Beliefs in the possibility of possession by spirits or other entities has been found to be very widespread among the societies of the world. However, there are regional variations in the percentage of societies that have such beliefs and the manner in which these beliefs are formulated. Such variations are not random or arbitrary but are related to other sociocultural features predominant in a given region or characteristic of particular societies. As the societies change under impact of modernization and globalization some of the beliefs and ritual practices change also.
A study of ideas of possession by spirits and other beings necessarily leads to an investigation of how this possession is experienced and therefore to a study of the ritualization of possession states and to trance (altered states of consciousness, dissociation). It also leads to a study of the relationship to other features of the societies in which these occur, how they are distributed throughout the world, who the participants are, how the states are diagnosed and evaluated, and what social uses are made of possession states.
Historically, the approach to both possession and trance has reflected the interests of the investigators. In Haiti, for example, the initial writings had to do with demonology and then with ideas of pathology, specifically hysteria. These were inherited from French psychiatry, where Janet compared his hysterical patients to the cases of possession and exorcism in French history. Anthropologists, such as Herskovits (1937), emphasized cultural relativism, and since the Haitians induced Possession Trance in their rituals and valued these states, he argued that they were normal and not to be seen as pathology. In the 1960s some psychiatrists began to see Possession Trance as therapeutic rather than pathological, and sometimes also a prophylactic. There also developed a view of possession as political phenomenon, whether as resistance to existing circumstances and conditions or as a means of mobilization in a liberation struggle. More generally, the relationship between possession and social change has become a topic of great interest (e.g., Kenyon, 1995).
When computer analysis of data became possible, the statistical comparative method could be utilized to test hypotheses with regard to spirit possession beliefs. Because of women's strong presence in Possession Trance religions, research into these groups became relevant to gender studies. When still other approaches developed in anthropology, these have been utilized in related research, so that Lambeck (1989) speaks of a move from disease to discourse. At that point the emphasis again turned to the workings of individual societies rather than to comparative analysis. With the development of New Age religions in the United States, still another field of research on possession and trance opened up, as took place when migrants from distant places brought their Possession Trance religions to metropolitan centers. In sum, the research reflects the reality on the ground as well as the interests of the investigators. Although much has been accomplished in the last 40 years, there is much that remains to be done.
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