Witches and Boxes

As I am not teaching this year my engagement with ideas is coming largely through the things I am reading , rather than through dialogue with students. Its actually the need to understand something in order to explain it to another person which provides me with a good starting point for an ongoing engagement with a topic or theme, an engagement which generally goes way beyond whatever the original class topic was about. My tendency to drift along avenues of interest now runs relatively unchecked without the discipline of having to refocus on the core issues which I would have to address in a course. There are losses from this, a certain fragmentation in reading and thinking which may seem to jeopardize the likelihood of having any coherent thoughts about anything. But there have been enormous gains in the sense of freedom from the constraints of normative connections which one usually makes, enmeshed within the silos of what have come to count as discrete topics and issues in anthropology which have become entrapped within particular discursive frameworks and literatures.

I have written here before about the problem of witchcraft, the way in which anthropology has construed this as primarily an intellectual problem, as a problem of interpretation. Partially escaping the closed circuits of anthropological approaches to the phenomenon is enabling me to embark on some different thinking in relation to witchcraft, different at least in terms of my own approaches to it. I gave a paper last week looking at witchcraft as an instance of moral re-categorization- so far so usual. But by comparing the social effects of this reordering of obligations and households with social policies in nineteenth century Britain and France a clear parallel emerges in relation to transformations in the kinds and content of social relations which go into making up, literally, modern economies. So witchcraft appears (or is made to appear) not so much as a critique of capitalist reordering, as a modality for its achievement.

My freedom to think outside the box comes by making my boxes bigger, and situating them in different stacks of other kinds of boxes. Interestingly, this expansionary capacity is what anthropology seemed to have once effected for other disciplines, particularly, and perhaps paradoxically, at the very time when anthropology was at its most insular and when its representation of the Other was most totalising. Perhaps this was because it seemed to offer such solid alternative propositions of different cultural worlds. In the current context of course these multiple worlds are invoked within and outside anthropology. Given the increasing singularity of anthropology today it may be that its only outside of it that we can get different takes on how these may be perceived and apprehended.


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

2 thoughts on “Witches and Boxes

  1. Just read the paper, and congratulations are in order. Liked it very much.

    That said, I take issue with the proposition that anthropologists have treated witchcraft primarily as an intellectual problem. That some anthropologists, e.g., Evans-Pritchard in Witchcraft, Oracle and Magic Among the Azande have taken this tack is undeniable. But others, e.g., I.M. Lewis, have employed a classic standard structural-functionalist approach that highlights issues similar to those you raise. The basic mechanism–witchcraft accusations leveled against those who are supposed to be envious of those afflicted by witchcraft–has been around for a very long time. It seems to me that the news in Elizabeth Colson’s data is that the range of persons accused of witchcraft has changed as the notion of family has contracted and individuals strive to distance themselves from claims based on relationships they now deny.

  2. When called upon to slice a pie it is so much more difficult to make even lateral slices than it is cut across the axis. And so much more messy.

    Pardon my mess as I ask if this makes any sense. It seems that witchcraft accusations occur more often when resources are scarce and politico-religious groups are attempting to unite group members to survive difficult times. The economic pressures in Salem are well documented, as were religious leaders’ unification efforts. Is there a correlation between the Satanic Ritual Abuse craze during the recession of the 1980’s and the political and religious conservatism of the Reagan years?

    As you noted in your book Priests, Witches, and Power, there is an affinity in the goals of governments and evangelists. Governments spread agriculture — the perfect way to get physical nourishment — and evangelists spread salvation — the perfect way to get spiritual nourishment. Both know the only *right* way to live.

    In the coming years I would expect to see accusations of witchcraft increase dramatically worldwide as resources become more scarce and increasing numbers of politico-religious fundamentalists and conservatives attempt to nourish themselves physically and spiritually.

Comments are closed.