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Who to blame?

Published: 
Sunday, December 6, 2015

From the horrible to the unpleasant, when unexpected events occur people search for explanations and to apportion blame. As the anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen suggests, this search and the explanations that emerge have long been a topic of anthropological research because they “reveal the fundamental values people live by and the world structures within which they live.” 

Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard was a prominent English anthropologist of the early to mid 20th century, most famous for his study of the Azande of North-Central Africa and the social functions of their witchcraft. He wanted to know why the Azande, who he described as a rational people, who could explain the world in rational ways, believed in witchcraft and magic. Why did they hold irrational beliefs about the world and how it worked?

For Evans-Pritchard the answer was a functionalist one. The Azande society believed in magic and witchcraft because it was a way to redirect blame onto weaker members of the society and distract from the real underlying reasons behind social conflict. Many might suggest this worldview has been trumped by the modern methodological and scientific understanding of the world.

Yet has it really? Many still seem to hold irrational beliefs about events and often don’t know who or what to blame for them. Or put another way, there are many occasions when consensus about the explanations behind events is not agreed. Open any daily newspaper and this lack of consensus is common across all events and social groups, and apportioning blame extends in many directions.

Here are a couple of examples. In his book, Putting Social Contribution back into Merit, sociologist Geoff Dench notes, “In most societies, the hardest jobs to fill are probably the menial and boring positions right at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy. In many societies, these are given to slaves, serfs and unfree labourers, such as convicts and prisoners of war; and in virtually all societies, to new migrants.” 

Now who or what is to blame for this situation? The many individuals who don’t want this “humble but essential labour?” Or perhaps it’s the State and private industry’s fault for not providing greater rewards and dignity for such work? Maybe it’s a wider cultural change from outside cultivating unrealistic individual ambitions locally at the cost of the social rewards of doing things for others?

For any individual, it is hard to know who or what to blame. Mary Douglas, another anthropologist who explored blame and risk around the world, identified three different types of blaming (although many suggest she should have included more) in an African village she was working in and the villagers’ response to the death of a local woman.

Douglas noted the first type of blame was to blame the victim; she brought it on herself by breaking a taboo for example. The second type of blame was at a wider community level and could be linked to competition and conflict between someone or a group and the victim. And the third type of blame was to look beyond the local community and outward to people who did not share the same cosmology and culture, and hence disruption from outside caused the women’s death.

What is most interesting about this model is it still echoes today in how we apportion blame in modern societies. It is much like the three types of blame many put to the idea of not taking a menial post. One reason is it’s the fault of individuals who are lazy and wotless. Two, its because of the politics and competition of the local economy—perhaps foreign migrants are willing to work for less money than locals or Cepep de-incentivises such work. Or three, there are foreign neoliberal forces and pressures making the conditions of menial labour untenable for most locals.

Or jump further afield and think about the recent terrorist events in Paris. Take Wednesday’s vote by the British Parliament to bomb Syria in response. One thing clear in the House of Commons debate was those in charge didn’t share an understanding on the causes or solutions to the problem. Blame was being apportioned left, right and centre.

Much like the poor are often blamed for being poor, so many British parliamentarians, much like our own, blamed the individual for becoming a terrorist; the “bad apple” argument. The second type of blame was on a community-competition level; they want our power type of blaming. The third type of blame was a larger abstract argument about a British society founded on human rights and the rule of law being attacked by a crazy fascist minority from the outside who do not respect freedom and democracy.

In both examples, the types of blaming function much like Azande witchcraft. They redirect away from changing the socio-economic system and the real structural issues producing social class conflict and terrorism such as economic inequality, historical racism, man-made poverty, corruption, education, political violence, socio-economic justice, the growth of individualism over collectivism and more. 

Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at the UWI, St Augustine Campus.

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