Culture and Religion

I still have a lot to write on Old World paleolithic history, but I’d like to detour into my Culture and Religion class for a while.

This course was primarily Africa focused – if you’ve never had an anthropology class like this, they generally focus on the connections between the study of religion from an anthropological perspective. As such, they don’t necessarily try to understand origins of forms and practices or make judgments on whether such practices are effective and/or meaningful – nor do they attempt to mitigate what the question of faith means – these are questions better addressed by philosophical inquiry.  I found instead that the class was focused heavily on the methods of anthropological inquiry, the ways in which we get entangled with our subjects, and descriptions of religious phenomena.  We should absolutely always be documenting the lives of others – what Geertz called thick description – but this course was incredibly effective at getting me to think reflexively about myself and how I color my interpretations.  These are lessons I’ve been taught before, but the juxtaposition of two books about Africa that I read helped in this department.

I read Evans-Pritchard’s classic work on the Azande and a recent work by Harry West called “Ethnographic Sorcery”.  These two books could not have been more different. Comparing the ethnographic and theoretical approaches of E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Harry West is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Certainly the authors of Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic and Ethnographic Sorcery have significant differences in theory and practice that underlie their researches and which became manifest in the ways they interacted and interpreted practitioners of witchcraft and their socio-cultural systems. Evans-Pritchard and West are completely different scholars, separated by more that 80 years of anthropological development – finding similarities in their approach was the difficult part.  I will first discuss what differentiates the two, and then look for ways to unite their studies.

Evans-Pritchard, as a functionalist, looked for the ways in which society operated and maintained itself.  All cultural objects, artifacts, practices, etc. have practical value in keeping society as whole together. He saw witchcraft in this light, that of course it could not be real and was only a construct in the minds of the “primitive” people he studied. This sounds vaguely like an uninformed West, who claims in his introduction that cultural objects real to his informants, sorcery lions, are in fact not real but rather metaphors. Quickly he is corrected, and West readjusts to think about lions in a more productive manner. West then approaches the issue of sorcery lions from a discursive and phenomenological perspective.  In these schools of thought, reality is constructed through dialogically created schemes, each reality experienced at the individual levels, and negotiated amongst a populace. The question of function does not occur to West, as it does with Evans-Pritchard. Evans-Pritchard stays firmly entrenched within a positivist mindset in his fieldwork. Though he may imply that Azande societies are rational, with a clear understanding of how the world works, he would not conclude they are scientifically correct or logical.  This type of reasoning does not occur to West – coming a full 80 years of Evans-Pritchard, West has the advantage of time and the development of anthropological and sociological theories to aid him in developing a more complex understanding of sorcery. While West’s book is partly philosophical and partly anthropological, Evans-Pritchard’s book is very much an ethnography complimented by anthropological observations.

West also acknowledges that he is a part of the magico-religious sphere in his book and draws allusions to his own construction of reality.  Evans-Pritchard couldn’t do this – his reality was a very separate thing from the reality of the Azande.  Living in Mozambique, in Mueda, West comes to observe the effects of sorcery lions as people are mauled in the bush.  While his mind has problems drawing literal and figurative lines in the sand, he also observes that his informants know and believe that natural, animal lions and sorcery lion are two different things entirely. He asks of himself, and the reader, to question whether they are truly different or the same?  West realizes that our worlds are made through dialog and dynamic interactions – there is not simply one reality and discourse is what makes it.

But how are they similar?  That really is the difficult question – they are both anthropologists, they both work in Africa, they deal with magic, and they are men.  These are obvious and not insightful to any extent.  Thinking about these works, and the overall thematic orientation of this course, I ask myself, what brings Evans-Pritchard and West together in the end? Perhaps they may agree that ultimately a western imperative is making its effects felt and known in their respective study areas. West observed that some people in Mozambique were looking for scientific and analytical studies of magic on the Muedan plateau. In fact he was hired by FRELIMO to study magic scientifically and train Muedans in that type of study. Certainly there was a push to modernize from official directives and one might suppose a similar effect was happening in early 20th century azande-land, but from its colonial masters.  Evans-Pritchard does imply that witchcraft undergoes significant changes after British colonialism, as one aspect of their invasion was to modernize and make the Azande into Christians. Both these men were dealing with indigenous belief systems that were adapting and making changes to a rapidly shifting world view.  Given the civil wars in Mozambique and general distrust for government, it is meaningful that sorcerers can become invisible and transform into powerful natural beings.

Ultimately Evans-Pritchard and West are separated by a vast gulf of time, and major developments in theory. I doubt West would every parlay the word “primitive” around. And West’s book has left me with the greater impression as well. Evans-Pritchard is an absolutely necessary read – every anthropologists needs to be familiar with his work.  Perhaps one day I will read West’s data volume on this research. I am particularly interested in finding out if he, although quite advanced theoretically, has moved beyond Evans-Pritchard in terms of his methods. And that truly is an interesting question,  how have our methods changed since the 19th century?

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