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Altered States of Society: A Tentative Approach

Spivak D. Altered states of society: a tentative approach // A world in transition: humankind and nature. — Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999. — P. 33–42.

Altered States of Society: A Tentative Approach

Dmitri Spivak

Dr. Dmitri Spivak

Human Brain Institute

Russian Academy of Sciences

St. Petersburg, Russia

© 1999 Kluwer Academic Publishers.  Printed in The Netherlands.


The plausibility of transferring the notion of 'altered states of consciousness' to social sciences is discussed in the framework of problems and new trends of the post-communist society in the East, compared to the post-industrial one in the West. Transferring is regarded as possible to the extent to which sociocultural groups coincide with subcultures of altered states of consciousness in the given society. The article at hand is based on a first-hand account of current discussions in Russian academic circles.

Ars longa - vita brevis - occasio praeceps - experientia fallax - judicium difficile, Hippocrates says, "science is long, life is short, opportunity is transient, experience is delusive, and judgement is difficult". The founder of medicine primarily aimed at impediments on the way of professional treating of the human organism. However, these impediments could be attributed to the progress of those having to do with the flaws of the social organism as well.

The objective of the present paper consists in discussing the plausibility of transferring to social sciences some essential notions and description procedures of the theory of altered states of consciousness, elaborated currently in the domain of psychology.

The general framework of this theoretical move is formed by rapidly evolving features of the New World Disorder, to use a felicitous expression coined in the recent book by Z. Brzezinski (and several other authors, [5]). We would begin with three sets of problems presenting briefly some symptoms of landslide changes occurring currently in the collective psyche.


Fits of unmotivated fear in everyday life are characteristic for about 9 Russians out of 10, according to a recent study done by the Center for Social Prognosis and Marketing. There is some dynamics about this problem, which does not seem quite essential: fits of the feeling of anxi-


ety, crisis or catastrophe were admitted by 94-95-93-91-89% of Russians studied by the Center in the years 1990 through 1994 [17a].Trying to rationalize fears is proper for both the population and the scientific community. Consequently the former rush one time to buy goods which could go up in price due to rapid inflation, another time to join courses of English (a popular Russian parable says that it is optimists who study English, while pessimists study Chinese, and realists study the Kalashnikov sub-machine gun). As to the scientists, models of factors conditioning mass fear and frustration in general are being constructed.

The set of factors seems to be quite stable, while the ratings can differ. To cite a serious mass study, people are currently afraid of 'criminality-rise in prices-disintegration of the country'; according to another one, the objects of fear are civil war-criminality-poverty-unemployment (the sequence of factors is cited in both cases in the descending order, cf. Phenomenon of elections in Russia [2].

The structure of such lists seems to be conditioned by both rational and irrational factors [24]. This could be demonstrated on the example of the last sequence cited. The fear of poverty rose from 28 in 1992 to 42% in 1994; the fear of civil war went down from 62 to 45%, at the same period of time. The former process was quite natural, reflecting the failure of the market reforms; the latter seems quite irrational, taking into account skirmishes in Moscow (1993), and the impeding Chechen war (1994). It is the combination of such factors that tends to make interpretation and prognosis fuzzy.


Unmotivated apathy as the constant or recurring background of one's everyday professional and personal life is characteristic for about 4 Russians out of 10 [22]. Researchers having to do with this and related phenomena, tend to emphasize its paradoxical character. For a substantial example, data of a mass study of qualified Russian workers, obtained by the National Center for Study of Public Opinion, are cited below [11].

The majority of the workers neither obtain sufficient salary, nor have other sources of income (66%). They regard themselves as able to cope with a much more intense work (66%), and do not in principle reject free market economy (60%). Thus there seems to exist no major inner hindrance to their productive labor.

This image is contradicted by the fact that about half of the workers are ready to renounce high but relatively insecure salary in favor of a low but stable one; and to leave overtime labor in favor of rhythmic and


slow one (the exact level is 48%, rising to 64% for unskilled workers).

There is quite a lot of reliable data of this kind. They tend to be interpreted usually as revealing the inclination of workers to some kind of paternalist model, in the framework of the free market system. This thesis is corroborated by independent studies of the political orientation of both workers and managers. When asked the corresponding question directly, both groups definitely preferred the paternalist (and/or social democratic) model to the liberal one: in fact, the ratio was 2:1 [3].

At the same time, the Russian government keeps firmly professing liberal ideals, and implementing them in its practical activity; hence the imminent alienation. The general population seems to be in this respect on the side of the workers: about 80% have acknowledged feeling distrust in the government; not less than 60% would definitely prefer to have a very strong president. It has been supposed that this conflict of socio-economic values could result in rapid re-orientation of Russia from the American model to the Japanese one, with obvious geopolitical consequences [18].

