Epistemic Authority and Neutrality in the Discourse of Psychic Practitioners: Toward a Naturalistic Parapsychology

By Wooffitt, Robin | The Journal of Parapsychology, Spring-Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Epistemic Authority and Neutrality in the Discourse of Psychic Practitioners: Toward a Naturalistic Parapsychology


Wooffitt, Robin, The Journal of Parapsychology


Contemporary demonstration of mediumship or psychic powers is a mundane, practical, and largely discursive matter.

It is mundane because it is so ubiquitous in contemporary western culture. In the UK, for example, members of the public can consult mediums and other kinds of psychic practitioner in a variety of private and public contexts. Psychic fairs seem to be very popular: These are meetings in specially booked rooms in public houses or hotels lasting a short period of time, such as one evening, at which a small number of psychic practitioners are available for consultation. Private one-to-one sittings can be arranged either in the sitter's home or in the home of the psychic or medium. Psychics advertise their services in national and local newspapers and magazines. Psychics may be consulted over the phone, via the internet, or through mobile phone text messaging services. Mediums demonstrate spirit communication around the country at several hundred Spiritualist church services held weekly. Some psychic practitioners have established successful television careers. Stage demonstrations of mediumship attract large audiences. The British medium Doris Stokes was internationally renowned and able to draw large audiences to her public demonstrations all over the world.

Contemporary stage mediums also enjoy a large public following. A recent observational study of a British stage medium reports that, at a conservative estimate, he is demonstrating mediumship to at least 50,000 people each year across the UK (with entry prices set, at the time of writing, between 12 [pounds sterling] and 14 [pounds sterling] per person). And, as he refuses television work or radio appearances, this popularity is based on "word of mouth" endorsements alone (Wooffitt & Gilbert, in press).

In the UK, then, contemporary consumption of psychic powers and mediumship is relatively straightforward. It is likely that consumption of psychic powers is similarly organized and available in the US and, with cultural variations, in other Western European countries also.

The consumption of psychic powers is a practical matter in that, quite simply, it involves a demonstration of those abilities. This has always been the case. Take, for example, mediumship. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, proof of the medium's paranormal powers was demonstrated physically: The spirits offered visible, audible, and sometimes tangible evidence of their presence (Irwin, 1999; Nelson, 1969; Oppenheim, 1985). During the latter part of the 20th century, however, demonstrations of physical mediumship declined (but see Keen, Ellison, & Fontana, 1999). A key feature of contemporary mediumship is that demonstrations are primarily discursive events: It is through the words of the medium--in the reports of spirit messages or activities--that the presence of the spirit is established. And it is through the information they are able to provide about their clients or sitters that other psychic practitioners establish the authenticity of their parapsychologically acquired knowledge. Demonstrations of mediumship and psychic abilities are pragmatic and communicative activities.

Parapsychology has largely ignored the practical and discursive features of everyday demonstrations of psychic and mediumship abilities. Parapsychological research has been primarily experimental and designed to test the authenticity of claimed abilities. This is the case whether spectacular psychic gifts are claimed, as in the case of Uri Geller (Targ & Puthoff, 1974), Ted Serios (Eisenbud, 1967, 1977), and Pavel Stepanek (Pratt, 1973), or in cases where lesser known individuals claim more modest psychic abilities (Parra & Argibay, 2007; Roe, 1995; Smith & Wiseman, 1992/1993; Wiseman & Morris, 1994, 1995).

There has, however, been a resurgence of parapsychological writings on mediums. Alvarado's historical scholarship re-examines the relationship between parapsychology and mediumship (Alvarado 2003, 2004); Braude's philosophical analysis of the evidence for survival evaluates the mediumship of key figures such as Leonora Piper and Gladys Leonard (Braude, 2003); and there have been reassessments of the evidential value of early mediums (Moreman, 2003; Randall, 2001, 2003) as well as attempts to refine methodologies for the accuracy of mediums' statements (for example, Roy & Robertson, 2001; Robertson & Roy, 2001, 2004). …

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