Field Notes from the Light: An Ethnographic Study of the Meaning and Significance of "Near-Death Experiences"

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This dissertation is based on a comprehensive study which investigated the meaning and social significance of "near-death experiences" (NDEs) by situating 50 experiencers (NDErs) as the "inside" experts on these profound, subjective experiences and their real-world impact. I used a phenomenological, "person-centered" ethnographic approach, new to Near-Death Studies, to make experiencers' lives the orienting framework for my study. Informed by "reformist" qualitative-research ethics and health-education-and-counseling values, I analyzed study-participants' life-history narratives against medical-scientific Near-Death Studies explanatory models, an NDE-Integration-Trajectory (NDE IT) patterns model, and social construction and identity-alternation theory.

My  findings were, first, that study participants' descriptions of NDE impact and aftereffects, which matched previous findings, were adequately explained by neither social construction nor medical-scientific theory.  Second, participants in this and previous studies described significant NDE interpretation and integration problems, in which I recognized a previously unidentified, health-education-and-counseling-related, pattern of unmet NDE integration needs.  Third, my findings supported the previous NDE IT findings and model; and also recognized the importance of individuals' multiple cultural meaning systems in shaping their NDE integration patterns..  Fourth, 29 of 50 study participants had not sought out and did not identify Near-Death Studies as a useful NDE integration context or resource; and they described it negatively if they mentioned it at all.  Moreover, the 21 participants who had sought a connection with Near-Death Studies expressed similar dissatisfactions.     

My findings speak to the need for development of a research agenda and model(s)  designed to assess and address the education and counseling needs of tens of millions of NDErs, and their health care providers.   My analysis addresses the potential social-wellness value, as well as the needs, of a community of 13 million adult NDErs, in the U.S. alone.  It situates its analysis within a context of escalating social and ecological crises and an in-progress paradigm-shift away from the still-official Newtonian/Cartesian material world view of Western culture.   It recognizes the potential social value of NDErs' collective visibility as agents, among many others of a (re)emergent sacred worldview; one that is linked to the world views of diverse indigenous knowledge systems as well as of quantum physics.