From medieval witch hunts in Europe to contemporary “witch doctors” in Tanzania, belief in witchcraft has existed across human societies throughout history. Anthropologists have long been fascinated by the phenomenon, but have struggled to study it with quantitative methods – our understanding of how and why it arises is therefore poor. But a study we conducted of one Chinese region provided an opportunity to test the most common hypothesis – that witchcraft accusations act as punishment for those who do not cooperate with local norms. According to this theory, witch tags mark supposedly untrustworthy individuals and encourage others to conform out of fear of being labelled. However, some empirical studies have shown that witch labelling instead undermines trust and social cohesion in a society. Our study is based on 800 households in five villages in south-western China. We examined the social behaviour of those who were labelled with a “witch” tag, and compared it with those who were not. The work, published in Nature Human Behaviour, was the basis of a long-term collaboration between scientists from University College London, the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Lanzhou University. To determine the social networks and cooperation between households, we conducted house-to-house surveys, asking who had children, marriages and partnerships with whom. We also collected data on gift-giving, and on working groups on farms during harvest and planting seasons to see who was helping other households with their farming. All these measures gave rise to four social networks between households based on kinship, reproductive partners, gifts exchanged or farm work.
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