Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar

Political science professor Ardeth Thawnghmung has just published her new book with us: Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar, about strategies adopted by ordinary citizens in Burma/Myanmar—most of whom survive on the equivalent of two to five dollars a day—to cope with the economic stresses of everyday life.

What inspired you to write the book?

The book was inspired by my own experiences growing up in Burma under the military regime in the 1970s and 1980s. My family and I employed various survival tactics to supplement my parents’ combined earnings, which barely covered the cost of food and basic necessities. These strategies—multiple poorly paid jobs, painstaking financial management, pooling resources, and engaging in acts of reciprocity and mutual obligation—are still being utilized by many people, even in the freer political and economic environment created by the more reformist governments elected in 2010 and 2015.

A lot has been written about everyday life in poor countries, particularly those in Asia and Africa. How does your book differ from others in this field?

I employ a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates political, economic, social and psychological aspects of coping strategies, analyzing their impacts on collective welfare, the environment, the national economy, and political development. I also examine comparable political and economic situations in Asia, Africa and Latin America to develop systematic categories of informal activities that produce autonomous and self-governing spaces and lead to positive—as well as negative—policy changes for society, or even undermine state capacity and democratization efforts.

How did you collect data, and what were the biggest challenges you faced while conducting research in Myanmar?

This project is based on in-depth interviews and surveys of 372 individuals from all walks of life throughout Myanmar between 2008 and 2015 as well as my own observations and experiences. Many of the challenges I faced are typical for research carried out under authoritarian regimes, including a lack of available data, restricted political environments and concerns about the safety of those who associated with me.

Did any of your findings surprise you?

I was surprised by how prevalent and long-lasting these strategies were, and how creative people became to meet economic challenges in evolving political situations.

Myanmar has recently provoked international outrage over military brutality which triggered the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh. How does your study of everyday politics in mainly Buddhist areas of the country offer insight into their plight?

The Rohingyas situation is an extreme case where people go about trying to create a sense of normalcy out of difficult situations. However, very little attention has been paid to the majority of Myanmar citizens, whose attitudes toward the Rohingya have been overwhelmingly hostile. While these attitudes are influenced by specific historical and political context that shape and constrain popular behavior, and by the growing anti-Islamic sentiments that we see across the world, they are also a product of responses to decades-old authoritarianism. Some of these individual and collective coping practices help foster self-help and can even challenge the legitimacy and longevity of military rule, but general survival tactics among ordinary people rarely align with the practices that are key to successful transitions to democracy.

Do you think your findings offer advice and insights for the current National League for Democracy government led by Aung San Suu Kyi?

Some survival strategies have negative long-term consequences, not only on individuals and their communities, but also on the environment, public welfare, state capacity, and democratic processes. Both the Thein Sein and NLD governments have attempted to deal with their effects by formulating new regulations and enhancing enforcement mechanisms while rarely addressing the root causes. For instance, successful attempts to act on negative activities from petty corruption, counterfeit products and illegal gambling to illegal mining, and logging and issues such as child labor require not only enhancing state capacity through proper incentives and training for civil servants, but also providing alternative opportunities for those utilizing such methods. These are crucial challenges that need to be addressed by any transitional democratic government with limited resources, particularly the NLD government which is facing elections in 2020.

 

Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung author photoArdeth Maung Thawnghmung is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She is the author of several books, including Behind the Teak Curtain: Authoritarianism, Agricultural Policies, and Political Legitimacy in Rural Burma.

Library of Congress acquires and makes available the Omar Ibn Said Collection

The Library of Congress recently acquired and made publicly available online the Omar Ibn Said Collection, which includes 42 original documents in both English and Arabic. Omar Ibn Said was a wealthy, Muslim man in West Africa who was abducted in the early 1800s and sold into slavery in South Carolina. The centerpiece of the collection—a fifteen page autobiography of his life in Africa and the circumstances of his enslavement in America—is the only known surviving American slave narrative written in Arabic.