The basis of social alienation could thus seem to be quite rational. Consequently, it would have been natural for the workers, feeling an inclination to paternalism, to support institutions that would be able to introduce it. However, about 87% of workers have acknowledged mistrust in trade unions [11].

This is quite strange: trade unions are firmly associated in Russia with the old Communist paternalism, which retains its attractiveness for at least half of the workers. The situation is even worse for the political parties: they are mistrusted by more than 90% of the population, although a number of them have included paternalist issues into their programs. To complete the picture, the only object of trust of a considerable part (40%) of the population seems to be the army, although it is definitely unable to introduce any socio-economic model whatsoever [17b]. It is in bringing together such contradicting values that unmotivated apathy would be the most plausible outcome to arise.


Non-traditional, primarily mystical spiritual orientation is currently characteristic for not less than 1 to 4 Russians out of 10, depending on social stratum and other secondary factors (data of a recent survey by the Analytical Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences [7].

The outline of the group seems quite fuzzy, ranging from persons who either believe in super-human powers, or like to read mystical literature, and all the way to those regularly taking part in occult ceremonies.


The group has only recently been shown by a separate entry in Russian statistical surveys, and quite in time: there is enough evidence to suppose that it has played a key role in bringing democracy to Russia. We would discuss in some detail three of its aspects, forming a necessary background for our topic.

First, the 'mystical' group seems to be superimposed upon the traditional division into believers, atheists, and those hesitating or largely indifferent to religion. One could regard it as belonging to a separate dimension, if it would not now and then compete with religion.

For instance, the share of Orthodox Christians in the population of Russia went down from 40 to 19% in the years 1990-1991. This process has reflected landslide changes in the religious life of the country, since the share of Orthodox Christians in the bigger group of Russian citizens belonging to some religion was at the level of about 90%. Where did these dissidents take way? Simultaneously, the share of 'Christians in general', belonging to no definite Christian denomination at all, has risen from 22% to 47%. It would be quite possible that a large part of the dissidents came right here.

Second, the 'mystical' group tends to consolidate and reveal much more activity than usual on turning-points of history. The activity is enhanced by its young age: approximately 35% of Russian teenagers (aged 16-17) are mystically oriented (in people aged 60 and older, the corresponding figure is about 9%). As to consolidation, it is enhanced by the process of modernization in adjacent realms: e.g., the major statistical surveys have demonstrated Orthodox creed to have recently become a religion of young educated urban dwellers (in contrast to the previous generation, which had tended to be aged, less educated peasants by birth).

Third, the 'mystical' group has revealed a tendency to advocate not religious, but political slogans, or rather to join them. For instance, it was about 62% of mystically oriented citizens who advocated the values of perestroika in 1991, while 26% belonged to the opposite side. About 40% of persons believing in astrology, 44% of adherents of Oriental wisdom, and 44% believers in UFO, acknowledged themselves as active supporters of the Western values. There are good reasons to suppose that this proportion is fairly representative for the mass movement that brought Russian reformers to power in 1991.

Based on observations of this kind, there were columnists in 1991 who tentatively depicted the mental landscape of a Russian democrat as a place where self-styled yogis nurtured their Kundalinis, Don Juan instructed Carlos Castaneda in the mysteries of nagwal, and UFOs glided around under a big rainbow.


However it is this type of factors that shapes the political life of Russia nowadays. One of its legs is formed by fundamentalists of all possible creeds, from the Orthodox to the Communist ones, while on the other one modernists and post-modernists, coming from different sides, are concentrated.

It is in such matters that some obscure steps of President Yeltzin find their explanation. One could cite here his personal admittance of the order of the ancient Assyrian goddess Baw, rewarded by a leading spiritual healer, Juna Davitashvili. Journalists present at the ceremony felt somewhat puzzled; however, serious analysts acknowledged the President to feel the attitudes of his electorate.

One of the specific features of a considerable part of it is predilection for weak political power. Any attempt of the President to introduce elements of a strong or authoritarian rule would result in the transition of this group to another destabilizing leader. This could have contributed to the result of the notorious elections of 1993 when a considerable part of the Russian democratic electorate changed their minds, quite unexpectedly for the leading political analysts. However, this is a topic for a special work; as to the present one, suffice it to state that an irrational factor has penetrated into the very core of present-day Russian politics.


The list of factors is by no means complete; whether it is finite remains unknown. The factors cited look rather like secondary symptoms, and are most probably heterogeneous. Thus a specialist in religious studies would duly remark that the factor 'Mysticism' should be regarded as to a large extent conditioned by factors 'Fear' and 'Apathy'.

However, the general diagnosis is definite: it consists in a sharp crisis of the society, affecting its very foundations. P. Bourdieu would speak about a flaw of the entire realm of social topology, including the symbolic sphere; R. May would state the onset of mythoclasm, i.e., the wreck of basic social myths; K. Popper would suppose a massive crisis of social institutions.

