A Witch Hunt in New Guinea: Anthropology on Trial

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Abstract

SUMMARY Traditionally, the ethical stance on witchcraft beliefs and practices by ethnographers has been to promote tolerance for such beliefs by showing how they function within a relatively static and closed social system. However, as we reframe our analyses in terms of dynamic and open social fields with multiple cultural logics and social processes that sometimes contradict one another, this approach is no longer viable. Our paradigmatic shifts lead to new ethical dilemmas. In this article I will recount the ethical dilemmas arising from my own engagement with witchcraft beliefs in New Guinea where local government officials initiated a plan to eradicate witchcraft through a series of sometimes brutal trials. Ultimately, I trace the roots of these ethical dilemmas to the ways holism, cultural relativism, and participant-observation have been reshaped to serve new theoretical interests but have not yet been reformulated into a consistent ethical stance for fieldwork practice.

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