This article explores mystical belief and disbelief in Jeanne Favret-Saada’s ethnography of Bocage witchcraft in relation to the ontological turn in anthropology. The ethnographic archive provides numerous examples in which natives display seemingly contradictory practices of belief and disbelief when it comes to mystical forces. A common way by which anthropologists deal with such contradictions is to attempt to explicate their social function and cultural significance. In doing so, they perceive belief and disbelief to be cognitive states of clarity. Favret-Saada differs in her approach since she apprehends mystical belief and disbelief to be ambivalent and connected and, as I argue, portrays it as being caught in a perilous arrangement of death. In order to convey these points, I compare her ethnographic work to that of E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Rane Willerslev. The article goes on to analyze Favret-Saada’s minimal ontology of the opaque subject and how it can inform ontological anthropology.
Belief and Disbelief of Mystical Forces, Perilous Conditions, and the Opacity of Being
The Ethnographic Praxis of the Theory of Practice
T. M. S. Evens and Don Handelman
The ethnographic extended-case method, also known as situational analysis, was a diagnostic of the Manchester School of Social Anthropology—and today it remains an ethnographic practice of remarkable relevance and promise. Originated by Max Gluckman, the method was intended to use case material in a highly original way. Instead of citing examples from ethnography in apt illustration of general ethnographic and analytical statements, as was common in the discipline, Gluckman proposed to turn this relationship between case and statement on its head: the idea was to arrive at the general through the dynamic particularity of the case. Rather than a prop, the case became in effect the first step of ethnographic analysis. Underlying this methodological reversal, though, was a theoretical pursuit pertaining to an enveloping, indeed a suffocating, problem endemic to structural functionalism and implicating a social ontology radically different from this dominant paradigm.
The Concept of Conscience and Durkheim's Division of Social Labour
Susan Stedman Jones
This essay examines Durkheim's functionalism, to argue that it cannot be adequately understood through later movements of structural functionalism, especially Parsonian functionalism. Concretely, for Durkheim, the function of the division of labour is to create solidarity but this runs into the problem of modern pathologies. More abstractly, his functionalism has two essential sets of components, and it is only through the relation between these that it is possible to grasp his argument and its full significance. One involves ideas of correspondence, tendency and action, so that function has to do with a set of 'living movements' and how it corresponds with social needs. The other involves a functionalism of mind, and above all centres round the idea of conscience as a set of epistemological, representative and practical functions. Durkheim's functionalism relates these two components in a concern with the power of critical reflection on existing patterns of society, and with how conscience releases the force of agency, to have a transformative potential on the ills of society.
Since its birth, but especially since its academic institutionalization, sociology has been plagued by a series of dualisms and dichotomies that seriously diminish the relevance of much of sociological work. To start with, there is the opposition of theoretical and empirical soci- ology; an opposition that should have been stillborn, as it is com- monplace that theoretical work without empirical evidence is arid, while empirical research without theory is spiritless and boring, but continues to survive and even thrive. There is also the division between substantive and methodological issues, creating the impres- sion of two separate realms and the illusion of a ‘free choice’ of method. One can continue with the contrast between methodological individualism and collectivism that in our days culminates in the var- ious debates around rational choice theory, but which is just the old debate between (neo-classical) economics and classical (Durk- heimian) social theory, in new clothes. Still further, there is the dilemma of dynamic versus static approaches, which could be for- mulated in the language of historical versus structural, or of genetic versus genetic. There is furthermore the dichotomy dominating so much of contemporary sociology, between agency and structure, which is just another way of posing the contrast between action and system, dominating the structural-functionalism of the 1950s and 1960s, or the even older opposition between object and subject and their dialectic, central for German idealist philosophy. At an even more general level, there is the question of the link between reality and thought, the extent to which thought and discourses can properly reproduce reality, or, on the contrary, the claims about the autonomy of discourse, or the independence of the text, a theme particular cher- ished by various postmodern approaches.