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A Witch-Hunt in New Guinea: Anthropology on Trial

A Witch-Hunt in New Guinea: Anthropology on Trial

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Published by mwesch
by Michael Wesch
Anthropology and Humanism 2007
by Michael Wesch
Anthropology and Humanism 2007

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Published by: mwesch on Jun 25, 2008
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05/09/2014

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 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.
Articles
AWitch Hunt in New Guinea: Anthropology on Trial
M
ICHAEL
W
ESCH
Department Of AnthropologySociology, Anthropology, And Social Work208 Waters HallKansas State University Manhattan, KS 66506
SUMMARY
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
did
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,
 
most historians now estimate that approximately 40,000 accused witches werekilled during the so-called witch craze in Europe from the 15th to the 17th cen-turies, at a rate of approximately 133 killings per year (Levack 1995). We look back on that era with a sense of horror. Yet we seem to look on our current era,in which the numbers I have presented suggest that the rate of persecution may be many times higher, with a sense of ambivalence. To what can we attributethis ambivalence? Why have there been no widespread calls to action?Commenting on this problem over 35 years ago, Mary Douglas noted thisironic double standard: “Dangerous in Europe, the same beliefs in Melanesiaor Africa appeared to be tame, even domesticated; they served useful functionsand were not expected to run amuck” (1970:xiii). Now enter the anthropologistinto fieldwork situations where witchcraft-related violence does indeed seemto be running amok, and the quandaries of engagement I will be discussing inthis article become readily apparent.I was an unfortunate witness to the horrors of a witch hunt in central NewGuinea.
1
Many of the dilemmas I faced were born from the situation itself. Butin this article I would like to point out that these dilemmas were only magni-fied by my role as an anthropologist, in particular the paradoxes and dilemmasimplicit in anthropological practice itself. They are dilemmas born within theroots of anthropology that seemed to grow around me as the witch hunt con-tinued, until I felt trapped within a thick infestation of twisted vines of para-dox and self-doubt. I locate the roots of my dilemmas within a classic trio ofanthropology: cultural relativism, holism, and participant-observation. I locatethe growing complexities of my dilemmas within the growing complexities ofthese terms: cultural relativism’s transformation into what Michael Carrithershas recently labeled “radical cultural relativism … constant processes of cul-tural creation, destruction, hybridization, and diversification” (2005:441); theattendant transformation of holism from its association with “whole” (distinct)cultures to the imagined whole of vast and intricate global interconnections; aswell as the transformation from Malinowski’s relatively scientistic participant-observation to an increasingly morally engaged observant participation (e.g.,Scheper-Hughes 1995).
The Classic Trio of Anthropology: Holism, Cultural Relativism,and Participant-Observation
Despite their recent transformations, cultural relativism, holism, and partic-ipant-observation remain key fundamental principles of cultural anthropology.Later in this article, I will argue that in its classic textbook form the trio inhibitsmoral action in fieldwork situations by promoting a value of scientific detach-ment. But while moral action in the field is inhibited, the three contribute to aclassic story line promoting open-mindedness toward other ways of life andcan show even the most exotic beliefs and practices as functional and mean-ingful within the local culture.The best-selling introductory textbook in cultural anthropology definesholism as “a fundamental principle of anthropology, that the various parts ofculture must be viewed in the broadest possible context in order to understandtheir interconnections and interdependence” (Haviland et al. 2005:14). Prior tothe “crisis” in anthropology (Tyler 1987), holism often went hand in hand with
Wesch
 AWitch Hunt in New Guinea
5
 
varieties of functionalism and placed an emphasis on understanding culturesas distinct wholes. To understand one aspect of “a” culture, one needed tounderstand all of the other aspects of that particular culture as well.This fundamental principle of anthropology is deeply wedded to anotherfundamental principle, cultural relativism. The textbook definition is “the the-sis that one must suspend judgment of other peoples’ practices in order tounderstand them in their own cultural terms” (Haviland et al. 2005:49). Inother words, such practices should be approached holistically, “viewed in the broadest possible context in order to understand their interconnections andinterdependence” with other aspects of the culture and that culture’s particu-lar web of meanings (Haviland et al. 2005:49). We are all well versed in the lim-itations of these two fundamental principles and the many transformationsthey have undertaken in recent decades. We no longer approach our fieldworksites as if they contain within them an isolated and distinct “whole” culture.Nonetheless I would like to start with them in their “textbook definition” formin order to examine the implications for the third fundamental principle in ourclassic trio: participant-observation.We owe the name of this third foundational principle to BronislawMalinowski. For Malinowski, participation was primarily a way to improveobservation by stepping off the veranda to gain a better perspective, as hedescribes in the following:
Soon after I had established myself I began to take part, in a way, in the village life...I had to learn how to behave, and to a certain extent, I acquired “the feeling” fornative good and bad manners. With this, and with the capacity of enjoying theircompany and sharing some of their games and amusements, I began to feel that Iwas indeed in touch with the natives, and this is certainly the preliminary conditionof being able to carry on successful field work. [1953:7–8]
Analyzing this mode of fieldwork in 1963, John Barnes noted that it was built on a model of the field as a scientific laboratory. People were studied as if“under the microscope” (Barnes 1963:123). The effects of the researcher on thefield were ignored, and fieldworkers were expected to act in such a way as tominimize their effects on the local culture. The influences of outside groupssuch as missionaries, administrators, schools, and markets were seen as con-taminants to be disregarded in the final analysis. Turning to questions of moral judgment in the field, Barnes notes that “under the microscope there could beno moral judgments. They had their code and we had ours, and the two nevermet” (1963:123).In its classic form, the key trio rests on the notion of cultures as wholes thatcan be bracketed off from the rest of the world. Importantly, this notion entailsanother: the fieldworkers bracket themselves from the culture. Cultural rela-tivism’s call to “suspend judgment” asks the fieldworker to leave some part ofthe self behind when entering the field, to tread lightly and respect culturalpractices rather than alter them, regardless of how they might work against thefieldworker’s own personal or cultural values.As such, personal accounts of fieldwork dilemmas were rare, even wherethere were intense social dramas including actual or alleged physical andmystical violence such as witchcraft. In Evans-Pritchard’s (1937) classic work onthe Azande we find only a few hints of the moral dilemmas he may have faced.
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 Anthropology and Humanism
Volume 32, Number 1

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