The University of Wisconsin Press is proud to have published a English translation and facsimile edition of Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography in 2011 titled A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn SaidThe book includes an introduction by translator Ala Alryyes and several contextualizing essays. Alryyes’ translation is presented in facing pages against Omar Ibn Said’s original writing.

In celebration of the Omar Ibn Said Collection’s online debut, the University of Wisconsin Press is giving away a copy of A Muslim American Slave to one (1) lucky entrant:

Employers Look Closely at Your Address, Study Finds

Journal of Human Resources cover imageForthcoming Journal of Human Resources article finds evidence of distance-based discrimination in the hiring process

It’s a vicious cycle: those living in poverty are often unable to afford housing in city centers, putting them far from jobs. And, according to new research set to appear in The Journal of Human Resources, employers may discriminate against job seekers who have longer commutes. This could be one factor making it difficult for many Americans to escape poverty, posits David Phillips, the study’s author.

Phillips had a hunch that a person’s address might impact their chances of getting hired. To measure the effects of distance on an applicant’s performance, Phillips’s team sent 2,260 resumes in response to low-wage position openings (requiring only a high school education) in Washington, DC. The findings were clear: the farther away an applicant lived from the job location, the less likely they were to receive a callback from the employer. To clarify these results, Phillips wanted to determine whether employers looked more favorably on addresses from wealthier neighborhoods, even if they were far from the place of work. When resumes were sent from neighborhoods with similar levels of affluence but different commute lengths, Phillips found that applicants from the more distant neighborhoods received 14 percent fewer callbacks than applicants who lived closer to the job site, even though both applicants could be presumed to have the same socioeconomic status. Overall, Phillips determined that employers weigh an applicant’s distance from the job more heavily than their neighborhood’s affluence.

Phillips, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame, joined us to discuss the genesis of his interest in this topic and the larger implications of this study. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, listen to Phillips’s interview with NPR, and check out some of the press that this study has been receiving, here, here, and here.

How did you decide to pursue this topic?

During my dissertation, I spent some time working with a non-profit employment agency in Washington, DC. Most of their clients lived in less affluent neighborhoods in Southeast DC and transportation was a common question. I helped them run a pilot testing whether public transit subsidies could facilitate the job search process for people looking for low-wage jobs. It became clear that their clients were working with major transportation issues. At some point in that project, the idea came up that employers were probably aware of the transportation difficulties that people face and might respond to the address listed on the job application.

Why did it make sense to publish in The Journal of Human Resources?

The JHR has a great reputation for publishing rigorous work on the most important questions in empirical economics. As a result, it reaches a broad audience of applied economists. I thought the paper’s topic would be a good fit for that audience given increased attention to neighborhood effects and urban geography in the literature lately. The JHR also has a track record of publishing correspondence experiments. This paper fits with earlier work by David Neumark and Joanna Lahey that has shown up in the pages of The JHR.

How does the distance bias interact with other discrimination applicants might face—due to class, race, or gender, for example?

Discrimination based on commute distance could compound existing inequity. Other things equal, remote places are cheaper and thus attract people with other disadvantages. For example, on average a black person in DC lives one mile farther from jobs than a white person. Even if employers have a clear, rational, unbiased reason for avoiding people with long commutes, that penalty disproportionately falls on people who face other barriers.

What part of your findings surprised you the most, and why?

An interesting topic is one where you suspect an effect exists where other people think it doesn’t. So, I went into this betting employers care about addresses, and the response to distance was not a surprise to me. I was more surprised that employers do not respond much to neighborhood affluence. I expected employers to really penalize distant, poor neighborhoods both because of their remoteness and because of poverty. And I don’t find evidence of the latter despite the fact that the fake applicants come from very, very different neighborhoods in terms of affluence.


