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

Ruth Mace, Professor of Anthropology at UCL research the topic:

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.

Results?:

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.

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 dominanceover 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 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.

 

 

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