Social Evolution: The Ritual Animal
Rituals are a human universal but can vary enormously. Beneath that diversity, however, Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse believes that rituals are always about building community — which arguably makes them central to understanding how civilization itself began. To explore these possibilities, and to tease apart how this social glue works, Whitehouse is leading a project that combines fieldwork with archaeological digs and laboratory studies around the world. “This is the most wide-ranging scientific project on rituals attempted to date,” says Scott Atran, director of anthropological research at the CNRS, the French national research organization, in Paris, and an adviser to the project.
A major aim of the investigation is to test Whitehouse’s theory that rituals come in two broad types, which have different effects on group bonding. Routine actions such as prayers at church, mosque or synagogue, or the daily pledge of allegiance recited in many US elementary schools, are rituals operating in what Whitehouse calls the ‘doctrinal mode’. He argues that these rituals, which are easily transmitted to children and strangers, are well suited to forging religions, tribes, cities and nations — broad-based communities that do not depend on face-to-face contact. Rare, traumatic activities such as beating, scarring or self-mutilation, by contrast, are rituals operating in what Whitehouse calls the ‘imagistic mode’.