David Phillips

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

David Phillips, PhD, works in the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) within the Department of Economics at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on poverty, particularly as it relates to low-wage labor markets, crime, housing, and transportation. His research has been published in high quality economics field journals and presented widely for policy audiences. Prior to coming to Notre Dame, David received a Bachelor’s degree from Butler University, earned a PhD in Economics from Georgetown University, and worked for 4 years at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

Contemporary Literature Journal Seeks Articles and Interviews

Call for Papers and Interviews

Contemporary LiteratureContemporary Literature seeks scholarly essays on post-World War II literature written in English which offer scope, supply a new dimension to conventional approaches, or transform customary ways of reading writers. Additionally, CL welcomes interviews that focus on an author’s writing, pursue and elaborate a line of questioning and response, and provide insight into central aspects of the writer’s significance. Past interviews have featured writers such as Dorothy AllisonRae Armantrout, Edwidge Danticat, Rachael KushnerBen LernerViet Thanh Nguyen, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Charles Yu.

See the journal’s submission guidelines for more information. Questions may be directed to the editorial office at CL@english.wisc.edu.

About CL: Contemporary Literature publishes scholarly essays on contemporary writing in English, interviews with established and emerging authors, and reviews of recent critical books in the field. The journal welcomes articles on multiple genres, including poetry, the novel, drama, creative nonfiction, new media and digital literature, and graphic narrative. CL published the first articles on Thomas Pynchon and Susan Howe and the first interviews with Margaret Drabble and Don DeLillo; it also helped to introduce Kazuo Ishiguro, Eavan Boland, and J. M. Coetzee to American readers. As a forum for discussing issues animating the range of contemporary literary studies, CL features the full diversity of critical practices. The editors seek articles that frame their analysis of texts within larger literary historical, theoretical, or cultural debates.

To learn more, subscribe to the journal, browse the latest table of contents, or sign up for new issue email alerts.

2018 James Harvey Robinson Prize for Understanding and Teaching American Slavery

Cover of Understanding and Teaching American SlaveryThe University of Wisconsin Press is thrilled that the American Historical Association Conference is awarding editors Cynthia Lynn Lyerly and Bethany Jay the 2018 James Harvey Robinson Prize for Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, part of the Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History. This award, offered biennially, is given to the teaching aid which had made the most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history in any field.

“Not only do I recommend this book to educators but I also will be using it in my own graduate courses, where we often spend much of our time discussing the intricacies of slavery but not quite enough on the effective teaching pedagogy that they will undoubtedly invoke in their own classrooms. It is my hope that all educators will find this book to be an invaluable resource to improve their own instruction and the instruction of others,” writes Kellie Carter Jackson, assistant professor at Wellesley College, in the Journal of American History.

Understanding and Teaching American Slavery has been a critical resource focused on teaching this challenging topic in all its complexity since its publication. In February 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center and its Teaching Tolerance Project launched a framework for teaching students about slavery that was based on key concepts from the contributors of this book.

“Teachers with serious content knowledge are more likely to be effective, but we all know that content knowledge isn’t enough in the classroom. I hope we’ll see more resources like this stellar book to help move our society closer to understanding slavery in all of its dimensions. We, and our students, dearly need this knowledge to navigate the present,” says Kate Schuster in EdWeek.

Named for Harvey Goldberg—a professor renowned for his history teaching at Oberlin College, Ohio State University, and the University of Wisconsin from the 1960s to the 1980s—the series reflects Goldberg’s commitment to helping students think critically about the past with the goal of creating a better future. Other series titles focus on the Vietnam War; U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History; the Cold War; and the Age of Revolutions. The series editors are John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin.

