Monday, June 19, 2017

Witchcraft among the Azande

If you're interested in Peter Winch on understanding others, you might be interested in this documentary. Perhaps it's well known, but I only just found it:

And here's one on Evans-Pritchard:

I haven't watched either one yet, so can't guarantee their quality. 



  2. "Azande witchcraft" has long been a go-to example in Anthropology for the problem of cultural relativity, but I'd never seen this video. I've looked at about half of the first video (Part 1 and a bit of Part 2), and there seem to be a lot of problems with the way the Azande cultural practices are understood by the observer. The language used by the commentator, English, but more importantly the lack of theoretical distance in its use, is inadequate to express the interpretation of reality as understood by the Azande here. There are a lot of problems, but one is that the words 'witch' and especially 'witchcraft' are inadequate and misleading. The entity that is called a "witch" here is understood by the Azande as a malevolent force that someone "has", not something that someone "is"; it is not really to be identified with the essence of a person, so the use of the lexical component '-craft', which indicates a purposive activity of an a person as agent, I don't think is appropriate. In some other West African cultures the "witch"
    leaves the person's body during sleep at night and is identified with certain night birds (in these languages the word for 'bird' and the word for "witch", in this sense, are the same.) The idea is probably closer to the European concept of "possession", but without the overt manifestations. People (Azande) sometimes conflate these, as we can see here. The term 'magic' also does not give an accurate understanding of the Azande practices for arriving at explanations. The concept of causality in this case lacks an operative component of observable evidence and especially the notion of mechanism as evidence driven pursuit of the dependency relations. In the everyday problems shown here, causal explanation is bound up with the understanding of ethical norms. If a person is judged to be doing wicked things to others, the wickedness will be attributed to the "witch" in their belly. If you have two people, and one is seen as kind, while the other is not kind, the latter is more likely to be thought to have a "witch" in their belly. (I use "witch" here because African creole languages use 'witch' or its cognates, but 'witch' as used by an African speaker of English or a creole language does not denote the same phenomenon as the same word used by a European.) Conventional belief tends to take precedence over particulars of the case in the determination rituals. Note that justice is achieved by compensation and atonement, rather than the punishment which was done in the old days.

    1. Thanks very much for this. I'm afraid I still haven't watched the videos, so I can't really comment. From what you say perhaps they aren't worth watching, although talk about witches and witchcraft among the Azande are not confined to these sources. (Which is not to say you're wrong, of course.)

    2. No, you should still watch them. I don't know the current state of the art on the Azande example in anthropology, but it always struck me that, as with the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, in the past (and maybe even now) even anthropologists suffered from an inability to break free from conventional parochialism and enter into the way of understanding the world of a different language and culture. Understanding those others whose language provides a different interpretation of experience from one's own requires perhaps a third perspective independent of the first two.

    3. Acquiring that perspective doesn't sound easy, but all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, as Spinoza says. Winch talks about needing to expand our stock of concepts, which seems like a good (if difficult) thing to do.