Short Essays on Sociology

Essay One

Witchcraft and magic are phenomenon that have given rise to different approaches by anthropologists. On the one hand, some anthropologists believe that magic and witchcraft play a crucial functional role in other societies. As Radcliffe-Brown argues, these features exist not because of inertia, but only because they have a reason to be used and a function to fulfil. For example, Evans-Pritchard explores the Azande tribe’s use of witchcraft in everyday life. In addition, Malinowski interprets the use of magic by the Melanisians. These ethnographic examples help to portray anthropological approaches to magic and witchcraft. On the other hand, Levi Strauss argues in opposition to a reductionist approach, and sees the mind with its imposition of logic and structures has having greater influence on magic in other cultures. The contrast between these classic anthropologists provide distinct approaches to the subject.

Evans-Pritchard studied the use of witchcraft by the Azande in Central Africa. Through fieldwork, he described a society whose everyday life was organised and controlled by witchcraft. The use of witchcraft prevailed because it fulfilled essential functions of the society. This phenomenon fulfilled the people’s request for all occurrences to be causally explained, and acted as an all encompassing way of life. They could attribute any misfortune to witchcraft carried out by someone else. This had another function which was to organise social relationships as well as morally police the population. Since anyone could commit witchcraft on another, people would treat each other nicely, politely, and with respect (for fear of either being accused a witch or being cursed by witchcraft by another). Likewise, they should be kind to their neighbours, since those closeby are more likely to wish ill upon you (and to suspect you of witchcraft too). However, Azande should not be too generous to another since it could cause jealousy, hatred and anger (the causes of witchcraft) from onlookers.

An example of the organisational nature of witchcraft among the Azande is evident in their use of oracles. The ‘rubbing board oracle’ or the superior ‘poison oracle’ were used in everyday life, whether it be for predicting the outcome of events (eg. hunts) or finding the witch responsible for causing illness upon a family member. If this was the case, then an Azande would consult the poison oracle, by poisoning chickens, to get the name of the witch. They would then follow procedures to fix the problem. This shows witchcraft as a successful method of conflict resolution. For example, they could call a village meeting in which they would claim they knew who the witch was, but would not expose them out of respect and because they needed to be careful to not offend (lest the witch makes things worse). This would hopefully convince the witch to stop.

Another way was to consult the deputy-chief. With this ritual, he would respectfully ask the witch to stop their witchcraft. Usually the ‘witch’ would wholeheartedly apologise and claim that he/she had no knowledge or intention of causing harm, and that they were sorry if they unintentionally were. They would then spit out cool water as to ‘cool’ the witchcraft in their stomach. This ethnographic example shows that witchcraft plays a crucial function to daily life among the Azande. It also shows the function it has to reinforce power structures, as the importance of the chief in conflict resolution requires his elevated status. The Azande are also trapped within their system of ‘witchcraft’ because everything can be explained within the system. Witchcraft has self-sustaining defence mechanisms and secondary elaborations which means that it is never the fault of the system, in fact ‘failures’ can strengthen the system instead of disprove it. For example, should a poison oracle produce an incorrect result, the blame is on using too strong poison, or using too young chickens, or on incorrect food taboo procedures, and never on the system itself. Thus, Evans-Pritchard’s work has displayed his approach to witchcraft and the anthropological function it provides in society.

Malinowski studied magic among the Melanisians and took a somewhat similar position to Evans-Pritchard in regards to functionalism. He believed that the use of magic and myth was not abstract and conceptual but rather had more biological, psychological and practical purposes in real life. This ‘reductionism’ presented an anthropoligical approach to magic that was in stark opposition to other thinkers such as Levi Strauss. Malinowski believed that ‘primitive’ peoples had no room for symbolism in their lives, and as such magic could be reduced to practical explanations. However, his use of the word ‘primitives’ in this context is worrying and implies he has imposed a western intellectual way of thinking upon his study subjects. An ethnographic example Malinowski gives to prove his argument is that of the Trobrianders. These people use magic and magical rituals before embarking on a fishing mission in the rough ocean (as opposed to a peaceful lagoon). Here, magic is used practically to control psychological fears so that they may fulfill their tasks and duties. They only need to use magic here because there is danger, such as big waves and storms, and to overcome the despair and uncertainty associated with such danger. It provides these fishermen with hope for success. Furthermore, since the use of magic is often monopolised by elites, it has another function which is to create debt relationships between the chief and his subordinates. This helps to solidify the hierarchical social order in Melanesian society. In modern western society, this use of magic can be somewhat seen in baseball rituals before and during a match. Gmelch provides many examples of this. For example, the use of a lucky charm, a pre-game meal or a warmup ritual. This provides extra confidence to the player that they might not have otherwise. Therefore, we can see a link from Malinowski’s work to Gmelch’s. Malinowski overall provides a clear approach towards how he views the use of magic. However he was criticised for his reductionist apprach by Levi Strauss.