Congratulations again to the editors, series editors, and all involved with Understanding and Teaching American Slavery. To celebrate, we are giving away a copy of the book to one (1) lucky entrant:

Journals News from 2018

The University of Wisconsin Press Journals Division Reflects on the Past Year

This year, our journals underwent several personnel changes, which will continue into 2019. Daniel W. Bromley celebrated his retirement after forty-four years of editing Land Economics, and Daniel J. Phaneuf began his tenure as editor. Ecological Restoration recently welcomed new Assistant Editor Tabby Fenn. Look for an introduction to Fenn in the next issue of ER, Vol. 37.1. After seventeen years of serving as the editor of Monatshefte, Hans Adler will begin to transition into retirement, with Hannah Eldridge and Sonja Klocke joining him as co-editors in 2019 and taking over in 2020. The official announcement will be published in Monatshefte 110.4.

In other journals news, Ghana Studies celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a special issue featuring reflections on the journal. And in the spirit of looking back, we are working to digitize the Ghana Studies archive for inclusion on Project MUSE. Land Economics implemented submission fees as a supplementary source of revenue for the journal. Finally, the Journal of Human Resources announced that, starting in Fall 2019, it will publish two additional articles per issue. We’re excited to see what the coming year holds for our journals.

Here at the Press, in a move to expand our in-house editorial services, Chloe Lauer was promoted to Editorial and Advertising Manager. Chloe serves as a production editor for African Economic History and Ghana Studies, and she provides editorial support for several other publications—on top of coordinating advertising sales for all of our journals.

In April, the Press welcomed Claire Eder as Journals Marketing Specialist. Claire has been focused on author and community outreach for our journals, representing the Press at the Charleston Library Conference and bringing two journals (Land Economics and Contemporary Literature) into the world of social media. In coordination with our journals’ editorial teams, she created a resource for authors with advice for publicizing their articles.

In 2019, the Journals Division will work on several initiatives, such as sending out a Request for Bids for online hosting providers and reviewing our editorial standards. This review involves formalizing a statement of publication ethics and increasing transparency with regards to peer review procedures. John Ferguson, our Production Manager, is in the process of rethinking our metadata standards in order to make articles more discoverable. Additionally, we aim to work more closely with journal editorial offices in the coming year, increasing our reporting frequency from annually to quarterly for those journals published four times a year, as well as organizing an annual get-together where staff from our editorial offices in the Wisconsin area can meet to discuss issues in scholarly publishing. It is shaping up to be another busy year, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We are grateful to our publication partners, who provide us with the drive to innovate and improve.

A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s “Petersburg”

 

Today we present a piece written by Leonid Livak, editor of the book A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg

 

Few artistic works created before World War I convey the sensibility, ideas, phobias, and aspirations of Russian and transnational modernism as comprehensively as Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913), whose place and importance in cultural history have been often compared to those of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Yet Petersburg has not received its due attention from the Anglophone public and is rarely taught within the framework of literature and humanities courses, because like other hermetic modernist classics, this novel presents serious challenges to nonspecialist readers as well as to instructors in literature and general humanities. The essays collected in our volume strive to make Petersburg more accessible. They have been written with a broad audience in mind in order to help the Anglophone reader gain a better understanding of Bely’s novel and to facilitate its study in the college classroom. The volume’s contributors have been asked to refrain from new interpretations of the literary classic and to summarize instead what we already know about Petersburg, explicating it in the intellectual and artistic context that informed the novel’s creation and historical reception.

Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev (1880–1934), who used the penname Andrei Bely, was an intellectual omnivore drawn to the most diverse practices in art and thought. Petersburg is a virtual encyclopedia of European philosophical and aesthetic currents between the turn of the century and World War I. This makes Petersburg—originally written for an interpretive community that shared the author’s cultural knowledge—all the more difficult to understand today. Hence the structure of our book: each essay explores a particular aspect of Bely’s novel.

