You are here: And So It Begins.... Otherworldly Beings The Political Sociology of Alien Encounters
UFOs and aliens have been the topic of many books, articles and movies since the middle of the 20th century. Ranging from the most sensationalist "exposés" to virulent condemnations of such "irrational" and "destructive" belief, one could think that everything has been said on the topic. Yet, new stories of people seeing UFOs and meeting aliens continue to emerge, while both ufologists and debunkers cannot produce truly satisfying answers on the origin of these phenomena. Clearly, there are still lots of room for further discussions and debates on UFOs and aliens. In this context, one could wonder that if these phenomena remain persistent and explanations unsatisfying, maybe it is because we are not looking in the right place and/or with right tools, and therefore a new approach might be required. It is the purpose of this paper to propose such a new approach based on sociological analysis, hoping that it might offer new insights leading to more satisfying explanations.
It would appear for many that UFOs and aliens on one hand, and sociological analysis, on the other hand, are light-years apart. Yet, if one takes a step back from the view that UFOs are a matter of powerful warp-like propulsion systems, and alien beings a matter of exobiology, then one has to admit that flying saucers and E.T.s are, indeed, very much part of our societies particularly through popular culture and mass media. It is therefore possible to admit that a society or a culture can be studied through the theme of the extraterrestrial (and their spaceships).
Although UFOs and aliens are not a common topic of sociological analysis, a few sociologists have ventured in this field of research (1). Those few sociologists, following the example of Carl Jung (2) in psychoanalysis, are more interested in explaining why some people believe in unbelievable things, such as UFOs and extraterrestrials. This paper attempts to do what many other social scientists have refused to do, i.e. take a more innovative and bolder approach to the study of extraterrestrial interactions with earthlings. In essence, aliens will be considered in this paper as quasi-social actors, or "actants". The sociological concept of actant was developed by Bruno Latour, in his famous book Laboratory Life (1989). It was used to study how complex machines are participants in the creation of meaning in scientific research. An example of this is when, in the 1980s, NASA did not believe researchers that the ozone layer was getting thinner in Antarctica. The reason was that NASA's satellite was programmed to exclude any data lower than a certain point when measuring ozone because they were considered as abnormal. This programming feature was forgotten for a long time. The satellite was an actant or quasi-social actor because its information was considered as true (as if the satellite was more authoritative than a researcher), and through this information the satellite was by proxy part of a debate among scientists. In other words, it was the "word" of the satellite against the word of the scientists in Antarctica. This means that, for the time of the analysis, considering aliens as actants is to put in bracket or on hold the issue of their origin. Alien encounters will be analyzed as social interactions between the witnesses and actants. Should any significant pattern emerges, then the question as whether those actants are truly sentient beings could be analyzed under a new and innovative angle.
Literature as Primary Evidence
The ufological corpus is in many ways structured like many recognized academic literatures. For instance, one can find true crime and mystery novels in almost any bookstore, but will have to look in specialized libraries to find the most recent issue of criminological journals. Similarly, the majority of books one can find in a bookstore about UFOs and extraterrestrials are usually made of a series of stories and anecdotes leading to highly speculative conclusions. Jim Marrs' Alien Agenda, or Nick Pope's The Uninvited are illustrative of such tendency. Yet, there is a specialized ufological literature, relatively difficult to find, that covers extensive researches on the topic. The Anamnesis Protocol(3), attempting to map out sociometric variables linked to ufological observations, is a good example of such literature.
There is, however, a key difference between recognized academic and ufological research. Academic research receives direct and indirect funding to gather data while ufological research has to rely on volunteer individuals and organizations to gather data. Concretely, this means that any research on alien encounters has to rely heavily on accounts coming from third parties, who are usually not accountable for their accuracy. Additionally, it is easy to become confused as encounter with extraterrestrial beings is a well-entrenched theme in popular culture. Multitudes of accounts and descriptions can be found in books, movies, television shows, Internet, and even on paraphernalia. It is therefore important to make some preliminary distinctions.
The alien "presence" in our society can be found on two separate but related streams: fiction and non-fiction. The fiction stream is certainly the oldest and better known. From Cyrano de Bergerac's States and Empires of the Sun (1662) to H.G. Wells (1898) The War of the Worlds to the current Fox Television series The X-Files, extra-terrestrials have established a solid virtual presence among us.
