ABSTRACT

There are three fairly standard approaches in the social scientific investigation of the so-called “paranormal,” a term which I take as referring to any phenomenon that seems to exceed or challenge the limitations of current scientific understanding (Kripal, 2014, pp. 243–4). These approaches include: 1) a reductionist approach, where the paranormal is explained away in terms of pathology, misunderstanding, cognitive illusion, and so on; 2) the social facts approach, in which questions about reality are sidestepped in favour of exploring the social value and function of paranormal beliefs; and 3) the phenomenological bracketing approach, which completely brackets out the question of reality, arguing that the “reality of the paranormal” is not a problem that social scientists are suitably equipped to resolve (or even need to resolve), and focuses purely on how the paranormal is experienced and interpreted by the experiencer. These approaches very often go hand in hand; the bracketing approach frees up the researcher to get on with investigating the social reality of the phenomenon, which might then be reductively explained in terms of cognitive factors, for example. Nevertheless, each of these approaches does move us gradually closer to a more holistic view of the complexity of paranormal experience, but none of the individual explanations is completely adequate for the task. What seems to be needed, then, is an approach that is open to further possibilities – an approach that embraces the idea that there might be more going on than the dominant explanatory paradigms if the social sciences can account for (Howard, 2013; Hunter, 2015a).