Strauss’s anthropological approach to magic seeked to move away from reductionalism. His belief was that the use of magic could not be reduced to just a biological, psychological or practical standpoint as that would be too simple. Rather, he believed that the mind imposes logic, order and structure on the world. People live in symbolic and socially constructed spaces and often organise the world through binary opposites. This provides a sharp contrast between Malinowski’s beliefs and his own. Strauss takes a more intellectual approach, and likens culture and cultural practices to grammar. Strauss would likely take issue with Malinowski’s use of the word ‘primitives’ and he sees other societies as using the same empirical mental operations as western societies do (for example the Bricoleur compared to the Engineer). As an example, some societies have over 40 words for different types of trees, but no general word for ‘tree’ itself. Such sophistication can hardly be called ‘primitive’. Strauss sees in other societies that ‘things’ are good to think with. For example, the use of a woodpeckers beak to cure a toothache (since it is substantially hard). These ideas relate to Strauss’s major works on shamanism, and magic performed by shamans. One ethnographic example of shaman magic was regarding childbirth. In this case, the shaman would perform rituals and magic to fix the woman’s Mu – the soul of the womb that has gone astray. The shaman does this through symbolism and ritual. Slow, repetitive and peaceful songs help to redefine the woman’s pain through the mythic universe. Symbolism is important, such as that of octopus tentacles to represent contractions. The shaman through his magic/work is able to recompose the woman’s body and give meaning to the pain. Another example of Strauss’s anthropological approach to magic is that of Quesalid. Quesalid was a shaman that worked to cure patients of their illness via their belief as well as the perception of the audience and society. Often, patients became sick by internalising the illness that society believed that they had. To cure them, Quesalid would perform a ritual that culminated in the spitting out of a bloody worm. This gave physical form to the sickness, and this symbolic part of the performance would convince both the audience and the patient of the cure. Of upmost importance was to convince the audience, because the patient would become socially cured. This would allow the reintegration of them back into society. Therefore, Strauss’s approach that the use of symbolism, structure, and the working of the mind on magic is clearly different to both Evans-Pritchard and Malinowski.

Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski and Strauss all provide different approaches to looking at witchcraft and magic. It is both difficult and unwise to rank usefulness or which approach is best, because they all provide a unique angle to view the topic. An understanding of all the approaches is needed to form a holistic understanding of other cultures. As Geertz’s ideas show, all three of these anthropologists provide a thick description of their examples. This makes them useful, because to understand people requires subjectivity and interpretation. However it is this very interpretation which can cause such varying anthropoligical approaches to the topic of magic and witchcraft.

Essay Two

There are many different anthropological approaches to the body and how to understand the body in different cultures. Whilst some view the body as inferior to the mind, others such as Michael Jackson see the body as just as important. Douglas and Dumount show that the body can be used to understand society and religion through the concepts of purity and pollution. In a similar way, Scheper-Hughes views the body as a political space which can be used for protest. Furthermore, Turner introduces the concept of liminality and this can be used as an approach to understand the use of the body. In relation to power, Foucalt explores traditional forms of power over the body and how this has evolved. Lastly, the blurred line between what is human and what is nature is an important approach to the body, and is explored by several anthropologists. Clearly, there is a very wide range of approaches to the body in anthropology, and this essay will focus on those classic anthropoligists as listed above.