The first part treats Petersburg’s rapports with Russian and European intellectual life in Bely’s day. Lynn Patyk elucidates the historical circumstances informing Petersburg’s terrorist intrigue, with an eye on the range of meanings that intrigue had in Bely’s modernist circle and in contemporary Russian society at large. Maria Carlson draws attention to Bely’s fascination with Theosophy and with its offshoot—Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical doctrine, which freshly captivated the writer midway through his work on Petersburg. Bely’s interest in Friedrich Nietzsche’s iconoclastic thought predated his work on the novel. The formative role in modernist philosophies of art and life of Nietzsche’s intellectual heritage all but assured that Bely would engage with it in Petersburg, as Edith Clowes illustrates. Neo-Kantianism is yet another philosophical current informing the novel. As Timothy Langen explains, it shaped Bely’s thought in the decade preceding his Petersburg project, and it is present there as one of the novel’s competing philosophies. Henri Bergson equipped Bely with polemical tools for a critical reexamination of Nietzscheanism and Neo-Kantianism, whose philosophical virtues, Hilary Fink argues, the writer no longer took for granted during his work on Petersburg. Judith Wermuth-Atkinson shows that Bely’s modernist search for alternatives to the materialist understanding of the world and the human being led the author of Petersburg to heed the new science of psychology, as elaborated by Sigmund Freud. A special place in Petersburg’s imaginative universe is occupied by racial theories, whose narrative manifestations are explored by Henrietta Mondry. Closing the book’s first part, David Bethea demonstrates the centrality of eschatology—speculation about the end of history, framed as the demise and rebirth of the world and humankind— in Petersburg’s narrative and stylistic economy.

The volume’s second part examines Petersburg in the aesthetic context of Bely’s day. Keenly following the latest developments in Russian and Western artistic theory and practice, Bely poured his erudition into Petersburg as a medium for reflecting on and realizing modernist artistic philosophy. Steven Cassedy explores the role of music in Bely’s novel against the backdrop of modernist musical theories and their implementation in literature. Considering Bely’s novel as an exemplar of modernism’s embrace of performance practices and metaphors, Colleen McQuillen shows Petersburg’s place in the practice of “life-creation,” common among Russian modernists who turned their lives into artistic texts that were lived before they could be written down. Olga Matich treats Petersburg as an expression of Bely’s passion for painting, exploring the ways Bely uses verbal signs to create visual images. Taras Koznarsky shows Petersburg’s contribution to transnational modernism’s intense preoccupation with urbanism. Violeta Sotirova looks at Petersburg as a case study in the larger modernist turn to consciousness as the source of reality, placing Bely’s novel alongside literary experiments by his Western European peers.

Petersburg explores every level of spoken and written language in order to speculate about language as a source of what people perceive as reality but what might as well be an illusion originating in the psyche. That is why we open this volume with an essay by John Elsworth, the author of the most recent English translation of Petersburg, who endeavors to impart to Bely’s Anglophone reader a sense of the challenges inherent in translating the novel; and to give the reader an idea of the inevitable losses and distortions accompanying any such translation project.

Petersburg’s importance for the evolution of Russian prose writing in the twentieth century had no equals. Fifty years after the novel’s original publication, Vladimir Nabokov ranked Petersburg alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in his list of “my greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose.” Like the other modernist masterpieces on Nabokov’s list, Petersburg makes for an intensely enjoyable but challenging read, for Bely expected his audience to actively participate in unraveling the work’s many meanings, narrative strains, and patterns of details. The present volume aims to facilitate that task by recreating for the general Anglophone public the sociopolitical, intellectual, and artistic context informing Bely’s novel.

 

 

Leonid Livak is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Russian Émigrés in the Intellectual and Literary Life of Interwar FranceThe Jewish Persona in the European Imagination, and How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Émigré Literature and French Modernism.

Which Renewable Energy Source Is Best for Citizens’ Well-Being?

For a long time, economists lacked an objective way to measure complicated outcomes like well-being, so this aspect of human life didn’t receive much attention in the economic literature. Heinz Welsch is part of a growing movement in research to use subjective data, such as survey responses, to understand human impacts. In a video for Latest Thinking, Welsch describes his study examining the relationship between type of energy source and citizen well-being, the results of which were published in Land Economics journal.

