Ritual Questions

I just attended a university convocation (i.e., graduation ceremony), and noticed that people are comforted by its detailed ritual, with its specific standard dress, music, motions, and words. Which leads me to wonder: why don’t we have more rituals?  Why don’t we have as many as we used to? Most rituals we have seem to be left over from long ago: weddings, funerals, graduations, awards. But since rituals aren’t that expensive to create, why not just make more of them?

Workplaces have very few rituals it seems to me. An old-school workplace ritual we no longer use much is creating an insulting nickname for new workers. Being given such a nickname was an indication that you had been accepted by the group. Why don’t we do that anymore?

At that ceremony they announced dozens of particular awards that particular students had won. While the audience is supposed to be impressed by the fact that students had won prizes, I’ll bet there is no web page where I could find stats on the track record of previous award winners. Even if they posted winner names, it would take lots of research to find what had become of them later.  Surely no one in the audience had done that work, or had ever heard from anyone who had heard from anyone who had done such work. Winners will no doubt put these awards on their resumes, and resume readers are supposed to be impressed by such awards merely because the university chose to announce them at a ceremony. No other evidence than this mere fact will ever be presented.

Consider, in contrast, how high we set the standards for acceptable standardized tests, such as IQ tests. Unless someone can prove such tests aren’t biased toward the rich, etc. they are considered unacceptable. Why such a double standard?  Is this just another way we show our deference to arbitrary authority?

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  • What keeps rituals from disappearing? I can think of very few that aren’t attached to a religion / civil equivalent of religion / or something like it.

    But maybe this situation is specific to modern times, and everything changes too fast for rituals to develop, and very likely in more stable eras there were more unattached rituals.

  • Buck Farmer

    Rituals: physical mobility and job mobility (modern global market-mediated society in general) reduce the rewards to signalling group solidarity. See anthropological work on traditional exchange types: communal, authoritarian, reciprocal gift. We are nor wired for arms-length trade and have been dealing with it since.

    Awards versus IQ: these awards are an incredibly weak and ambiguous signal because IQ tests are seen as more objective (difficult to manipulate) and perhaps more accurate?

    Are people more concerned about objectivity than accuracy?

  • I’ve listened to hundreds of voicemail greetings. Almost all act as though I need instructions. Every game of Starcraft begins with the players typing “gl hf” and ends with the loser typing “gg,” even if it wasn’t.

    Then again, these don’t seem to be the same as the rituals you listed above. They don’t give social cohesion or a connection with the past, just a new social norm. Perhaps society’s innovators’ care less about social cohesion.

  • Rituals are a way for us to come to terms with our own mortality by creating a sense of historical continuity between past, present and future. Creating new rituals is far more difficult than destroying existing ones. Rituals are appealing precisely because they are old, that mitigates in just making up new ones from scratch.

  • Alex Flint

    An interesting analogy is martial arts, which has many rituals including special clothing, colored belts to advertise rankings, short ceremonies before and after lessons, frequent ritualised bowing, certain commands spoken in a foreign language, etc.

    I like these rituals and I think that many aspects of them are genuinely constructive for learning. I see no reason that these can’t be adapted (at least in part) to other types of education such as the school room, music lessons, or language lessons.

  • James Rauen

    Some firms and industries do maintain rituals and traditions. a few examples: Promotions at a professional firm (law, consulting) are often accompanied by ceremonial announcements, dinners and celebrations. Some companies initiate new recruits with multiday offsite training sessions that include a ceremonial induction into the company’s traditions. The preparation for and delivery of quarterly Board of Directors updates and annual shareholder meetings and earnings calls at public companies have their own choreography and ritual.

    There are more frequent rituals as well. Investment firms may begin the day with an all-hands conference call to hear the day’s market view from the head office. Software development teams using “agile” processes create a number of daily/weekly/biweekly rituals. On daily basis at my company, software code reviews have a ritualistic aspect to them, each one formally blessed at the end with our own version of “Amen”.

