[UPDATED August 2011]
Academia has long been a little suspicious of the Fortean world, and with some reason. There has always been so much woolly thinking, so many unprovable hypotheses, and so little truck with the scientific method on our side of the academic iron curtain that — setting aside the rationalists at CSICOP — aspiring scholars have chosen to stay well clear of our subject when it comes to selecting areas of study, and most especially when choosing a topic for that most important of academic hurdles, the PhD thesis - a critical decision that can heavily affect one's chances of securing employment thereafter.
There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Students of folklore, social studies and psychology have occasionally turned their attention to the sort of topics covered in Fortean Times. But even in these disciplines, the problems of securing funding, a supervisor and — above all — maximising the prospects of finding a job have deterred all but a few from pursuing serious study of Fortean topics, no matter how sceptical the writers’ viewpoint.
That this is a great shame goes pretty much without saying. Few able researchers in our field have the luxury of devoting three or more years to full–time work on any topic, or of utilising the sort of resources available in great universities and large academic libraries. But the problem works both ways. When was the last time you saw a truly academic work, much less an unpublished thesis, referenced in a book by a Fortean author?
Ignoring what’s going on in behind closed doors in those ivy towers of academia belittles and restricts us, and it’s certainly worth bearing in mind that more than a handful of interesting and important academic works on Fortean topics do exist and that these can all too easily slip under the radar of even the most dedicated Fortean. Academic books are generally published in editions of as few as 200 copies, practically all of which will find their way into major research libraries rarely visited by the public, and unpublished theses — the vast majority of PhD research remains unpublished — are practically never consulted, even by other academics.
Researchers face considerable difficulty, in fact, in discovering what MA, MSc and PhD theses even exist. Various academic databases do give details. The British Library, for example, must by law receive a copy of every PhD thesis completed in Britain, and it lists these in its integrated catalogue. There's also a separate catalogue available for UK theses only, accessed via the "Catalogue subset search" tab on the integrated catalogue – and, as of 2010, a new Electronic Thesis Online Service has been introduced, which makes it possible for BL users to remotely order and download recent theses for free, and even have an electronic download prepared for them (allowing for a 30-day wait) if the dissertation in question has yet to be digitised. This is progress indeed, though my own searches have turned up little or nothing written before 1970, and some institutions are refusing to make their theses available through EToS – Cambridge and Oxford among them. Less progress has been made elsewhere, however; Cambridge University Library, for instance, holds 26,000 theses in its manuscript department, and maintains a separate card catalogue listing them for the benefit of those who can actually make it to Cambridge, but coverage of such works in Newton, its online catalogue, is patchy, especially for theses completed before 1970.
Rather more usefully, theses dating all the way back to 1716 for all British universities have been catalogued and are listed in the Index to Theses in Great Britain and Ireland. Unfortunately, this is a subscription–only site, rarely accessible outside major research libraries. Large reference libraries will also hold the old text version of the Index, but this suffers from the additional huge drawback that it is arranged both annually and by broad subject area. Searching for anything on a particular topic, say UFOs, without knowing author, title and discipline in advance is thus a hugely time–consuming prospect.
Most countries, incidentally, have equivalent indexes and equivalent sites that can be found with a bare minimum of searching. There’s one for Canadian theses, for instance, which is freely accessible and easily searchable by keyword. And some fairly simple searches turn up the odd online bibliography of Fortean dissertations. Some of these theses can be accessed electronically, at least from academic libraries; for others, one would have to turn to interlibrary loans.
Thing are slightly better in the US — but only slightly. An organisation called University Microfilms International has gathered together and filmed virtually all US PhD theses and many masters dissertations written since the Civil War — only a couple of dissenting institutions, such as Columbia, are not represented. And these theses are available, both to academics and the general public, via a freely–accessible website. They can be purchased, as unbound but perfectly legible printouts from microfilm, for a little over $40 a pop.
