How useful for the understanding of supernatural beliefs are the anthropological/ social anthropological and functionalist approaches?

So for my post this month’s I’ve decided to explore something different within history, by discussing the relationship that history has with other disciplines such as Anthropology, along with its social counter-part and the Functionalists approach to certain historical situations, in this case the existence of witchcraft beliefs during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe. It can often be suggested that to understand anything you need to look at it from a multitude of angles and this is especially the case with regards to the historian’s attempts to understand the belief in witchcraft that occurred. However the extent to which other disciplines can be useful to the historian to help them understand such concepts is what this post shall discuss.

Anthropology, social anthropology and functionalist are three of a wider spectrum of approaches that can be used by historians to help explain the witch craze, which occurred in Europe and the founding colonies of America, during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. This work will define before discussing the usefulness of these approaches in studying supernatural beliefs. Firstly there are two key terms in this question that need to be addressed, ‘supernatural’ is in itself an overarching term which can be used to indicate any belief in the supernatural, such as ghosts and fairies. In this work supernatural will apply particularly to beliefs of magic and witchcraft. The other key term in this work is usefulness and this shall be defined as whether these approaches allow new insights into explaining witchcraft and magical beliefs. Lastly this work will lokin particular on the works of Keith Thomas – ‘History and Anthropology’ and E.P. Thompson- ‘Anthropology and the Discipline of Historical Context’, before finally concluding on how useful these approaches are to the historical study of witchcraft and magical beliefs.

Anthropology and social anthropology can be suggested as two approaches that at times can be combined with each other as both these subjects are concerned with the study of man and humanity and thus also with the study of history. Yet, whilst they are similar as a result of what they study, they are not the same. For instance, anthropology is defined as the study of man and culture through localised studies before comparing the modern societies concerned and use this analysis to explain the past. This is underpinned by the principle that if you can understand one society you should be able to understand the other, as certain aspects of humanity and human life do not change. On the other hand social anthropology is similar to anthropology however the key difference is that social anthropology focuses primarily on how human beings behave individually whilst in social groups.

One of the foremost strengths of using these approaches, both anthropology and social anthropology, to explain supernatural and witchcraft beliefs is the approaches ability to ‘combine in one discipline the approaches of biology and social sciences’ . This is constructive to studying magical beliefs as it allows the researcher to look at the many strands of life that are related to and entwined with each other. This allows the historian to see the wider picture, along with similarities within the explanations, of why certain societies would use witchcraft to explain disaster, and the similarities in the treatment of witches across Europe and America during the witch craze. This can be demonstrated in the way that modern day believers in witchcraft use it to explain the so-called ‘unexplainable’. In the study, by Professor Evans-Prichard, of the Azande tribe, a boy knocked his foot on a stump of wood, injuring his foot. The boy in this case then accounted for his injury by explaining that someone had bewitched him to walk in to the stump of wood . This behaviour is comparable to European Witchcraft beliefs, for example in the Malleus Malificuram where if cattle fell ill; it wasn’t the result of a disease but someone bewitching the cattle .

The strength of these approaches can be further demonstrated if we consider anthropological and social anthropological studies as a form of reconstruction. By looking at areas such as rural Africa where the belief in magic still continues to be used to explain unexplainable events, this is to an extent, is a way of reconstructing the mind-set, attitudes and actions of people in Europe and America at the height of witchcraft belief. This would ‘involve an effort of… historical imagination,’ if looked at through documents alone. For instance in rural Africa today mental and physical illness can be accounted for by magic and sorcery. This can be compared to the use of ‘bewitchment’ as a medical term to describe illnesses, as shown by cases in the Salem witch trials. Thus it can be suggested that the strength of these approaches is the element of reconstruction which helps the modern historian rationalise why a society could, and would, believe in witchcraft when modern researchers do not. Furthermore anthropologists and social anthropologist do, as part of their research ‘live in or at least visit the society they are studying’. Thus it can be suggested that they perhaps have a greater understanding of how relationships between ideological entities such as politics and social structure are linked, rather than historians who treat such entities as separate things. For example social tensions are highlighted between people, in the case of the Malleus Maleficarum where the little girl makes it rain to help her father’s crops . This demonstrates how other concerns, in this case agricultural and economic concerns are also apart of studying witchcraft and it is through these approaches that we are able to see these links.

