Re: Length of feldwork and witchcraft reports

mike salovesh (T20MXS1@NIU.BITNET)
Sun, 15 May 1994 00:57:00 CDT

Responding to Lee Cronk's question about possible correlations
between reports of witchcraft and the ethnographer's length of time
in the field:

This is purely anecdotal, I guess, but supports the proposition. On
my first field trip (to Venustiano Carranza, Chiapas, Mexico), there
was NO mention of witchcraft from Indians to me. There was a clear
case of a witchcraft killing: body hacked with machetes, head cut
off and placed across the road from the body--all of which I later
learned "made sense" if you knew the background witchcraft beliefs.
This happened several months after my fieldwork began. When I went
after some informatin about the killing, several informants said
"maybe Bartolito could tell you something about that". Eventually
I realized they were telling me that Bartolito was one of those who
had actually done the killing. When I asked him about it (with
the proper circumlocutory euphemisms, indirect reference, etc.), he
said "No, we don't believe much in witchcraft. God doesn't want
that. But I can tell you, that Pascual (the victim), he was a bad
man. Let me tell you about that . . . "

It turned out I didn't know enough about the indirection of speech
about witches and witchcraft. In telling me the surface facts about
Pascual--they sounded perfectly ordinary and everyday to me--Barto-
lito was confirming, for any experienced listener within the culture,
that yes, Pascual was a very dangerous witch. But I just didn't get
it. That first field trip lasted 9 months, and I got practically
zilch about witchcraft on the whole trip. Oh, people were talking
about it all the time. Again, I just didn't get it.

The second trip lasted 15 months (after a 15 month absence). About
six months into the second trip, I cracked the barriers against talk
about witchcraft. More and more people told me pieces of the puzzle:
about what is implied when one says "la gente muy habladora"--folks
talk a lot; or "te lo dice en tu cara"--he says it right in your face
(multi-level statement, one part of which is about direct eye contact
during conversation, usually avoided; one part of which is about this
guy will talk directly about witchcraft without the standard ways of
indirect reference; and one part of which is about this guy directly
confessing to witchcraft abilities, or making an indirect statement
that will be read as the same thing. Example: local belief holds
that the only way you can learn to cure a disease is by learning how
to give it--supernaturally--to another. Thus, somebody who lays
claim to knowledge of how to treat, or cure, a disease is saying, in
your face, that he has dangerous witchcraft powers.)

And people told me about da~o hechado, "thrown harm"; about "mal
puesto", injury or sickness placed by one person on another; and
above all, about "envidia", which is lots more than envy or jealousy.
I cam to know that talking about envy was ALWAYS indirect speech,
where the real subject was witchcraft and other supernatural harm
with a human originator. (It was funny learning that, given that
Manning Nash, in __Machine Age Maya__ , says words to the effect
that there is no witchcraft where he worked, but there is a lot of
interpersonal jealousy and envy.) Not to mention "mal de ojo",
evil-eye disease; or how some people can change/shift to animals
to express their supernatural powers; and on and on.

As best as I can tell, there were two influences that brought me
more and more information halfwaythrough the second trip (and in
every subsequent visit.) First, I finally learned how to talk their
way. This is not a matter of what a traditional linguist would have
called "language": phonetics and phonemics and morphemics, grammar
and lexicon and all that. No, it's about how you say significant
things embedded in a conversational style, how you attach meanings
to what people don't (and don't have to) say in so many words. And,
second, I just knew more about more and more cases of people inter-
acting, so that I could ask questions tied to actual events.

All of which takes one helluva lot of time, at least for me. And I
gues I forgot to mention what may be the most important factor: it
takes time, lots of it, to establish that you, the fieldworker, are
a trustworthy person who won't blab what you're supposed to keep
quiet about. When it comes to talking about dangerous things like
witchcraft, a stranger (that's us, the anthro tribe) has to be tested
again and again before trust can expand to the point where anybody
will say anything significant on the subject.

Hey--besides that, Wade Kotter is right: the probability of
observing _any_ phenomenon will increase in proportion to the
length of fieldwork. It does.

mike salovesh anthropology dept, northern illinois univ
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