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This is an unusual book, whose author is exceptionally well qualified to deal with the topic. He is a member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh, has studied the histories of psychology, of magic, and of the paranormal. He is also a highly competent magician who does not himself believe in the paranormal. Lamont's aim is to understand those kinds of beliefs in their historical context -- mainly that of Victorian Britain, but also that of more recent controversies.
In the introductory chapters psychology is viewed as constructive and reflexive in the sense that it can change what and how we think. The claim that 'it is, in practice, impossible to distinguish between psychological reality and descriptions of it.' confirms Lamont's self-declared 'discursive' approach. There follows a revealing analysis of what it is that makes an event extraordinary. It introduces Goffman's key notion of 'framing', in the sense of defining what is going on by both practitioners and the audience. Another key sentence is worth citing: 'We are concerned, then, not with individual mental states, but rather with the various ways in which extraordinary phenomena have been framed, with how beliefs have been expressed and justified in response to certain events that were observed and reported, disputed and defended.' This sentence shows the scope as well as the limitations of Lamont's analysis.
The core of the book deals with 'the making of' -- a very deliberate phrasing -- mesmeric, spiritualist, psychic, and paranormal phenomena. The first of these, extensively debated in the medical literature of the period, is somewhat different from the rest. This is because Mesmerism, in its less fanciful guise, has a factual core. However, from the author's standpoint, it could serve equally well for an analysis of the heated disputations it entailed. I shall use spiritualism and 'psychic phenomena' to exemplify the author's treatment.
Most chapters begin with accounts of relevant phenomena, such as a séance or mind-reading. For instance, a medium was able to read names written on slips of paper, then squeezed into pellets and mixed up on a table. This feat was 'framed' as demonstrating spirit communication. Numerous other such demonstrations are described, together with the arguments of those who defended them as genuine or sought to debunk them. The discursive strategies employed are discussed in considerable depth, and are enlightening. For instance, the failure of a medium was often interpreted by believers as an argument for genuineness. On the other hand opponents, who were often magicians, tried to show that trickery was employed. Non--believers were apt to remain sceptical even when unable to offer adequate ordinary explanations of what they had witnessed. It is remarkable how many seemingly competent observes, such as scientists, became convinced by what they has witnessed. All this provided a springboard for the author to discuss the psychology of error.
When it comes to so-called paranormal phenomena, the origins of the emergence of parapsychology are traced. While it differs from earlier sets of beliefs by its aspirations to constitute a science, the debates surrounding it are strikingly similar to 19th century ones. Supporters point to the experimental methods used, while critics regard any results as due to error or fraud -- the latter definitely established in some instances.
In the final section Lamont once again declares his relativistic and reflexive persuasion as indicated in the following passage: ' . . . regardless of what is observed, it can be framed as evidence in favour of belief (or disbelief). Thus, as everyone has attributed their beliefs to the facts, both sides have also appealed to belief as an explanation for the facts, while framing the facts as supportive of their own beliefs.' This statement about the relativity of 'facts' may shock people of a positivist persuasion, but will not come as a surprise to discourse analysts.
It is likely that anyone reading the title might gain the impression that the author's aim was to explain such beliefs. But he does not, at least explicitly, make such a claim. However, some of his phrasing does seem to imply that, as when he writes that his approach 'can help us to understand why such extraordinary beliefs have been, and continue to be, so common.' Before pursuing this it will be useful to say something about the nature of 'belief'. As Lamont himself makes clear, it is not a simple concept. At one time anthropologists debated whether 'belief' was a useful concept; many of them came to the conclusion that since the term is entirely dependent on linguistic expressions by informants, it should be dropped altogether. This did not mean for them that the whole issue should be ignored, but rather that one should study the consequences of belief in actions, such as rituals. In this they differ fundamentally from discursive psychologists, who are content to analyze language as such.
Let me now return to the question of explanations of beliefs, which cannot be found in language as such. Instead, one has to consider the circumstances in which beliefs arise and the emotional elements linked to them. Take an historical example: in America during the 1860s spiritualism saw a dramatic expansion. It was surely no coincidence that this happened at a period when the losses of the civil war had mounted inexorably. Moreover, at that time Lincoln's wife Mary also became a spiritualist, thereby providing a high-status model for the adoption of such beliefs. Being interested in such matters, I myself have attended a number of spiritualist meetings, and almost without exception the utterance of the mediums purported to come from a dead person.
Yet it would be churlish to end on a critical note, rather than to praise the valuable contribution made by this book to what I would call the cognitive aspects of such beliefs. Lamont would undoubtedly challenge such a terminology, just as he vigorously challenges other aspects of conventional psychology. But the chief contribution of the book is based on painstaking historical research. It consists of rich descriptions of the alleged 'phenomena', and above all of the debates they evoked -- both make fascinating reading. The author's interpretations of this material are often contentious, sometimes illuminating, and always thought-provoking. The work is to be welcomed as a highly original approach to the problem of (irrational ?) beliefs.
© 2013 Gustav Jahoda
Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His main fields of interest are cross-cultural and social psychology, especially the development of social cognition. He is the author of A History of Social Psychology (Cambridge University Press).