Rituals Understood?

Tyler linked to this excellent blog post, which summarizes an apparently even more excellent book, Randall Collins’ Interaction Ritual Chains from 2004 (chapter 1 here), which I’ve just ordered and plan to read with relish:

Collins starts with the idea of a situation of co-presence, or really any physical gathering. A situation of that sort turns into a ritual when those physically present focus their attention on specific people, objects, or symbols, and are thereby constituted as a distinct group with more or less clear boundaries. Collins stresses that he wants us to see ritual “almost everywhere.” …

A ritual, for Collins, is basically an amplifier of emotion. … A successful ritual generates and amplifies motivating emotions. … Perhaps Collins’ most controversial claim is the idea that we are basically emotional energy “seekers”: much of our social activity can be understood as a largely unconscious “flow” along the gradient of maximal emotional energy charge for us, given our particular material resources and positions within the … set of ritual situations available to us. Our primary “motivation” is the search for motivation. … Motivation is simply a result of emotional amplification in ritual situations. …

Rituals charge symbols, objects, and persons with value (or, in the case of unsuccessful rituals, drain them of value) that then circulate in other rituals (in “chains” of interaction rituals) and in “private” settings (in secondary rituals). … Once an object or an idea is “charged” by rituals, it can serve to temporarily reinforce the identities of group members and motivate them to act in accordance with what they take to be the group’s values, even when the group is not gathered together. …

Ritual is prior to belief: belief “in” a cause, or a leader, or a god, or anything of the sort is primarily attachment to particular symbols of group membership that have been charged with value by powerful rituals, and should tend to decay in the absence of rituals “recharging” these symbols. Collins suggests that a week is a good estimate of the half-life of the emotional charge of most symbols; hence the weekly services of churches or the weekly frequency of many intimate rituals. …

How do successful rituals manage to amplify emotion and produce sacred objects and symbols? … Emotional charge or motivational energy is built up from entrainment: the micro-coordination of gesture, voice, and attention in rhythmic activity, down to tiny fractions of a second. Think of how in an engrossing conversation the partners are wholly attuned to one another, laughing and exhibiting emotional reactions simultaneously, keeping eye contact, taking turns at precisely the right moments, mirroring each other’s reactions; or how a sports event, a sermon, or a concert produces emotional energy through the rhythmic synchronization of the fans or congregants in call and response, or simply in dance. Or consider sexual acts, to which Collins devotes a long and very interesting chapter. (more)

This is close to the sort of model I was playing with while puzzling over rituals recently, and has been very thought-provoking to me over the last few days – this really does offer a lot of insight from simple and plausible assumptions.

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  • arch1

    Thanks this does seem intriguing.

    At first blush this model seems to slight that significant fraction of the population who are introverted.

    Also the estimate of a week for the half life of emotional charge seems implausible to me; it would seem to imply, for example, that churchgoers’ adherence to the tenets of their faith would disappear after two months with no rituals.

    • Ilya Shpitser

      If you assume this model, then introverts would seek “charge/motivation” also, it’s just that their rituals would be different.

      • arch1

        Thanks Ilya. To expand a bit on my comment, it has been observed (and I think even offered up as a defining property) that introverts are drained by social interaction while extroverts are energized by it (of course intro/extroversion can be situational).

        To the apparently considerable extent that Collins’s rituals involve social interaction, this suggests that his framework may not be as applicable to introverts as to extroverts.

        I realize this is a superficial reaction. Perhaps the full version of Collins’s framework even provides some explanation for individual differences along the introversion/extroversion spectrum, rather than just labeling some rituals as unsuccessful and others as successful. That would be very interesting.

  • lemmycaution

    that book looks interesting. you should post an update when you have finished reading it.

  • Muga Sofer

    Gotta say, all my heuristics are screaming “loosely-worded humanities BS theory”. This wouldn’t look out of place in the Golden Bough, but on OB?

  • Noumenon72

    I like how Collins writes about the very basic stuff of humanity. As with his earlier book Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory, these are interactions we all have but few of us understand. I expect to find perspectives in this book that I’ll think about nearly every day.

  • Stephen Diamond

    a lot of insight from simple and plausible assumptions

    How plausible is the theory that ritual events rather than agents are the basic natural kinds for sociology? Why would humans evolve dependence on ritual for energy and motivation? Is Collins a group selectionist?

  • Osuniev

    Agreed with Muga. Is there any basis to this claim other than it sounds like a nice and unusual theory ?