Anthropology of consiousness: research theory and practice

© 2013 V.I. Kharitonova, S. Krippner

2013 – № 2 (6)

Stanley Krippner is interviewed by Valentina Kharitonova 


kripner 200 250Krippner Stanley, Ph.D., is a widely known American psychologist, Professor of Psychology at Saybrook University in Oakland, California. He is a Fellow in four APA divisions, and past-president of two divisions (30 and 32). Formerly, he was director of the Kent State University Child Study Center, Kent OH, and the Maimonides Medical Center Dream Research Laboratory, in Brooklyn NY. He is co-author of Extraordinary Dreams (SUNY, 2002), The Mythic Path, 3rd ed. (Energy Psychology Press, 2006), and Haunted by Combat: Understanding PTSD in War Veterans (Greenwood, 2007), and co-editor of Healing Tales (Puente, 2007), Healing Stories (Puente, 2007), The Psychological Impact of War on Civilians: An International Perspective (Greenwood, 2003), Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence (APA, 2000), and many other books.

Source of information: S. Krippner’s personal web-site (

Key words:  anthropology of consciousness, participant observation, altered states of consciousness, shamans, ayahuasca, ecological problems, drug tourism.

Abstract: Stanley Krippner talks about his own research in the realm of anthropology of consciousness, where he brought his own perspective of a psychologist with many years of studies of sleep and dreams.

Krippner talks about the history of this academic branch: traditional for anthropology studies of consciousness transformed by psychoactive plants, contemplative disciplines, lucid dreaming, shamanic rituals, and other practices, in 1970-1990-s have been formalized into a separate discipline – anthropology of consciousness. In 1990 the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness became an official section of AAA. This discipline adapts research methods traditional for cultural anthropology: cross-cultural comparisons, interviews, questionnaires, field work observations, participant-observations, and studying archives.

The researcher also mentions his own methodological experiments: during some shamanic ceremonies he consumed psychoactive substances, during others remained a non-involved observer. He comes to a conclusion that so-called ‘objectivity’ of research is not guaranteed in neither of these cases. The etic, as well as emic approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. He suggests to conduct research from both perspectives, perhaps with two different teams of researchers.

In some cases Stanley Krippner engaged specialists from other disciplines who brought physiological monitoring equipment to measure changes in brain waves, muscle tension, heartbeat rate, skin conductivity, and other functions. According to him, such methods of ‘neuroanthropology’ will become increasingly popular, once more compact and more portable physiological instruments are available to the field research.

haritonova_picture001V.Kh.: Dear Professor Krippner, let me ask you several questions regarding anthropology of consciousness, a scientific discipline actively developing in the US and other countries of the world that was formed with your contribution, as well as about the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness that exists for several years already as a separate section of the American Anthropological Association. First of all, apparently, we would like to hear and understand what anthropology of consciousness is from the point of view of one of its founders.

S.K.: The word “consciousness” has many definitions. But I use the term to refer to the pattern of perception, cognition, and/or emotion that characterizes a living organism at a given place and time. Anthropologists study the similarities and differences among human groups: their physiology, evolution, culture (e.g., languages, social structures, belief systems, artistic expressions, methods of adaptation to their environment), and patterns of perception, cognition, and/or emotion. Hence the anthropology of consciousness focuses on one category of the field of anthropology, albeit a category that overlaps with other categories.

V.Kh.: Tell us, please, about how this discipline emerged, what became the stimulus of its formation as a separate field of studies?

