Sunday, September 26, 2010

Spooky Dissertations Part 1: Supernatural Narrative and Cryptozoology

Ongoing series on Spooky Dissertations

Part 1 introduces the series and covered cryptozoology
Part 2 explores the increasingly popular topic of UFO culture
Part 3 finishes off the UFO topic and included the larger context of Theosophy
Part 4 examines ghost culture and parapsychology
Part 5 covers paranormal culture

I'm starting a multipart series this week, listing academic doctoral dissertations and master's theses on spooky topics. Doctoral dissertations are important research documents and sources, but they have limitations.

On the problematic side, research design may be limited by substantial funding issues, cooperation within a larger project, and time constraints of the graduate school. A research proposal is typically drafted when the researcher is fresh out of (or still in) graduate classes, and for the duration of the project, and due to the proposal structure, research design or scope may not be able to take full advantage of discoveries made during the research. And while dissertations are not copy-edited or otherwise worked over outside of the review process.

On the good side, dissertations often are the most complete version of methods, theory, findings, and especially data from scientific and scholarly research. Transcripts, data tables, and other sources of information may be in appendices taking up hundreds of pages, material that would almost never be published when the research is turned into a book, and certainly not found in journal articles.

Dissertations and theses are both more and less accessible than published materials. Mike Dash discusses several of the sources for these works. Some schools do not participate in online catalogs and services (the most important being ProQuest/UMI), but most in the United States and several other countries do. They will print a copy, or provide a pdf, of a dissertation or thesis for a moderate fee in comparison to academic books, but somewhat more than typical hardback mass market prices. University libraries may either own physical copies, or pay for access to these databases, allowing members to read electronic versions in pdf or other format. Some authors have recently taken to offering their dissertations or theses to the public for free via the internet, so it is worth searching if you are interested in a particular topic. And many of the dissertations will be turned into commercially published books, often in small runs mostly for university libraries and others in the same field, so look for the author's name.

These sources can provide substantial high-quality research into paranormal or other spooky topics. But many of these studies do not conform to the popular image of "paranormal investigation," and instead can be broken down into four basic groups

- Cultural and historical studies. By far the most common, these studies approach topics such as spiritualism or UFOs as they would kinship networks or religions, with the tools of anthropology, sociology, history, and other fields of the social sciences and humanities. Researchers may conduct ethnographic research, living or working for long periods of time with communities under study. Or they may examine historical documents, artifacts, and artwork to understand past ideas and social movements in regard to these topics. Sometimes the researcher is either an adherent to such ideas, or at least receptive to them. But in many cases, the silence on this issue signals a broad-based skepticism, or lack of concern on whether the beliefs have merit as more than cultural constructs. Two topics to be covered over the next few posts, UFOs and Spiritualism, have been particular foci of cultural and historical studies.

- Psychological belief studies. These works utilize the tools of sociology and psychology (surveys, interviews, psychological testing) for more quantitative study. They are also arguably or least more openly skeptical of paranormal claims, more willing to investigate causes such as social status, gender, ethnicity, as well as more specific psychological factors, as possible reasons. While both cultural and psychological studies often relate religion to paranormal beliefs, this is a more bedrock principle in psychological studies. Such studies very commonly mix and match spooky topics along with conspiracy theory, religious concepts, and other beliefs, but more focused studies have shown some particular interest in psychic abilities and alien abduction.

- Neuroscience experience studies. A subset of the previous category, there is a small but focused interest on explaining anomalous experiences as a result of temporal lobe or other effects in the human brain. This field has shown particular interest in alien abduction and other supernatural assault traditions.

- Direct paranormal investigation. This is by far the rarest category, with only a handful of examples. Most of them involve near death experiences, studying those who claim them. The NDE studies extend beyond neuroscience, and include interviews and other study methods, and are arguably a direct attempt to explain these experiences. Otherwise, academic research on direct "evidence" for paranormal claims beyond testimonies is extremely rare, especially at the graduate project level.