The great problem is that the UMI search system is, without question, one of the most frustrating I’ve ever come across. Again, everything’s fine if you actually know the author or title of the thesis you are searching for. If you don’t, UMI does allow general searches by keyword. But the system allows only searches by single keyword or by phrase and, worse, limits the number of hits it returns to a deeply arbitrary and frustrating 40. If you’re searching a popular keyword, you’ll almost always come up against the latter problem — the system simply displays the first 40 hits it comes up with and gives you no way to find out how many more are behind that first 40, or how to access them. The only way to find more is to hazard a guess at likely combinations of keywords. Searching, as I did a couple of years ago, for theses dealing with the policing of New York City, involved being fairly creative. Enter “New York City police” as a search string and you will only find theses that have that precise combination of words, in that order, in their titles. Theses entitled “New York City and its Police” or “Policing New York City” would not be turned up by that search, and would only be findable by creatively searching all likely word combinations.
Still, once you’ve mastered these basic tricks, there are actually a good number of interesting–looking academic works about. A large proportion, I’d guess, involve the study of spiritualism, the occult, and the folklore of Fortean phenomena, these being the most academically respectable of topics. But there are others, albeit practically always with a cultural or social twist. Probably the most unexpected discovery I made, in a spare half hour of fairly random searching, was this, from UMI:
Eric Cheezum: Discovering Chessie: Waterfront, regional identity, and the Chesapeake Bay sea monster, 1960-2000. University of South Carolina PhD, 2007.
Here, though, is an equally fortuitous assembly of other academic theses in our field, to encourage all of you to make further investigations of your own. It’s far from comprehensive, but it certainly does indicate the sort of riches awaiting anyone prepared to look beyond the obvious when it comes to good, scholarly sources of information… and, I repeat, how many of these have any of you ever seen referenced, anywhere?
Nathalie Arnold. 'Wazee Wakijua Mambo!' ('Elders Used to Know Things!'): Occult Powers and Revolutionary History in Pemba, Zanzibar. Indiana University PhD, 2003.
Gillian Bennett. Aspects of supernatural belief, memorate and legend in a contemporary urban environment. University of Sheffield PhD, 1985.
Marjorie Bennett. Reincarnation, marriage, and memory: Negotiating sectarian identity among the Druze of Syria. University of Arizona PhD, 1999.
Dean Bertram. Flying Saucer Culture: An Historical Survey of American UFO Belief. University of Sydney PhD, 2006.
Maureen Bradley. Specters of war: An analysis of ghost stories and other stories of the occult set in the American Civil War. University of Hawaii at Manoa MA, 1994.
Thomas Eddie Bullard. Mysteries in the Eyes of the Beholder: UFOs and Their Correlates as a Folkloric Theme Past and Present. Indiana University PhD, 1982.
Nancy Caiola. Discerning spirits: Sanctity and possession in the later Middle Ages. University of Michigan PhD, 1994.
Patricia Carr. Beyond the near-death experience: An investigation of the effects of near-death experiences. Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology PhD,
Jeffrey Chajes. Spirit possession and the construction of early modern Jewish religiosity. Yale University PhD, 1999.
Timothy Chesters. The ghost in France: theory and narrative, 1546-1614. University of Oxford PhD, 2005.
Philip S. Cho. Ritual and the occult in Chinese medicine and religious healing: The development of zhuyou exorcism. University of Pennsylvania PhD, 2005.
Timothy Correll. 'Away with the fairies': Wise folk, healing, and the Otherworld in Irish oral narrative and belief. University of California at Los Angeles PhD, 2003.
Zoe Couacaud. How the alien invaded the American mind: a history of experts, entrepreneurs, story-tellers, and a love of the alien in modern American culture. University of Sydney PhD, 2006.
Anne Cross. A Confederacy of Faith and Fact: UFO Research and the Search for Other Worlds. Yale University PhD, 2000.