S.K.: The anthropology of consciousness has been an implicit part of anthropology since its earliest days but only emerged as a distinct discipline in 1952. In an open letter to other anthropologists, J.R. Swanton wrote that there are aspects of anthropology “not being met in an honest, truly scientific manner.” Swanton was referring to so-called parapsychological phenomena but other anthropologists began to list additional topics stimulated, in part, by the writings of Carlos Castaneda who received a PhD in anthropology from UCLA and wrote a series of best-selling books about his adventures with the alleged Yaqui sorcerer, don Juan Matus. These accounts are of dubious authenticity, but stimulated formal studies by anthropologists in alterations of consciousness such as those evoked by psychoactive plants, contemplative disciplines, lucid dreaming, shamanic rituals, and other practices. In 1973, shortly after the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings where Joseph Long had delivered a paper on anthropology and parapsychology, he made telephone contact with Stephan Schwartz, who had been conducted archaeological research using parapsychological methods. They submitted an entire symposium on the topic to AAA for its 1974 convention, which was accepted. The symposium attracted a huge crowd and considerable controversy, especially in regard to a paper by Norman Emerson on anomalous phenomena he had witnessed when studying Iroquois tribes in North America. Later that day, Schwartz met with Margaret Mead, a well-known anthropologist, who spoke of her personal experiences and encouraged a scientific approach to these topics. Schwartz, Long, and Emerson, at a meeting during the convention, doubted that there was enough interest to create a formal organization but agreed to arrange a second AAA symposium in 1975, a third in 1977, and a fourth in 1978. Another 1978 symposium was held at the Southwestern Anthropological Association and was there that the creation of the Association for Transpersonal Anthropology was announced. I joined the group and presented several papers at their annual meetings. This organization went through several name changes before becoming the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, which became an official section of AAA in 1990. The group’s publication, Phoenix, became an impressive journal, The Anthropology of Consciousness, and publishes articles by anthropologists from around the world.

V.Kh.: What are the methodological approaches that distinguish this discipline? How big and important is the role of examining participants using equipment?

S.K.: Anthropologists who study consciousness use the same research methods that characterize the work of other anthropologists. I learned about these methods when I took my first anthropology course at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1950s. My professor was William Howells, who was president of the AAA at the time and who was renowned for concluding that modern humans were members of a single species, a conclusion that undermined racist ideology. Anthropologists of consciousness are more likely to use methods in vogue among cultural anthropologists rather than physical anthropologists, for example cross-cultural comparisons, interviews, questionnaires, field work observations, participant-observations, and studying archives. For example, I have ingested mind-altering brews and have smoked mind-altering substances at the invitation of shamans. However, I have taken the role of observer during sacred ceremonies during which the only active participants have been diviners or shamans. I have used questionnaires when studying gender differences between male and female African-Brazilian mediums. I have conducted interviews when attempting to determine the nature of one’s “call to heal,” and have made cross-cultural comparisons of various indigenous healing systems. Archival research was necessary when I constructed models of dream interpretation from several Native American tribes before the European invasion and colonization of the Americas. A colleague and I even made physiological recordings of two Brazilian practitioners who claimed to “incorporate” spirits, finding that their shifts in brain and body functioning resembles those of a celebrated practitioner from the United States who claims to “channel” information from a discarnate entity. This method is an example of “neuroanthropology,” the application of methods and insights from the neurosciences to anthropological studies. I think that this approach will become increasingly popular once more compact and more portable physiological instruments are available to the field research.

V.Kh.: What did neuroanthropology contribute to modern science?

S.K.: The new field of neuroanthropology is cross-disciplinary in nature, drawing upon methods and topics from the neurosciences. There are cognitive neuroscientists, affective neuroscientists, social neuroscientists, economic neuroscientists, among others. But all of them study the relationship between human behavior and experience, on the one hand, and the brain and central nervous system on the other. Neuroanthropologists are interested in how affects social organization and culture, human institutions and culture, folk customs including language, and the evolutionary history of human beings. The latter topic includes brain plasticity. Not only does the brain impact behavior; human behavior can also impact the brain. This is evident in studies of humans practicing meditation, contemplation and praying, and undergoing psychotherapy — all of which appear to have an integrative effect upon the brain hemispheres as well as the upper and lower parts of the brain. It has been suggested that shamanic practices have an integrative effect as well.

