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Women are ostracised by unfounded witchcraft labels

8 January 2018

Witchcraft labels are a mechanism to harm female competitors and profoundly affect the structure of social networks, according to new UCL-led research.

Rural China

The study, published today in Nature Human Behaviour and funded by the European Research Council, quantifies the impact of witchcraft labels, such as 'zhu' used in rural China, on communities including their influence on social life and how social networks are structured.

The team, including researchers from UCL, Lanzhou University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, worked with five villages in rural China where they found 13.7% of households - normally those headed by a relatively wealthy woman - are stigmatised with a witchcraft label associated with the threat of food poisoning. 

"We found quite high levels of belief in some women being 'poison givers' - labelled zhu or zhubu - sometimes translated as witch in this rural area of China. They are thought to poison you if you eat at their house, which is completely unfounded. We show that the label bears no meaningful information about the qualities of an individual but has profound social implications," explained study first author, Professor Ruth Mace (UCL Anthropology).

"Households without the label avoid zhu-labelled households - they do not have relationships with them or share economics gifts or farming help. To mitigate this, households carrying the label associate with, help and find spouses with each other and we found they are no less cooperative than non-zhu labelled individuals."

The researchers assessed cooperation between labelled and non-labelled households by giving individuals endowments of money which they could share with an anonymous member of their village. This showed a similar level of cooperation within the two groups. The team also tracked kinship data and measured relationships in the context of farm work.

Though anthropologists have long had an interest in studying witchcraft beliefs, very few other studies have looked at communities from a quantitative perspective or mapped the resulting social networks. In this study, the use of quantitative data helped the researchers attain a richer understanding of how the zhu label influenced social life and who it might be applied to. 

"Some anthropologists have suggested that witchcraft beliefs serve to promote cooperative behaviour but our results contradict this. Our findings suggest that while the origins of the witchcraft labels and accusations are unclear, they may reflect jealousy and spite towards competitors, who are predominantly women," added Professor Mace.

The research highlights the importance of further investigations into who gets labelled, when and why it sticks, and the significance of maintaining an honest reputation.

The team conclude that witchcraft accusations are widespread and so the findings and future work are globally relevant and may even have analogues in 'modern' social contexts such as trolling on social media platforms.



Media contact

Bex Caygill

Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 3846

Email: r.caygill [at] ucl.ac.uk