Chapter 1: Introduction to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion

Image by Halanna Halila on Unsplash.

Chapter 1 Learning Objectives

  • Explain and distinguish the complex definitions of “magic,” “witchcraft,” and “religion.”
  • Summarize and discuss the goals and research methods of cultural anthropologists.
  • Critique the work and motivations of colonial anthropologists.
  • Apply the principle of cultural relativism.
  • Apply an intersectional and holistic approach toward the analysis of cultural beliefs and practices.

Chapter 1: Welcome to The Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion

1.2 What is the supernatural?

1.3 What is religion?

1.4 What is magic?

1.5 What is witchcraft?

  • First, we use the term to refer to the many different religious communities who refer to themselves as witches. Although this form of witchcraft actually exists in many forms, it is often the case that witches believe in the supernatural powers of the “natural” world (parts of the world that are not human-made).
  • At the same time, many societies also use the term “witch” as an accusation intended to punish people who don’t conform to society’s standards.
  1. Anthropological archaeology: the study of human behavior through objects people leave behind.
  2. Linguistics: the study of the human experience through language.
  3. Physical anthropology: the study of human diversity, biology and evolution.
  4. Cultural anthropology: the study of human culture.

1.7 A word about our goals as cultural anthropologists

1.8 Anthropology and Holism

  • Economic forces might favor the development or disappearance of specific types of religious practices over time, affecting the way that a religion changes.
  • There are laws in most countries that govern how religious institutions can operate; these laws can affect where a religion spreads and might even lead to conflicts between religious institutions and governments.
  • Cultural expectations and beliefs about what constitutes acceptable behavior likely also affect elements of a religion. For example, consider ideas about what a “normal” family should look like, what forms of dress are appropriate, what defines masculinity, femininity, or even “success.” All of these cultural expectations might shape how the messages and symbols that are part of a given religion develop.
  • Medical anthropologists worked in West Africa throughout the Ebola epidemic. Simply examining the genetic material of the virus was not sufficient in understanding why and how the disease spread so rapidly. Anthropologists therefore looked to the religious beliefs and practices of the community to learn that some West African communities touch and hold the bodies of their deceased loved ones as part of their religious and cultural ritual. Holistically combining this cultural knowledge with the scientific knowledge that Ebola is still contagious immediately after a person’s death, social scientists and doctors were able to see the big picture and to understand the progression of the epidemic (Wilkinson et al., 2017).
  • Marriage is practiced in a variety of ways and, in some rural Tibetan communities, women marry multiple men at the same time; most commonly a woman will marry all of the brothers from one family. We call this “fraternal polyandry”. Anthropologists have examined this practice at length and, by examining the culture holistically, we understand that a variety of factors cause a family to enter this type of marriage (Starkweather and Hames, 2012). In traditional Tibetan society, families prefer to keep their farms intact without splitting the land between children (fraternal polyandry keeps the entire farm intact within the same family) (Goldstein 1987). Traditional Tibetan society does not employ the same gender expectations that forbid a woman from having multiple husbands. So, by looking at the big picture and considering farming traditions, rules of inheritance, gender roles, and sexuality in this society, we can understand why these communities would practice fraternal polyandry.

1.9 Intersectionality and holism

1.10 Worldview

  • Your understanding of “good” and “bad.”
  • Your understanding of “better” and “worse.”
  • Your ideas of how people should behave.
  • Your idea of what gender roles are.
  • Your idea of what justice is.
  • Your understanding of history.
  • Etc.

1.11 Enculturation

  • Human bodies are very diverse. Weight, skin tone, hair color, length, and texture all vary widely. From a medical standpoint, different heights and weights can all be equally healthy and normal. However, our ideas of what is “beautiful” and “attractive” are largely defined by powerful cultural trends that typically only promote one type of body as the “ideal” type. When we grow up in a society that consistently puts one form of beauty on magazine covers, in TV shows, and on children’s toys, then we are enculturated to value only one, very small sampling of human bodies.
  • People are not born with a preconceived notion of what “success” or “power” looks like and, indeed, these concepts vary from generation to generation and from society to society. We learn our society’s own, culturally-specific ideas of success and power throughout our life as teachers, parents, religious leaders, media, politicians, define and reinforce these concepts.
  • “Appropriate” social behaviors vary from place to place and across social groups. Throughout our lives, we are taught how to behave from adult community leaders and our peers reinforce “good” behaviors and strive to eliminate “bad” behavior through social feedback.

1.12 Shifting Gears: Anthropology, History, and Colonialism

1.13 So, what is colonialism?

1.14 What did colonial anthropologists actually do?

  • Producing propaganda that presented native peoples as “savage” or less-than-human (while producing propaganda that their own people were “civilized”). When these early anthropologists were viewed as “experts,” they were taken at their word by Europeans living at home. And, when anthropologists produced accounts of culture that were steeped in racism, they were justifying the abusive control that European powers sought to keep over the rest of the world (Crewe and Axelby 28–31; Kuper 111).
  • Developing a hierarchy of cultural value. European anthropologists believed that their culture was, inherently, the “best” culture. They then strove to compare all other cultures against that standard in order to determine which people were more advanced than the rest. This logic is inherently flawed because the European standard of greatness is not a universal standard and these cultural hierarchies were not objective (Ibid; Trouillot 2003; 1; Mines 312–313).
  • Collecting census data. By surveying the number and types of people in each community, the colonial governments could better exercise control. (ibid)
  • Studying and learning the local culture and languages. It was easier to control a population if you could understand how they spoke to each other and about themselves. (ibid)
  • Studying and learning about local judicial systems so that the foreign governments could use them to better control the local population. (Ibid)