Mary Douglas takes an approach that emphasises the importance of the body. She points out that in some cultures, society and religion are organised around the concept and understanding of the body. Using India as an example, she argues that society is structured around purity and pollution. This is also seen as dirty versus clean. In this instance, dirt is matter out of place. For example, with the body, blood inside the body is clean, however blood outside the body is dirty. Shoes on your feet is clean, shoes on the kitchen table is dirty. This dichotomy between the pure and impure relates directly to the body because in daily life the body mirrors society. Both Douglas and Dumount provided examples of this by looking at the caste system in India, and the interrelation between the Brahmins and the Untouchables. For example, Brahmins cannot accept fruit from Untouchables unless it is whole. Likewise they can only accept raw food, not cooked, from them. This is because sliced fruit or cooked food that has been touched by an Untouchable has become dirty and polluted in the eyes of the Brahmin. On a similar note, Untouchables should not make eye contact with those above them in the caste system such as Brahmins, and Brahmins should wash several times a day to keep clean. This displays subordination within the body in the caste system by the Untouchables, and this use of the body perpetuates the hierarchical power structure. Thus, purity and pollution organises society and regulates bodily behaviour. However, there is also an interdependence between the levels of the caste system. The privileged need the lowly to perform the dirty jobs in everyday life, whilst the lowly need the privileged to soil and cleanse their everyday lives. In this way, the culturally constructed concepts of purity and pollution in the body oragnise their society. However, some people intentionally defile and pollute themselves. In order to create solidarity with others, or even to protest the system, some will dirty themselves. For example, in Australia some Aboriginals will take on these actions by drinking in public by sharing a bottle of wine or spirits.

Similar to Douglas, Scheper-Hughes views the body as a political space. She argues that since society is inherently contained within the body, one can also use the body to politically protest it. People can use bodily illness and somatization (eg. psychological distress) to protest their suffering or suppression. The body and illness can be used as a ‘weapon of the weak’, and is utilised in contexts where it is dangerous to publicly voice dissent and protest. Illness as protest is often seen as an unwillingness to cope, or to work, or in some cases to live. Scheper-Hughes provides several ethnographic examples of this. In Malaysian transnational corporation factories, workers may have a ‘sickness strike’ to protest against the brutal, harsh and unfair working conditions. In Brazil, sugarcane cutters may physically collapse and be unable to continue to work in the fields. In Shantytown, mothers may have nervos attacks characterised by severe trembling and anxiety attacks in response to having family members taken away during the night by military death squads. This also serves as a warning to others in the community about the danger at hand. The anthropoligical approach of seeing the body as a political space for protest is strongly put forth by Scheper-Hughes.

Victor Turner also discusses the body in his work on liminality. This liminal period is when people are in-between categories. For example, the stage between a boy and a man, a girl and a woman, or a commoner and a chief. In this stage people’s identity are broken and remade. Whilst they are in this in-between phase, liminal people take on marginal powers, and will have a communitas (shared loneliness) with others in this phase with them. For example, in the transition between boy to man, in some villiages the liminal boys will go to the bushes rather than the villiage, dress up as devils, and misbehave and cause trouble. The culturally construced idea of liminality relates to Strauss’s work and his argument that the mind imposes categories on the world. Additionally, it also conforms with Mary Douglas’s work in that whilst in the liminal phase, you become highly polluted and dangerous. For example, this is seen in the ethnographic example of the coronation ritual of a chief in a tribe in Zambia. In this event, the commoner ‘dies’ in a hut of leaves and enters the liminal phase. The villiage people will then humiliate him, shout insults at him, and degrade him by making him do lowly jobs such as collect firewood. The soon to be chief will keep his head down during this time and dutifully obey, and cannot hold any resentment or hostility to them. After this ritual, the man will take on a new identity with new powers as chief. This is labelled as a ‘lifecrisis’ ritual by Turner (as opposed to an ‘affliction’ ritual). It also provides the villiage with a safety valve to let off steam, and institutionalises a ritual of rebellion within society without fear of repurcussion. In the modern day, Sande explores liminality by looking at the Russ celebration by Norwegian teenagers. In the finals weeks of their high school education – before they either go to university or get a job, they celebrate this liminal phase by drinking lots of alcohol, having ‘fun’ and being mischevious. For example, they get drunk in public or do daring acts (such as kissing a police officer). Normally these acts would be either illegal or not allowed, but society gives these liminal people extra marginal powers during this time.