  • You want rituals? Come to China! I’ve been here on business (working for a Chinese company) five times in the last year, and it’s one ritual after another.

  • Jay and Tomasz, but why must rituals be old to function? Most folks involved with most rituals have little idea how old they are.

    James and Geoff, the fact that some places and firms do have many rituals makes the question of why others have few all the more puzzling.

    • Sticky

      The problem isn’t with most folks who practice the ritual, but the first few to practice it. Ritual practices tend to be inherently silly (or boring, or both), with the silliness obscured by solemnity and age. The trouble is getting over that hurdle with the first people, who are aware of the fact that they didn’t used to do this stuff. Three ways come to mind: 1) get people are are okay with being silly, 2) pretend to be re-introducing an old ritual which fell out of practice, or 3) gradually ritualize originally non-ritual behavior.

  • Geoff Arnold: Or is it just that, as a foreigner, you notice the rituals more?

    I would say that American culture is awash with rituals about as much as any other. It’s just that a huge amount of our shared culture is in the realm of telecommunication, maybe more so than for other cultures. (Two examples are in Daniel M’s post above.)

    The narratives of TV shows and movies involve numerous rituals that we call “tropes”. Their audiences also partake in many rituals (why is popcorn the movie food?).

    • It makes people want to buy a drink, and soft-drinks have extremely high profit margins. Popcorn itself also has high profit margins (tiny seeds puff up to fill a large bag).

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Why such a double standard? Is this just another way we show our deference to arbitrary authority?

    Rewarding winners versus punishing losers? Having some impressive graduates showered with extra awards doesn’t make the rest feel markedly inferior. I notice that they don’t give “anti-awards”; from the persepctive of defering to arbitrary authority, it would be just as effective to have a dozen “worst students in the whole graduating class” awards, and hand them out with great ceremony.

    The way things traditionally go, the winners get to feel extra special (and will remember the prize) while those who don’t get any award form the amorphous majority mass, and so don’t feel very put upon (and will forget the awards pretty quickly).

    In contrast, IQ tests put everyone on a (very fine) firm hierarchy. If we are to enjoy the position that the IQ test gives us, we also have to accept that those who score higher than us are better by the same standard. On top of that, IQ scores last, while prizes fade. Much easier, and less stressful to simply find an excuse to reject IQ as valid at all. A weak, unclear hierachy of ability is preferred to a definite and certain one.

  • I noticed this when I was visiting tourist sites a week ago, that tourists like following rituals, like taking off your shoes or entering the temple through a specific door, even if the culture that created them died out hundreds of years ago. Sites that aren’t attracting many tourists would probably do well to create fake ones.

  • Why don’t we have as many as we used to?

    I have always thought that they are giving way because we are bored by them because we are accustomed to better entertainment.

  • The Halloween of the last roughly 20 years is new. It used to be mostly for kids, and they’d dress up like scary monsters or fairies, with only a small handful of stock roles to play. It was for fun.

    Now it belongs to adults, and they dress up in their own costumes whose uniqueness and irony is the major point of status competition that night. Not fun but nerve-wracking — in fact it’s the only ritual where males as well as females worry themselves to death whether or not someone else will show up wearing the same thing they are, or even a costume that’s close enough. “All those weeks planning my ironic uniqueness wasted!”

    Going to night clubs has become a totally different ritual during the same time period. People used to go to lose their self-consciousness and inhibitions, to cut loose on the dance floor, and to get laid by the end of the night. Now they go to stand around with minimal effort spent in chasing the other sex, while posing for imagined or real cameras the whole time.

    And then there are all those dorky fan conventions — Star Trek, Star Wars, anime, video games, comic books, Mystery Science Theater, etc. That’s an outgrowth of the past 20 years as well — people actually had a life before then.

  • mike shupp

    Agnostic —

    Science fiction fan conventions go back to the 1930’s. Star Trek and comic book and mystery conventions go back to the 1970’s. Rodeos and country fairs go back to the 19th century — properly considered, perhaps back to medieval times.

    Our ancestors lacked lives.