The second stream is made of non-fictitious claims of actual meetings between human beings and extraterrestrials. The mediums used for this stream to relate those events are the same ones used for fictitious stories. To complicate matters even more, fiction writers tend to inspire themselves with non-fictitious claims, and unscrupulous promoters oftentimes embellish non-fictitious accounts to the point where it can be difficult to distinguish what is what. For many, and especially the debunkers, the blurry distinction between the two streams is enough to conclude that both streams are simply two different genres of fiction telling the same story. Even the ufologist community is divided about alien encounters. Seeing strange objects in the sky is one thing, having actual contacts with interstellar visitors is another one. In spite of this general context of skepticism and doubts, reports and accounts of encounters with alien beings continue to flow. As well, polls tend to show that a substantial percentage of the population believes that such accounts and reports are real. This controversial issue will not be put to rest anytime soon.
Any meaningful progress of our understanding of alien encounters appears to be, at this is time, limited to evaluate alien encounters in the non-fictitious stream as a set of general tendencies. Such approach has limitations: it will not allow determining if the alleged meeting with extraterrestrials are genuine. It has to presuppose that witnesses are by and large sincere in their descriptions and accounts. However, this analytical attitude is neither new nor revolutionary. Carl Jung in Flying Saucers adopts the same approach about UFO observations when he concludes that:
Unfortunately, well-authenticated reports show that there are also cases where the eye sees something that does not appear on the radar screen, or where an object undoubtedly picked up by radar is not seen by the eye. I will not mention other, even more remarkable reports from authoritative source; they are so bizarre that they tax our understanding and credulity to the limit.
If these things are real - and by all human standards it hardly seems possible to doubt this any longer - then we are left with only two hypotheses: that of their weightlessness on the one hand and their psychic nature on the other. This is a question I for one cannot decide (Jung 1978, 109).
In other words, even if most alien encounter accounts appear unreal, it remains impossible to dismiss them due to their sheer number and similarity, nor is it possible to determine which one appears more genuine as corroboration is practically impossible. The literature on alien encounter is the only source available but it should be seen as an indicator of general tendencies.
Some Analytical Considerations
Many ufologists have speculated on the reasons as why claimed contacts with extraterrestrials vary over time and geography. The typical “explanation” implies that several "waves" of alien species enter in contact with the Earth and that each specie has its own way of dealing with human beings. Another common “explanation” is that over time contacts with human beings modify our own perception and reactions towards aliens, and in turn forces them to modify and adjust their behavior towards us. Finally, the typical “explanation” for some specific variations over geography, especially the type of contacts seen in South America, is related to some sort of deal among alien species where the Earth is divided into zones of influence, “owned” by specific alien species. Those “explanations” are not convincing because they are actually speculations. It is not so much because the existence of aliens capable of interstellar travel remains to be demonstrated, but rather that they do not provide any information on the internal logic of those patterns. The question as why specific patterns emerge while other ones do not emerge remains unanswered.
Debunkers “explanations” are no more convincing. Not only they cannot account for the physical traces left (scars, burned soil, radar tracing, etc.) but they also involve, implicitly or explicitly, a misused concept, i.e. mass hysteria/hallucination. First, this concept does not provide any clue on patterns internal logic. Second, mass hysteria/hallucination is actually a residual notion to describe situations where if no other explanation is available then it must be caused by hysteria/hallucination. Mass hallucination occurs, for instance, when a professional illusionist or magician performs, yet it involves a mass of observers seeing the same thing, at the same time, from the same angle, and being in the same social situation (i.e. audience paying for a good show). The theater personnel behind the curtain do see the trick because of their different angle and different social position (i.e. are used to work with illusionists and special effects experts). Witnesses who saw alien beings are from different location, different time, and from different social background and context. The mass hallucination “explanation” for alien encounters is actually a fallacy in most cases.
