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Issues in social scientific research on contact/abduction

Ryan J. Cook, Center for AnthroUfology - Anthropology and UFOs

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: The following observations and recommendations do not all originate with me, but I think it will be beneficial to collect and re-state them here. They underscore reasons I have elsewhere given (cf. my Anthropology and UFOs page) why anthropology is of great utility in studying UFO-related phenomena: detailed ethnographic case studies; historical and cultural contextualization; and cross-cultural comparison and contrast.

The following observations and recommendations do not all originate with me, but I think it will be beneficial to collect and re-state them here. They underscore reasons I have elsewhere given (cf. my Anthropology and UFOs page) why anthropology is of great utility in studying UFO-related phenomena: detailed ethnographic case studies; historical and cultural contextualization; and cross-cultural comparison and contrast.


For starters, I suggest that the distinction between abduction and contact is analytically useful and that a further subdivision of the categories of the kind offered previously may be just as useful. This distinction derives its power from its concurrence with the "emic" categories of self-described experiencers and investigators of alien contact. We should not, however, leave the distinction unquestioned and lose sight of the important parallels in structure, content, and effect that alien contact narratives share with stories of encounters with spiritual beings, fairies, and other nonhuman supernatural beings (see Vallée 1993 [1968] and Thompson 1989).

In fact, in light of those parallels, I suggest that any social-scientific investigation should not accord abductions or contacts any different status than what we would accord reported religious experiences. By this I mean we should not devote any more energy to debating the existence of aliens than we would to debating the existence of any of the myriad beings reported in religious experiences before we even begin researching reports of such experiences.

Another issue here is one raised by UFOs in general—cross-cultural and subcultural variations in the structure and content of reported experiences. Aside from scattered references to an overall pattern in reports with intriguing - possibly cultural - differences between reports, there has been no systematic investigation of either the (inferred) pattern or the (incompletely analyzed) variations. For instance, Stephanie Platz's dissertation (1996) on ufologists and contactees in the chaos of post-Soviet Armenia shows a nationalist interpretation of alien contact very different from the universalist spin US abduction researchers put on it. Ethnographic case studies can be helpful here, not least for focusing tightly on particular phenomena and putting the particulars in their cultural and historical context.


A number of well-researched histories of UFO reports have been done, mostly for the US. They point to the necessity for tracing both continuities and changes over time in reports of alien contact, in the study of those reports, and in the cultural milieu within which (and with which) the two phenomena interact. However, this leads to the terribly thorny issue of causality. It forces us to try to disentangle the thicket of interrelationships between abduction and contact reports, science fiction film and literature, SETI research and hypotheses, and folkloric traditions.

What should we think when we learn from folklorist Bertrand Méheust that a sci-fi story from the 1930s contains an abduction episode eerily similar to professedly non-fiction reports in structure and content? Or when sociological ufologist Martin Kottmeyer points out that an episode of The Outer Limits from the same general time-frame as the Hill case contains elements that appeared in Barney Hill’s hypnotically elicited abduction report? And how are we to draw any useful causal conclusions from abduction and contact reports that take place within a popular cultural context saturated with images of aliens which were to an extent inspired by those reports?

These are just the sort of questions for which an anthropological approach to the subject could provide provocative answers. Anthropologists have a track record of taking a new look at the familiar by treating it as exotic, and vice versa. Since we are saturated with alien reports and images, it can be useful to show how the idea of extraterrestrials is historically and culturally circumscribed, yet allied to a wealth of other ideas in other times and societies. One example would be comparing and contrasting abductees in the US with people involved in possession cults, like the zar cult among the Somali of East Africa (see Lewis 1986).


Dealing with causality leads inevitably to a discussion of the etiologies proposed for alien contact reports—extraterrestrials, angels/demons, shamanic initiation, mental illness. In keeping with my suggestion to question the taken-for-granted, we could profitably consider these explanations as ethnotheories on the same level as the Azande invocation of witchcraft to explain misfortune (Evans-Pritchard 1937) or the shaman’s search for disjointed social relationships in diagnosing and treating diseased individuals (Lévi-Strauss 1963).

In capsule form, then, here are the various ethnotheories concerning the ultimate cause for UFO reports:

(a) organic mental defect - usually proposed by psychiatrists and debunkers. People supposedly report paranormal experiences because they are psychologically disturbed. This is difficult to support given the results of psychological tests on reporters (you can find several in the bibliography of this section) that register either inconclusively or negatively.

