The Power of Animals: An Ethnography

The Power of Animals: An Ethnography

The Power of Animals: An Ethnography

The Power of Animals: An Ethnography

Synopsis

The multiple ways in which people relate to animals provide a revealing window through which to examine a culture. Western cultures tend to view animals either as pets or food, and often overlook the vast number of roles that they may play within a culture and in social life more generally: their use in medicine, folk traditions and rituals. This comprehensive and very readable study focuses on Malawi people and their rich and varied relationship with animals -- from hunting through to their use as medicine. More broadly, through a rigorous and detailed study the author provides insights which show how the people's relationship to their world manifests itself not strictly in social relations, but just as tellingly in their relatioships with animals -- that, in fact, animals constitute a vital role in social relations. While significantly advancing classic African ethnographic studies, this book also incorporates current debates in a wide range of disciplines -- from anthropology through to gender studies and ecology.

Excerpt

This book is about Malawi culture and the relationship of Malawian people to the animal world, with a specific focus on mammals. The core of the study hinges around a dialectic between subsistence agriculture, focussed around a group of matrilineally-related women – and in the context of which mammals are seen as opposed to human well-being – and hunting, which is centred around men, or more precisely, around men as affinal males. Thus, while women are closely identified with agriculture, the matrilineal kin group and the village community, men are identified with the woodland and wild mammals, hunting and masculinity being intrinsically linked. The organizing principle of the study, then, focusses on hunting and agriculture (matriliny) as two complementary domains that have historically constituted Malawian social life.

Over the past two decades, within the context of an emerging ecological crisis, anthropologists, philosophers and historians have become increasingly concerned with exploring the relationship of humans to the natural world. We have thus seen a plethora, indeed a deluge, of books on ecological thought, on people's conceptions of nature or landscape, on animal rights and on green political issues. This interest is comparatively recent. When in 1980 I gave a talk on ‘Changing Conceptions of Nature’ to the Wildlife Society of Malawi, the number of books then available that dealt specifically with people's conceptions of nature (and wildlife) could almost be counted on the fingers of one hand (but see Collingwood 1945, Glacken 1967, Nash 1967, Barbour 1973, Worster 1985). As far as most philosophers, anthropologists and historians were concerned, nature was simply an existential background that could safely be ignored, and mammals hardly existed apart from the role they played in rituals and symbolism (in relation to Africa see the pioneering studies of Willis 1974 and Douglas 1975). Since then the ‘environment’, ‘ecology’, ‘nature’, ‘landscape’, ‘hunting’ and ‘animals’ have all become major research topics among academics, although some philosophers seem quite unaware that students of natural history and biologists (for instance, Charles Darwin) have for more than a century expressed a sustained interest in the natural world (cf. Merchant 1992, Soper 1995). But most of these recent texts describe cultures, even whole epochs, in . . .

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