Mass hysteria involves behavior and not perception per say. This is a crucial difference. During the Salem witch-hunting, only a few girls ever claimed to see the "devil" (and confessed later on that they were lying), the hysteria occurred because those who believed in their story put together Inquisition-type interrogations, trials, and executions, but they never claimed to see the "devil" themselves. Most people claiming having contact with alien beings do not tend to induce others in irrational and destructive behaviors, and usually stick to their story. In fact, the typical occasion when mass hysteria can be induced is when an “authority” or believable source is behind the claim, like during the airing of the Orson Wells radio broadcasting of the War of the Worlds in the 1930s. Contrary to whatever debunkers claim, contacts between alien beings and ordinary people are rarely sources of mass hysteria.
The debunker position is also very questionable when they use the cultural card to explain why alien contacts appear to be more violent or scary in South America. They not only show their ignorance but also their prejudices. They are ignorant because South American societies are as complex, and as diverse as the American one. Debunkers are using cultural stereotypes, which are in conflict with other stereotypes (e.g. South American are culturally more easy going than Americans, so aliens should be easy going too!). They unknowingly show their prejudices because the view that South Americans are living in a more violent culture is simply non-sense. Social violence has much more to do with social inequalities and systemic discrimination than anything cultural. In the worst case scenario, one is tempted to believe that such attitude is mostly based on their white American perspective on Latino gangs in large metropolis, which they generalize to the entire Latin American community.
It becomes apparent that alternative explanations are needed, even if they do not elucidate what people actually saw, they could shed some new light on the internal logic of the various types of alien contacts.
A Social-Political Model
The model presented here is not about belief in aliens visiting Earth, but on patterns emerging out of those visits. In other words, aliens are considered as quasi-social actors having social and political relationships with other social actors, i.e. human beings. Whether the aliens are truly from another world or not is not relevant here, as it is the nature of the relationship that interests us. What really counts is that witnesses truly think they have met strange beings that do not appear to be human, and that the relationship they had with aliens was rather imposed to them. This is why one can consider aliens as being social actors because they have the ability to establish social relationships.
For the purpose of this paper, a simplified model is proposed using a basic political analysis model. Power is defined in its simplest expression as the capacity of making someone doing something that they would not do otherwise. The usual key questions are: Who is involved? How do they interact with each other? And what is the result of the interaction? These simple questions then lead to identify a limited set of qualitative variables. The first one identifies the key and typical social actors for each type of contacts. For the sake of clarity, the analysis limits itself to two typical social actors: (a) aliens, and (b) witnesses/victims. The second variable looks at the nature of relationships of power between each actor as whether they are (a) relatively balanced or (b) unbalanced in favor of one actor or group of actors. Two sub-variables are then necessary to qualify the nature of the relationship. The first sub-variable is the mode of expression, which describes how one can identify that power is in action. Examples are multiple, they include physical force, providing or denying knowledge, cooperation, confrontation etc. The second sub-variable is the locus of power (or what is at stake). This is an important qualifier because it helps to understand why the social actors behave in a certain way. Lastly, the results of interactions are usually important in measuring the breadth of power relationships. Nevertheless, due to the temporary nature of alien contacts, this variable remains quite difficult to assess and this would require an analysis of individual cases, which is beyond the scope of this article.
The three types of “typical” contacts that have been identified in the literature are described as follow: (a) space brothers, (b) abductors, and (c) terrorists.
(a) The Space Brothers
The Space Brothers type is well illustrated with the life of individuals or contactees such as George Adamski, George Van Tassel, and many others not as well known. Since the first half of the 1950s, many books were published relating events about contacts with alien beings. The time distance between the alleged contact and the publication is usually a few years. Although there are no contactees emerging nowadays, the theme remains part of our popular culture. (e.g. Rael and the realians were recently invented to a congressional hearing on human cloning, or the Heaven’s Gate tragedy). Evidence provided by contactees are flimsy and many logical flaws can be found in their descriptions. Yet, people who investigated and met the contactees tend to underline that most of them appear to have experienced “something” quite unusual even if they very much embellished their stories afterward. Again, it is difficult to dismiss completely the witnesses. Based on the witnesses' accounts, the early contacts of this type occurred in the first half of the 1950s.
