Tag Archives: Popper

Luhrmann—Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft

Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England

by Tanya Luhrmann

[Luhrmann, Tanya M. 1991. Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.]


  • based on 4 years of participant observation among magicians (Wiccan, Pagan, various occult groups) in London in the 1980s
  • “This study looks at ordinary middle-class English people who become immersed in a netherworld of magic and ritual, and asks a classic anthropological question: why do they practise magic when, according to observers, the magic doesn’t work?” (4).
  • “Magicians are ordinary, well-educated, usually middle-class people. They are not psychotically deluded, and they are not driven to practise by socio­economic desperation. By some process, when they get involved with magic—whatever the reasons that sparked their interest—they learn to find it eminently sensible. They learn to accept its core concept: that mind affects matter, and that in special circumstances, like ritual, the trained imagination can alter thephysical world” (7).
  • “The real issue is not that magicians become comfortable practising an irrational activity, but that when someone becomes a specialist, he finds his practice progressively more persuasive through the very process of interpreting and making sense of his involvement; this changing understanding may become progressively more opaque to outsiders” (7-8).
  • Magical ideas begin to seem normal in the process of becoming a magician: in this way, the involvement is more similar to becoming a certain sort of specialist than to producing a new theory” (312).
  • “How can a magician take his ideas seriously? Part of the answer is that the very process of learning to be a magician elicits systematic changes in the way that the magician interprets events. Interpretation depends upon a complex set of assumptions, biases, conceptual frames, knowledge, heuristics and attributive tendencies—intellectual habits in paying attention, in organizing what one notices, and in remembering it” (115).
  • “There seem to be three outstanding changes in intellectual habits.
    1. The magician learns what events count as evidence that the ritual has worked, and begins to find new patterns in sets of events, to see connections where previously he has only seen coincidence.
    2. Then, he acquires the knowledge shared by fellow practitioners—their common knowledge—which gives a depth and complexity to his practice, and allows him to discriminate between events in new ways, armed with these new categories and distinctions.
    3. Finally, he begins to use a battery of new assumptions—some of them explicitly formulated, others implicit in the conversation—which alter the types of remarks he takes for granted and does not question. The cumulative effect is as if the magician acquires new spectacles.” (115 numeric points added).
  • “I would argue that the rift between magician and non-practitioner is carved out by the very process of becoming a specialist in a particular kind of activity. Becoming a specialist often makes an activity seem sensible. The specialist learns a new way of paying attention to, making sense of and commenting upon her world” (115-16).
  • Becoming this type of specialist is important, “But as, if not more, important are the unsystematic experiences which, although they may have little to do with intellectual analysis, make the magician want to justify the practice, and which motivate him in the end to rationalize his commitment. These are the experiences which create bias” (176).
  • “Certain aspects of magical practice turn it into an engagement which many practitioners find compelling. They find the rituals deeply moving, the pre-ritual ‘homework’ engrossing, they dream with the images of magic’s potent symbols” (177).
  • There are four “distinctive categories of experiential response” to ritual magic practice. (All pg. 179).
    1. meditation and visualization—”the two techniques which magicians always learn upon becoming involved in practice. These are remarkable techniques: they change the practitioner’s phenomenological experience in relatively well-understood ways, and magicians are notably affected by their use.”
    2. magician’s language—”the linguistic style with which magicians describe their rituals and meditations. This style evokes a significant imaginative involvement with the ritual’s narrative and gives the magician concrete experience of the abstract terms of magical theory, like ‘contact’ or ‘power’. At the same time, the magician is told that no understanding of magical theory is complete or accurate: she can have confidence that the term refers to something, but she need not state unequivocally what it is.”
    3. ritual—There are three specific strategies a magician goes through to plan a ritual
      1. He is concerned to create a separate space and time,
      2. to exploit mind-altering techniques like chanting,
      3. and to alter the personality of the ritualist.
        • All these techniques take their central task to be setting ritual apart as something different, to be experienced almost as if it involved a different reality superimposed on the everyday.
    4. symbolism—”The use of symbolism is the most important element of the magician’s magical engagement. Symbolism plays many roles, and evokes many responses, and probably bears most responsibility for magic’s excitement. Magicians invent a mythopoeic history, talk about intimate feelings in symbolic terms, therapeutically reorganize their lives with symbolic ‘archetypes’. They also create a secrecy-shrouded mystery religion and talk of the ‘esoteric knowledge’ which their rites provide.”
  • “Throughout all this, the implication should be clear: magic is far more than a theory, and the pleasures of these other aspects—difficult to verbalize, difficult to forget—wed the magician more strongly than any intellectual analysis to a commitment to the validity of his practice” (179).
  • So… “Systematic changes in the style of intellectual interpretation make the ideas seem more believable; the satisfactions of involvement make the desire to justify the involvement even greater. Nevertheless, despite magic’s growing appeal, at some point in their practice – for some, throughout their practice – magicians confront scepticism, other people’s or their own” (270).
  • “magicians do not produce an elaborate philosophy which would describe all their beliefs, actions and desires as consistent, and substantively rational—oriented towards a genuinely desirable goal in the most effective manner possible. Instead, they justify the inconsistency with a range of arguments and make efforts to separate magic off and make efforts to separate magic off from the mundane by ritual and metaphor. Through practice, theory and styles of arguments, magicians insulate their magic from hostile criticism, real or imagined, and they acquire reasons to explain this separation … People rationalize rather than acting rationally, and strive for local consistency with a patchwork job of post hoc rationalization” (273).
  • “people tend to conceptualize themselves as unitary selves, coherent and all-of-a-piece. In order to understand their actions as part of that self, directed towards an end suitable to that self, they talk about ‘beliefs’ and ‘attitudes’ and ‘desires’, proposition-like assertions which explain why someone performs an action. If you see an aborigine eating grubs, you assume that he believes that the grub is nourishing, delicious, or imbued with sacral power” (307).
  • “In order to function effectively, humans—these interpreters of culture—must act as if humans do not act randomly, but in a way they can learn to anticipate and to which they can learn to respond. This involves attributing to them a set of proposition-like assertions about the state of the world – he is carrying an umbrella, he must believe that it will rain this afternoon – which they maintain over time” (307).

