Confronting uncertainty: Anthropology and zones of the extraordinary

by Isak Niehaus

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By Isak NiehausFull Article:

Anthropological theory has privileged consideration of the regularities of everyday life and has paid far less attention to irregular events that disrupt the social order. In this article, I contribute to ongoing theoretical attempts to redress this imbalance. While I acknowledge the potential historical importance of irregular and extraordinary events, I do not see them as entirely free-floating. Here I concur with Marshall Sahlins, who convincingly shows how people order unusual events through mythopraxis and also how social structures facilitate individual agency. I contemplate a third possible relation between structure and event, namely, “framing.” Drawing on my fieldwork in Bushbuckridge, South Africa, I show how people located and framed unfortunate and destructive events in zones that stood apart from everyday life. This process provides insight into witchcraft and homicide, topics that can no longer be understood only in terms of systemic agency.