“Selfing”: contact, magic and the constitution of personhood

Leading researcher: David Picard
Research group: Circulation and Place-Making
Type of project: National project
Status: Concluded
Keywords: Magic | Social contact | Self-other relations | Social phenomenology

Main institution: CRIA
Participant institutions: Centre for Tourism and Cultural Change (CTCC); CIES/ISCTE-IUL; ICS-UL; Laboratoire d’Anthropologie des Institutions et des Organisations Sociales (LAIOS); Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand (WISER)
Funding: FCT
Reference: PTDC/CS-ANT/114825/2009
Starting date: 01-02-11

More information: link


This study will explore processes of “Selfing” and “Othering” in contexts of “contact” between social actors. Actors here are defined as agents or entities with capacity to exert “effects” or changes in the world, which can as much be spirits and gods, persons and collectives, as national governments, material cultures and other bodies. Through a comparative case study approach, this project will focus on the different kinds of “ontological work” through which the forms and boundaries of persons (where “person” is subject to ethnographic examination) are cultivated, maintained, transformed, or subverted. Anthropological studies dealing with issues of transnationalism, globalisation and migration, for instance, have demonstrated that social contact often generates situations in which social “entities” seen in variable dimensions – in terms of gender, individuals, groups, classes, nations, etc. – can cohabitate in a same locale while pertaining separated social lives, cultures and identities (Pina-Cabral 2002). In such contexts, Selves and Others seem to constitute each other as what Paul Ottino (1986) called “intimate strangers” whose interrelation seems crucial for the maintenance of identity. While processes of Selfing and Othering have been abundantly described in the academic literature (Barth 1970, Fabian 2006) few anthropologists have attempted to explain what precisely makes such processes so successful in human society, if we define “success” as the ability to co-exist somehow, in this sense, in a multicultural or multiethnic setting. However, by “contact”, we refer not merely to intercultural, racial, or ethnic interfaces; we wish to extend its meaning from the realm of the sociological to that of the cosmological, in which physicality and embodiment are nevertheless implied. Spirit possession is one powerful example of such forms of contact; forms of initiative travel to and through spaces ascribed with mythical qualities (e.g. the “West” for Young middle class Russians) or the symbolic anthropophagy of Western strangers as part of hospitality practices in Madagascar are other pertinent examples. The idea developed in this project is to consider processes of “selfing” and “othering” as continuous and mutually constitutive, where “selfing” pertains to articulation of distinct modes of personhood, and “othering” to the generation of its boundaries vis-à-vis others. In our view, a rereading of some of the classical anthropological interpretations of magic (Frazer 1911, Evans-Pritchard 1972, Malinowski 1945) will provide theoretical inspiration in na examination of the relationship between forms of Otherness and Selfness as aspects of a same phenomenon. For Malinowski, the expression and efficacy of magic was characterised by its performative quality – its ability to evoke a response from its audience, and to enchant its world; for Lienhardt (1961), by its “imitative” nature, in which the performer produces a model of his or her desires and intentions. Taussig (1993), too, has highlighted this last point in his argument on mimesis and alterity. By using the concept of “magic”, this study hopes to revitalise the importance of a pragmatics of processes of “selfing” and “othering”, bypassing in this way static notions of what “selves” and “others” may be. This also allows for political and socio-economic antecedents and consequences of “contact” to become fully objects of ontological investigation in the performance of such forms of “magic”. The project will be implemented through a comparative case study approach with ethnographic investigations in Madagascar (on hospitality practice), Cuba (on spirit possession), and Russia (on initiative travel). A forth locale and topic will be determined by the specialisation of a postdoctoral researcher employed by the project. The project researchers, David Picard, Diana Espírito Santo and Dennis Zuev all have PhDs in relevant disciplines and several years of ethnographic fieldwork experience. The different investigations will be framed by a common set of objectives and related methodological strategies. Respective research objectives are (a) the study of the “ontological work” transforming Selfhood and Otherhood; (b) practices of contact, assimilation and transformation, and © the historicity of culturally specific study contexts. The project will include prolonged periods of ethnographic fieldwork in Cuba, Madagascar and Russia. Methods to be used to gather data are direct ethnographic observation, ethno-linguistic and kinship analysis, interviews and historical archive work. The project will be implemented over a period of three years with two intermediate workshops and a final conference. It involves three external consultants, Saskia Cousin (LAIOSEHESS), Pamila Gupta (WISER-Witwatersrand) and Simone Abram (CTCC). A detailed outline of data and study methods and the time-line of the project can be found in the main part of this proposal.

Researchers from CRIA

IDNamePositionProjTitleProject typeStatus
pub204*David PicardPrincipal Investigatorproj10*"Selfing": contact, magic and the constitution of personhoodNational projectConcluded
pub338*Diana Espírito SantoResearcherproj10*"Selfing": contact, magic and the constitution of personhoodNational projectConcluded
Other researchers

Dennis ZuevResearcherproj10*"Selfing": contact, magic and the constitution of personhood