Ask A Mind: Is Studying Witchcraft `Useful’ for Development?

Can anthropologists combine research on witchcraft with research on development? Why are some topics considered more relevant to understanding development issues than others? This post is a response to a question from a reader considering doing a research project in anthropology. It provides an overview of some recent work on witchcraft by anthropologists mostly working in Africa.

This reader’s question raises several issues- about development, about witchcraft and about defining a research problem.   Responding to it provides an opportunity to practice demand driven anthropology- an underutilized potential of the blog format. As an anthropologist who works on development institutions, and on witchcraft in East Africa, this is my take on it.

Ideas about witches and violence directed against those who are thought to practice witchcraft , including women and children, remain socially significant in many countries in the world.  The negative social impacts of witchcraft make it a development issue in relation to human rights violations and its contribution to social exclusion. Moreover, representations of witchcraft in popular culture consistently situate what witches are alleged to do in direct contradiction of aspirations to achieve personal and national development.

Our reader asks whether the study of witchcraft is distinct from the kinds of research which would be relevant to development, and whether witchcraft and development are distinct domains of social practice which demand different sorts of analysis.   Should she aim to study witchcraft in the hope that it may have something to say about development or is there, as one professor working in development told her, `more useful work to be done around behavior change and water, sanitation and health than witchcraft’?

These questions are partly influenced by our reader’s current situation within development practice (she works in an NGO), hence the professor’s concern for prioritizing the understanding of behavior change that could prove useful for designing more effective interventions. But they are also informed by the ways that witchcraft has been addressed within contemporary anthropology as a field of symbolic practice.   The well known work of Jean and John Comaroff, for example, interprets witchcraft beliefs at least partially as a vehicle through which experiences of peripheralization, including global social relations, can be symbolically articulated (1999).

If witchcraft enables the articulation of an `occult economy’   it is at the same time materially grounded with effects in the real world (Moore & Sanders 2001). Witchcraft as a social institution frequently operates as a means through which human relations are restructured sustained by expanding economies of the occult comprising healers, unwitchers and diviners. It is often accompanied by violence.

The social inseparability of these two dimensions of witchcraft is the focus of ongoing ethnographic work by Isak Niehaus and Adam Ashforth. Both Niehaus and Ashforth have spent many years researching the everyday politics of witchcraft in South Africa. In the years immediately after the   ANC victory, witchcraft accusations, murder and expulsions were widespread in rural areas and townships as deadly weapons in local conflicts centered on political allegiance and access to resources.

Violent practices justified by witchcraft were an important part of the local political system, supported by vested interests. Accusations of witchcraft were invoked to escalate disputes with serious social consequences (Niehaus 1993; Ashforth 2005). Those affected by witchcraft include those who believe they are bewitched and those who find themselves accused of witchcraft . The personal experiences of the affected in South Africa are sensitively examined by both authors (Niehaus 2012; Ashforth 2000). A new book by James Howard Smith  and Ngeti Mwadime explores related issues in Kenya (2014).

Certain social categories can find themselves liable to accusation and the violence or expulsion which follow.   Attacks on older women accused of witchcraft in Western Tanzania have attracted international media attention since the 1990s (Mesaki 2009). More recently in Tanzania people with albinism, particularly children, have been at risk of murder by practitioners of witchcraft who seek to use their body parts to make powerful medicines (Bryceson et al 2010).

It is evident from these examples that practices related to witchcraft are strongly rooted in the ideas that people hold about witches and their powers. The tenacity of these ideas is not simply explained by what ideas about witches mean. It is equally a product of what Mary Douglas called `entrenchment’ (1991: 726) ; that is the actions people take which sustain ideas about witchcraft and the practices through which it is realized institutionally. In Western Tanzania, as in South Africa (Ashforth 2005 ), diviners play a crucial role in diagnosing witchcraft as the cause of personal misfortune and in identifying alleged witches, responding to demand to resolve personal and political differences through severing relations (e.g. Green 2009).

While what is categorized as the `traditional’ healing sector promoted through the political valorization of African medicine provides support for the institutional foundation for the sustained presence of witchcraft across the continent (Langwick 2011; Ashforth 2005) , sub disciplinary boundaries within anthropology have generally worked against the problematization of the institution of witchcraft , both within medical anthropology and in relation to the wider political economy. Consideration of witchcraft primarily in terms of the ontological deflects from the interrogation of   the economics which sustains it and creates lucrative small business opportunities for the countless individuals who set themselves up as herbalists, diviners and healers.