I am not the first to make such a list. Barry Greenwood, Mike Dash, EuroUFO, and Portuguese UFO Investigation have similar lists. For sources discovered in those lists, I have noted the secondary source. While this list is not comprehensive, and I welcome pointers to other sources, neither is it completely inclusive. I have examined either the works themselves, or at least the abstracts, for most on this list (on some occasions I am familiar with a later published work by the author that incorporates the doctoral work).

I have not included for the most part studies that are primarily focused on literature, film, or other art. If literature and art are being used alongside other information to explore historical and cultural context, this may be considered, but not studies focused primarily on fictional media as the end goal of the research. I have also at times passed over works from religiously, ideologically, or otherwise motivated institutions that would have substantial principles in conflict with a very basic materialist and deductive approach to scholarship and science. You can't please everyone.

Lastly, cultural studies of non-Western religious or magical topics, or pre-19th century such topics in Europe and the Americas, have largely not been listed. There are at least tens of thousands of studies in anthropology, history and related fields on religion, magic, and witchcraft. If one of these topics is investigated through the prism of beliefs more generally considered to be parapsychological in nature, or otherwise related to the spooky paradigm, they have been included. Likewise, studies of legendary and supernatural creatures and spirits have not been included unless they are explicitly tied to modern belief structures in the Western, industrial, or post-industrial worlds (ie., no studies of vampire folklore unless it is tied to modern beliefs in real vampires). While this may seem like something of a hedge, most people don't generally consider beliefs like, for example, Aztec blood sacrifice, as being in the same boat as psychic powers. Even if one is skeptical of both, there is usually not a concern with proving that the 16th century Aztec beliefs are not correct.

After that somewhat lengthy introduction, we'll begin with a short batch of material on several subjects. The following posts will be on much more academically popular subjects, with lengthier lists. All lists are not in a standard bibliographic format, but are instead chronologically ordered, as I believe certain intellectual trends do manifest themselves.

Supernatural and Narrative

These studies examine the structure and rhetoric of testimonies, beliefs, and tales of the paranormal and supernatural or legendary entities.

Narrative Theory and Fort Berthold’s Stories of the Paranormal or Supernatural – 2009 PhD, Waylon C. Baker, University of North Dakota

The search for generic possibility in discourses of the implausible: Creating space for believers in a skeptical world. – 2007 PhD, Matthew David Petrunia, University of New Mexico

(Telling) Tales of the Unexpected: A Sociological Analysis of Accounts of Paranormal Experiences – 1989 D.Phil., Robin Christopher Wooffitt, The University of York (United Kingdom)

Cryptozoology Culture

These works examine stories of monsters and other mystery animals as cultural phenomena. Apparently cryptozoology is of little interest to cultural studies, in comparison with the lists of UFO, Spiritualist, psychic, and other topics we will soon see. Interestingly, unlike these other topics, commercially published academic books on cryptozoology culture outnumber dissertations and theses, something not seen for the other topics.

Discovering Chessie: Waterfront, regional identity, and the Chesapeake Bay sea monster, 1960-2000 – 2007 PhD, Eric A. Cheezum, University of South Carolina (DASH)

The Honey Island Swamp Monster: The Development and Maintenance of a Folk and Commodified Belief Tradition - 2003 MA, Frances Leary, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Cryptozoology Research

An application of speech processing techniques to recordings of purported bigfoot vocalizations to estimate physical parameters – 1978 MS, Lasse Hertel, University of Wyoming

Belief and Psychology – Cryptozoology

Warren's 1980 study compares legendary monsters and religious figures in the belief of children, and unsurprisingly, finds that pre-adolescent boys are more likely to believe in Bigfoot and other monsters than in traditional religious figures.

Beliefs in and experiences with sasquatch and corresponding coping strategies – 2009 MA, Mark Banta, University of Central Oklahoma

An investigation of children's beliefs in transcendent figures – 1980 PhD, John Frank Warren, III – Duke University

Tomorrow, we will review the studies of UFOs

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