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Transpersonal anthropology is a subdiscipline of cultural anthropology and transpersonal studies. It studies the relationship between altered states of consciousness and culture.
According to Walsh and Vaughan, who proposed several definitions of the transpersonal field in the early 1990s, Transpersonal anthropology is the cross-cultural study of transpersonal phenomena and the relationship between consciousness and culture. Charles Laughlin, a founder of the field of Transpersonal anthropology, has defined the discipline as the cross-cultural study of transpersonal experiences, including the sociocultural evocation, interpretation, and utility of transpersonal experiences, and their involvement in defining social roles.
As with transpersonal psychology, the field is much concerned with altered states of consciousness (ASC) and transpersonal experience. However, the field differs from mainstream transpersonal psychology in taking more cognizance of cross-cultural issues—for instance, the roles of myth, ritual, diet, and texts in evoking and interpreting extraordinary experiences.
Commentators locate the start of Transpersonal anthropology to the US in the 1970s. The first collective effort within the field was a tentative organization called the Phoenix Associates, and its supporting journal; Phoenix: New Directions in the Study of Man. Among the contributors to the early work within the field was Philip S. Staniford, Ronald L. Campbell, Joseph K. Long and Shirley Lee.
In 1978 Geri-Ann Galanti launched The Newsletter for the Anthropological Study of Paranormal and Anomalistic Phenomena (NASPAP), independently of the Phoenix-collaboration. However, in 1980 these two groups came together to form the Association for Transpersonal Anthropology. The official journal of the new organization was called Phoenix: The Journal of Transpersonal Anthropology.
By the mid-eighties the discipline was described as a «young and growing field» by commentators. However, in this period there was a schism within the organization related to future goals and orientations. One group wanted a humanistic direction, while another group wanted a more scientific orientation. In 1984 the latter group split from the organization and became the Association for the Anthropological Study of Consciousness (AASC). This unit later went on to become the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness. According to Hunter, the parallel field of Anthropology of Consciousness grew out of the transpersonal perspective, including Transpersonal anthropology. However, soon after these events the Association for Transpersonal Anthropology winded down, and The Phoenix journal ceased publication in 1985.
Central to the development of the field has been the work of anthropologist Charles D. Laughlin, who is considered to be one of the primary founders of the discipline. Shepard also notes the contributions of Ihsan Al-Issa, and Edith Turner, wife of the anthropologist Victor Turner.
One of the contributions of Laughlin to anthropological theory is a differentiation between so-called monophasic and polyphasic cultures. According to this theory polyphasic cultures are open to altered states of consciousness, and tries to integrate these experiences into their worldview, while monophasic cultures, typical of technocratical societies, are largely closed to these alternative states of mind. Laughlin has published extensively on the topic of Transpersonal anthropology, and has addresses several issues within the field, including methodology.
The work of Al-Issa has dealt with the topic of hallucinations, and the cultural aspects of them. Here, Al-Issa notes how not all cultures have negative views on hallucinations. Cross-cultural differences are noted by Al-Issa in sensory modalities most commonly encountered in hallucinations.
The field also includes the theories of anthropologist Dennis Gaffin whose contribution is a re-conceptualization of fairyology and the fairy-faith within the context of anthropology.
Sheppard explains how Edith Turner's interpretations of her husband's field studies among the Ndembu in Zambia also can be interpreted as belonging to transpersonal anthropology, insofar as her interpretations of their healing rituals were transpersonal.
Sheppard has published an article criticising transpersonal anthropology, at least as it has typically been practiced in contemporary scholarship. Her criticisms include its lack of a systematic conceptual base; its over-emphasis on shamanism; the difficulty in studying non-Western cultures that have been truly immune to Western influences and the question of the extent to which transpersonal anthropology has really addressed altered states of consciousness.
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