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Book Review by Brigitte Schoen, University of Bonn

Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and
American Culture

By David J. Hess

Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993

The title is slightly misleading: Neither does Hess deal with science, nor
does he investigate the paranormal. In his own words, "the topic of this
book is the universal problem of the dialogue between science and religion,
knowledge and faith, skepticism and otherworldly experience." (p.IX) As a
cultural anthropologist, he examines the ongoing cultural dialogue on the
paranormal in America and identifies three main participating communities:
"New Agers, who accept the paranormal in the context of a broader quest for
spiritual knowledge; parapsychologists, who define paranormal phenomena to
include a narrow range of phenomena for which they seek a scientific basis;
and skeptics, who adamantly oppose all paranormal beliefs and claims."
(p.IX) Hess notes that the so-called skeptics' firm belief in the
non-existence of the paranormal is anything but skeptical, but the
representation from the natives' point of view also leads him use the name
they chose for themselves.

Hess does not hesitate to disclose his own involvement into the debate and
states that he had been immersed into each of the three cultures at
different times of his life. He also emphasizes that his own scientific
discourse is taking part in the same ideological arena of debate and
dialogue, the main difference being his critical, reflexive perspective.

For his analysis of the debate Hess employs Thomas Gieryn's concept of
boundary-work for the demarcation of science from non-science (Gieryn 1983).
As these boundaries are flexible and ambiguous, their construction can be
shown to serve as a legitimating ideology in the struggle for social
authority. Hess describes the ideological construction of the three
communities' Self versus Others through a cultural perspective. As the
debate on the paranormal is sufficiently removed from mainstream American
culture, a paraculture emerges, and it is within this paraculture that the
three cultures construct their identity as opposing parties. However the
differences between the Self and the Others are constructed in strikingly
similar ways, and for pointing out these similarities between the groups the
approach of symbolical anthropology seems especially apt.

All three cultures claim for themselves a critical, skeptical perspective
which is yet seen as open-minded and forward-looking. The own rational
system is held to be grounded in factual evidence. In contrast the negative
Other is perceived to be driven by materialistic greed, egocentrism and even
pathological motives. Spatio-temporal metaphors locate the Self ahead of its
time at the frontier towards new goals, whereas the negative Other is
lagging behind and provincial. Hess detects classic American motives such as
the Puritan struggle against religious dogmatism and the pioneer's spirit.
Even where the evaluation is radically different as in gender-related
matters, the ascription of for instance natural science being male and
psychic abilities being female is shared by all three cultures.

Hess' effort to deconstruct ideological boundaries between the various
cultures has its merits, but his sole concern for auto- and
heterostereotypes blurs the view for actual differences in the groups'
activities. True enough the claim for scientificity is debatable in all
cases, but to varying degrees. Hess mentiones the phenomenon of scholars
being "captured" by the group with less scientific authority when giving a
balanced and symmetrical analysis of a controversy. But he implies that the
conflict over this was caused solely by hegemonial claims of orthodox
science. He is apparently disappointed when parapsychologists base their
claims of being scientific on mere methodology (p.34) instead of using the
metaphors he is looking for. Hess' cultural perspective in fact reduces
science to culture, but he does not seem to be aware of the restrictions
this view imposes.

The production of a shared ideology is indeed a conspicuous activity of
scientific as well as other communities, and although this ideology is quite
often employed in the public debate it of course can't serve as a scientific
legitimation. The mere use of the metaphors of one particular culture does
not allow to distinguish between a valid and a flawed argument. In pointing
out the participants' political interests Hess opens up new perspectives,
but bracketing the legitimacy of all scientific claims at the same time
presents the aspect of power as the only decisive factor in the controversy.
This is a capturing phenomenon along a different line, supporting
politically weak groups at the expense of legitimation through rational
arguments and methodology.

The dialogical turn of symbolical anthropology, that is, integrating the
native informants into the scientific discourse, has been an important
ethical decision which helped to reduce the hierarchical distance between
the scholar and the objects of his studies. It also has a correctional
function in checking if the informants indeed feel understood by the
researcher. However this also leads to overlook contradictions within the
self-perception of the informants as well as discrepancies between their
claims and actions. Furthermore, the distinctiveness of Hess' own approach
needed some more clarification than the mere reference on being critical and
reflexive. Throughout his whole book Hess pointed out that exactly the same
claim is being made by the three movements he studied. Once again the
necessity to question the legitimacy of such claims becomes apparent.

The final chapter of the book is somewhat of a surprise, as Hess leaves the
field of interpretation and goes on to give practical advice how the three
cultures could become more effective and influential. Basically his advice
is that all should adopt the perspective of cultural anthropology. As Hess
successfully deconstructed all boundaries between the various cultures
including his own without giving consideration to eventually remaining
structural differences, one starts to wonder how he may back up his claim of
representing a more efficient approach. But his suggestion that all ought
"to begin to discuss the cultural meanings and the sociopolitical
implications of their paradigms, practices, and programs" (p.176) sounds
rather like a call for an interreligious dialogue. In fact Hess is
propagating nothing less than a "sociocultural turn", he is asking everyone
to join this "reformist spirit" which he regards to stem from "our broader
cultural heritage" (ibid.). It's nice that Hess is so explicit about his
scientific creed.

Hess' analysis of the various auto- and heterostereotypes is quite
convincing. What is missing is a clear admission that his study is confined
to this area. Whereas metaphorical boundary-work is indeed frequently
serving political interests, methodological boundary-work has the practical
function to mark the area of validity of a claim which is a basic
requirement for any effort to check it. Getting somewhat immersed into
theory of science would have been helpful, as the claim of representing true
science is the tertium comparationis anyway. But of course Hess'
interpretation of metaphors is much more entertaining than mere matters of

Gieryn, Thomas F. 1983. "Boundary-work and the demarcation of
science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies
of scientists." American Sociological Review 48: 781-795.