Constructing parapsychology : a discourse analysis of the accounts of experimental parapsychologists
Coelho, Claudia Carvalho De Matos Teixeira
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This thesis is concerned with parapsychology as a field of experimental science. It is based on the discourse analysis of interviews with experimental parapsychologists, in which they provide accounts of their field, their own research practices and experimental outcomes. Drawing on literature from the fields of parapsychology and social studies of science, experimental parapsychologists are characterised as having an asymmetrical standing within science. Whilst they share with other experimental scientists (e.g. psychologists) many of their core assumptions and investigative methods, they differ significantly in how their phenomena, basic propositions and empirical expertise are actively disputed both outwith and within parapsychology. It is this asymmetrical standing, the disputed nature of the reality of their object and of the scientific justification of its existence that makes parapsychologists' accounts of their work particularly interesting to the exploration of discursive practices involved in the construction of what they do a doing science. Drawing both on literature relating to the "linguistic turn" in social studies of science, and on recent methodological developments in discourse analysis, this thesis puts forward that the analysis of parapsychologists' accounts provides a particularly rich insight into how scientific knowledge and practice are discursively accomplished. It thus focuses on how these parapsychologists produce meaningfully variable factual versions of what they do as 'doing science', and of their disputed object as a real phenomenon. The aims of the study were the following: a) to examine parapsychologists' own accounts of their field, research practices and experimental outcomes; b) to analyse how these accounts attend to normative versions of what 'counts' as science; and c) to analyse the discursive resources they use to achieve factual accounts of 'doing science'. The analysis of the data obtained from 20 interviews with experimental parapsychologists begins with the examination of how they constructed their field as a community, as a body of evidence, and as a field with a particular relationship to a standard view of science. The analysis was inspired by the thread of discourse analytic research which focuses on 'fact construction'. It shows how they orient to ideas of demarcation and constitute parapsychology as a field with characteristics that compromise the scientificity of their own knowledge and practice. It also shows how these parapsychologists attend to and manage the relationship between what they do and these compromising characteristics, by building them up as essential properties of the evidence for the phenomena (as essentially ambiguous), and even of psi itself (as essentially elusive). The construction of parapsychology as inherently problematic (i.e. a 'less than perfect' scientific field), allows these parapsychologists to constitute their research work as an almost heroic achievement. Regarding the participants' versions of their research practices, the analysis shows that they make these scientifically safe (e.g., by appealing to, and by presenting them as, in line with, ordinary versions of empirical research). The analysis further explores these parapsychologists' constructions of their practices as doing strict and extreme empiricism, with no assumptions, expectations, theoretical uderpinnings or objectives. Their appeal to the primacy of facts, the doing of methodology, neutrality and the dispensability of theory and models, constitute versions of scientific inquiry that are bearably in line with a version of science as 'doing strict empiricism'. The analysis argues that the variety and extremity of these formulations constitute the extent to which the empirical quality of their research is oriented to by them as something that is not taken for granted (and thus needs to be accounted for). Paradoxically, this same extremity rhetorically breaches normative accounts of doing science, through the intense problematization of theory or expectations of any sort. The final focus of the analysis is the exploration of these parapsychologists' constructions of the outcomes of their own research, specifically their categories of psi and of anomaly. The analysis shows that, though both of these concern the central object and claim of parapsychology, the participants present radically different categories of each, which are functionally meaningful in relation to their versions of doing science. Overall, the thesis argues that these parapsychologists constitute a paradoxical discursive position in relation to normative accounts of doing science. On the one hand, they actively appeal to the primacy of evidence and empiricism On the other hand, they construct a set of characteristics for their research object and evidence that compromise the rhetorical achievements of empiricism; also, the extremity of these accounts is such that this constructed empiricism is made into a remarkable rhetorically brittle account of scientific practice in parapsychology. Finally, the thesis discusses the implications of these arguments for parapsychology, namely, for the development of a reflexive and discursive thread of research within the field. It also examines the limitations of this approach and possible future research.