Leaving the magic out: knowledge and effect in different places

James Leach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


In 2010, Porer Nombo and I launched a book about indigenous Papua New Guinean plant knowledge to a large audience at a University near to his village on the north coast of that country. Members of the audience commented that the book made a record of important practices. But they asked if those practices were dependent on secret magic to be effective? What gave us the right to include such secrets? Or, if there was in fact something fundamental missing from the book (magical formulae to activate the processes described) then what was the use of publishing the book? Thinking through their questions suggested the need to analyze what ‘knowledge’ is in different places, and why plants might be effective in some, but not others. In this paper I attempt an explanation that does not rely on a ‘social’ explanation of ‘magic’ but instead suggest that what we call ‘magic’ are mechanisms whereby a gardener (or healer, or hunter) positions an action, or a thing in relation to other things. I liken the way myth works in these systems to the way intellectual property law provides a comparable ‘mythic’ structure that locates effect in ‘knowledge economies’ and I conclude by asking; if places embody their history and politics, and generate different understandings of effect, then what are the implications of calling Porer’s practices with regard to plants, ‘knowledge’?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-270
Number of pages20
JournalAnthropological Forum
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2012


  • knowledge
  • magic
  • plants
  • myth
  • intellectual property


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