This is a book I've been waiting decades to read—a superbly researched and compellingly argued analysis of the ways that anthropological theories and practices shaped Victorian scientific research into spiritualism and, more surprisingly, how spiritualism shaped the theories and practices of anthropology in the critical period of its disciplinary formation.
Psychic Investigators examines British anthropology’s engagement with the modern spiritualist movement during the late Victorian era. Efram Sera-Shriar argues that debates over the existence of ghosts and psychical powers were at the center of anthropological discussions on human beliefs. He focuses on the importance of establishing credible witnesses of spirit and psychic phenomena in the writings of anthropologists such as Alfred Russel Wallace, Edward Burnett Tylor, Andrew Lang, and Edward Clodd. The book draws on major themes, such as the historical relationship between science and religion, the history of scientific observation, and the emergence of the subfield of anthropology of religion in the second half of the nineteenth century. For secularists such as Tylor and Clodd, spiritualism posed a major obstacle in establishing the legitimacy of the theory of animism: a core theoretical principle of anthropology founded in the belief of “primitive cultures” that spirits animated the world, and that this belief represented the foundation of all religious paradigms. What becomes clear through this nuanced examination of Victorian anthropology is that arguments involving spirits or psychic forces usually revolved around issues of evidence, or lack of it, rather than faith or beliefs or disbeliefs.
In this compelling new study, Efram Sera-Shriar shows how late Victorian anthropology engaged with spiritualism in order to buttress its disciplinary foundations and develop a practice of ‘credible witnessing.’ In Psychic Investigators, we see how Alfred Russel Wallace, E. B. Tylor, Andrew Lang, and Edward Clodd turned to the séance room as a theoretical and fieldwork site, in the process reaching very different conclusions about the possibility of life after death and paranormal ability. An important contribution to spiritualism and science studies.
Sera-Shriar’s excellent book considers how the questions raised by the spirit hypothesis—concerning religious belief, evidence, observation, and the limits of human knowledge—came to shape the field of anthropology and its emergent methodologies. Exploring the darkened environs of the séance, Psychic Investigators breaks new ground by insisting on the coconstituting nature of the relationship between Victorian anthropology and spiritualism.
Efram Sera-Shriar is a Copenhagen-based historian and writer. He received his PhD from the University of Leeds and has worked in higher education and the museum sector for nearly twenty years. He is associate director of research for the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies International at Durham University. Prior to taking on this role, he was a senior researcher and research grants manager for the Science Museum Group in the UK and lecturer of modern history at Leeds Trinity University.