"Paraethnology: Materials Toward a Discipline of Preternatural Inquiry"


by Judd H. Burton, MA

          Whether or not they believe in the paranormal, most people will admit to liking a good story.  This is a tremendous strength of paranormal studies—its ability to produce an engaging narrative.  It is the reason that most people become involved in that line of study in the first place.  After all, it is as old as humanity.  Who hasn’t sat around the campfire, either spinning or listening to a fantastical yarn?  Admit it.  You know who you are.

            Being entertained by accounts of the supernatural is one thing, but the study of such phenomena is an entirely different affair.  Out of necessity, paranormal studies is an interdisciplinary endeavor.  There are so many subjects that are of use to the paranormal researcher.  Reliance on one is almost unheard of and in many cases, drawing on several fields yields better results.  Anthropology, history, religious studies, psychology, computer technology, physics—these are but a few of the fields that the paranormal researcher may be required to utilize.  Daunting?  Yes, but incredibly rewarding.

            My training in the fields of anthropology, history, and religious studies has certainly had a powerful influence over the manner in which I approach the paranormal.  They dovetail nicely with studying such an anomalous and challenging topic.  My training, experience, and research have led me to believe that the paranormal inquiry to be one of the most engaging questions of our time.  It addresses the unknown—the phenomena which defy logical explanation and often, conventional scrutiny.  Where many fields lack the means (and more often, the willingness) to address questions dealing with the mystical and metaphysical, paranormal research lends the frank hermeneutics necessary when dealing with paranormal phenomena.

            In addressing research questions, paranormal researchers need an approach—a method.  Good intentions are rarely enough when conducting serious paranormal research.  The paranormal scholar is responsible not simply for gathering data, but for the analysis of that data, and its dissemination.  Method and theory are crucial, and there are many to choose from in this field, no doubt.  All subfields of paranormal research seem to have their own distinctive approaches.  Parapsychology, for example, draws heavily on standard psychological methodology.  Cryptozoology is rooted in biological and paleontological method and theory.  Vampirology draws deeply upon anthropological and historical methods.  But which one is the most useful, the most valid?  That is a question which the individual must decide.  What I can share with you is my own method (akin to methods in use today), which might easily be termed paraethnology.

The Approach

Paraethnology is one of many schemes of study in paranormal research.  I freely admit that elements of it have been used in the past by other researchers.  In that respect, it is simply a name I have applied to responsible research in the area of collecting data and synthesizing the results of cultural paranormal research.  However, I intend to demonstrate the academic and original virtue of paraethnology.

Those who have worked to establish the discipline, as with so many fields of study, have done so largely unbeknownst to them.  Their intellectual pursuits are varied except by the degree of their interest in the unexplained.  It would be daunting to recount the complete list of scholars who have contributed to paraethnology.  A few examples however, will serve to illustrate the caliber of scholar that I am speaking of.  Many names will, no doubt, be familiar to the active paranormal researcher.  Charles Fort is one such scholar.  Fort collected information on all manner of anomalies during the 19th century, publishing his findings in the classic text The Book of the Damned.  The Reverends Montague Summers and Sean Manchester pioneered the academic study of vampires, also known as vampirology.  Dr. Grover Krantz, a physical anthropologist, lent much scientific rigor to the study of Sasquatch by comparing its physical morphology with an extinct species of ape known as Gigantapithecus.  This list is certainly not exhaustive, but certainly covers the types of research that contribute to paraethnology.

Well then—what is paraethnology?  Paraethnology is a discipline of paranormal research dealing primarily with the cultural elements relating to paranormal phenomena and the phenomena themselves.  The paraethnologist seeks to understand how culture is related to the paranormal, drawing primarily from the social sciences to accomplish this aim.  Cultural anthropology, history, psychology, religious studies, and the humanities constitute the manifest of intellectual tools available to the paraethnologist.  One will quickly note that the word paraethnology is comprised of two parts:  the Greek prefix para (para), meaning beside or beyond, and ethnology, or the comparative study of human cultures (sometimes synonymous with cultural anthropology).  In essence, paraethnology is the comparative study of culture within the context of paranormal phenomena.  It is only natural that paraethnology makes use of much anthropological method and theory.  Hence, as accounts are given by people, subsequent interviews are often necessary, and therefore, historical research.

History is often a handmaiden of anthropology.  Likewise, it is very useful in paraethnology.  Historical methods are particularly useful when researching haunted locations, demonic manifestations, or locations occupied by folkloric creatures.  It is always important to be familiar with the past events associated with a paranormal phenomenon.  All paranormal researchers should make every effort to determine the history of a given situation.  There may even be times when the focus of the paraethnologist is strictly historical, as with the research and writing of the history of a haunted location, such as a courthouse or cemetery.  In those situations, archives, genealogies, libraries, oral histories, private collections, and public documents can be immensely helpful.  Without question, in paranormal research, history is useful and at least tantamount to current paranormal events.  It should always be part of paraethnological work, even if only a small portion.  Make use of it.

