Witchcraft and Conflict: Exploring alternative discourses of insecurity (Jul 2016 - Oct 2017)

Lead G&S academic: Dr Jonathan Fisher

Academic partners: Cherry Leonardi (Durham University)

Funding: Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)


This project focused on exploring three sets of questions: how do African borderland communities understand and articulate security threats and in what ways does 'witchcraft' feature in these articulations? How do African and Western policy-makers, in turn, understand and articulate the major security threats faced by these communities and how far do they consider 'witchcraft' within this? Finally, how should Western researchers and Western/African policy-makers engage with these unfamiliar (in) security discourses, and what challenges does attempting to do so pose?

Scholars and policy-makers now largely agree that security threats should be understood not just through the eyes of generals, spies and other state actors but through those of individuals and communities themselves - particularly those in conflict-affected regions. This 'human security' perspective allows us to understand insecurity not just - or even primarily - in terms of foreign armies or terrorist attacks but also unemployment, starvation, disease and oppression. Indeed, the latter usually feature far more prominently and substantively as security concerns for most.

We know surprisingly little, however, about how communities in Africa articulate and perceive their own (in) security - their voices rarely feature in policy papers and academic studies, particularly those beyond the realm of anthropology. Moreover, little work has been undertaken in political science and history to study and understand indigenous (in) security narratives when they speak to themes and belief systems which differ dramatically from Western ways of thinking.

Communities on the Uganda/South Sudan border, for example, have historically come to frame much of what human security scholars would understand as 'security concerns' using the language and worldview of 'witchcraft'. Indeed, some view those human rights-based approaches to justice and security promoted by Western donors and their own governments as deeply problematic since they 'protect' witches at the expense of the community.

Policy-makers and practitioners face practical challenges in reconciling these worldviews with Western systems of justice and governance. More broadly, though, they and Africanist academics interested in security face a broader challenge - how to study, represent, engage with and respond to these narratives which are deeply meaningful for communities but fundamentally at odds with Western modes of thinking. Furthermore, how can and should researchers broach so sensitive a topic with communities?

Project aims

This project tackled these difficult questions head-on in a highly innovative collaboration between and across disciplines and continents. At its core was a partnership between a political scientist and an historian who worked to combine different approaches from their respective disciplines in order to explore witchcraft as a discourse of insecurity in the Uganda/South Sudan border region - and to reflect on the wider methodological and epistemological questions raised above.

This was undertaken in the context of a broader collaboration between a core group of UK and Africa-based academics from history, political science, development studies and anthropology - together with practitioners and policy-makers - who helped design the methodology, advise on the fieldwork and co-produce the outputs through participation in regular workshops in the UK and Africa.

In adopting this experimental, inter-disciplinary approach it was possible to explore and debate the nature of human security - and the place of witchcraft discourses within this - in a dynamic and exciting intellectual space which goes beyond the limits imposed by individual disciplinary boundaries. In doing so, the project sought to challenge, re-frame and guide key debates within African Studies, security studies, history and anthropology as well as within policy communities.

More information

For further information about this project please contact: Dr Jonathan Fisher.