The post-Soviet crisis being marked by peculiar traits, similar processes may be discerned in the West as well. Thus American workers may appear dynamic compared to their Russian counterparts; however they would appear quite passive compared to Japanese or Korean workers. As to immediate causes, a wide range could be cited in this respect, from the Western system of social benefits—to the national stereotypes of labor discipline (factor 'Fear').

Waves of irrational fear have also been registered in the Western so-


ciety. They affect periodically not less than 1 German out of 10, which numbers about 8-9 million persons. Approximately 1 million out of this number experience 'Fear' as the constant background of their lives; about 6% of the population of Germany have at least once consulted their physicians in connection with this state [4]. The range of possible causes cited in this respect in scientific literature tends to be rather broad, including both social and biological factors, which presupposes the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach, cf. Interdisciplinary fear [1] (factor 'Apathy').

The onset of factor 'Mysticism' could most plausibly be connected to the growth of New Age spirituality, or new religious consciousness in general. The Western world reveals a distinct process of this kind. About 2 out of 3 citizens of the EC countries regard themselves as religious, but not belonging to any specific denomination (although they may acknowledge adherence to the Christian heritage in general [8]).

However, special studies tend to state that the roots of the new type of spirituality in Russia do not fully coincide with those in the West. To cite only one study, the 'old' traditional mysticism has tended to play a dominating role in the former case, even compared to the side effects of modernization; in the West, the proportion may be regarded as reverse [16].

To sum up, the factors discussed above seem to be to a certain extent parallel and sometimes similar in the post-industrial West and the post-communist East, but definitely not identical. However, both facets seem necessary for a consistent description and prognosis. To do this, one would have to supplement the traditional apparatus of description of crises and modernization processes, well-established in social sciences, by notions oriented specifically to apparently non-motivated, fuzzy and irrational factors.


The concept of altered states of consciousness, elaborated in contemporary psychology, seems to provide useful insights into our topic. A well-known anthology edited by Ch.T. Tart [20] (first edition 1969) remains the standard reference work.

Development prior to this publication was mostly latent; specialists in the history of psychology have traced it back as far as to W. James and W. Wundt. Development after this date was too impetuous and multi-faceted to be generalized without a special study, which has not yet fully been done [12]. For the sake of brevity, we would attempt to define the concept of altered states of consciousness in a few tentative points:


intuition of clusters: consciousness is structured not as a homogeneous phenomenon or process, but rather as a cluster of states, each one of which is governed by qualitatively different regularities;

intuition of focal points: consciousness functions as a ray, focusing on a chosen state, or a finite number of them. A sequence of such foci is fixed for a given culture, forming the basis of habitual everyday consciousness, regarded as non-altered;

intuition of shifts: the sequence of focal points can shift in the space of consciousness, primarily for adaptive purposes. In this way conscious activity under considerable strain, caused by both outer and inner factors, is provided.

intuition of transcendence: cases of involuntary "sticking" in a state of consciousness, or between such states, as well as trips to remote parts of the field of consciousness, tend to produce a wide range of subjective experiences, often including such ones as fear, apathy and mystical feelings [13]. Similar experiences may be voluntarily induced for personal growth or creative purposes, in the framework of a psychotherapeutic process. This is why labeling them as positive or negative depends rather upon outer values and expectations. Association to factors 'Fear-Mysticism' cited above, would in principle be justified.


Direction of further inquiry seems evident. One has to transfer the notion of altered states of consciousness upon the level of society, to transcript its intuitions into sets of categories and methodologies, and to obtain finally a novel approach to mass consciousness, and social politics. In doing so, one would follow a general contemporary tendency towards psychologization of social sciences.

In general, the plausibility of such a move (transferability, to use the term of I. Stengers) has to be demonstrated in each case. In our case, it is to be approached basing on the results of contemporary ethnology. Having studied a representative sample of traditional societies, E. Bourguignon stated that altered states of consciousness were acknowledged and institutionalized in about 90% of them [23].

The types of institutions tended to differ greatly. However, their main function remained handling the flow of experiences generated by trips into altered states of consciousness, in order to reduce their destructive component, and to reshape the rest for the benefit of the society [9] [10]. The institutions implementing this function may be defined as subcultures of altered states of consciousness. At this point, the level of


individual psychology is to be supplemented by that of the interpersonal relations, and to a certain extent of societal bonds.

To delineate their combination, one would have to trace back the long history of such subcultures, providing first a sacred dimension in the traditional cultures, later a background for passage from the community to the society (Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft, to speak in terms of F. Tonnies), and finally to be split and divided by a single process, presented in contemporary theology by an impressing sequence: 'industrialization, urbanization, technologization, bureaucratization, scientism, instrumental rationalization, secularization, egalitarianism, and materialism' [6a] [6b].