1.15 Why do we care about colonialism now?

1.16 Cultural Relativism

1.17 Engaging with cultural relativism: what is a “liberated woman?”

1.18 Participant Observation

  1. Stay for an extended period of time: This may seem obvious to us now, but it was groundbreaking at the time. Malinowski wanted to make sure that anthropologists spent years living among the people they were studying in order to have enough time to fully understand all elements of the culture.
  2. Learn the local language: If you are multilingual then you know that different languages lead to different ways of thinking. Malinowski realized that you can’t understand a community if you can’t learn how they speak about themselves and about the world.
  3. Explore the mundane imponderabilia: in other words, “make the strange familiar and make the familiar strange.” Anthropologists strive to make sense of cultural practices that seem “strange” while equally trying to identify what might be unique or “strange” from an outsider’s perspective in order to highlight what, exactly, is a social construct in our own cultures.
  4. Get off the veranda:” Malinowski wanted anthropologists to leave their homes and actively participate in the cultural practices of the people they were studying (DeWalt 1–17). It is only by getting off the veranda and participating, while also observing, that we can ever fully know the people that we are studying.

1.19 Ethnography

  • Understanding culturally-specific logic.
  • Removing power for people to speak for themselves.
  • Instinctual desire to measure the culture against your own.

1.20 Emic and Etic Perspectives

1.21 An Example of the Emic and Etic Perspectives: a Morning Meal

1.22 Why Emic and Etic Perspectives Matter

1.23 Remembering “Emic” and “Etic”

1.24 A Final Note on Critical Thinking and Studying Anthropology

  • Identify and present information in a manner that we see fit
  • Interpret the information in a way that is in line with our own worldview
  • Encourage the reflection of our own worldviews in the grading process
  • Consider the speaker: What is their agenda? What are they trying to achieve? Do they want something from you?
  • Consider the evidence presented: Is it reliable? How do you know?
  • Consider your own knowledge: What has your experience been? What unique information do you possess about the issue at hand?
  • Critically examine the arguments of the social scientists we learn this semester
  • Remember who made each argument because they are arguments and not absolute, objective fact (this is usually the hardest part of course, but we’ll support you to make it easier)
  • Critically examine our arguments, consider our perspective as authors and anthropologists
  • Listen to the contributions of your classmates who have equally valid knowledge and experiences to share
  • Contribute to the dialogue yourself by offering “I statements” (please do not make claims in the classroom that you cannot, personally verify to be true)
  • Come to your own conclusions based on all of these considerations

Chapter 1 Works Cited

  • “Anthropologists Engaged.” Anthropology and Development: Culture, Morality and Politics in a Globalised World, by Emma Crewe and Richard Axelby, Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 28–31.
  • “Anthropology for the 21st Century.” Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: a Toolkit for a Global Age, by Kenneth J. Guest, W. W. Norton and Company, 2020, pp. 9–69.
  • Asad, Talal. “Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter.” The Politics of Anthropology, doi:10.1515/9783110806458.85.
  • Boas, Franz. The Mind of Primitive Man. Forgotten Books, 2015.
  • Dewalt, Billie R., and Kathleen M. Dewalt. Participant Observation: a Guide for Fieldworkers. Md., 2011.
  • Frankle, R. L. (2005). Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. Retrieved 2020.
  • Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Education, 1972.
  • Goldstein, Melvyn. “Fraternal Polyandry: When Brothers Share a Wife.” Natural History, 1987, pp. 39–48.
  • Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: the False Coin of Our Own Dreams. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
  • “Imaginative Geography and Its Representations.” Orientalism, by Edward W. Said, Vintage Books, 2004, pp. 49–72.
  • Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists: the Modern British School. Routledge, 2006.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw, et al. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Stanford University Press, 1989.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: an Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
  • Mostowlansky, T. & A. Rota. 2020. Emic and etic. In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology (eds) F. Stein, S. Lazar, M. Candea, H. Diemberger, J. Robbins, A. Sanchez & R. Stasch.
  • “The Politics of Anthropology.” Gender and Difference in a Globalizing World: Twenty-First-Century Anthropology, by Frances E. Mascia-Lees, Waveland Press Inc, 2010, pp. 69–70–212.
  • Slocum, Sally. “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology.” Toward an Anthropology of Women, 1975.
  • Starkweather, K.E., Hames, R. A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry. Hum Nat 23, 149–172 (2012).
  • “Toward A Definition of White Logic and White Methods .” White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology, by Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008, pp. 18–19.
  • Wilkinson, A., Parker, M., Martineau, F., & Leach, M. (2017). Engaging ‘communities’: anthropological insights from the West African Ebola epidemic. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 372(1721), 20160305.
  • Wolf, E. Europe and the People without History. University of California Press, 1982.

Chapter 1 Suggestions for further reading:

  • “Chapter 4.” We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch, Picador/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004.
  • Earle, T. 1997. How Chiefs Come to Power: the Political Economy in Prehistory. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Lindenbaum, Shirley. “An Annotated History of Kuru.” Medicine Anthropology Theory | An Open-Access Journal in the Anthropology of Health, Illness, and Medicine, vol. 2, no. 1, 2015, p. 95., doi:10.17157/mat.2.1.217.
  • “The Notion of Witchcraft Explains Unfortunate Events.” Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, by E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Eva Gillies, Clarendon Press, 2014.
  • “Production.” Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History, by Sidney Winfried Mintz, Penguin Books, 2018, pp. 20–73.
  • “Toward and Interpretive Theory of Culture.” The Interpretation of Cultures, by Clifford Geertz, Basic Books, 1972.





Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

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Amanda Zunner-Keating

Amanda Zunner-Keating

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

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