All posts tagged superstition

Why are women accused of witchcraft? Study in rural China gives clue

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Rural China sheds light on the role of witchcraft in society.

Republished with permission from The Conversation.

Ruth Mace, Author provided

Ruth Mace, UCL

From medieval witch hunts in Europe to contemporary “witch doctors” in Tanzania, belief in witchcraft has existed across human societies throughout history. Anthropologists have long been fascinated by the phenomenon, but have struggled to study it with quantitative methods – our understanding of how and why it arises is therefore poor.

But a study we conducted of one Chinese region provided an opportunity to test the most common hypothesis – that witchcraft accusations act as punishment for those who do not cooperate with local norms. According to this theory, witch tags mark supposedly untrustworthy individuals and encourage others to conform out of fear of being labelled. However, some empirical studies have shown that witch labelling instead undermines trust and social cohesion in a society.

Our study is based on 800 households in five villages in south-western China. We examined the social behaviour of those who were labelled with a “witch” tag, and compared it with those who were not. The work, published in Nature Human Behaviour, was the basis of a long-term collaboration between scientists from University College London, the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Lanzhou University.

To determine the social networks and cooperation between households, we conducted house-to-house surveys, asking who had children, marriages and partnerships with whom. We also collected data on gift-giving, and on working groups on farms during harvest and planting seasons to see who was helping other households with their farming. All these measures gave rise to four social networks between households based on kinship, reproductive partners, gifts exchanged or farm work.

Magic poison

While in the area, we were occasionally warned not to eat in certain households, as women there were believed to be supernatural “poison givers”. The label they used – “zhu” or “zhubo” – is sometimes also translated as “witch”. It was common knowledge which homes were so labelled and we were surprised to find it accounted for 13% of the households.

The tag was one of the strongest predictors of assortment on social networks. Those from tagged households rarely had children or partnerships with those from untagged households, nor did they exchange gifts or work on each others’ farms very often. However, tagged households were helping each other and reproducing with each other, which mitigated the costs of exclusion from mainstream social networks.

We also played an “economic game” in the villages, where each person was given a small sum of money and asked to donate any proportion of it they wished to the village (to be divided among all the players). We found no evidence that those tagged as “witches” were any less cooperative in this game than any others.

In fact, we found that labelled households were very similar to other households, except the tagged households were more likely to be headed by women and were actually slightly wealthier than average.

We also discovered that the process of acquiring the label was opaque. Even victims often did not know who had started a rumour about them, they may just begin to notice others avoiding them. Some sources report such tags running in the family, with daughters inheriting the status from their mothers. Hence the origin of the slur could have occurred long ago.

Interpreting the results

Anthropologists who believe that the fear of loss of reputation (by witch labelling or other reasons) can be a huge driver of cooperation in the wider community often back their arguments with laboratory experiments using economic games. Such experiments also show that those who punish transgressors can gain reputational benefits themselves.

However real world examples of this are hard to come by. Most studies of witchcraft are not quantitative and do not examine social networks as we have done. While this study suggests there is no evidence that those labelled with this harmful tag were uncooperative, it does not fully explain why such accusations stick in some cases and not in others.

Our conclusion is that witch accusation has evolved from competition between households. Labelling may have become a way for people to get ahead of their rivals and gain a competitive advantage in reproduction or resources. However, the sources of competition may be different in different cases.

Giant Buddha Statue of Leshan, Sichuan, China.
Ariel Steiner/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

There are other explanations that may apply too. All around the world conceptions of witchcraft share many common features. For example, middle aged women are the most common victims, and accusations of poisoning are frequently involved. But there are also many differences. Another idea for the origins of witchcraft denunciations is that they are common when patriarchal institutions are trying to establish dominance over matriarchal ones. This could possibly also apply in this case as Buddhism, the most common religion in the area, is more male-dominated whereas the traditional social structure in the region is “matrilineal”, where descent is usually traced through the female line.

A patriarchal dimension to witchcraft accusations could also explain the prevalence of women as victims both in traditional societies, and even in modern contexts that can resemble “witch hunts”, such as online bullying specifically targeting women.

The ConversationThe more research we do, the closer we can get to understanding and tackling the mechanisms behind these practices that can be devastating for women across the world.

Ruth Mace, Professor of Anthropology, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Crispian Jago is dying. I have featured his blog, The Reason Stick, here before. One, two, three. It is self-described as: A blunt, shit-stained instrument wielded indiscriminately to bludgeon pseudoscience, superstition, blind faith and common or garden irrational bollocks. Now he is applying the same unflinching rationality to his own death. He has written a journal about it, called Always Look on the Bright Side of Death. He says that sudden death is supposed to make your whole life flash before your eyes, but that slow death gives you time to write about it. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 4, wherein he satirizes so-called alternative medicine. He assures us that he is glad that the British national health service uses “the best medical interventions known to science” instead. Here you go. See if you can guess what each of the five is aimed at. Note – He was talking about how to deal with bunkum.

I think the same principles of satire and derision can be applied to all forms of nonsense to try and emphasise its inherent absurdity. We often become blind to much irrational nonsense due to the familiarity of the context in which it is presented. I therefore like to juxtapose that context to help re-stress the incongruity of certain notions. For example, “Karma Kanics”, my imagined alternative new age vehicle well running centre, offers many services beyond mainstream garages who seem to have very little time for their customers and focus solely on the specific mechanical faults in your vehicle. My new age vehicle well running centre takes a far more holistic approach to your car’s well running by using more traditional and natural repair techniques that will enhance your vehicle’s whole engine, body and petroleum spirit. Typical therapies offered include:

Drive Shaft Manipulation
Many Alt-Mach practitioners believe that most faults in the car are caused by cardan-subluxations, where one or more couplings in the drive shaft move out of position. Firm manipulation of the drive shaft can help to free these blockages and allow the free flow of innate torque throughout the whole car.

Torsion Healing
Fully trained Torsion Masters go through several levels of attunements and are able to channel a car’s torsion by mystically waving spanners over the bonnet and restoring the engine’s cosmic balance and harmony.

A variety of mechanical faults can be fixed by massaging the correct points of the car’s tyres. Various zones on each tyre mirror separate engine components. For example, massaging the inner tread of the driver’s rear-side tyre can clear blockages in the carburetor.

Exhaust Candling
Exhaust candling involves inserting a hollow candle into the car’s exhaust pipe with the external end lit. The process works by the flame creating negative pressure encouraging carbon monoxide and other toxins in the car to be expelled through the exhaust to naturally detoxify your engine.

Anti Service
Regular car servicing is promoted by the shills of “Big Garage” as a supposed method of reducing breakdowns. In reality, regular servicing of your car simply pumps it full of toxic oil and brake fluid and feeds the profits of conventional garages. Some studies have also shown a link between new car servicing and incorrect valve clearance.

Farcical as the above mechanical therapies may sound we tend not to notice so much when we apply them to ourselves and refer to them as: Chiropractic, Reiki, Reflexology, Ear Candling and Anti Vaccination – yet they are equally bogus.

I’m glad I found The Reason Stick. I’m sorry that Crispian Jago is dying, but I’m thankful that I got to experience his surgical wit beforehand. Maybe he’ll be looking over our shoulders after he’s gone, keeping us honest and rational. Nah. He’d call that bollocks.