V.Kh.: Around the world you are famous as a scientist who has worked a lot with unusual phenomena of consciousness. For example, the film about Dr. Fritz that was done with your contribution demonstrates absolutely fantastic capacities of the human consciousness. What can you tell us about these unusual phenomena of consciousness and achievements in its studies using methods of anthropology of consciousness, or other methodological instruments?

S.K.: I have had cameo roles in several film documentaries, many of them focusing on Brazilian practitioners who engage in healing sessions while in altered consciousness. In addition, I have been able to enlist colleagues who have brought physiological monitoring equipment to measure changes in brain waves, muscle tension, heartbeat rate, skin conductivity, and other functions. One finding was that the practitioners who we studied were not “faking” or pretending to be in a “trance.” If so, there would not have been the profound changes in physiological measures that we observed. Some of these practitioners had students who allowed us to test them as well. Their bodily shifts were not as extreme as were those of their teachers, but still quite different from their ordinary means of functioning. This tells us that diligent students can learn how to shift their consciousness in ways deemed beneficial to the sick people they are trying to assist. It also tells us that such practices must be done with extreme care. I have seen a Brazilian practitioner incorporate the so-called “Dr. Fritz” who performed surgical operations with scalpels and other instruments but without the use of anesthesia. His Brazilian clients claimed to feel no pain, while his American clients experienced extreme distress. My hunch was that it was a matter of expectation; the Brazilians expected a painless operation while the Americans had no such expectation and suffered the consequences.

V.Kh.: How much your interest in shamanism studies and altered states of consciousness in shamanic practices is related to the fact that you came to anthropology of consciousness, that you contributed to its establishment as a separate discipline?

S.K.: My interest in shamanism and altered consciousness predated the formation of the anthropology of consciousness as a distinct discipline. Once the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness was formed, I did what I could to publicize the movement. Of course, there have been similar movements in other parts of the world, especially in Russia where ethnological studies and publications have made significant contributions to the field. I am a psychologist, and have conducted many experiments in a sleep and dream laboratory. When I joined the American Anthropological Association and the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, I brought a psychological perspective to those groups.

V.Kh.: Not long ago the Russian translation of your book about the shaman Rolling Thunder, with whom you were close friends for many years, was issued in Moscow. Please tell us about this friendship, to what extent your engagement into shamanism thanks to Rolling Thunder transformed your worldview. Was it another step on the way to formation of anthropology of consciousness?

S.K.: I had been interested in shamanism long before I met Rolling Thunder, the interr-tribal medicine man who is the subject of the Russian book ‘Listen to the Rolling Thunder’. I wrote this book with Sidian Morning Star, the grandson of Rolling Thunder, and we are pleased that Russian readers can learn about this remarkable man. I met Rolling Thunder long before the formation of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, but gave several reports on my work with him at their annual meetings. Specifically, I discussed how his healing sessions employed techniques similar to Western hypnotic practices, and how his political activism was consistent with his role as a healer. Rolling Thunder was not only interested in healing people, but in healing the planet from the environmental ravages it has suffered. Concern with the natural environment was the major way in which my contact with him transformed my worldview.

V.Kh.: In some of your books, including those published by the international book series “Ethnological studies of shamanism and other indigenous beliefs and practices” and the journal “Ethnographic Review” you wrote that you took part in experiments on altered states of consiousness, including ayahuasca sessions. It’s not a secret that nowadays many shamanism researchers are getting involved in the practice of hallucinogens’ use. What do you think, how far a scientist can go in this type of experiments: use hallucinogens, for instance? May it impact the purity of his/her perception and objectivity of scientific assessment?