A vital limitation of these approaches is the comparative nature of their studies, while this is considered a strength of these approaches, it continues to be a limitation. For instance can historians use this analysis of modern rural Africa and explain belief in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe and America when the contexts and situations are not perfectly similar. For example if it is considered that ‘society’s beliefs and their behaviour will vary ’ in contemporary time, is it possible to use data from this to explain belief in Europe and Colonial America, where belief is also varied. The same can be suggested for social anthropology as one person’s reactions to witchcraft would be different to another’s. This is demonstrated by the difference in belief and the treatment of elite and popular forms of magic. For instance astrologers were consulted by the elite; witches were despised by the general populous; and a social anthropologist has to be wary of the distinction between the two rather than using their analysis of a cultures belief in magic and applying it to the general belief during this time. This also highlights a further limitation of generalisation; whilst anthropologists and social anthropologists frequently take one small society and study it as a whole, applying their findings to the society experiencing the witch craze, they generalize experiences which should be considered as unique to the people at the time.

A final limitation with these approaches is that both anthropologists and social anthropologists ask different questions from a historian studying the topic. Whilst this can be considered a strength, at the same time it is a limitation as perhaps the questions do not tell the historian what they wish. For example, E.P Thompsons criticisms of Alan Macfarlane’s work, The family life of Ralph Josselin, admits that the work asked ‘questions neglected by historians,[but] it doesn’t necessarily ‘equip him to answer these questions’ . This leads to the other limitation, of anachronistic judgements and definitions that can occur from these approaches. For example the idea that among the Azande witchcraft is considered ‘normal not abnormal’ , yet Evans-Pritchard judges’ witchcraft to be abnormal demonstrates his western view upon supernatural belief. This therefore demonstrates how the anthropologist, like the historian, interprets the answers differently and can have anachronistic judgements which bias their findings and limit the approach’s use.

Finally, the functionalist approach needs to be considered; because as an extension of anthropology it also has its own strengths and weaknesses that need to be highlighted separately. The functionalist approach focuses on the use that various social elements such as social norms; customs and traditions, have within the society usually benefiting it in a positive manner. Thus the approach interprets witchcraft and the subsequent belief in it as having a useful social function within society. The usefulness of this approach is demonstrated by its ability of the approach to make witchcraft appear a more rational concept to employ to relieve guilt or undesired elements within the society. An example is found in witchcraft’s function of reinforcing social norms. In particular the scapegoat nature to accusations, old women who acted outside social norms or midwives who upset the patriarchal nature of society, and women, along with men being blamed for illness in animals to relieve the tension and explain what the society could not. Thus, the approach is useful at rationalising the concept of why people would believe in the supernatural to re-enforce the various social norms.

However, witchcraft doesn’t always have a positive social function of unifying the society together. For instance Erik Midelfort states the witchcraft trials in the German Provinces during the 16th century ‘were dysfunctional’ and left the society even more torn up and suspicious. Thus this approach can be shown as being unable to be considered as an overarching explanation applicable to all societies and so its use is limited.
These three approaches to witchcraft; can therefore be considered as highly useful to the historian when they are studying witchcraft. As they all help to rationalise a concept that to a modern audience seems irrational and unbelievable, by asking more sociologically minded questions and focusing on the inter-relationships within the society. This explains witchcraft beliefs in a way that perhaps a person at the time might have explained it. However these approaches are not the only ones and should not be considered as such. Historians, anthropologists, social anthropologists and functionalists only interpret the subsequent peoples’ belief in witchcraft in a way that would be understandable to them. As a result there will always be issues with whether what is described as the person in questions belief is what the person actually meant; or that the belief in the supernatural is the sole belief within that society, in the azande not every misfortune is also attributed to witchcraft the breaking of social norms or a supreme being . Thus the usefulness of these approaches when studying supernatural beliefs is only to an extent as the main problem, whether a study of a modern culture’s belief in the supernatural can explain a historical culture’s belief is, and will always be a difficult issue. Therefore the approaches cannot be considered as useful when studying witchcraft beliefs as just because two societies have similar beliefs and actions, it does not mean that they can explain each other.

Primary Sources
Kramer, H., & Spencer, J., The Malleus Maleficarum, translated by Reverend, M, Summers, (New York, 1948)144-149.
Secondary Sources
Beals, R., &Hoijer, H., An Introduction to Anthropology, (New York,1959) 1-22.
Brian, J, L., ‘An Anthropological Perspective on the Witchcraze’ in A, C, Lehmann & J, E, Myers (ed.) Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion; An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural (London, 2001) 208-215.
Douglas, M., Witchcraft, confessions and Accusations, (London, 2004).
Evans-Pritchard, E, E., Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, (Oxford, ) 63-83.
Jenkins, R., ‘Continuity and Change: Social science perspectives on European witchcraft’ in J, Barry& O, Davies (ed.) Witchcraft Historiography (London, 2007) 203-225.
Thomas, K, V., ‘History and Anthropology’, Past and Present 24 (1963).
Thompson, E, P., ‘Anthropology and the discipline of Historical Context’, Midland History 1 (1972).


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