Sociologists have themselves been interested in the behavior of Man and Society in the Age of Crisis. We use capital letters to mark the title of a well-known book by the founder of sociodynamics P. Sorokin, published in 1941. Sorokin's conclusions are representative for modern sociological thought, and reveal quite definite affinity to the transpersonal paradigm. We would reformulate them in terms of intuitions, referring to corresponding entries introduced above:

intuition of clusters: society comprises a loosely structured multitude of sociocultural groups, embodying its variety and complexity;

intuition of focal points: an individual potentially belongs to a set of such groups, and actually passes them in the process of life and purposeful activity, following a route acknowledged or tolerated by the society;

intuition of shifts: passages from one sociocultural group to another are inevitable, and comprise the background of one's life;

— intuition of transcendence: to manage the crisis, one has to carry out a restructuring of personal value systems, ego sets, and patterns of group connections. One of the ways to achieve it is their deep disintegration, followed by reintegration along a new pattern, which may be regarded as altered [19].

The level of sociocultural groups may be regarded as the lowest one fully conforming to the laws of society in general, decisive for the processes of its crisis and reintegration, and at the same time implying to a considerable extent the notions belonging to levels of interpersonal relations and individual psychology. Subsequent innovations have introduced numerous amendments into the understanding of sociocultural groups, without erasing this important trait [14a] [14b] [15].



Transferring the notion of altered states of consciousness upon the level of society is methodologically plausible to the extent, to which subcultures of altered states of consciousness coincide with sociocultural groups in the given society. This conclusion, theoretically introducing the notion of altered states of society, forms the main theoretical result of the present paper; its political (and epistemological) consequences are to be elaborated in a special work.


The author is grateful to Ms. K. Wistrand for her constant and generous support, and to Dr. A. Kolman and Dr. F. Janouch for their help in producing the final version of the manuscript.

This work was supported by grant # 98-06-08004 from the Russian Humanitarian Scientific Foundation.


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[8] Hjorth, C., "Pa jakt efter den europeiska sjalen", Dagens Nyheter, 26.03.1995, A8. [9] Katz, S., Mysticism and philosophical analysis, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978. [10] Kimelev, J., "Phenomenon of mysticism and contemporary bourgeois philosophy of religion", Voprosy filosofii, 8, 1985, pp. 140-148. (*) [11] Komarovskij, V., "Transitional consciousness of a transitional period", Obshestvennyje nauki i sovremennost, 1, 1994, p. 41. (*) [12] Lajoie, D. & Shapiro, S., "Definitions of transpersonal psychology: the first twenty-three years", The Journal of transpersonal psychology, 1, 1992, pp. 78-98. [13] Ludwig, A., Altered states of consciousness. In: Tart, Ch.T. (ed.), Altered states of consciousness, Anchor Books, Garden City, 1972, p.16. [14a] Matveeva, S. (ed.), Modernization in Russia and conflict of values, Institut filosofii RAN, Moscow, 1993, p. 81. (*) [14b] ibid., pp. 107-116. [15] Petrenko, V. & Mitina, O., "Psychosemantic studies of political mentality in Russia: 1991-1993", Obshestvennyje nauki i sovremennost, 6, 1994, pp. 42-54. (*) [16] Rosenthal, В., "The occult in modern Russian and Soviet culture: an historical perspective", Theosophical History, 8, 1993, p. 259. [17a] Sheregi, F., "Perspectives of development of Russian ethnic self-consciousness", Vestnik RAN, 1, 1995, p. 50. (*) [17b] ibid., p. 51. [18] Shikhirev, P., "Dynamics of socio-psychological state of Russian society", Psikhologicheskij Zhurnal, 3, 1993, p. 143. (*) [19] Sorokin, P., A Long Way: Autobiographical Novel, Soyuz Zhurnalistov/ MP "Shyvas", Syktyvkar, 1991. (*) [20] Tart, Ch.T. (ed), Altered states of consciousness, Anchor Books, Garden City, 1972. [21] Toffler, A., Powershift: Knowledge, wealth, and violence at the edge of the 21st century, NY-Toronto-London-Sydney-Auckland, 1991. [22] Tutorskaja, S., "In response to the insanity of the world", Izvestia, 4, 22.12.1994. (*) [23] Wolman, B. &: Ullman, M. (eds.), Handbook of states of consciousness, Van Nostrand Reinhold, NY, 1986, pp. 286-287. [24] Zdravomyslov, A., "Modernization of Russia from the point of view of conflict sociology", Vestnik RAN, 4, 1994, p. 301. (*)

(*) sources marked by asterisk are in Russian.


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