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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Mind over Mind: The Archaeology and Psychology of Spirit Possession by Morton Klass (Rowman & Littlefield) explores the phenomenon of spirit possession from both anthropological and psychological perspectives. Spirit possession is ritually important in many cultures from India to Brazil to Madagascar, but has tended to be narrowly regarded from modern American and European perspective as a species of multiple personality disorder. The late Klass, a professor of anthropology, has many more illuminating things to report about this widespread religious phenomena, and it his hoped that this little volume is given the attention it deserves.

The primary objective of this book is to attempt to answer, on the basis of contemporary theory and research, what for some people is a dif­ficult, uncomfortable, and perhaps even unanswerable, question: What is really happening when someone claims to be, or is said to be, undergoing "possession" by a "god," a "spirit," an "ancestor," or some other variety of invisible or noncorporeal entity?

Anthropologists who study this phenomenon refer to it as "spirit possession" and consider it a form of "altered states of consciousness," which is generally shortened to the acronym ASC. As we shall see, a lot has been written on the subject from many different and important perspectives. Over the years there has, of course, been speculation about this rather strange phenomenon—about "what is really happen­ing"—but nothing approaching agreement has ever been reached, and so the question has been allowed to quietly slip under the table.

The broader topic—spirit possession—is certainly interesting in itself; it is colorful and exotic, frequently involving such attention-capturing behavior as trance, fire walking, seemingly miraculous healing, and other even more unusual and spectacular practices.

The major reason I have chosen to write about spirit possession is because the state of our knowledge on the subject illustrates a number of serious problems for scholarship and research in both the so-called hard sciences and the supposedly softer ones (in which anthropology is often uncomfortably subsumed). We in the various disciplines that claim to constitute science are losing touch with one another, and, as a result, in every discipline we frequently spend all too much time reinventing the wheel. At worst, we find ourselves naively traveling down roads that colleagues in other fields have already determined to be dead ends.

In this book, I hope to demonstrate the advantages of peering over some of the fences that separate disciplines. Thus, when, as in the first paragraph, I refer to "contemporary theory and research," I am not re­ferring solely to anthropological literature: though I am an anthropol­ogist, I mean to encompass much that is relevant for this purpose in re-cent writings of psychiatrists, psychologists, and even contemporary philosophers. My primary concerns are to compare and to attempt to integrate views and research deriving from anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, and philosophy. A thorough reconciliation of work on sig­nificantly related topics in these disciplines is long overdue, and by ex­ploring the nature of spirit possession I hope to demonstrate that they all stand to profit from one another's research and insights. Even more, I hope to show how much anthropology has to contribute to the stud­ies of human behavior conducted in other disciplines, and therefore how unfortunate it is that so many scholars in those fields have not availed themselves of anthropology's offerings.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons for this academic state of af­fairs. Every scholarly discipline has its own interests, vocabulary, per­spective, expertise, and corpus of literature, and inevitably there are few individuals who can claim adequate command of more than one field. I myself make no such claim: I am an anthropologist, solely, at-tempting to bridge a gulf between his own field and others. This work must therefore be evaluated as primarily deriving from, and reflecting, the perspective and concerns of anthropology. I offer it, however, as an effort of an anthropologist to understand the concerns and contribu­tions of scholars in another field, and thus essentially as an invitation to further refinement through continuing dialogue. I hope, therefore, that this book will be read by anthropologists who are interested in the problems raised here about spirit possession and for whom I explicate as best I can the relevant views of psychiatrists, psychologists, philoso­phers, and others. But I hope, too, that the book will interest scholars in those other fields—indeed, interested persons in any and all fields of inquiry—and for such readers, I attempt a review of what anthropolo­gists have written and debated about spirit possession itself.

More than that: given my concern about the current pervasive mis­understanding of what anthropology is actually about, I propose to sub­ject the nonanthropologically trained reader to a brief version of "An­thropology 101." In the next chapter, for example, I shall among other things do my best to explain what anthropologists mean—and do not mean—by the term culture. I do that, let me emphasize, because the term in all its complexity is central to my effort to deal with "the na­ture of spirit possession": that is, if you don't understand what is en-compassed by the anthropological use of the term culture (and if you are not an anthropologist, the odds unfortunately are more than good), then you will find much of my argument in the later chapters incom­prehensible.

It can of course be asserted that other anthropologists have a greater familiarity than I do with the literature of psychology in general, and that there are many psychologists and psychiatrists who are quite fa­miliar with some dimensions of the work of anthropologists. What is often missing, I am suggesting, is the necessary integration or synthesis of contemporary theory in the two disciplines. I shall attempt such an interdisciplinary integration or synthesis here, in the specific case of "the nature of spirit possession."

I have said I propose to inquire into what is actually happening when an individual is said or observed to be "possessed" by a "spirit," a "god," or some other "noncorporeal entity." Alas, just by asking such a question we are immediately in troubled waters.

So why, then, do we do the things we do? Again, what is the purpose of the anthropological endeavor? Let me try, in the next chapter, to an­swer that most legitimate question: it will lead me inexorably to the main task of this book. For, as I set forth to wrestle with, and integrate, the phenomena now separately called "spirit possession" and "dissocia­tion," I would remind the reader that I approach the problem not only as an anthropologist—but as one who perceives the necessity of both integrating the findings of other disciplines into anthropology and communicating to those in other disciplines what anthropology has to offer them.

My strategy is to focus on "spirit possession" in chapters 3 and 4: on what anthropologists have observed and how they have interpreted their observations. In the succeeding chapters, I attempt to do the same thing with "dissociation" as that subject has been studied by psycholo­gists and psychiatrists. This leads me, in my effort to meld our under-standing of the two phenomena, into the thickets of theory and re-search about such awesome and recalcitrant topics as "hysteria," "hypnosis," "consciousness," and the very structure of the human mind. And so, finally, I offer my own synthesis of what anthropology and psy­chopathology have separately taught us about all these matters. I propose a new arrangement of taxonomical categories to integrate the disciplinary perspectives of anthropology and psychopathology concerning possession and dissociation.

No question: it will be a bumpy and controversial trip—but I hope in the end we will have achieved some enlightenment . . . about spirit possession and dissociation, and also about the benefits of traveling across the disciplinary boundaries.

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