Shamans, Priests, and Witches: A Cross-Cultural Study of Magico-Religious Practitioners.
Article Type: Book Review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Robisheaux, Thomas
Pub Date: 12/01/1997
Publication: Name: The Journal of Parapsychology Publisher: Parapsychology Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1997 Parapsychology Press ISSN: 0022-3387
Issue: Date: Dec, 1997 Source Volume: v61 Source Issue: n4
Topic: NamedWork: Shamans, Priests, and Witches: A Cross-Cultural Study of Magico-Religious Practitioners (Book) Review Grade: A
Persons: Reviewee: Winkelman, Michael James
Accession Number: 21121222
Full Text: Michael James Winkelman. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University Anthropological Research Papers, No. 44, Arizona State University, 1992. Pp. viii + 191. $27.50 (paper). ISBN 0-936249-10-2.

One of the many obstacles to a modern theory of religion and magic has been the lack of a systematic basis for comparisons across cultures. From the classical works of Tylor, Levy-Bruhl, Frazer, and Durkheim to the works of Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard, anthropologists have built up theories on the basis of selected case studies. The practice was common in the early twentieth century. The social sciences in that era often operated on the assumption that universal laws or models of human behavior could be discovered, and that societies at different levels of complexity and organization shared common features that would sustain generalized models of particular social or religious or institutional activities. Today, many social scientists - anthropologists, in particular - question whether such universal social theories are possible or even desirable to construct. Many problems are methodological, cultural, historical, or epistemological; anthropology rests on concepts that are western, and that therefore have limited applicability in truly understanding non-western cultures.

Not all social scientists have such doubts about universal social theories, however. Michael Winkelman clearly belonging to those anthropologists who not only believe that cross-cultural analysis is possible, but who are trying to create a rigorous basis for cross-cultural comparisons and analysis. This study of shamans, priests, and witches lays out his approach to the problem. In this study, he is primarily concerned with creating a sound institutional basis for comparing the social and political roles of shamans, priests, and sorcerers across nonwestern traditional cultures. In what types of societies do these different spirit workers emerge? How are they recruited? What are their functions and roles? In this way, Winkelman is simply building on the foundations of the structural functionalist anthropologists who have come before him.

This is not to say that he accepts uncritically their theoretical approaches to magic and religion. The so-called "intellectualist" school (Tylor, Levy-Bruhl, and Frazer) has made the mistake, Winkelman argues, of thinking that primitives were "deluded," that magical thinking was the result of mistaken cognitive and psychological processes. Malinowski, too, tended to look upon magic as an emotional response to uncertainty, danger, or risk. Magic began where science and religion left off, and rested on a false understanding of cause-and-effect relationships. The "symbolists" (the followers of Durkheim), on the other hand, have viewed religion as activities rooted in social life; that is, religious beliefs and practices are really about social integration and control. To Evans-Pritchard, magic or witchcraft was simply a mechanism for social control. Herein lies the great condescension of western social science theory: The bases of religion and magic were thought to be either pathological or mistaken, or the activities associated with them were really about something other than what the participants said they were about.

Winkelman obviously disagrees with these approaches to religion and magic, and yet the first part of his study really buttresses the social functionalist approach to shamans, priests, and sorcerers. In other words, what primarily interests him is establishing the clear institutional origins and functions of these spirit workers. What he finds may come as little surprise to those familiar with religion and magic in nonwestern traditional cultures. He finds that shamans appear in cultures that are de-centralized, with little agriculture, few or no developed translocal institutions, and little differentiated social hierarchies. In these societies, spirit work is done by the classic shaman, an individual often recruited in childhood or who shows particular characteristics, and whose role it is to heal and work with the spirits with whom the society and individual are in constant contact. The more developed and hierarchical that political and social institutions become, and the more a society depends on agriculture, the greater the likelihood that priests will supplant shamans. The power and standing of priests derive less from the trance experience and healing that shamans perform, and rest much more on their formal roles as mediators in religious and political institutions. Indeed, in the more developed of these kinds of societies, sorcerers and witches - individuals who practice malevolent magic - merge as the victims of intolerance and persecution. Where one does find altered states of consciousness, it tends to express itself in these complex societies as possession, and not as socially sanctioned trance.

All of these findings are the result of a massive quantitative analysis of the traits that different practitioners display across nearly fifty cultures. They range from classical Rome to modern African, Australian and Asian ethnic groups. In order to situate these practitioners in their societies more carefully, and weigh their relative importance cross-culturally, Winkelman adopts a rigorous quantitative analysis of 98 variables describing the activities of these practitioners. His general variables include the types of magico-religious activities they perform, their social or political power, social and professional characteristics, selection and training, the sources and the nature of their supernatural powers, any special abilities they might have, magical techniques, and the methods by which they might enter altered states of consciousness.

Naturally there are limits and problems to this approach, and Winkelman is clearly aware of many of them. The study does not take into account change over time, as he acknowledges. Without historical perspective he can say little about whether the tendencies he finds actually develop over time within a given culture or not. Also, the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample upon which he relies for data is now almost thirty years old. While it has the virtue of including data on a wide variety of cultures, the basis of the study is a great deal of ethnography from the colonial era; that is, studies now frequently questioned about their objectivity in studying nonwestern peoples. Much has changed since the end of the colonial era in the 1960s, not least of which is the awareness among anthropologists that early colonial ethnographies rested on dubious assumptions about "primitives" no longer considered valid. Pushing this point further, one may wonder whether the western concepts of "magic" and "religion" are really valid when applied to nonwestern traditional cultures. As the history of western Christianity and magic suggests, these categories are far from stable, and the overlap and confusion between them is perhaps more important than the fact that they have emerged in modern times as stable concepts.

Perhaps Winkelman's most significant contribution in this study lies in the second part of his study: his grounding of trance, meditative, or other spiritual or unusual psychological states in a scientific model of altered states of consciousness. In this section, his break with older views of altered states of consciousness as pathological is complete and radical. A cultural argument could have been made regarding these experiences, but by drawing on recent work in medical anthropology and neurophysiology, he grounds these experiences in physiological experience. The consequences of such an approach are important: this grounds what some anthropologists or historians view as culturally conditioned experiences in a universal neurophysiological model of consciousness.

Cultural theories challenge our own society's understandings of magic and religion much less effectively than do scientific ones. Cultural or historical arguments can blunt serious self-reflection. By shifting the terms of analysis to the scientific grounds, however, Winkelman raises more challenging questions about cultures such as our own, which has marginalized and repressed these psychological states, making it very difficult for the society to draw legitimately on the beneficial effects of ASC (altered states of consciousness). Naturally, Winkelman does not directly draw out these consequences for contemporary American or western culture. For those interested in altered states of consciousness, however, the study does suggest that societies organized to value these experiences, and that can tap into their beneficial effects, are hardly primitive. One has a great deal to learn from them.


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