“the ethnography presented on modern magic and the persuasiveness which the practice obtains elicits three observations about belief. Let me summarize” (309).

  1. “First, it is optimistic to think that people have an ordered set of beliefs abouta particular endeavour which forms a consistent set with other beliefs which together describe the totality of thought and action. People are much fuzzier, and more complex, than that. The ethnographer can legitimately identify something like a belief when someone argues for a proposition, at least during the period when they are doing the arguing. But magicians argue in different ways at different times; some of them claim to believe one thing when practising magic, and another thing when not practising magic; others seem to be firmly committed to their practice, and produce arguments about relativism which do not seem entirely plausible in the face of their behaviour. “
  2. “Second, it is hubris—and bad ethnography—to assume that people act first and foremost because they are motivated by belief. The material on modern magic suggests particularly dearly that people often argue for a belief as a means to legitimize, and even to understand—to rationalize—the practice in which they have been involved … If someone goes to church as a regular part of his life, he is likely to argue for a belief in God. If he feels deeply spiritual when praying to God, he is more likely to be persuaded that God exists, for the religious framework provides a way to interpret that unusual feeling.”
  3. Third, magicians have beliefs; it is not true that becoming a magician simply involves learning to speak a new ‘language’ … That is more than a bow towards relativism: the assertion claims that apparently strange beliefs say nothing startling, but simply express conventional beliefs in new and surprisingways. Or, the assertion can be that in becoming a shaman, a Scientologist, a believer in something, someone is simply acquiring new terms to describe new experiences” (309).

interpretive driftslow, often unacknowledged shift in someone’s manner of interpreting events as they become involved with a particular activity. As the newcomer begins to practice, he becomes progressively more skilled at seeing new patterns in events, seeing new sorts of events as significant, paying attention to new patterns … there seems to be a slow, mutual evolution of interpretation and experience, rationalized in a manner which allows the practitioner to practise. The striking feature, I found, was how ad hoc, how seemingly unmotivated, this transformation became. Magicians did not deliberately change the way they thought about the world”

cognitive dissonanceIn the fifties, Leon Festinger (and others) developed a sociological theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’ to understand intellectual discomfort. Its most famous application concerned an American flying saucer cult which predicted that the world would end on 21 December. On 22 December—after the prophetic failure—the adherents began to proselytize, for the first time, claiming that the world had been miraculously redeemed. Festinger interpreted this as an attempt to reconcile their considerable commitment to their belief with the embarrassing evidence of its falsity by creating social support for a somewhat transformed version of it” (271).