Michael Jackson is another anthropologist who believes that the body is important. He opposes the intellectualisation and conceptualisation of the body, which is something that anthropologists such as Strauss tries to achieve. He is against the ideas that reduce the importance of the body, and claims that the body itself contains tacit knowledge that is seperate from the mind (for example riding a bike or flirting). This knowledge is often obtained by subconsciously copying parents and friends, and is linked to their habitus. In relation to both this and liminality, Jackson gives an example of initiation rituals in Sierra Leone. Here, there is gender role reversal in the villiages where the men stay inside and cook and clean, whilst the women control the villiage. During this period they get to express and experience something they normally cannot. The body is central to the ability to do this.

Another anthropological approach to the body is put forth by Foucalt. Traditionally, control over a person was through the public punishment and torture of the body. Following Christian belief, the body was an object of sin. Much like Kapferer’s work on exorcisms, the body was a symbol of lust and evil, and thus the devil. However, Foucalt sees power over the body as becoming more to do with the mind. Instead of public spectacles of bodily pain, new power is private and in the mind. It comes in the form of self-reflection and self-study (such as the need for greater personal skills, habits or movitation). For example, in school a teacher who would once smack a student on the hands with a ruler, will now get them to contemplate and think about their actions. This forces a certain subjectivity upon the person. Additionally, at school they may teach working class kids (traditionally rebellious) to adhere to strict time habits and ways of thinking and behaving. This is replicated in factory work – and perpetuates the habitus and class structure.

Finally, multiple anthropological approaches view the relationship between the human body and nature differently. Instead of entirely seperate entities, they are blurred. What is bodily and human and what is not is different for other societies. For Feld, the human body is viewed by the Kaluli in terms of birds. One may describe another as a bird (eg. a hornbill for a big strong man), and food taboos revolve around birds. For example, for kids not to eat owls lest they cannot speak properly, or to not eat turkey lest they cannot walk properly and grow up retarded. They will also dress up the body in different ways for ceremonies, such as men dressing in bright feathers to look beautiful. Furthermore, the Kaluli see the birds as more than just animals since much like the dead, you can hear them but not see them, they are invisible. Therefore birds can represent ancestors and family.

For Willerslev, the reindeer hunters in Siberia believe in animism. This means that the natural world is inhabited by spirits (the ayibbi). As such, when hunting reindeer they will take on multiple identities in order to lure it out and make the reindeer like them. This imitation is referred to as ‘mimesis’ and blurs the distinction between the human body and animal. The body’s identity is split between reindeer and human. However, the hunter must ensure that their body remains more human than animal or else it will be dangerous. Willerslev’s work shows that what is considered ‘human’ and ‘the body’ is different in other cultures. His work closely relates to De-Castro’s on perspectivism. This is the idea that other bodies see human perspectives in different ways. For example, that jaguars see blood as humans see beer, and that birds see maggots as people see fish. This is because they see all animals as originating from humans, and not vice versa.

Lastly, Nancy Munn’s approach to the body is situated in her work on the Aboriginal Australians. For the Aboriginals, the body is not individual. Rather, the body is created by the landscape which in turn was created by the ancestors. It exists beyond the individual. Here, the conception spirit goes in the mother and is part of the baby. For example, birthmarks can indicate which conception spirit one has. The idea that body, land and ancestor are all connected makes the body sacred. As an example, one may have a birthmark that looks like 3 boulders in the landscape, which are the 3 eggs that the emu ancesor had laid in the dreamtime. This also makes the invisible (ancestor) visible. The intertwining of body, land and ancestor render’s memory, history and identity permanent. Furthermore, it means that for Aboriginals the landscape is full of intentionality. This also gives the body an importance that religions such as Christianity have traditionally made inferior. Overall, these anthropological perspectives explore and discuss the blurred lines between the human body and nature.

Anthropoligical approaches to the body vary widely. The body can be seen as an important way to structure society, such as through purity and pollution. Likewise it can be seen as a political space used for political purposes. Other anthropologists see how it is used in times of liminality, and how the body itself contains tacit knowledge. The body can also be considered a sight of evil and therefore of punishment, however power over the body and person has changed. Lastly, some explore how the distinction between the human body and the natural world is different in other cultures. A discussion of all these approaches shows that the body is interpreted in many different ways by different anthropologists.