Moral maze with toil and trouble at its heart

October 29, 2004

Anthropologists studying societies that believe in witches can encounter huge ethical dilemmas, reports Harriet Swain.

Our monthly guide to the conferences taking place around the world.

A woman in the culture you are studying as an anthropologist is accused of being a witch. You do not believe in witchcraft, but your credibility depends on maintaining your objectivity and respect for the culture in which you are a guest. One day, you see archers lined up to shoot her. What do you do?

There is no easy answer, says Bruce Knaupt, professor of anthropology at Emory University, who will be taking part in a discussion on the ethics involved in studying witchcraft at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting next month.

As a researcher in Papua New Guinea in the early 1980s, he regularly saw people seriously beaten and threatened with execution for sorcery. The investigations of the team he was with had shown that about a third of all adult deaths there were from homicides, a large proportion of which were executions of "sorcerers".

"On the one hand, you have a human and ethical concern," he says. "On the other hand, as an anthropologist and guest of the people you are reporting on, intervention could end your anthropological study, and even, perhaps, your career."

One way he found to respond was to show solidarity with the relatives of the accused, rather than to intervene directly. Another was to make clear that there would be a record of what was happening, for example, by taking photographs.

While there is a code of ethics for anthropologists, decisions have to be made on a case-by-case and moment-by-moment basis, he says. "There are moments of analysis where you try to fully embrace a sense of appreciation of a practice you may find distasteful," he says, "and other moments where you say, 'no, I cannot abide by this'."

He compares the position of an anthropologist to that of a journalist reporting on a violent situation. There is a similar balance to be made between appearing to condone violent behaviour by failing to intervene - or even to encourage it by being a witness - and becoming more than just a witness.

Bruce Kapferer, professor of anthropology at the University of Bergen, who will be taking part in the debate, agrees with this analogy. "There is about as much an anthropologist can do as a reporter in a war zone," he says. "All we can do is report it and work out what is causing it."

He says that anthropologists are facing such dilemmas more often as those affected by economic and political collapse in parts of Africa and South and South-East Asia look for explanations in sorcery. Recent work has shown that the threat posed by people with HIV is often explained through witchcraft. The problem is especially acute because many legal systems have disintegrated, leaving people to take into their own hands the treatment of others they suspect of sorcery.

This debate will be one of hundreds taking up this year's AAA conference theme of "magic, science and religion". According to Tanya Luhrman, conference organiser and AAA chair, it is an old theme that is being interpreted in new ways. Take recent discussions about how a scientific fact is identified through a cultural prism rather than according to whether or not it is true, or the growing importance of anthropologies of Christianity and Islam, or modern fears of occult practices.

About 5,000 anthropologists from around the world are expected to take part, representing specialities from biological anthropology to linguistics and archaeology. The conference will include sessions on fast versus slow food and the dangers of working as an anthropologist in the Middle East.

But the most controversial session, according to Luhrman, is likely to be closer to home. She predicts that it will be the one on gay marriage in San Francisco, where the conference will be held.

The American Anthropological Association's Annual Meeting will take place in San Francisco, November 17-21.

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