Anthropological uncertainty about the situation of witchcraft feeds into ways in which various state authorities, colonial and post colonial, have approached it and inadvertently promoted it. If witchcraft is understood as essentially a matter of culture and belief it can potentially be attacked through education and political campaigns, while legal sanctions are directed against those who practice witchcraft and against those seeking to make them knowable.

It is clear from recent media reports in a number of countries that neither approach is working. Evangelical Christian churches proliferating on the continent readily assume responsibility for addressing perceived witchcraft threats within and beyond their congregations (Meyer 2004; Hasu 2012). Social media fuels the extension of transnational economies founded on the occult, dispersing witchcraft through the diaspora while offering a means for those afflicted to address it.

If the transnational appeal of healers and preachers such as the hugely popular TB Joshua in Nigeria are testament to the enduring salience of notions about witchcraft, they are also indicators of the consistent imbrication of witchcraft with innovation and social transformation. Witchcraft is not , despite systematic condemnation by the governments seeking to prohibit it, a traditional and static social institution. It is a continually evolving assemblage.

The institution of witchcraft, wherever it occurs, is not only wholly implicated in modernity (Geschiere 1997). Those engaged with witchcraft either as purchasers of its powers, such as the miners of Western Tanzania, or the diviners offering protection from it consistently seek to adapt the ways in which they do so; through new forms of protective practice, changes in how clients seeking protection are dealt with or the contexts in which certain medicines come to be viewed as efficacious (e.g Green & Mesaki 2005; Englund 2007). It is not witchcraft in the abstract but the practice of it which in many settings is perceived to be antithetical to modernization and moving forwards. Personal ambition may be thwarted by witches whose jealousy prevents a person from getting ahead. Witchcraft as is therefore consistently viewed by those affected by it as getting in the way of development (Smith 2008).

Governments tend to claim that witchcraft related practices and ideas are backward and anti- development, a political position certainly, but one which borrows its legitimation from certain kinds of anthropology. In constituting witchcraft as a matter of culture anthropologists and African states fail to acknowledge the ways in which it comes to be institutionally entrenched in various settings.   The study of witchcraft is inherently entangled with development as ideology and in terms of the interventions at social reform undertaken by successive African governments.

The study of witchcraft , in Africa and elsewhere, demands some kind of engagement with the politics of development in various institutional forms. It is also important. However much we contribute to understanding witchcraft, however meaningful it may be, witchcraft as an institution amounts to symbolic, structural and actual violence. It causes significant social harm. If anthropologists can help unpick its institutional tenacity we will have made a useful contribution.

References Cited

Ashforth, Adam. Madumo, a man bewitched. University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Ashforth, Adam. Witchcraft, violence, and democracy in South Africa. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Bryceson, Deborah Fahy, Jesper Bosse Jønsson, and Richard Sherrington. “Miners’ magic: artisanal mining, the albino fetish and murder in Tanzania.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 48, no. 03, (2010): 353-382.

Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. “Occult economies and the violence of abstraction: notes from the South African postcolony.” American ethnologist 26, no. 2 (1999): 279-303.

Douglas, Mary. “Witchcraft and leprosy: two strategies of exclusion.” Man (1991): 723-736.

Englund, Harri. “Witchcraft and the limits of mass mediation in Malawi.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13, no. 2 (2007): 295-311.

Geschiere, Peter The Modernity of Witchcraft: politics and the occult in postcolonial Africa. University of Virginia Press, 1997.

Green, Maia, and Simeon Mesaki. “The birth of the “salon”: Poverty,“modernization,” and dealing with witchcraft in southern Tanzania.” American Ethnologist 32, no. 3 (2005): 371-388.

Green, Maia. “The social distribution of sanctioned harm.” Addison et al, Poverty Dynamics (2009): 309-327.

Hasu, Päivi. “Prosperity gospels and enchanted world views: Two responses to socio-economic transformation in Tanzanian Pentecostal Christianity.” Pentecostalism and Development: Churches, NGOs and Social Change in Africa 1 (2012): 67.

Langwick, Stacey Ann. Bodies, politics, and African healing: The matter of maladies in Tanzania. Indiana University Press, 2011.

