Social-Psychology of UFOs

Framing

There has been a certain level of interest among social scientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists in UFOs and those who report them since the early 1950s. Perhaps that singular term "interest" is misleading, because literature on UFOs gleaned from these fields shows multiple topics of interest and multiple approaches to those topics.

What follows is an overview of some topics in sociological, psychological, and psychiatric literatures on UFOs that interest me, rather than an attempt at comprehensive coverage.


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Discussion

I will start my overview of sociological, psychological, and folkloric work on UFOs in the US by isolating several key genres in the many fields concerned with UFOs.

A first genre is the analysis of the social psychology of UFO belief. Jung (1991) was among the first to take this approach with his psychoanalysis of saucer reports, though he also focused on the psychological profiles of self-identified UFO witnesses. His broader analytic work has served as a point of departure for later studies of the symbolic content of UFO reports, alien folklore, and sci-fi entertainment. Studies in this latter group often point out the structural similarities between alien contact narratives and fairy lore, treading the frontiers of psychoanalysis, folkloristics, and ufology (compare Rojcewicz 1995 to Vallée 1993 [1969]).

A second genre is the micro-level study of UFO enthusiast and religious groups. Festinger et al's "When Prophecy Fails" (1956) remains the most prominent and influential publication on this subject, if only in the sheer number of citations it receives. Since, as with most cultic groups, a great deal of the character of "UFO cults" revolves around the psychological makeup of the leader and its influence on the internal and external dynamics of the group, such studies also appear in psychological journals.

The third genre I will highlight is the heavily psychological issue of the psycho-physiology of the UFO experience. I distinguish this from the first genre dealt with by virtue of its focus on both the individual (as opposed to the more broadly social) and on psychodynamic causes and effects. John Mack (1994) and Michael Persinger (1989) lie at opposite ends of this theme's spectrum: Mack, a psychiatrist, assisted self-identified abductees in clarifying memories of alien contact, rendering support to hypotheses of alien contact; Persinger, a laboratory-based neuropsychologist, technologically elicits what he identifies as the contact experience in nonabductees in order to undermine the argument for alien abduction. Some work in this genre relates UFO experiences to religious and mystical experiences, trance states, shamanic initiations, and other alternate states of consciousness, coming into contact with anthropology in the process.

Issues in the Sociology & Psychology of UFOs

Out of these genres we can derive a couple of major issues for sociological, psychological, and clinical approaches to UFOs.

First, we see the attempt to elucidate the functions of UFOs and aliens as mythic figures for individuals as well as for social groups. This usually involves bracketing the physical reality, whatever that may be, of UFOs and considering them as social phenomena. That is, they exist insofar as people talk about them, think about them, and act according to those thoughts and conversations, and this existence is only tangentially related to any empirical (dis)proof of their physical existence. Such an approach frees us from dependence on the fortunes of research into the physical effects of reported UFOs, but at the same time it does nothing to improve relations between physical scientists and social scientists who study UFOs.

Second is the investigation of the psychodynamics of anomalous experience, of which UFO sightings or alien contacts are usually considered subtypes. The big debate here is not over whether people have unusual experiences, but rather what factors - environmental, cultural, psychodynamic - best account for these experiences.

Shortcomings of Social-Psychological Studies

The approaches to UFOs outlined above do not manage to avoid controversy, nor are they without shortcomings. I will restrict this last part of the discussion to two major shortcomings: the remediable methodological issue of cross-cultural research; and the sticky epistemological issue of what status should be accorded to UFOs.

At least one ufologist (Vallée 1991) acknowledges the tendency of ufological studies to be parochial, when the most powerful way to get at the totality of UFOs' historical and cultural aspects would be comparative, cooperative, and international research. The same may well be said of sociological and psychological studies of UFO phenomena, which similarly tend to be circumscribed by national or linguistic factors. This is something that can be overcome by reorienting or, more likely, supplementing existing studies with explicitly cross-cultural investigations of international connections between UFO investigators, which involve flows of information, people, and even money. International and intercultural flows of such things are also in evidence on the entertainment side of UFOs. However, this is an exceptionally large job, and most researchers in the aforementioned genres just don't see a lot of people joining their ranks any time soon (for a variety of reasons).

A second shortcoming of studies in these genres lies in the tendency to offer too literally physical or mythical explanations for UFO phenomena (see Thompson 1991). That is to say, many of the scholars writing in these genres focus on singular and simple causes. A large part of this can be traced back to the general tendencies of researchers within or emulating orthodox scientific research to isolate the most parsimonious causal explanations for phenomena. Where this tendency does them a disservice is in the study of social phenomena, which - arguably - are hardly ever monocausal. The same observation holds for UFO research; those invoking Occam's Razor ought also to keep in mind Jung's assertion that, whatever the cause of the stimulus, the psychic and cultural projections are of a different order of phenomena with an indirect relationship to the stimulus.

Works Cited


Bibliography

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Microsociological Studies

Abduction Psychology/Psychiatry


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