(b) psychosomatic effects of environmental stressors - proposed by some experimental psychologists, chief among them neuropsychologist Michael Persinger. The idea is that seismic events generate strong electromagnetic fields, which influence activity in the temporal lobe of the brain. Thus people have a natural experience on which they overlay cultural content (e.g. UFOs) to make sense of it. Some support is claimed from the experimental elicitation of psychological states similar to those attributed to abductees, but these results have not been reproduced within the natural environment where they are supposed to occur.

(c) fantasy-proneness - another psychiatric idea, used by some debunkers. Reporters of alien contact are said to be prone to flights of fancy with little stimulation. Certainly, this hypothesis accounts for some percentage of contact and abduction reports, but not all of them. If applied broadly or exclusively, this can be just a bit condescending.

(d) sociopathy (i.e., willful hoaxing) - characteristic of debunkers. In this way of thinking, those reporting abductions are deliberately lying for some sort of gain or fulfillment. Again, this works for a minority of reports. But it fails to account for the majority of situations, in which the report of such an experience defeats potential rewards; if anything, reports bring stigma, and most experiencers say they are loath to make them for that reason.

(e) contact with angelic or demonic beings - a theological explanation common among New Agers and Evangelical Christians. Reporters supposedly encounter or are influenced by spiritual beings masquerading as aliens. This merely substitutes one empirically elusive class of beings with another, which may fulfill criteria of religious credibility but not those of the sciences.

(f) contact with advanced nonhuman extraterrestrials - the standard ufological and pop cultural idea, at least in the US. Reporters are said to interact with physically real beings from another part or dimension of the universe. This, too, is difficult to prove empirically and has strong opponents among professional scientists and scientifc organizations. It is also not as convincing to UFO researchers in other countries--Western Europe, for instance.

In examining these various etiologies or ethnotheories we must keep an open mind as to what provokes reports – whether nonhuman intelligences, seismoelectrically stimulated temporal lobes, or social stressors – because the experiences provoking such reports are liable (I argue) to be multicausal. That is, we shouldn't consider them mutually exclusive or one-size-fits-all solutions.

For instance, we should look hard at the interpersonal interactions that go into the formation of a contact or abduction report. Of special significance is the relationship between abductees and their investigator-therapists (roles often combined, to the consternation of psychiatrists and ufologists alike, in single individuals). Abduction reports are, in the main, joint productions of those with the experiences and those with the technical and theoretical apparatus (as well as the seeming authority) to handle such cases. This is not to say that the experiences are fabricated, but rather that most reports emerge from an ostensibly therapeutic dialogue. (Psychiatrist and abduction researcher John Mack terms the process "co-creative;" Adrienne Lehrer describes the therapeutic process of arriving at a common vocabulary and viewpoint for experience as "critical communication") They do not become available until they are converted from personal experience to a more or less consistent public narrative.

Contactees themselves don't produce their reports in a social vacuum, even if they do not collaborate to the extent that abductees do. Contactees, occultists, saucer clubs, and others meet and exchange ideas in what has aptly been called a "cultic milieu" (Campbell 1972).

Use-value (with apologies to Marx)

We should also inquire about the different projects into which contact and abduction reports (and reporters) are enrolled. A major project for which cooperatively produced abduction reports are used in the US is the development and support of conspiracy theorizing. Tales of alien-government collusion seem to date back to the 1980s, perhaps as far back as 1950s allegations of ufologists like Donald Keyhoe (1955) that government agencies investigating UFOs were withholding information. How alien abduction research/therapy interacts with (originally) far-right conspiracy theories is still under-examined but fascinating; political scientist Michael Barkun, in an unpublished paper, makes a valuable foray into the field.

Works cited

Colin Campbell. 1972. "The cult, the cultic milieu, and secularization." In Sociological yearbook of religion in Britain. Michael Hill, ed. London: SCM. pp. 119-136.
E.E. Evans-Pritchard. 1937. Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Oxford UP.
Donald Keyhoe. 1955. The UFO conspiracy. NY: Holt.
Claude Lévi-Strauss. 1963. "The sorceror's magic." In Structural anthropology, vol. 1. Chicago: U Chicago. pp. 167-85.
Stephanie Platz. 1996. "Pasts and futures: space and Armenian national identity." 2 vols. Ph.D. dissertation, U Chicago.

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