The imaginary relationship between many Americans and celebrities, such as superstar athletes and media personalities, strongly resembles the way primitive Pacific islanders feel about the spirits they believe control their world, a University of Maryland anthropologist says.
Writing in a recent issue of psychology Today, John L. Caughey notes that the average American feels he knows many people he's never met but who are important to him. Likely to be among them are athletes, talk show hosts, politicians, authors, religious spokesmen and disc jockeys.
It was a decade ago, while spending a year on the remote Western Pacific island of Faanakkar in Micronesia, that Caughey says he first noticed the existence of such imaginary - yet vital - relationships. He had gone to Faanakkar to study the islanders' social organization, but it soon became apparent that their social organization included not only people, but spirits as well.
"You couldn't live there very long before you discovered those people had intense and meaningful relationships with their traditional spirits," Caughey said in an interview.
These islanders know about their kinsmen and friends, but they know about numerous spirits as well," he wrote in the magazine article. "They know each spirit's name, status and personal characteristics, and they know his relationship with other spirits. But people do not just know about these spirits in the abstract. They also engage in social relationships with them. The spirits play roles in the social system. . . .
"In order to understand this world we cannot, as social scientists normally do, limit ourselves to studying the objective relationship between people who engage one another face to face. We must also consider the artificial imaginary social transactions between people and spirits."
After returning to the United States, it gradually dawned on Caughey that most Americans have similar imaginary social relationships, some of which figure significantly in an individual's social world. Over the last 10 years, he's been interviewing extensively to develop his thesis.
"We neither hallucinate them nor consider them spirits, but we do feel we know them. Experience with them affects our behavior, our tastes, our attitudes, our ways of relating to actual people - even our conversation," he said.
The imaginary relationship that many professional football fans have with the players is one that often walks the narrow line between normality and aberration, noted Caughey, quoting from "A Fan's Notes" by Frederick Exley."
"The Giants were my delight, my folly, my anodyne, my intellectual stimulation. With Huff, I 'stunted' up stools, preparing to 'shoot the gap,' with Shofner, I faked two defenders out of their cleats, took high, swimming passes over my right shoulder and trotter dipsydoodle-like into the end zone; with Robustelli, I swept into backfields and with cruel disdain flung flat-footed, helpless quarterbacks to the turf."
The University of Maryland's Board of Regents has voted to send a proposal to ban examinations and due dates for verbal and written assignments on the Jewish High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hoshanah back to committee for further study.
The regents acted after receiving an opinion from the Attorney General's office that such a ban would be constitutionally permissable, provided it were undertaken with the express purpose of easing administrative burdens on students and faculty, not promoting a particular religion or religious.
With 6,000 Jewish students at its College Park campus, Maryland has a high absenteeism rate on the Jewish holidays and for several years, organizations of Jewish students have requested that examinations not be scheduled on those occasions.
The board voted in September to approve the ban, then tabled the matter pending receipt of an opinion from the Attorney General. While the opinion said such a ban would be within constitutional limits, it warned the regents that to protect themselves against possible lawsuits, they had to establish a record that would demonstrate they were acting out of practical, administrative reasons, not religious ones.
Board members argued last week that such a record was deficient and they sent the matter back to the Student Affairs Committee to establish one. The proposal would also ban examinations and assignments on Christmas and Good Friday.