Heinz Welsch on Electricity Supply and Citizen Well-Being | Latest Thinking

Source: Heinz Welsch on Electricity Supply and Citizen Well-Being | Latest Thinking

The study looked at German citizens’ proximity to solar, wind, and biomass plants. The authors relied on survey responses to find correlations between well-being and the presence of a particular type of power facility in the local area. Welsch and his coauthor Charlotte von Möllendorff found that while the positive financial and moral aspects of solar energy balanced out the negative, “eyesore” qualities of solar installations, resulting in no net impact for citizens, those living near biomass facilities experienced significant decrease in well-being due to the strong odors emitted by the plants. Interestingly, people who had to deal with wind turbines going up in their neighborhoods experienced negative well-being for a certain period following installation, but this changed over time into an overall positive effect.

In the Latest Thinking video, Welsch expresses the hope that his research will aid the many countries that are currently in the process of restructuring their energy supplies in response to climate change. With evidence that certain forms of renewable energy make better neighbors, governments would do well to consider citizen well-being when deciding how to power their futures.

To learn more, read the full article, “Measuring Renewable Energy Externalities: Evidence from Subjective Well-being Data,” in Land Economics.

 

The Lasting Impact of Francisco Franco

This week we have a piece written by guest-blogger Stanley G. Payne, co-author of the book Franco: A Personal and Political Biography.

 

The revolutionary movements that provoked the Spanish Civil War in 1936 created the only violent mass collectivist revolution of Western Europe in the twentieth century, but the victor in this contest was Francisco Franco, the most successful counterrevolutionary leader of the era.  He went on to create the first stable dictatorship in Spain’s history, surviving World War II and remaining in power until he died of natural causes in 1975, having defeated all comers for nearly four decades.  In the process he promoted the definitive socioeconomic modernization of his country and created institutions that after his death permitted a peaceful transition to democratic constitutional monarchy, led by liberal Francoists, though this final outcome was not his intention.

Franco was the most powerful individual figure in the more than two millennia of Spanish history, for no king under traditional institutions enjoyed the resources of an organized twentieth-century dictator.  He has been both the most widely praised and the most extensively and vehemently vituperated personality in the annals of Spain.

During the twenty-first century the country has begun to fragment.  The Spanish left, bereft of ideas or a coherent new program, has partially repudiated the prosperous, broadly decentralized democracy of 1977-2018, claiming that it was tainted by Franco’s dictatorship, even though it put an end to the latter. “Anti-Francoism” has become a central banner, crediting a dictator who vanished more than four decades ago with the power to dominate Spanish affairs from beyond the tomb.  In Spain more than anywhere else, polemics about recent history form a major part of current political controversy.

Though most twenty-first century Spaniards do not support the fantasies of so-called “historical memory,” which is neither history nor memory, the ignorance of history is as widespread in their country as in any other Western land.  These circumstances raise anew the question of exactly who was Francisco Franco and what exactly was his historical record.  The literature about him is enormous, greater than that concerning anyone else in Spanish history, but is strongly divided between encomia and denunciation.

The present biography seeks to open a new inquiry that is more balanced and objective, or at least less subject to the influence of polemics than its predecessors, based on a broad base of key primary and secondary sources.  It treats the sharply contrasting aspects of Franco’s rule, from the rigorous Civil War-era repression to the positive achievements of later years.  While investigating all the major aspects of Franco’s career over four decades, it also seeks to offer a personal portrait of the dictator, from his early career as a teen-aged infantry officer through his marriage and family life to his eventual demise in the most public (and one of the most prolonged) natural deaths of modern times.

