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ANTH424 The Anthropology of Evil

A cross-cultural and historical investigation of beliefs and activities seen as manifestations of evil in the world, drawing on ethnographic research, historical studies, and anthropological theory.

This paper explores the social construction of evil, as discourse and practice. As we articulate an anthropological position in relation to the study of evil, we consider conceptual and methodological approaches to the study of moral phenomena in social fields.

The Anthropology of Evil begins by problematising the concept of evil and examining contemporary definitional debates around the use of the term academically, in popular texts, and historically. We contextualise this around experiences of sense-making about experiences of suffering and trauma. We consider popular depictions of evil and the ethics and effect of consuming violence and suffering in contemporary media. We then delve into a detailed analysis of several important figures in Western history - cannibals, Satan, witches, vampires, and terrorists - with additional attention to how these are constructed in other cultural worlds (including case studies from Africa and the Pacific).

The next part of the paper considers the social organisation of evil and the facilitation of organised human cruelty. This section begins by briefly examining genocide and state-sanctioned violence, before exploring the role of charisma, leadership, and obedience in this. Finally we consider tales of surviving evil and the moral nature of memory, narrative, and memorialisation. We consider future anthropological contributions to this field of study – both of evil, and of good.

Paper title The Anthropology of Evil
Paper code ANTH424
Subject Anthropology
EFTS 0.1667
Points 20 points
Teaching period Not offered in 2023 (Distance learning)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $1,206.91
International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.

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72 300-level ANTH or ARCH points

Teaching staff

Dr Susan Wardell

Teaching Arrangements
One 2-hour lecture per week
Required reading is from journal articles and book chapters available electronically through the library using Course Reserve.
Course outline

Will be available on Blackboard at the beginning of the course.

Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Global perspective, Lifelong learning, Scholarship, Critical thinking, Cultural understanding, Ethics, Research.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes
  • Articulate an anthropological approach to the study and understanding of evil
  • Critically discuss contemporary anthropological debates surrounding evil and wickedness
  • Highlight the relationship between anthropological theory and method
  • Promote the development of critical thinking skills (ie encourage reasonable and purposeful, self-reflective intellectual activity)

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Not offered in 2023

Teaching method
This paper is taught through Distance Learning
Learning management system