I read this classic text several years ago, and it left a lasting effect on me.
The Zande people are primarily a small-scale farming population located in central Africa. Their demographics are split between Democratic Republic of the Congo, in South Sudan, and the Central African Republic:
Evans-Pritchard briefly sketches Azande life in general, before zooming in on their complex religious system. At time of writing, 1937, these traditions had already begun to erode in the wake of European cultural imperialism. Racing against the clock, as it were, Evans-Pritchard managed to document the essence of these practices before they faded in the memories of the community.
Evans-Pritchard is a consummate professional, and this shows in his ethnographies. Azande culture and mysticism is explored in detail, and their customs – foreign to our ears – are treated largely without distracting judgment. Azande seeks spiritual answers from three kinds of oracles, each with increasing power: rubbing board, termite, and poison oracles. This practice was enmeshed in their legal system, their social structure, and their metaphysical beliefs. Azande culture further complemented these oracles by means of complex, interlocking theories of magic, and the social and medicinal contributions of a witch-doctor population:
For me, the most interesting part of the book had to do with the relationship between mysticism and attention. Most of the following quotes relate to this.
To understand why it is that Azande do not draw from their observations the conclusions we would draw from the same evidence, we must realize that their attention is fixed on the mystical properties of the poison oracle and that its natural properties are of so little interest to them that they simply do not bother to consider them.
Observations such as the above suggest that disinterest in certain question-categories is not some random phenomenon that can be taken at face value. Azande individuals systematically experience disinterest in doubt-provoking challenges to their mystical ideology, and this “attention funnel” is anything but pre-meditated. Thus, attentional habits are not solely artifacts of personality: they also can be subpersonal, they are also influenced by culture: they do not necessarily serve the interests of their owners.
Finally, it would seem myopic to suppose that this quirk of human psychology is contained to this one culture. Perhaps this is enough to drive home my takeaway: treat disinterest with suspicion.