Witchcraft, Statecraft, and the Challenge of "Community" in Central New Guinea

Wesch, Michael Lee, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Wagner, Roy, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines how and why “witchcraft” came to be the primary obstacle of local efforts to build “community” in Nimakot, an area in the Mountain Ok region of central New Guinea. I begin by pointing out that witchcraft is a part of a broader cultural process I call relational sociality, oftentimes referred to in studies of self and personhood as dividuality. “Community” on the other hand is part of the very different cultural process of modern statecraft. One of the core differences between these two cultural processes is in the domain of personhood and identity. While relational sociality emphasizes relational identities, modern statecraft instead emphasizes categorical identities. The tensions between these cultural processes come to a head in Operation Clean and Sweep, a plan developed by indigenous government officers in which the small hamlets scattered throughout the bush were to be eliminated, forcing all people to live in one of twelve government-recognized villages. The plan comes to a halt however, when many begin complaining that they cannot move to the government villages due to fears of witchcraft. At this point, the operation altered its focus as it became a concentrated effort to use the mechanisms of statecraft to annihilate witchcraft, clearing the way for “community.” While witchcraft is a small part of a much broader relational ontology, this relational ontology is most visible to social actors in the accusations and imageries of witchcraft. Hence it is witchcraft that is viewed locally as the core obstacle to community. I examine how the cultural processes of relational sociality and statecraft interact throughout the operation and how the dynamics between them are negotiated. In conclusion, I illustrate that by attacking witchcraft, the operation only attacks relational sociality tangentially – allowing the relational tensions it does not address to produce more witchcraft accusations, ultimately reproducing the small scattered hamlets and relational sociality the operation originally set out to eliminate.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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