Continue reading Luhrmann—Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft

Young—The Harmony of Illusions

The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

by Allan Young

[Young, Allan. 1997. The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Princeton University Press.]


  • Young argues that the concept of traumatic memory, which is seen by some as having roots hundreds of years ago, is actually quite a recent invention
  • He argues that: “this generally accepted picture of PTSD, and the traumatic memory that underlies it, is mistaken. The disorder is not timeless, nor does it possess an intrinsic unity. Rather, it is glued together by the practices, technologies, and narratives with which it is diagnosed, studied,treated, and represented and by the various interests, institutions, and moral arguments that mobilized these efforts and resources” (5).

He does not deny that the suffering accompanying a PTSD diagnosis is not real:

  • “My job as an ethnographer of PTSD is not to deny its reality but to explain how it and its traumatic memory have been made real, to describe the mechanisms through which these phenomena penetrate people’s life worlds, acquire facticity, and shape the self-knowledge of patients, clinicians, and researchers” (5-6).

The book is broken into threes sections:

  1. an historical overview of trauma theories up to the beginning of WWI
    • Erichsen—”railway spine” in the 1860s—to deal with railway insurance
      • fear is the body’s memory of pain—memories come form physical stimulus, not images or words
      • So the traumatic event itself causes the continued anxiety
    • Janet & Freud
      • Repression and dissociation—horrible buried memory
      • The memory of the trauma (rather than the event) is the cause of the anxiety
    • Rivers, WWI & “shell shock”
      • Although seen by many scholars as the precursor to PTSD, Rivers is “observing that, in most cases, it is not the traumatic memory that produces the physical and emotional symptoms of the war neuroses (anxiety disorder) but rather the reverse: the symptoms account for the memory” (83).
  2. The DSM III revolution
    • 1940s pre and post WWII war neuroses
      • Kardiner—The Traumatic Neuroses of War, based on post WWI studies from the 1920s
      • Grinker & Spiegel—War Neuroses, based on field studies during WWII
      • no matching diagnostic categories between the two, so the War Department makes one…
    • The DSMs
      • DSM I—1952, nomenclature not universal, listed on spectrum from “Mental Illness, to Mental Health”
      • DSM II—1968, better, but still involved “neuroses”
      • DSM III—1980, built from scratch on completely positivist basis, that is, it was all descriptive, some critiqued this “cook book approach … making mental disorder equivalent to their aggregate of their symptomatic parts” (100).
    • PTSD
      • in DSM III, a person “gas experienced an event that is outside the range of usual human experience and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone (124).
      • system worked like this:
        1. first order feature (PTSD) is defined by
        2. second order feature (an event outside the range of usual human experience),
        3. but then what is the third order (usual human experience)? Unlike the anecdotal research of Rivers, Freud, or Kardiner, the DSM relies on analogical comparison, which has no bounds.
    • so throughout all this time:
      • “What counts as a reasonable question, a satisfactory answer, a significant difference, an anomalous finding, or even an outcome—the criteria for each of these changed during this period. What did not change was the belief in the solidity of scientific facts and the conviction that psychiatry’s facts, being scientific, are essentially timeless” (9).
  3. PTSD in Practice
    • This section is based off of fieldwork in a U.S. Veterans Administration unit for the diagnosis and treatment of Viet Nam veterans suffering from PTSD in 1986-87
    • There is a long section that includes case studies of four different Vietnam War veterans being considered for PTSD diagnosis.
      • The four men all present psychometric and standardized diagnostic results consistent with a PTSD diagnosis
      • The case studies consist of transcripts of narratives from the men, which are significantly different
      • Following the narratives, transcripts of meetings between professionals at the center show how they rationalize these differences back into the requisite parameters using the open ended language of the DSM designation
    • the centers espouse an ideology of PTSD that allows the patients to talk about their own experiences using specific terminology that feeds back into the center, and back into the diagnosis.
      • The seventh chapter has a lot of group therapy transcripts where you can see this happening.

