Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Divination and Experience: Explorations of a Chagga epistemology./Divination et Experience: Explorations D'une Epistemologie Des Chagga

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Divination and Experience: Explorations of a Chagga epistemology./Divination et Experience: Explorations D'une Epistemologie Des Chagga

Article excerpt

One can envisage various reasons why African divination has received so little systematic attention (Peek 1991: 1; Werbner 1989: 22; Zeitlyn 1990: 658). In my view, the neglect is primarily due to an epistemological prejudice on the part of anthropologists. Devisch convincingly shows how anthropological approaches to divination are founded on a common premise: regardless of whether divination is conceived of as a means for providing emotional reassurance, a tool for restoring and sustaining a social structure, an instrument for making decisions, building consensus, and establishing political legitimacy, or an aid for maintaining a cognitive order, the 'argument is rooted in a Western pragmatic and positivist philosophy and comfort ideology which presupposes that mastery over a desacralized, "thing-ified" environment is a compelling goal for all societies' (Devisch 1985: 55). In different yet related ways, socio-psychological, structural-functional, and cognitive arguments conceive of divination as a derivation from, and representation of, some underlying processes which it serves to control. These are different instances of an implicit Durkheimian approach which enables researchers to reduce one phenomenon to another (Fabian 1985: 160). The postulation of an underlying foundation that unifies and explains different practices provides the anthropological category of 'divination' with a verifiable empirical content and an instrumental rationality which enable its scientific study.

Whatever its merit with regard to the study of other social facts, this strategy creates a specific problem in connection with divination. In contrast to other social practices, divination purports to be a form of inquiry that constitutes knowledge about the world. Divination is thus not only a phenomenon whose 'essence' is to be discovered and described by anthropologists; it is itself a mode of discovery that makes a truth-claim with regard to how it represents the world. (1) The crux of the matter is that the diviners' claims are incommensurate with those of anthropologists. The anthropological response to this problem often consists of reducing the diviners' statements to phenomena that the diviners make no pretension to address. This strategy has the advantage of neutralizing the diviners' truth-claims whilst making them meaningful in terms of scientific criteria. The posited underlying 'essence' provides the vocabulary for translating one set of representations into another in accordance with classic epistemology (Rorty 1979: 357; Toulmin 2001: 4). To justify this, anthropologists proclaim diviners, clients, and themselves as 'imputing meanings' in order to make sense of behaviour that 'is assumed to be connected to a hidden state of affairs' (Zeitlyn 1990: 654). Crucially, these different actors do not disclose and relate to the same underlying reality (Werbner 1989: 23; Zeitlyn 1993: 237). Thus, by describing divination as a misguided form of social analysis, the anthropologists idealize their own form of inquiry and hide behind a 'veil of objectivity' (Jules-Rosette 1978). They do so, however, not only at the expense of foreclosing openness toward alternative forms of knowledge but at the graver peril of violating the subject matter. (2)

This article questions such reductive approaches and charts a new departure by investigating the materiality of divination among the Chagga-speaking people of Rombo district, Kilimanjaro region. It explores how vernacular claims to divinatory truthfulness can be preserved by attending to the linguistic concepts and material objects used in divination, and examining their multiple and overlapping ramifications throughout local social life. The approach attempts to establish the epistemic relationship between Chagga diviners and their clients by describing how they are enmeshed through a nexus of vernacular concepts, bodily practices, and physical objects. The article thus accentuates the constitutive nature of lateral relationships at the expense of the hierarchical reductionism involved in 'reading' and 'translating' divination. …

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