Patricia Cross. A Social Psychological Investigation of UFO Sighters. Carleton University PhD, 1992.
Owen Davies. The decline of popular belief in witchcraft and magic. University of Lancaster PhD, 1995.
Duncan Day. Psychological correlates of the UFO abduction experience: the role of beliefs and indirect suggestions on abduction accounts obtained during hypnosis. Concordia University (Canada) PhD, 1998.
Jann Marie Devereux. Living life after encountering the light: A phenomenological exploration of the meaning of a near death experience. Union Institute PhD, 1995.
Judith Devlin. The place of the supernatural in the traditional culture of rural France in the nineteenth century. University of Oxford PhD, 1985.
Ian Evans. Touching Magic: Deliberately Concealed Objects in old Australian Houses and Buildings. University of Newcastle (NSW) PhD thesis, 2010. Deals with everything from witch bottles and magical candlesmoke marks to the discovery of mummified cats.
Hector Falcon. The occult roots of Nazi racial policy: Some theological and policy considerations. Regent University MA, 1994.
Francisco Ferrandiz. The body in its senses: The Spirit Possession Cult of Maria Lionza in contemporary Venezuela. University of California at Berkeley PhD, 1996.
Linda L. Giles. Spirit Possession on the Swahili Coast: Peripheral Cults or Primary Texts? University of Texas at Austin PhD, 1989.
Laura Gordon. Field notes from the light: An ethnographic study of the meaning and significance of "near-death experiences". University of Maryland PhD, 2007.
David Green. The season of the witch: pagan magic in psycho-social context. University of the West of England PhD, 2006.
Susan Greenwood. The British occult subculture: identity, gender and morality. University of London PhD, 1998
Sasha Handley. 'Visions of an unseen world': the production and consumption of English ghost stories, c.1660-1800. University of Warwick PhD,2005.
Rhodri Lloyd Hayward. Popular mysticism and the origins of the new psychology, 1880-1919. University of Lancaster PhD, 1995.
Lasse Hertel. An application of speech processing techniques to recordings of purported bigfoot vocalizations to estimate physical parameters. University of Wyoming MS dissertation, 1979.
David Hinson. Comparing stories of extraterrestrials with stories of fairies. University of North Carolina MLA, 2003.
Brett Holman. The next war in the air: civilian fears of strategic bombardment in Britain, 1908-1941. University of Melbourne PhD, 2009. [Contains discussion of pre-World War I phantom airship scares.]
S. Iliopoulos. 'Out of a medium's mouth': Yeats's art in relation to mediumship, spiritualism and psychical research. University of Warwick PhD, 1985
Adrian Iwachiw. Places of power: sacred sites, Gaia's pilgrims, and the politics of landscape. An interpretive study of the geographics of New Age and contemporary earth spirituality, with reference to Glastonbury, England, and Sedona, Arizona. York University (Canada) PhD, 1997.
Suzanne Kaufman. Miracles, medicine and the spectacle of Lourdes: Popular religion and modernity in Fin-de-Siecle France. State University of New Jersey at New Brunswick PhD, 1996.
Tatiana Kontou. Ventriloquising the dead: representations of Victorian spiritualism and psychical research in selected nineteenth and late twentieth century fiction. University of Sussex PhD, 2006.
Minor Latham. The Elizabethan Fairies: the Fairies of Folkore and the Fairies of Shakespeare. Columbia University Phd, 1930.
Paul McCarthy. Politicking and Paradigm Shifting: James E McDonald and the UFO Case Study. University of Hawaii at Manoa PhD 1975.
Bruce Alexander McClelland. Sacrifice, scapegoat, vampire: The social and religious origins of the Bulgarian folkloric vampire. University of Virginia PhD, 1999.
Tracesandra McDonald. Witchcraft and Occult Crime Within a Contemporary Canadian Context. University of Ottawa PhD, 1999.
