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African Studies of Witchcraft

Early Anthropological Contributions, Politics Of Witchcraft: Local And Global, Philosophical Approaches To The Study Of Witchcraft

In contemporary scholarly and popular discourse, the term witchcraft refers to a wide variety of ideas, practices, and institutions. Among most social science scholars of Africa, particularly anthropologists, witchcraft is defined as an act of magic that results in harming a person or aspects of the material world on which he or she depends. In this context, witchcraft and magic are used interchangeably; it is assumed that magic used for harm and magic used for healing, or enhancement, can be distinguished, either conceptually or in practice.

The work of anthropologists from the 1930s on made the greatest contributions to the study of social and political institutions in African societies, as well as their systems of belief and logic. Their methodological and theoretical achievements influenced many disciplines in Western scholarship, notably history and philosophy. During the past forty years, witchcraft has occupied a controversial place in African Studies scholarship. As a general term that describes the harmful use of magic, witchcraft is not specific with respect to the societies or peoples who use it. Witchcraft and magic exist in all societies, but, as many scholars have shown, in the history of Western thought and popular culture, and in much of contemporary European-American scholarship, witchcraft has been positioned as a backward or erroneous system of thought. In the study of African religions, it is also interesting to note that Western scholarship has given it great prominence. As noted by John Mbiti in African Religions and Philosophies, Western scholarship has often presented witchcraft ideas out of context and emphasized their association with harm, which has resulted in a fundamental misrepresentation of African religions.

One of the central achievements of E. E. Evans-Pritchard's (1902–1973) work was to show that witchcraft among the Azande provided explanations for everyday events and presented a theory of causality. From a contemporary critical perspective, however, it can be faulted for making the assumption that it did not have the same explanatory power as scientific modes of thought and reasoning. African philosophy has been at the forefront of critical assessment of the biases of Western scholarship and the quest to develop discourses and ways of re-representing African religious life.

The study of witchcraft now involves a broader range of scholars who have extended debates and included in their studies many new areas of interest. Some of these concern questions of representation and meaning and new questions about the ability of disciplinary concepts to address local knowledge and experience.

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