San Francisco Private Investigator

Culture, Rituals, and Contemporary Criminology

While far from an epidemic, or a major factor in contemporary criminality, in the last few years there have been, throughout the Western world a number of criminal cases involving "imported," culturally-based ritual practices that violate our current norms of behavior and therefore attract a great deal of attention. "Honor killings,” and female genital mutilation are two well-known, obvious examples; inherited Albanian family feud vendettas are an example of a less widely known sub-category.

        These types of cases tend to stir up even more tension regarding certain immigrant populations, so they are worth pondering as their incidence is likely to rise in some places as new immigrant populations increase in certain regions. There is a risk that one day such an incident could exacerbate an already tense situation regarding immigration issues either nationally or in some locality.  Currently we have a paucity of data on these types of crimes and their prevalence, so more research in this area seems like a good idea.

        One has to tread very carefully in how to approach these questions, because there is a long and ugly history in the West of racist and gender-based accusations of ritual crimes that contributed to such atrocities as pogroms, witch burnings, lynchings and slaughters of African Americans and indigenous groups. That said; there are unquestionably certain ritual behaviors that do occur, and that have no place in modern societies.

    It is interesting to look back to an earlier campaign against ritual crime. In 1906, the renowned Cuban ethnomusicologist and criminologist, Fernando Ortiz, described ritual killings in Cuba in his book Los Brujos Negros. He had recently returned to Cuba from studying criminology with Cesar Lombroso in Italy, and was at the time deeply influenced by Lombroso's positivist criminology. Ortiz's aim was to end the violence employed by brujos (witch doctors) in relation to their "magical" practices. At this early stage of his career, he viewed the existence of these individuals as a moral dead weight on Cuban society, and their elimination the only possible road to Cuba's general progress, and that of its African descendants in particular. He later broadened his views about Afro-Cuban culture, but Ortiz's work offers us a case study that shows how difficult it is to separate legitimate crime suppression from cultural misunderstanding and repression.

       In fact in Africa, where there are still active subcultures of sorcery, it is only quite recently that it has become publicly discussed. This theme will be familiar to readers of the highly popular mystery series, "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" which takes place in southern Africa. The protagonist Mma Ramotswe, and her mechanic friend discuss "the involvement of the country's most powerful figures in witchcraft." Referring to a possible ritualistic murder she is investigating, she comments "people have been forgetting about this sort of thing...we can't do that."  Notably, attitudes are changing in Africa too. For example, in 2005 a new Gabonese association aimed at fighting ritual kidnappings and murders, whose acronym is "ALCR," came into being.      

     At this stage, "imported," culturally-based ritual crimes undoubtedly represent only a very small fraction of current criminal offenses, but their potential to exacerbate our society's already tense situation vis a vis immigrants, especially those from newer groups, make their further study by criminologists an important, and too often neglected, area of research. 

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