The usual actor of this type of contact is an ordinary person, having no special access to power or decision-making, and who is especially selected and contacted by aliens to receive a message to be delivered to humanity. Human authorities are not active actors in this type of contact. Such messages are generally about the need for humans to establish world peace and create a more kind type of society. The messages are usually very utopian in nature and oftentimes quite naive. Contacts with alien are usually described as friendly and multiple. The social-political structure can be described as follow: very powerful aliens who prefer to contact ordinary human beings, establishing a positive but fundamentally uneven relationship of power with the contactees. The alien power is expressed through teaching, i.e. creating a master–pupil type of relationship. Superior knowledge coming from elsewhere is transferred to us via a human messenger. The locus of power is therefore about human social and political structure. The aliens want to see changes to happen in human societies through ordinary people. It this sense, the aliens indirectly defy human authorities by circumventing them and challenging their monopoly over social policy. The contactees become both empowered (i.e. increase their social status) by the knowledge provided by aliens and loose social status by the ridicule they suffer. The increased social status is mainly found among the followers (and cult) they attract around themselves.
(b) The Abductors
The abductees' era starts officially with Barney and Betty Hill abduction in 1961, although their story became known only in 1966. Yet, the story of Villa-Boas in Brazil predates the Hills’ abduction by four years and became known in 1966. The Andreasson case is also an early one that occurred in 1967 but published only in 1974. In the case of abductors, aliens are not so friendly as they take people away against their will. They are described as careless when they do medical examination on their abducted victims. The aliens appear to have a special interest in human reproductive organs, especially the women's one. Evidence of this type of contact tends to be consistent across the globe, although they are often gathered through hypnosis, which cannot be considered as being a very reliable tool. This type of contact appears to be more frequent since the late 1970s and continues to this day. The sheer number of accounts makes this type of contact hard to dismiss too.
The social-political structure in the case of abductors is actually obvious. It involves again very powerful aliens, but this time they establish a negative and clearly unbalanced power relationship with the abductees. The alien power is being expressed by physical and mental control over the abductees. The locus of power is reproductive capacities, particularly the female’s one. Either a female alien more or less forces a human male to provide semen, or a human female is used as both breeder and biological incubator for alien-human hybrids. The abductees tend to loose credibility and social status if they bring their story in the public realm as they are considered oftentimes as “crackpots” and people in need of seeing a psychiatrist.
(c) The Terrorists
The last type of contact can be called the terrorist intervention. In this case, the aliens are either (or both) ugly and scary in appearance or violent in their behavior. Descriptions of the entity tend to vary significantly from hairy monsters to reptilian aggressors. Evidence of this type of contact seems to be coming in majority from South America. During the 1954 wave, several reports from South America describe terrifying aliens, due to either their appearance, or having aggressive behavior. Reports of that nature have been documented since that time and continue to this day, to include the infamous Chupacabra, who is often construe as being an extraterrestrial entity.
This type of contact presents a social-political structure where ordinary people, i.e. not members of the elite, are terrified by aliens. The aliens establish an unbalanced relationship of power with the witnesses. The power relationship is expressed through the mode of terror. The locus of power in this type of contact is more difficult to assess. Alien terrorism is not leading to forced respect, obedience or removing curious people. Terror seems to be engendered for its own sake. The witnesses social status appears to remain unchanged as they are usually seen as victims of something special or of their own imagination (although having a better knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese might change this evaluation about social status).
This typology attempts to show patterns and tendencies, and as such does not exclude exceptions and deviations from the general pattern. This does not mean that lies, hoaxes, embellishments, dreams, and hallucinations do not occur, but it means that the general weight of the evidences cannot be ignored. In addition, it does not attempt to present new categories of contact with aliens that mainstream ufology has not presented yet. What is new, however, is the correlation that emerges between the articulation of the power relationships expressed through those different types of contacts with aliens and upcoming large scale social changes that presents similar relationships of power. This would give the following table, which is explained in details below.
Future Social Context (date)
Expression of Power
Upcoming Focus of Power
Alien interest / focus
Cultural Revolution (1960-70)
Ordinary people together to peacefully educate others to create an utopian society
Utopian social and political changes through a messenger
(Late 1960s and on)
Physical and mental control
Women's control over own reproductive capacity
Interest in human reproductive systems, especially female
Total power, near dementia
Terror for its own sake