Mesaki, Simeon. “The tragedy of ageing: Witch killings and poor governance among the Sukuma.” Dealing with Uncertainty in Contemporary African Lives. Stockholm: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet (2009): 72-90.

Meyer, Birgit. “Christianity in Africa: From African independent to Pentecostal-charismatic churches.” Annual Review of Anthropology (2004): 447-474.

Moore, Henrietta L., and Todd Sanders. “Magical interpretations and material realities.” Magical interpretations, material realities: modernity, witchcraft and the occult in postcolonial Africa (2001): 552-566.

Niehaus, Isak A. “Witch-hunting and political legitimacy: continuity and change in Green Valley, Lebowa, 1930–91.” Africa 63, no. 04 (1993): 498-530.

Niehaus, Isak. Witchcraft and a life in the new South Africa. Vol. 43. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Smith, James H., and Ngeti Mwadime. Email from Ngeti: An Ethnography of Sorcery, Redemption, and Friendship in Global Africa. Univ of California Press, 2014.

Smith, James Howard. Bewitching development: witchcraft and the reinvention of development in neoliberal Kenya. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester. manchester.academia.edu/MaiaGreen

4 thoughts on “Ask A Mind: Is Studying Witchcraft `Useful’ for Development?

  1. Maia, thanks so much for this update on a classic but still important topic. Has anyone done comparative research on similar phenomena in other parts of the world. In Taiwan, for example, where I did research on Daoist healing in the late 1960s, illness and other misfortune were blamed on spirits (gods, ghosts or ancestors). Witchcraft accusations directed at kith or kin were rare or non-existent. On the other hand, the way in which economic development created new opportunities for healers and other religious practitioners was, indeed, striking.

  2. Thanks John. I am sure that there very similar processes playing out in many parts of the world. The new economy of the occult, or rather its scale and globalization, is fascinating. Here in the UK its not usual to see ads for diviners and healers from various parts of Africa in the backpages of the national free newspapers handed out at train stations. I’d be interested to hear about whats going on in other places , particularly in relation to the growth of healing and divination on the one hand (which as you say can identify all sorts of causes for misfortune, not necessarily immediately human) and also in relation to changes in how people thought to be witches are dealt with. Is it becoming more of a private issue, between individuals in conflict, than a matter for a wider group?

  3. Maia, it has been decades since I last thought seriously about these issues. What follows is speculation rooted in half-baked memories. That said, I find myself wondering about the size of the social context in which witchcraft accusations occur. Would it be fair to say that witchcraft accusations are characteristic of small communities in which interpersonal conflicts loom large? The implicit alternative would be large, complex societies in which the causes of misfortune are conceived as persons, structures or forces outside the neighborhood. Dynamically speaking, one would expect to see a parabolic or U-shaped curve in the frequency of witchcraft accusations, with increasing frequency as migrants from small, rural communities to cities find themselves confronted with all sorts of new and unexpected misfortunes and still understand them in terms of witchcraft, followed by declining frequency as they or their descendants become accustomed to urban life in which most social others are strangers, neither kith nor kin, and misfortune is increasingly attributed to powers with whom individuals have no neighborly or kin relations. Does any of this make sense to you?

  4. Those are good questions, John, and they are important, but I suspect they are framed within the structuralist anthropology of those times when a correlation between witchcraft and `social structure’ was a key analytical determinant of the ways that anthropologists interpreted witchcraft, rather than the actual ways in which people invoked ideas of witchcraft as interpretation. Notions of witchcraft or sorcery stick in multiple contexts because they are extremely pliable- and all kinds of others can be held responsible for misfortune. They key thing , it seems to me, is the range of social institutions which support attribution of responsibility to witchcraft or to other causes, and the range of sanctions which could be applied to suspected witches. It is quite possible to have the persistence of attribution to witchcraft but a decline in the sanctions against witches as individuals, which we saw in Jeanne Favret -Saada’s classic study of witchcraft in France based on fieldwork carried out in the nineteen seventies and which I see in the parts of Tanzania where I have conducted fieldwork. Your suggestion that there is a U shaped curve in migrant and urban contexts is certainly plausible, but perhaps for these other reasons rather than the scale of social interactions. Perhaps others have thoughts on this and on the direction of change?

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