Shirley McIver. Ufology in Britain: a sociological study of unidentified flying object groups. University of York PhD, 1983
Louis Marano. Windigo Psychosis: The Anatomy of an Emic-Etic Confusion. University of Florida PhD, 1981.
Charles Lloyd Meredith. Spiritualism and psychology in the works of Robert and Elizabeth Browning and Henry and William James. University of Cambridge PhD, 1991.
Linda Milligan. The UFO Debate: A Study of Contemporary Legend (2 vols). Ohio State University PhD, 1988.
Corinne Montenon. Materialisation Phenomena in British and French Spiritualism and Psychical Research, c.1870-1920. University of Birmingham PhD, 2004
Sila Ncozana. Spirit Possession and Tumbuka Christians, 1875-1950. University of Aberdeen PhD, 1985.
A. Owen. Subversive spirit: women and nineteenth century spiritualism. University of Sussex PhD, 1987.
Julie Parnell. Personality Characteristics of the MMPI, 16PF, and ACL of Persons Who Claim UFO Experiences. University of Wyoming PhD, 1986.
Liane Pederson-Gallegos. The social dialogue of the near-death experience. University of Colorado at Boulder, 1992.
Alan Pew. The significance of the near-death experience in Western cultural traditions. California State University PhD, 1999.
Catherine Rider. Magic and impotene in the Middle Ages. University of LondonPhD, 2004.
Norman Sacuta. Windigo and other disorders. University of Alberta PhD, 1987
Cynthia Schrager. Both sides of the veil: Psychology, the occult and American realism. University of California, Berkeley, PhD, 1995.
Michael Schutz. Organizational Goals and Support—seeking Behavior: A Comparative Study of Social Movement Organizations in the UFO (Flying Saucer) Field. Northwestern University PhD, 1973.
Rebecca Seligman. Sometimes affliction is a door: A bio-psycho-cultural analysis of the pathways to Candomble mediumship. Emory University PhD, 2004.
Dolores Shapiro. Symbolic fluids: The world of spirit mediums in Brazilian possession groups. Columbia University PhD, 1992.
Barry Sparkes. Playing with the devil: Adolescent involvement with the occult, black magic, witchcraft and the satanic to manage feelings of despair. University of Massachusetts at Amherst PhD, 1989.
Charles Stewart. Demons and devils: representations of the supernatural in modern Greece, with special reference to Naxos. University of Oxford PhD, 1987.
Tammy Stone–Gordon. 'Fifty-cent sybils': Occult workers and the symbolic marketplace in the urban United States, 1850-1930 (California, Missouri, Massachusetts, New York City, Illinois). Michigan State University PhD, 1998.
Morton Teicher. Windigo psychosis: A study of a relationship between belief and behaviour among the Indians of northeastern Canada. University of Toronto PhD, 1956.
Toni Trappey. Dreaming about dying: A phenomenological study of dreams and near-death experiences. Pacifica Graduate Institute PhD, 1999.
Corinna Treitel. Avatars of the soul: Cultures of science, medicine, and the occult in modern Germany. Harvard University PhD, 1999.
Frederick Valletta. Witchcraft, magic and superstition in England, 1640-70. University of London PhD, 1998.
Elisabeth Wadge. The influence of psychical research on models of identity and narrative structure in some later Victorian literature. University of Cambridge PhD, 2000.
Patricia White. Phenomenological case studies of four Hispanic and four
non-Hispanic near-death experiences. The Union Institute, 1993.
J.P. Williams. The making of Victorian psychical research: an intellectual elite's approach to the spirit world. University of Cambridge PhD, 1984.
Matthew Richard Wood. Spirit possession in a contemporary British religious network. University of Nottingham PhD, 1999.
Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys: A comparative study of medieval Christian and contemporary accounts of near death experiences. Harvard University PhD, 1994.
[My thanks to Shane White, Challis Professor of History at the University of Sydney, for providing details of two UFO-related theses submitted to the Depatment of History at that university and archived at the Fisher Library there.]