As with anthropology and history, psychology and parapsychology also garner a place in the paraethnological approach.  When dealing with individuals who are psychic, telekinetic, clairvoyant, or who exhibit other extrasensory perceptive abilities, psychology and parapsychology are the disciplines to consult first.  Psychology, of course, deals with the nature of the human mind, but parapsychology deals with the abilities of the mind that are beyond the scope of the five senses.  In cases where ESP is exhibited, the disciplines are particularly helpful, and a host of literature including books and journals exists on the subject.  Jungian psychology may also be helpful as it is pertinent in cases dealing with folklore and mythology.  The theories of archetypes and the collective unconscious are applicable in instances where legends have remained in an area for long periods of time, or when they bear similarity to legends and myths in other parts of the world.

Religious studies is a specialized field of the humanities that has come into its own over the last one hundred years.  It is comparative by nature and is concerned with the study of ritual, liturgy, sacred texts, mythology, and all other aspects of religion.  Religious studies can be particularly helpful in the analysis of such occurrences as miracles, healings, demonic possessions, prophecy, stigmata, and other religious phenomena.  Furthermore, theology, the field of study dealing with the doctrine of a religion, may also be of use, as it is closely related to religious studies. 

Last but certainly not least, we have the field of paranormal studies itself.  This inquiry has been discussed at some length already, and hence, needs little mention in the context of this chapter.  Paranormal studies involves the study of supernatural or unexplained phenomena.  It is the basis for paraethnology and the methods of the field.  Used in conjunction with the disciplines mentioned herein, paranormal studies can prove most valuable, as we shall soon see.

A Note on Methods

With the contribution of the aforementioned fields, a specific yet flexible methodology develops.  As with any discipline, a defined methodology develops out of necessity.  Paraethnological methodology is primarily comprised of literature review, background research, participant-observation, various types of interviews, historical research methods, field note taking, mapping, sketching, photography, and parapsychological testing.  This list is not necessarily comprehensive, but it is specific enough to encompass the methods most often utilized in paraethnological research.

Paranormal researchers who are just entering the field may be surprised to learn the time they are required to spend in actual document research.  The first place that a paranormal event should drive the enthused researcher to is the library.  A substantial portion of any case study is the literature review and background research.  Upon recording a particular account, be it a haunting, were-creature, or other such finding, a consultation of pertinent literature is obligatory.  The process of searching through books, periodicals, archival documents, and other similar materials allows for the formation of research questions and a project design.  During the stage of research the paraethnologist should be general with his or her reading choices at the inception, and gradually become more discriminating and focused as the research progresses.  Depending on the nature of the case, various archival sources, libraries, museums, and even private collections will be helpful.  The aim of the literature review is the formulation of specific questions and goals so that the paraethnologist may proceed to the next logical step—fieldwork.

The human element cannot be removed from the paranormal equation; hence it is important to establish a system of contacts followed by the conducting of interviews.  It is essential for the paraethnologist to develop and maintain a rapport with persons involved in or connected with the paranormal phenomenon in question.  The desires of those contacts and informants should always be respected, especially in sensitive cases or instances where individuals could suffer repercussions from their involvement.  After initial contact, the next step is to set up interviews with contacts directly involved with the phenomenon.  The questions comprising interviews should be largely based on the background research and the research questions resulting from it.  However, there are a two main types of interviews that may be employed.  The first interview that may be of use is the unstructured interview.  This variation allows the paraethnologist to tailor questions as the interview progresses.  Consequently, this is usually the format used when the first interviewing of contacts is conducted.  The second type of interview is utilized in later stages of fieldwork and research—the structured interview.  Upon consultation with informants, structured interviews—those containing specific, pre-written questions—may be utilized.  It is worth noting that many times, interviews will take on the qualities of both unstructured and structured interviews.  This approach is often helpful in gleaning additional information.  All interviews should be tape-recorded and transcribed (when possible).  The transcripts are valuable in that they may be easily consulted during the course of a given research project.

Other anthropological methods may be brought to bear in fieldwork, such as participant-observation.  Since paranormal research almost always involves interaction with people, it is sometimes possible to use participant-observation amongst groups of people.  In cases where the phenomenon is in a house, this type of observation is useful.  Observation of the anomaly and its effects on people is invaluable when possible.

Keeping field notes is also crucial to paranormal research.  Paraethnological methods dictate the taking of notes throughout the course of the project.  Recording phenomena as they occur can yield precious insight when analyzing data in later stages of research.  The import and merit of field notes cannot be overstated.  There is always the possibility that the paraethnologist may be able to use the minutest details jotted down in a notebook to make a breakthrough in a case.  Your goal is what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.”  Write in as much detail as time and circumstance permit, so that your eventual narrative is as complete and encompassing as possible.  The paraethnologist’s field notebook, therefore, is an essential tool in an investigation.

I would propose that the paraethnologist may work alone, but may contribute more when working with other paranormal researchers with other specialties.  The great strength of paranormal studies is its interdisciplinary approach.  Having said that, I strongly recommend that you make use of all the tools of the aforementioned disciplines.  A balanced approach will yield balanced results.  Methodical is what we want.  Sound approach is what we want.  Open-minded is what we want.  Then you and I may yet make good paraethnologists. 

Of course, methods do us little good if we have no exposure to the various subjects one is likely to encounter in the field.  Immersing oneself in the literature of a discipline is the traditional manner of accomplishing this.  However, given the breadth and complexity of the paranormal, the task can be intimidating to the novice (and even the seasoned researcher for that matter!).  Hence, I have provided you with the fruits of my own research in the and they will serve as an introduction and give you some direction by answering some questions and generating new ones.

copyright Burton Beyond, 2005-2016