It may be that no other Western country changed more during one lifetime than did Spain during Franco’s eighty-three years, and many of these changes were closely involved with his own biography.  The book grapples with this lengthy process of change, and with the numerous mutations of Franco’s own rule, as his regime evolved from a politics of semi-fascism to Catholic corporatism to modernizing bureaucratic authoritarianism, from associate of the Third Reich to important ally of the United States.  It seeks to provide deeper understanding of a key historical personality, and also of the dynamic evolution of Spain during the twentieth century.

 

Stanley G. Payne (right) is the Hilldale–Jaume Vicens Vives Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the author of many books, including A History of Fascism, 1914–1945The Franco Regime, 1936–1975; and Spain: A Unique History.
Jesús Palacios (left) is a noted historian, investigative journalist, and adjunct professor at the University of Madrid.

Universal Witchcraft and the Problem of Categories

Today we present a piece written by Douglas J. Falen, author of the new book African Science.

 

In 1935, the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard wrote, “Witchcraft is an imaginary offense because it is impossible.” Although Evans-Pritchard made a sincere attempt to explain the rationality of African witchcraft, his remark voiced an enduring Western view of the distinction between imaginary witchcraft and scientific reality. Since then, anthropologists have used less dismissive language to address such cultural differences, but this does not automatically mean they accept the reality of other cultures’ magical forces. What is the role of our own reality in our interpretation of other cultures? And what do we make of a society where witchcraft and science are not competing paradigms, but rather are similar forms of knowledge? These are the philosophical and interpretive dilemmas that an anthropologist faces in studying the occult in the Republic  of Benin, West Africa.

Sacred objects used in the creation of a deity’s new shrine

In the course of many years of research, I have come to recognize that my Beninese friends do not feel the need to make a choice between science and magic. For them, western scientific knowledge is a kind of magic that is responsible for fantastic technology, such as airplanes, cellphones, and the internet. This “white people’s witchcraft” as Beninese call it, is often likened to the incredible accomplishments of their own occult knowledge, which they call “African science” – an indigenous force that also permits people to travel around the world and to communicate via invisible waves. Another feature that these two systems share is their moral ambiguity. Beninese people acknowledge that, despite their benevolent potential, technology and witchcraft are similar in that both can result in death and destruction – such as through bombs or invisible soul attacks. This suggests that in Benin, what we might call “witchcraft” (àzě in the Fon language) is a much broader category drawing up ideas about knowledge, technology, and magic. Some informants also suggest that witchcraft is the animating force behind their indigenous deities, Christian churches, and esoteric societies like Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. They regard witchcraft as the ultimate, all-encompassing, and universal force in the world. While people attribute misfortune, illness, and death to the work of malevolent witches, àzě’s incorporative tendencies allow traditional healers to adopt and employ new, often foreign, spiritual traditions in a supernatural arms race to triumph over evil. Beninese witches and healers battle over people’s souls, reaffirming the existence of good and evil in the world.

 A healer, right, engages in an Asian-inspired ritual to protect a patient from witchcraft

Rather than reduce witchcraft to mere folklore, or a naïve belief held by those lacking scientific rationality, I have taken inspiration from my Beninese friends for whom witchcraft is not a traditional belief giving way to modernity. Witchcraft is instead a contemporary, adaptive, and inclusive system that incorporates many domains that westerners regard as distinct – science, medicine, religion, and the occult. Although I do not expect foreign people to accept another culture’s supernatural reality, one of the lessons of anthropology’s “ontological turn” has been to encourage us to take native categories seriously and to let them shape our interpretation of other cultures. Through long-term, intimate ethnographic experience, I have come to appreciate my Beninese friends’ understanding of their world without feeling the need to discount it or frame it terms of my own categories of real, imaginary, science, or myth. Anthropology’s contribution to current social debates is to show us that cultural difference does not have to result in judgment, disavowal, and discrimination. If we make an effort to befriend people who are different from ourselves, we usually find that they possess the same human rationality as we do.

 

Douglas J. Falen is a professor of anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of Power and Paradox: Authority, Insecurity, and Creativity in Fon Gender Relations.