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Beyond the utility of violence

Interpreting five homicides in the South African lowveld

Isak Niehaus

This article points to the limitations of utilitarian theories of violence, as evident in the works of anthropologists who insist that all acts of violence either serve instrumental purposes (such as advancing one's own position) or expressive purposes (such as communicating key social ideas). Against the totalizing claims of such theories, the article observes that most homicides that occurred in the South African lowveld village where I conducted fieldwork research were the unanticipated consequence of men striking out in moments of anger. Although not the purposeful outcome of calculated conduct, these homicides were not however random. The high incidence of homicide can be explained in terms of Sahlins's concept of conjunctive agency, and by the co-presence of structural conditions of deprivation, ideologies of masculine domination, the wide prevalence of firearms, and the social enactment of rage.

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Kuru, AIDS, and Witchcraft

Reconfiguring Culpability in Melanesia and Africa

Isak Niehaus

This article examines the significance of witchcraft accusations during the South African AIDS epidemic. In search of broader intercontextual understanding, I compare experiences of AIDS in Bushbuck ridge, where I have done fieldwork, with anthropological studies of kuru, a transmissible degenerative disease, in Papua New Guinea. Whereas scientists blamed the spread of kuru on the practice of cannibalism, those who were affected attributed it to sorcery. These dynamics resonate with the encounters between health workers and host populations during the AIDS epidemic in Bushbuckridge. Health propaganda attributed the rapid transmission of HIV to sexual promiscuity. In response, sufferers and their kin invoked witchcraft, shifting blame onto outsiders and reinforcing the relations that medical labeling threatened to disrupt. The comparison enables us to see witchcraft accusations as a means of reconfiguring culpability, cutting certain networks, and strengthening other existing configurations.

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Anthropology at the dawn of apartheid

Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski’s South African engagements, 1919–1934

Isak Niehaus

In this article, I focus on different strategies of anthropological engagement with government and potential funders. I do so by considering the diverse nature of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski’s encounters with South African authorities, between 1919 and 1934. I suggest that Radcliffe-Brown saw South Africa as an integrated society in which segregation was impossible, and advocated the sympathetic scientific understanding of cultural difference within this context. By contrast, Malinowski was committed to a romantic vision of holistic cultures, collaborated directly with colonial authorities, and argued for a policy of effective cultural and territorial segregation. The strategies had important longterm consequences and costs, calculable only from the privileged vantage point of history.