Review by Tim Knepper, 2001
Greeley, Andrew M. The Sociology of the Paranormal. Sage Publications, 1975.
Two themes run through Andrew M. Greeley’s The Sociology of the Paranormal: First, paranormal experiences are frequent and therefore normal experiences; Secondly, people who have had paranormal types of experiences are not “kooks,” but “more emotionally healthy than those who do not have such experiences” (7). As these two themes suggest, Greeley’s sociological study of paranormal experiences reads in many places like a valorization or vindication of paranormal experience. Not only does Greeley assert that sociology should pay more attention to such experiences (“any phenomena with incidence as widespread as the paranormal deserves much more careful and intensive research than it has received up to now,” 7), but he also insinuates that such experiences are more psychologically healthy and ontologically true than ordinary experiences.
As for a definition of “paranormal,” Greeley proposes an operational definition: Paranormal experiences are “psychic, mystic and contact with the dead experiences as they are described in the questions asked in the NORC-Luce Foundation Basic Belief Study” (8). This study gathered data in the form of questionnaire responses from approximately 1460 subjects in order to examine the causes and correlates of paranormal experiences. The first type of paranormal experience that Greeley reports upon includes experiences of déjà vu, extrasensory perception and clairvoyance – experiences that Greeley lumps together under the heading of psi-experience. While experiences of clairvoyance were reported by 25% of the respondents, déjà vu and ESP experiences were each reported by approximately 60% of the respondents. As for the causes and correlates of psi-experiences, Greeley includes both family tension (either past or presents) and heightened affectivity. According to Greeley, “those who have psychic experiences are those with heightened emotional sensibilities and those who are more likely to be attuned to [family] tensions, as well as to psi factors” (31). The second type of paranormal experience, contact with the dead, was – like clairvoyance – found in approximately 25% of the respondents. According to Greeley, the elderly, women, widows and widowers, and the conventionally religious report higher incidents of such experiences. Finally, Greeley turns to mystical experience, the type of paranormal experience for which he seems to have the most affinity. Greeley reports that 35% of the respondents have had mystical experiences at least once, and 5% of the respondents have had mystical experiences “often.” Three important findings regarding mystical experiences are then reported: (1) Mystical experiences are correlated with a supportive and religiously joyous family atmosphere (particularly a religiously joyous father); (2) Mystical experiences are correlated with psychological well-being and general satisfaction with one’s life; (3) Mystical experiences are described in terms not unlike those used to describe “classic” mystical episodes (here Greeley calls upon James’, Bucke’s and Maslow’s studies of mystical-related experiences). Greeley then concludes his study by modestly suggesting that the strong correlations between mystical and psychic experiences and positive mental health ought to be further investigated.