University of Illinois at Chicago
In Adam Ashforth’s masterful book on witchcraft in Soweto (Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa, 2005), he insists that the people with whom he works “live in a world of witches.” As opposed to a belief, medical or cultural system, he insists that witchcraft entails a certain ontological orientation, which suggests that witches (as well as ancestors) have agency on and in the social world, and that this agency is often occult in nature (129-130). Although Ashforth points out the epistemological anxiety that is a quotidian norm in the world of witches, he insists that talk and fears of witchcraft should not be taken as only metaphors for uncertainty in a global age, but also as literal descriptions of the world in which people in Soweto live and act, which are no less rational or modern than any other ontological perspective (114-117).
When I began conducting research on the health-seeking behaviors of people living with HIV/AIDS in post-apartheid South Africa (Ancestors and Antiretrovirals, 2013), I had to learn to perceive the social world as acted upon and shaped by ancestors, muthi (indigenous herbal remedies), and yes, even witches. We ask our undergraduate sociology students to learn to look for new (often invisible) forces like structures, institutions, discursive formations, and networks, and to analyze their causal relationship to one another and to our own actions. Similarly, ethnographic research, in this case, forced me to learn to see the ‘witches’ and other occult forces acting on the ethnographic setting I was analyzing. And yet, Ashforth’s ‘world of witches’ implies fundamental difference – as if the inhabitants of Soweto occupy a foreign world in addition to occupying “the same world as people like me” (121). Rather, I would like to insist on the perspectival nature of different ontological positionings. The people I worked with felt the presence of their ancestors engaging in their everyday lives, but they equally felt the structural inequality of neoliberal capitalism, believed in the powerful force of antiretroviral medication, and engaged in practices which both sustained and transformed gender norms and systems. In other words, ‘witches’ were one social force, among many, acting upon and being acted upon by them. But more than this, occupying, as they do, an indigenous ontological position, simply allows them to see the world slightly differently than the way I did. Indeed, it was part of my ethnographic task to learn, then, to live in the world with witches.
In the Pasteurization of France, Bruno Latour suggests that Pasteur’s discoveries allowed hygienists to render microbes visible as powerful social actors, which had the affect of reorganizing the social order. “Pasteurians and their hygienist allies … redefined the social link by including the action of microbes in it … the action of the microbe redefined not only society but also nature and the whole caboodle” (1988: 38). Instead of following Latour in his insistence that non-human actors exercise agency, I would suggest that the ability to see invisible causal forces (like microbes and witches) requires a shift in epistemic perspective. We have to step within the interpretive landscape of our research participants to render visible the forces (whether structural, discursive, or material) that shape their actions.
The South African indigenous knowledge system is an historically informed epistemic order which underlies, but also explains social action within the African communities of South Africa. For example, it can help us understand why people continue to utilize indigenous health care despite the increasing availability of the biomedical treatment for HIV (antiretrovirals) – a fact that has befuddled the public health community in South Africa. Rather than necessarily serving as a causal force, indigenous healing provides the context within which health-seeking behavior can be explained.
This is perhaps best illustrated by a negative case. Pheello Limapo is a strong advocate of biomedical therapy and eschews the use of indigenous healing altogether. “I believe that traditional healing is part of our culture. I do believe that. I’m just not convinced that traditional healers can deal with HIV/AIDS, especially at the present moment. They’ve got no knowledge of this disease… it’s a problem” (Interview, October 5, 2005, Lawley, South Africa). He and his wife both take antiretroviral therapy and rely on biomedical treatments for all of their opportunistic infections and illnesses. When asked to describe his beliefs about treatment, Pheello always extols the virtues of biomedicine, and yet, I came to find out that his health practices are much more hybrid than he admits. He utilizes the services of sangomas (diviners) when he faces a health emergency, he purchases ‘miracle cures’ which tout the immune-boosting strength of indigenous muthi, and he is a regular follower of the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), which he joined right after he first tested HIV-positive (Interview, December 8, 2005). The ZCC utilizes natural mediums like water, coffee, and tea to cleanse the body of pollutants and evil spirits. Therefore, despite what Pheello claims, his health behavior draws upon indigenous remedies and healers and relies upon the intervention of occult forces. I argue that this is because of the depth and historicity of the indigenous episteme which provides the ‘complex of meaning’ that explains the actions of those informed by its logic through their socialization in South African society. Despite the unequal distribution of power within the field of health and healing in South Africa where biomedicine enjoys economic, political and symbolic hegemony, indigenous healing, as an historical epistemic force, still informs Africans’ health conduct. It was only by learning to see the semiotic structure which underlies and shapes (sometimes despite themselves) the health behavior of my research participants that I was able to make sense of their often seemingly contradictory actions.
As such, the ethnographer must learn to position herself within the epistemic order of the ethnographic community in order to understand the structural, cultural and material forces informing peoples’ actions, but also to understand and contend with the interrelationship, import, and relative strength of these causal forces for explaining particular outcomes. Such an epistemic repositioning also carries ontological significance as learning to see the causal power of witches also renders visible different ontological ways of being in the world.