens all the time in conversation, or in informal study. Someone will put forth some vague broad brush notion to explain a social phenomenon. In this case, it might be "People see UFOs because they are concerned about some problem in society" or "People see UFOs because of status inconsistency" or "People see UFOs because of a symbolic need." But it then makes it into more formal opinion columns and essays in publications and blogs, and as I cite above, into scientific and academic articles.


This wouldn't be accepted in my archaeological work, why is it accepted here? Such ideas don't take into account the levels of analysis. That a sighting involves an interpretation of something seen as being a "UFO." That someone has to report it. Who they report it to, a ufologist, a reporter, the government, someone else. Whether that researcher or institution then publicizes the account, and how they do so. Westrum (1977) wisely does break this issue down. Then if you want to talk about waves or flaps and their relationship to some broad social trend, all of the above has to be understood for a large number of accounts. And all too often, authors will go that extra step, and conflate pop culture (AKA, was The X-Files on TV?) as part of their "UFO" evidence.

Not all studies do this. As mentioned earlier, Cowgill's small response to Warren isn't a study, but it does take this problem into consideration. Festinger, Reicken, and Schachter (1956), for all their other faults, made it clear that they were studing a Contactee group in order to test a specific hypothesis about cognitive dissonance in apocalyptic religious movements. Zimmer (1985) surveyed college students on their interest and belief in UFOs as extraterrestrial craft as a way of looking at interest in relationship to the students themselves, not sightings or popularity of the whole concept. Brenda Denzler (2001) undertook fieldwork with various elements of the UFO community, including investigators, people with interest in the topic, and abductees. She is careful with her terms and data (including demographic data), though she does offer some overall broad suggestions for interest in the topic. Matheson (1998) didn't do fieldwork, but instead undertook textual analysis of published books on abduction with the primary goal of analysing the authors, the abduction researchers. He too tries to, unfortunately, give a broad brush answer, but the data about the textual analysis is carefully discussed and separate from this conclusion.

While I have focused on academic articles, this is a regularly occurrence in less formal essays. I am reminded of the months after 9/11/2001. Article after article in the mainstream press, both opinion pieces but also news articles, discussed how ufology is on the decline. They would ask "Why don't people see UFOs anymore?" and then answer that we now had a more substantial hidden threat, terrorists, to worry about. These would also often include the news that some UFO group was disbanding after several decades, not noting that as private organizations the appearance and disappearance of such groups is a regular occurrence. And yet, there have been spectacular sightings all over the mainstream media in the last year, touched off by the O'Hare sighting, but continuing into the new year and being revived by pilot sightings, UFO flaps, etc. And on the pop front, as I just blogged yesterday, Roswell's UFO festival is booked up and healthier than it has been for years. Maybe I could construct some complex or broad social reason. Or maybe if I had actually been paying attention, I could note that there has been a shift in the management of the festival, with more activities and speakers, and more advertising. But that would actually be investigating the question, wouldn't it?

These same essays often took a similar tack to others after 9/11, about how the culture was going to have to be serious now, that we couldn't have the excesses and goofyness of the 1990s. Clearly, I for one am glad that American Idol doesn't exist nor is a top-rated show. Or that Paris Hilton never got famous and became a media sensation. Or that no one repeatedly aired Britney Spears shaving her head. Or Howard Dean's manufactured scream. Or that Deal or No Deal disappeared after the pilot episode. Or that the media and a couple of activists didn't fight full-scale wars over Christmas, or Janet Jackson's nipple. Thank goodness they were right, and had consulted all the requisite data.

Works cited

Cowgill, George
1971 People Who See Flying Saucers. Science, New Series, Vol. 171, Issue 3975: 956 - 959.

Denzler, Brenda
2001 The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter
1956 When Prophecy Fails. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Jung, C.G.
1978 Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Translated by R. F. Hull, C. MJF Books, New York.

Lawson, Alvin H.
1984 Perinatal Imagery in UFO Abduction Reports. The Journal of Psychohistory 12(2):211-239.

Matheson, Terry
1998 Alien Abductions: Creating a Modern Phenomenon. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York.

Peebles, Curtis
1994 Watch the Skies!: A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, D. C.

Saler, Benson, Charles A. Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore
1997 UFO Crash At Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

Sanarov, Valerii
1981 On the Nature and Origin of Flying Saucers and Little Green Men. Current Anthropology 22(2):163-167.

Warren, Donald I.
1970 Status Inconsistency Theory and Flying Saucer Sightings. Science 170:599-603.

Westrum, Ron
1977 Social Intelligence About Anomalies: The Case of UFO's. Social Studies of Science 7:271-302.

Zimmer, Troy A.
1985 Belief in UFO's as Alternative Reality, Cultural Rejection or Disturbed Psyche. Deviant Behavior 6:405-419.


R. Lee said...

Wow, wow and wow! An excellent article! And how lucky your students are to get this kind of perspective on UFOs and UFOlogy. Thank you!

You've very succinctly said the things I've been grappling with, not knowing how exactly to put it. Jung, for example.

Again, excellent article.

Bobby said...

I think the reason they make shows like "Deal or No Deal" and "American Idol" is to keep the majority of people entertained (Duh!). But at the same time it makes people what I like to call "Universally Challenged", these people forget that we are part of a bigger picture. They think "we have no proof that there is intelligent life out there. You want to know why?? Nasa is looking for air breathing water drinking animals (like us). Now isn't that absurd?? We're more likely to find water breathing, air drinking life forms.
As for the cover-ups, Why wouldn't they cover up the finding of an alien craft?? Think of the possibilities(maybe they did, hence the "balloon" cover story in Roswell). Anyway nice article buddy I enjoyed reading it and reminding myself of how "universally challenged" most of the scientific community.

Yours sincerely,

Bobby Murray