Anthropology and Humanism
, Vol. 32, Issue 1, pp 4–17, ISSN 0892-8339, online ISSN 1548-1379.© 2007 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requestsfor permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of CaliforniaPress’s Rights and Permissions website, http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintInfo.asp. DOI:10.1525/ahu.2007.32.1.4.
AWitch Hunt in New Guinea: Anthropology on Trial
Department Of AnthropologySociology, Anthropology, And Social Work208 Waters HallKansas State University Manhattan, KS 66506
Traditionally, the ethical stance on witchcraft beliefs and practices byethnographers has been to promote tolerance for such beliefs by showing how they func-tion within a relatively static and closed social system. However, as we reframe ouranalyses in terms of dynamic and open social fields with multiple cultural logics andsocial processes that sometimes contradict one another, this approach is no longer viable.Our paradigmatic shifts lead to new ethical dilemmas. In this article I will recount theethical dilemmas arising from my own engagement with witchcraft beliefs in NewGuinea where local government officials initiated a plan to eradicate witchcraft througha series of sometimes brutal trials. Ultimately, I trace the roots of these ethical dilem-mas to the ways holism, cultural relativism, and participant-observation have beenreshaped to serve new theoretical interests but have not yet been reformulated into aconsistent ethical stance for fieldwork practice.
[Keywords: ethics, fieldwork,witchcraft, sorcery, relativism]Recently, it has become increasingly common for anthropologists to note thatwitchcraft, often thought of as something “traditional,” has not faded with theeffects of modernization throughout the world. Contrary to some expectations,witchcraft has become an active conceptual field for locals to interpret and actin emerging fields of modernity (e.g., Comaroff and Comaroff 1993; Moore andSanders 2001). While ethnographers the world over seek to understand how dif-ferent local modernities are forming, locals themselves are using the paradigmof witchcraft to explain their own experiences of modernity, such as why theyare poor, subservient, corrupt, dying of AIDS, or losing World Cup soccermatches. Witchcraft imageries are employed to explain why a developmentproject did not work or why it
work for the neighboring town or district butnot one’s own. They commonly provide a framework to understand newinequalities of wealth and political power (e.g., Geschiere 1997; Niehaus 2001).Unfortunately, witchcraft imageries are matched in pervasiveness by thepersecution of accused witches. The World Health Organization (2002) recentlyestimated that 500 elderly women accused of witchcraft are killed each year inTanzania alone. News reports from parts of India, Indonesia, Papua NewGuinea, and other areas in Africa tell of similar scenarios. By way of comparison,