Summer School Spotlight: Sociology of Paranormal Belief

Release Date: 6/1/2012

Summer school classes are a great way to pick up some extra credit hours, and they often focus on topics that might not be offered at any other time. The classes cover in 3 to 6 weeks what would take 16 weeks during the regular semester. In this series, we'll take a look at some of the courses offered during the 2012 summer terms. In this spotlight, we'll take a look at SOC 4783 - Sociology of Paranormal Belief.

Sociology of the Paranormal offers insight into unconventional beliefs

People believe a lot of strange things and always have. And for the last three years, Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies Dr. Jesse Weiss has taken a class full of students once a summer on a journey to explore some of these beliefs and why people believe them, in a course called "Sociology of Paranormal Belief."

"My course is sometimes taught the same summer term as Dr. McFarland's 'Science and Pseudoscience' course," said Weiss. "But whereas the overall gist of the pseudoscience class is to emphasize the juxtaposition between real science and fake science, debunking the latter, my class delves into the sociological perspective on paranormal beliefs. In other words, not so much whether or not some of these things 'really' exist, but rather why do people believe in them?"

Weiss says that one major factor in Americans' attitudes toward the paranormal - beliefs that are beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation - is the media. "In our culture there's an entertainment factor at work," he said, "and the media keeps it going. So in class we talk about mass media and the effects it's had, all the TV shows about ghost hunting and so forth. Then we go into some of the specific topics: astrology, the existence of psychic abilities, UFOs, ghosts, dowsing, etc."

As a culture, Weiss says, Americans are very much open to suggestion. For example, prior to the sighting of the flying saucers in 1947 by Army Air Corps pilot Kenneth Arnold near Mount Rainier in Washington state, most of the UFOs reported were cigar shaped, not saucer shaped. "But" Weiss said, "after the media attention caused by his sighting, everybody started seeing flying saucers, not flying cigars."

Another example of modern cultural mythology is the "Men in Black" phenomenon, which goes back long before the popular movies on the subject. "Men in Black are the guys who show up after you've seen a UFO and tell you to keep your mouth shut in a very sinister way," Weiss said. "The actual first reported sighting of the Men in Black was the same year as the famous Roswell UFO Crash in New Mexico - in fact, just a few weeks after the sighting in Washington. A guy and his kid and dog were out in a boat and saw these six flying saucers, and one of the saucers dropped some sort of hot molten slag on the boat and killed the dog. So they reported it to the authorities, and soon after, this guy had a visit from these three strange 'government officials' in black suits. He subsequently changed his story and said it had all been a hoax." Weiss said these officials are always described in the same way - men in dark suits with dark glasses, small in stature, olive complexions, showing up in black Cadillacs with that 'new car smell.'

More recently, he said, there have been incidents with mysterious black helicopters as well. "There's a remarkable consistency in the descriptions, but it's similar to how all the UFOs suddenly became saucer shaped," he said. "Everybody 'knows' what Men in Black are supposed to look like, and so that's how they always look."

Weiss contrasted our culture's attitude toward the paranormal with that of other cultures. "It's an interesting comparison," he said. "Take ghosts for example. Although many people do express some belief in ghosts, for the most part, if you buy into that belief, you are considered somewhat deviant in our society. In other parts of the world, ghosts are taken for granted." He said that even here in the U.S., beliefs changes from generation to generation. "What's really interesting is if you look at public opinion polls in this day and age, when we have so much information, and such a great understanding of how and why things work, public opinions show that about 78-percent of Americans have at least one out of a list of 10 paranormal beliefs, whether it's ghosts or UFOs or psychic powers or whatever," he said. "So if you don't believe in some of this, you're actually in the minority!"

Weiss's class uses these colorful phenomena as a good way to grab students' attention and then give them the sociological perspective on belief systems. "Paranormal beliefs offer us something similar to what religious beliefs offer us, which is a sense of control where we really don't have any," he said. "People need to have some sort of explanation for the unexplainable. It's easier to believe that some person went off the deep end and killed his whole family because he was possessed by a demon, than to think someone like ourselves could do something so atrocious. If they're that 'other thing,' then they're not like us. That's easier to believe."

Weiss said that ultimately, when it comes right down to it, these paranormal beliefs are a way of trying to control an environment that's uncontrollable and explain things that are very random. Why do good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people? What happens after we die? "Things like ghosts or UFOs aren't categorized the same as religion - religion occupies a different social space - but it all works in somewhat similar ways," he said. "So that's really the focus of the class I teach."