Ziker explained that witchcraft accusations have served as a political tool geared to maintain the social order, though not always in the way one would expect. Two common social science explanations of witchcraft are the mass hysteria theory and the scapegoat theory.
The mass hysteria theory has been used to explain examples such as the witch killings of the reformation and counter-reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. During these religious wars, communities demanded magistrates find a reason for their ills, oftentimes demanding and forcing the decisions to condemn community members.
In the scapegoat theory, someone peripheral in the community takes the blame for the problems in the community. This approach has been used to explain incidences such as the Salem witch trials. Both of these theories have significant challenges to overcome in explaining actual witchcraft accusation and prosecution patterns, both historically in the West and cross-culturally.
“While it is interesting that these people are being accused of witchcraft and prosecuted because they’re relatively powerless, ultimately, accusations are aimed to demonstrate to some other group that this group [in power] is willing to go to that extent in order to protect its interests. It’s a statement to people who really do threaten the social order,” said Ziker.
The definition of witchcraft in anthropology covers such accusations of supernatural evil. Ziker often is asked about Wicca and Wiccans, who do not fit this definition. In anthropology, Wicca is viewed as a new religious movement, and consider it using other concepts such as magic, sorcery and sacrifice. Wiccans embrace the identity of witchcraft to create power structures of their own in the face of dominant religions. Researcher Wouter Hanegraaff with the University of Amsterdam refers to this as a “positive antitype.”
Going beyond social typologies, Ziker encouraged researchers to look at the nuances of behavior and individual costs and benefits of cooperative strategies. Wicca, like other new religious movements, uses supernatural claims to create, maintain and expand social relationships.
As an anthropologist, Ziker said that being able to understand the motives and mindset that shape such supernatural beliefs requires using observational methods to analyze various details, ranging from educational levels, to wealth, kinship relations and much more.
“In anthropology, we listen to what people say about what they’re doing, but our main methods are focused on what people are doing,” said Ziker. “And a lot of times we say one thing and do something completely different