- Ethnographic Sorcery
Editors' note: Now and again an extraordinary book comes across our desk that speaks to diverse constituencies. We feel that Harry West's Ethnographic Sorcery is one of these books. In ninety-two elegantly written pages, it advances, on several levels, ongoing discussions crucial to understanding African societies and the discourses on African society. By considering elements of his field experience, West helps illuminate the nature of research in Africa and the production of "knowledge" on Africa. By framing his inquiry within the broader development of anthropological literature, he provides a review of the conceptual field relating to "sorcery" in African societies. And from his encounters with the people of the Muedan plateau he develops a commentary on the anthropological enterprise itself. The people of northern Mozambique see ethnographic analysis as a hidden process with potentially enormous power over their lives—as an alternative universe outside of their immediate control; within this vision, West argues, ethnography can be seen as a form of sorcery of its own.
With such broad-reaching elements in play, we solicited commentaries from several scholars and share them here.
It is easy to name virtues of this book. It is lucid, learned, engaging—and short. Reading what it has to say about "sorcery" in contemporary Africa and about the ways contemporary anthropology strives to get to know and understand the phenomenon by confronting it at eye-level is a "must" for novices and a strong "should" for experts.
It is not so easy, however, to fulfill a reviewer's first obligation—to summarize the book's content and the logic behind its structure. Significantly, I think, the fifteen chapters are not numbered; the sequence bears no resemblance to customary divisions of a monograph and their titles are evocative rather than descriptive. To meet the challenge that this represents let me [End Page 135] begin with an observation on genre—that of the "second book," in which an ethnographer, having already fulfilled the academic obligation to publish his or her dissertation research in monograph form, now feels compelled (and free) to reflect on what that project was really about. West laid the foundations with fieldwork in 1994, 1999, and at least one more recent stay in 2001 among "Muedans," as he calls them, mainly rural Makonde living on the Mueda plateau in postsocialist northern Mozambique. He was helped by several local researchers, whose contributions he takes care to qualify as that of fellow ethnographers rather than assistants. Initially his project had been to reverse the anthropological gaze on the past—what is called tradition—and study the Muedan conception of a (their) future; as he declared, he was "in search of the forward-looking peasant."
While indeed he found what he had set out to look for—somewhere in this book he characterizes Muedans as "futurists"—his querying the future landed him in the present. Apparently something else must happen before we are willing and able to recognize the contemporaneity and co-temporaneity of our African objects of study. For many (including myself) this was the discovery of "popular culture"; for West (and others) it seems to have been the "modern" omnipresence of "sorcery."
While the chapter titles may leave one a bit mystified, it quickly becomes clear that the chapters themselves consist of episodes in a tale of progress or, to invoke an image that may be more appropriate, of a hunt. It is not a simple story to tell if (as is West's ambitious aim) the multiple strands of ethnographic analysis are to be woven into a single narrative: the advancement of research; the accumulation of ethnographic knowledge; the improvement of understanding and advances in the trajectory followed by the hunted beast; anthropological theory generally; and witchcraft/sorcery studies in particular. The combination of the multiple levels at which this presentation unfolds makes a heavy demand on the reader's capacities for absorption: necessary background information on the history and politics of postsocialist...