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African Studies of Witchcraft

Early Anthropological Contributions

Witchcraft serves many different social functions. In ethnographic studies of peoples around the world, anthropologists have detailed many of the positive social functions of witchcraft. As popularized in Evans-Pritchard's work, witchcraft can be understood as an explanation for misfortune, which might function to provide people with a sense of control over their own lives and the ability to understand forces in their world. These could be called empowering functions of witchcraft. Understandings about witchcraft can be used to define values and moral standards in a society, thus contributing to a society's definition of itself or distinction from other groups. Also, people who are in relatively weak and marginal positions in society might be able to use witchcraft, or the threat of witchcraft, as a form of power. In this way, the ideas and practices of witchcraft could work to mediate social, political, or economic inequalities.

Witchcraft also serves more overtly political functions. The complex of ideas associated with witchcraft can involve rituals that identify people responsible for practicing witchcraft. Early anthropological works on African societies noted the existence of movements against witchcraft, sometimes known as anti-witchcraft movements or witchcraft eradication movements, that borrowed from these cultural institutions. Audry Richards's important essay on a witch-finding movement in Zambia shows how the movement drew from responses to the influences of colonialism, yet also drew from rituals that are part of a common complex in central African societies.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Well-being to Jan Ɓukasiewicz BiographyAfrican Studies of Witchcraft - Early Anthropological Contributions, Politics Of Witchcraft: Local And Global, Philosophical Approaches To The Study Of Witchcraft