Rituals have glued societies together for millennia

Author: Daniel Mullins

Seshat founding editor Harvey Whitehouse believes that rituals make groups of individuals stick together. Collective rituals are a form of social glue. Different kinds of rituals produce different kinds of social commitments, he explains, ultimately influencing the size and internal structure of whole societies. Harvey recently sat down with me to describe how Seshat: Global History Databank can help researchers examine the role of rituals in binding communities together throughout human history.

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To learn more, see Harvey Whitehouse’s website.


Daniel Mullins: Why are rituals important?

Harvey Whitehouse: Rituals are important because they produce the social glue that holds societies together. What we begin to understand is that not all rituals are the same. Different rituals produce different intensities of social glue and, frankly, some rituals have more lasting effects on the groups that perform them. We know quite a lot about rituals as a consequence of observing them in the real world in the contemporary world and studying people performing artificial rituals in the lab, but until now its been impossible really to examine role of rituals longitudinally over huge time depths and with the arrival of Seshat this is now becoming possible.

Daniel Mullins: What is the role of ritual in creating social cohesion?

Harvey Whitehouse: Some of the most exciting new hypotheses about the role of ritual in creating social cohesion focus on the frequency and emotional intensity of collective rituals. We have a lot of reasons to suspect that in small face-to-face societies people are already pretty bonded with one another and when they need rituals its very often to enable them to stand united in the face of dangerous enemies, for example, where there is a very strong temptation to run away or to face other kinds of challenges which involve a strong temptation basically to defect. For instance, hunting very big and dangerous animals is another example. So we find that in small communities that face those kinds of threats we’d expect to find very intense rituals, the kind that produce long-lasting and very powerful social glue. But you wouldn’t want that kind of bonding going on in a large state, for example. It would be quite threatening to the authorities of a centralised political system to have lots of little groups that are essentially highly bonded and when threatened there is a risk that they will become dangerous. And indeed that seems to be the case in many countries divided by civil war.

Daniel Mullins: What kinds of data are we collecting on rituals in Seshat?

Harvey Whitehouse: So in Seshat we are coding for five different kinds of rituals essentially. For each polity or political system coded for in the database we are looking for the largest scale rituals, in other words the ones that attract the largest numbers of participants in a single location. We are looking for the most widely distributed. That is to say the rituals that are performed by the greatest number in the polity as a whole. We are looking for the most frequent rituals. That is to say the ones that are performed on the most regular basis, daily for example or weekly. And we are looking for the most euphoric—the ones that are most enjoyable and exciting and pleasurable for participants. And finally we are looking for the most dysphoric. In other words the most painful or frightening for those who take part. And we think that all these different kinds of rituals contribute to social cohesion in different ways. That’s an empirical question. Something that Seshat can help us do is understand how over many millennia rituals have evolved to meet the changing needs of societies on different scales and with different levels of social complexity and internal sort of morphological structure.


Notes for Editors: 

  • For further information contact Jill Levine via email jlevine@evolution-institute.org or see harveywhitehouse.com
  • Seshat: Global History Databank is a large, international, multidisciplinary team of evolutionary scientists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, economists, and other social scientists. Our team includes scholars from various backgrounds, policy makers, and enthusiastic volunteers. Seshat is governed by an editorial board, who oversee work done by postdoctoral researchers, collaborators and consultants, and research assistants all over the world.
  • Cite this page: “Harvey Whitehouse explains how rituals make groups of individuals stick together. http://seshatdatabank.info/rituals-and-society/

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