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The Functions Of Witchcraft

In the 1940s and 1950s sociologists and anthropologists explored the many positive functions of witchcraft and illustrated them with detailed studies. As E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973) observed in his classic study of the belief in witches in an African society, the Azande, witchcraft can be understood as an explanation for unfortunate events. That explanation enabled people to maintain a sense of control over their lives and feel that they understood their world. Understandings about witchcraft could also help to define values and moral standards in a society.

The ideas that a society creates about witches can be seen to support norms and values in that society, and, when analyzed along with a structural model of the society, can also provide insights into the organization of the culture and society. Ideas about the negative characteristics of the witch can be a way to guide behavior, as functionalist anthropologists argued in a series of studies showing that the belief in witchcraft served as a social control mechanism. In his work on the Navajo, Clyde Kluckholn found that the fear of becoming the victim of witchcraft encouraged them to cooperate, share resources, and minimize public displays of anger. The socially permitted form of aggression toward the witch allowed other hostilities to be displaced onto an individual, a useful outlet in situations where in-group hostilities could threaten the survival of the group or damage people's abilities to act collectively.

The central problem with studies that assumed a cohesive function for witchcraft was that, like other functional analyses, the theory could not be proved or falsified. Some sociologists and anthropologists such as Max Marwick were more interested in analyzing the social basis of witchcraft accusations and the life conditions that placed particular strain on these relationships. Against the dominant functionalist trend, Robert Murphy proposed that beliefs about witchcraft and accusations could have disruptive effects. Working with the Mundurucú in Brazil, he found that witchcraft accusations, combined with a rubber economic boom, created group divisions and family migration, which eventually supported a more dispersed settlement pattern. From her comparative analysis of African Studies, Mary Douglas (1963) came to a similar conclusion.

It has been observed that people in relatively marginal positions in society might be able to use witchcraft, or the threat of witchcraft, as a form of social power. The relatively weak could then influence people with more power or wealth to redistribute it and minimize some of the inequalities in the society. In his study of the Maka in Cameroon, Peter Geschiere shows that witchcraft can work both to promote accumulation and leveling.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Well-being to Jan Ɓukasiewicz BiographyWitchcraft - The Social And Political History Of Witchcraft In Europe, The Functions Of Witchcraft, Symbolic And Ideological Aspects Of Witchcraft