In the end, the book basically shows how the social creation and maintenance of PTSD (like Scott with blindness) can work in the process of creating a “kind” of people (like Hacking with MPD).

Continue reading Young—The Harmony of Illusions

Winch—The Idea of a Social Science

The Idea of a Social Science

by Peter Winch

[Winch, Peter. 1970. “The Idea of a Social Science.” In Rationality, edited by Bryan Wilson, 1–17. Key Concepts in the Social Sciences. London: Basil Blackwell.]


The book as a whole represents an intervention into the ‘reasons and causes’ argument—the basic premise being that

  1. there are rules that regulate human activities. These rules “rest on a social context of common activity”
  2. In physical science, you are studying objects, these rules define how the scientists deal with the objects of study and how scientists relate to each other when involved in the study
    1. scientists understand these rules because they are developed through the process of doing science as scientists (regularities)
  3. In the social sciences, however, the object of study is not an object, but instead another layer of complex rules regulating human activity, which leads to the problem:
    1. Social scientists understand the rules of the social sciences—the rules that govern interactions with each other and the study but how can they claim to understand the rules regulating the subjects of their study?
  4. So, when we talk of “reasons,” we can really only talk about the rules that inform intention toward a particular act
  • “A regularity or uniformity is the constant recurrence of the same kind of event on the same kind of occasion; hence statements of uniformities presuppose judgements of identity. But this takes us right back to the argument according to which criteria of identity are necessarily relative to some rule: with the corollary that two events which count as qualitatively similar from the point of view of one rule would count as different from the point of view of another” (1).
  • “Even if it is legitimate to speak of one’s understanding of a mode of social activity as consisting in a knowledge of regularities, the nature of this knowledge must be very different from the nature of knowledge of physical regularities” (4).
  • “In the course of this argument I have linked the assertion that social relations are internal with the assertion that men’s mutual interaction ‘embodies ideas’, suggesting that social interaction can more profitably be compared to the exchange of ideas in a conversation than to the interaction of forces in a physical system” (12).
  • “So, even where it would be unnatural to say that a given kind of social relation expresses any ideas of a discursive nature, still it is closer to that general category than it is to that of the interaction of physical forces” (12).

Questionable: “a historian or sociologist of religion must himself have some religious feeling if he is to make sense of the religious movement he is studying and understand considerations which govern the lives of their participants” (4). Continue reading Winch—The Idea of a Social Science

Gieryn—Boundary Work

Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science

by Thomas F. Gieryn

[Gieryn, Thomas F. “Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists.”American sociological review (1983): 781-795.]


The definition of “science” and what can be considered “scientific” is not stable–instead, it is a flexible designation created by scientists to suit particular contexts.

boundary-work – “attribution of selected characteristics to the institution of science for purposes of constructing a social boundary that distinguishes some intellectual activities as “non-science”” (782).

scientists do boundary-work for three specific reasons

  1. when the goal is expansion of authority or expertise into domains claimed by other professions or occupations, boundary-work heightens the contrast between rivals in ways flattering to the ideologists’ side
  2. when the goal is monopolization of professional authority and resources, boundary-work excludes rivals from within by defining them as outsiders with labels such as “pseudo,” “deviant,” or “amateur”
  3. when the goal is protection of autonomy over professional activities, boundary-work exempts members from responsibility for consequences of their work by putting the blame on scapegoats from outside” (791-792).


The demarcation of science from other intellectual activities-long an analytic problem for philosophers and sociologists-is here examined as a practical problem for scientists. Construction of a boundary between science and varieties of non-science is useful for scientists’ pursuit of professional goals: acquisition of intellectual authority and career opportunities; denial of these resources to “pseudoscientists”; and protection of the autonomy of scientific research from political interference. “Boundary-work” describes an ideological style found in scientists’ attempts to create a public image for science by contrasting it favorably to non-scientific intellectual or technical activities. Alternative sets of characteristics available for ideological attribution to science reflect ambivalences or strains within the institution: science can be made to look empirical or theoretical, pure or applied. However, selection of one or another description depends on which characteristics best achieve the demarcation in a way that justifies scientists’ claims to authority or resources. Thus, “science” is no single thing: its boundaries are drawn and redrawn in flexible, historically changing and sometimes ambiguous ways. Continue reading Gieryn—Boundary Work