S.K.: William McGovern was my anthropology professor at Northwestern University where I did my post-graduate work. He had explored the Peruvian rain forest before I was born and may have been the first anthropologist to write about his reactions to the mind-altering brew, kaapi, also known as yage or ayahuasca. I was fascinated by his stories and eagerly read his book ‘Jungle Paths and Inca Ruins’ where he recounted his adventures in South America. I have had ayahuasca ten times but always in an organized ritual, such as those organized by the Santo Daime or the Vegetable Unity churches. This was an example of participant-observation, and I would not have understood the effects of the brew without having had the experience. Of course, this would alter the way that one perceives the effects of the brew. But if one does not take it, so-called “objectivity” is not guaranteed because the observer simply writes about the ritual in a different way. The etic approach has its advantages and disadvantages but so does the emic approach. We need to do research from both perspectives, perhaps with two different teams of researchers.

V.Kh.: Marlene Dobkin de Rios who I think you knew very well (she was also interested in the anthropology of consciousness) wrote that regulated use of hallucinogens in traditional practices is not harmful, as opposed to uncontrolled use of, e.g., ayahuasca in modern ethno-drug-tourism. Do you think it’s right? What does modern anthropology of consciousness say about such a way of “consciousness development”?

S.K.: My dear friend Marlene Dobkin de Rios wrote some of the most perceptive articles and books on ayahuasca. She claimed that the long-term effects of regulated ayahuasca use were not harmful, and the medical research of Chalres Grob and his associates support her statement. However she stated that unregulated use, as in so-called “ethno-drug-tourism” could be harmful and I think she was right. I know of people who have been financially manipulated and sexually abused during some of these “ayahuasca tours.” The anthropology of consciousness can take a proactive role in warning people about unsupervised use of ayahuasca and other psychoactive substances. Remember that they were originally considered sacred and were used for spiritual development. They can still provide benefits if used within that framework

V.Kh.: What are the main research issues studied in the field of anthropology of consciousness nowadays? Around 10 years ago another scientific discipline related to anthropology of consciousness started to develop. It’s name is neuroanthropology. Can you formulate the points of intersection between these disciplines? To which extent they interact and complement each other?

S.K.: The anthropology of consciousness has become an interdisciplinary field.

The Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness has attracted psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, artists, and a variety of other professional people. In the United States and elsewhere, there are training programs for practitioners who want to use shamanic techniques, without becoming shamans themselves. The best of these training programs are directed by Michael Harner (an anthropologist), Alberto Villoldo (a medical anthropologist who lives in Chile), Eduardo Luis Luna (who lives in Brazil), and others. There are a number of graduate programs where students can study the anthropology of consciousness and write theses on the topic. At Saybrook University, for example, we have had students conduct field studies (using both anthropological and psychological research methods) on such topics as shamanism, ayahuasca, mediumship, Southeast Asian meditative practices, Native American spiritual practices, lucid dreaming, shamanic “dream waling,” pranayama breathing, Taoist ancestral worship, and similar topics. Eventually, the anthropology of consciousness might require a separate department but at the present time it is well served by existing university structures. The problem is that most universities lack faculty members with the proper training to work with interested students.

Over the years, I have had experienced attacks from people based in universities who do not think this research meets what they consider to be scientific standards.  However, these judgmental attitudes often are relics of a previous generation. I find that younger academics are much more open-minded on these topics, not only because they can see the care that goes into constructing, carrying out, and interpreting these studies, but also because they have had some of these experiences themselves. Your journal is to be congratulated for its efforts to maintain high standards for this type of research while providing a forum where these data can be presented and discussed.

V.Kh.: Thank you very much, Professor Krippner, I’m sure this interview will be extremely interesting to our readers. Information on Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness will be of interest as well, as in July 2013 we created the first Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists that at the moment also engages specialists interested in anthropological studies of consciousness.

S.K.: I am pleased to hear of the formation of the Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists, and hope that it can collaborate with the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness to educate both professionals and non-professionals about the dangers of using psychoactive drugs without supervision. In fact, there are also dangers in the unsupervised use of other indigenous practices such as sweat lodges, “spirit incorporation,” and fire-walking.

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