Will Rituals Return?

Many social trends seem to have lasted for centuries. Some of these plausibly result from the high spatial densities, task specialization, and work coordination needed by industry production methods. Other industry-era trends plausibly result from increasing wealth weakening the fear that made us farmers, so that we revert to forager ways.

An especially interesting industry-era trend is the great fall in overt rituals – we industry folks have far fewer overt rituals than did foragers or farmers. From Randall Collins’ Interaction Ritual Chains:

Only around the nineteenth century, when mansions were build with separate entrance corridors, instead of one room connecting to the next) and back stairways for servants, did the fully private peerless introvert become common. … Until the beginning of the nineteenth century where is no distinctive ideology of intellectuals as withdrawn and at odds with the world. … The marketing of cultural products … put a premium on innovativeness, forcing periodic changes in fashion, and concentrating a new level of attention on the distinctive personality of the writer, musician, or artist. … The political ideology of individual freedom – which arose in a movement concerned largely to break into the aristocratic monopoly on power rather than to withdraw from it – was often blended with the ideology of the freelance writer, musician, or artist. … Alienation, rebellion, glorification of the inward, autonomous self, an oppositional self taking dominant society as its foil – this has become part of intellectual discourse. …

The daily and annual rounds of activity in premodern societies were permeated with rituals that we would easily recognize as such by their formality; living in a patrimonial household in a medieval community (not to mention living in a tribal society) would have been something like what our lives would be if Christmas or Thanksgiving happened several times a month, along with many lessor ceremonies that punctuated every day. … Modern life has its points of focused attention and emotional entrainment largely were we choose to make them, and largely in informal rituals, that it takes a sociologist to point out that they are indeed rituals. (pp. 362-368)

We can plausibly attribute our industry-era loss of rituals to many factors. Increasing wealth has given us more spatial privacy. Innovation has become increasingly important, and density and wealth are high enough to support fashion cycles, all of which raise the status of people with unusual behavior. These encourage us to signal our increasing wealth with more product and behavioral variety, instead of with more stuff. With increasing wealth our values have consistently moved away from conformity and tradition and toward self-direction and tolerance. Also, more forager-like egalitarianism has made us less ok with the explicit class distinctions that supported many farmer-era rituals. And our suppression of family clans has also suppressed many related rituals.

These factors seem likely to continue while per-capita wealth continues to increase. In that case overt ritual is likely to continue to decline. But there is no guaranteed that wealth will always increase. If we find ways (as with ems) to increase the population faster than we can increase wealth, wealth per person will fall. And if wealth falls, we may well see a revival of overt ritual.

I can’t think of a historical novel that makes clear not only how common was ritual and conformity in farmer or forager societies, but how well that comforted and satisfied people. Nor can I think of science fiction stories portraying a future full of beloved ritual. Or any stories that show how lonely and disconnected we modern folks often feel because we lack the rituals that gave deep meaning to so many humans before us. We tend to love novels that celebrate the values we hold dear, but that can blind us to seeing how others held different values dear.

Perhaps the closest examples are war stories, where soldiers find comfort in finding distinct roles and statuses that relate them to each other, and where they act out regular intense synchronized actions that lead to their security and protection. But that is usually seen as applying only to the special case of war, rather than to life more generally.

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