Tag Archives: Ritual

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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Farmers’ New Rituals

A theory of ritual says the calm bookish kinds of rituals we are most familiar with started with farming; forager rituals were much more intense. There seems to be lots of supporting data:

Whitehouse believes rituals are always about building community — which arguably makes them central to understanding how civilization itself began. … Whitehouse’s theory [is] 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’. “Traumatic rituals create strong bonds among those who experience them together,” he says, which makes them especially suited to creating small, intensely committed groups such as cults, military platoons or terrorist cells. “With the imagistic mode, we never find groups of the same kind of scale, uniformity, centralization or hierarchical structure that typifies the doctrinal mode,” he says. … Continue reading "Farmers’ New Rituals" »

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