University of Cambridge
Reconsidering the Tradition and Modernity Debate:
Mongolian Opportunism and Zealous Social Change
47th Meeting of the PIAC, Cambridge 2004
A growing body of anthropological literature has suggested that in remote parts of the developing world, local ‘traditions’ of witchcraft and curse accusations that had once been suppressed by states and local officials are now reemerging as a response to the pressures of an encroaching ‘modernity’. The suggestion is that interpersonal rivalries which are played out through rural village factions have a functional purpose, namely they afford people the opportunity to protest, and distance themselves from, the exploitations of an expanding capitalist economy and its new technologies. While this explanation sheds light on the possible origins of interpersonal rivalry, it has not shown that curse episodes necessarily evolve in response to so-called modernising trends. In this paper, I will argue that while curse accusations may be a traditional means of handling local crises, they are not merely a means for resisting a historical turning-point. Examples from two rural villages in Mongolia and China demonstrate that curse episodes evolve from crises which prompt people not to evade enterprise and innovation, but to pursue opportunistic motives to:
(1) improve their livelihoods, (2) compete with local rivals and (3) circumvent any state suppression of ‘superstition’.