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 … Until the beginning of the nineteenth century where is no distinctive ideology of intellectuals as withdrawn and at odds with the world.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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  • J

    Military, religion and sports seem to be the last holdouts of ritual and structured communal activity. Which means we miss out if we’re not into killing, God or chasing a ball around.

    • Ronfar

      Graduation ceremonies are 100% ritual…

      • lambdaphage

        I think it was David Graeber who once noted that the academy, the British monarchy and the Catholic Church were the only three institutions to emerge from the medieval period more or less intact.

  • lump1

    In his book “Religion for Atheists” Alain de Botton has a pretty interesting list of rituals that he thinks would help us get on better with modern life. His suggestions were inspired by various religions, but he argues that even though all religions are false, they developed some rituals that are well attuned to human nature, and we should look for ways to import them into our secular lives.

    It sounds like Collins is saying that rituals are necessarily conformist, and that they are doomed in an era where appearing (and being) out-of-the-box is correlated with status and success. He’s basically connecting rituals with drudgery. But thinking back to some of de Botton’s suggestions made me wonder whether ritual and cognitive novelty are really such enemies. After all, the point of many of our best rituals is to get us *out of* certain cognitive ruts, to force us to take a new perspective on various issues. Creative types like writers and painters often follow elaborate private rituals – like Kant’s clockwork walks, various association games, regular meals/drinks/meetings with intellectual peers, etc. Maybe we shouldn’t just lump all rituals together. The content might matter. There are certainly creativity-extinguishing rituals, but there may also be creativity-awakening rituals, and they simply haven’t had enough time to take root, since the era of novelty is still rather new.


    Robin, I think you’ll find plenty of ritualized advanced civilizations in scifi if you look beyond human civilizations (the aliens are usually metaphors for humans anyway). The common theme seems to be that these civilizations are so advanced that they no longer invent new technologies and philosophies that greatly impact daily life (which doesn’t mean they’re completely stagnant, just that new inventions aren’t really revolutionary). Something like that could plausibly happen to a future, united mankind as well. Of course the rituals will be far more like forager rituals than farmer rituals, probably voluntary and bound to individualistic religion and milestones in life (such as birthdays and coming of age, in a more immersive way than a high school graduation). The purpose of these rituals will indeed be to find some meaning in life, just as it was for foragers.

    P.S. to be fair we do have some rituals that are still common: birthdays, sports games, and the weekend and in some ways psychiatry is a ritualized way to deal with people who are different. It’s tempting to point out visits to churches, mosques, temples, etc… but organized religion is a farmer era artifact on the way out.

  • Daublin

    Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is one counter-example. It involves monestaries of nerd-dom, especially for mathematics.

    • I wonder also whether ems, essentially immortal, would fear death, which seems to be the primary fear underlying ritual.

      • IMASBA

        They migh fear death even more than humans because dying takes away more of their life expectancy. Imagine EM life expectancy is 4000 years and then dying in an accident after 40 years, that’s 3960 years of life lost, even as a percentage that’s higher than any adult human could lose if he died tomorrow.

      • Ems wouldn’t be backed up?

      • IMASBA

        Even if they would view backup copies as “themselves” it’s only a matter of time before the backup gets destroyed too (accident or act of violence). Not to mention problems with finite storage space for memories.


    The TV show “Vikings” is a historic drama that centers around traditions and rituals, but yes, that is rather exceptional, although the Bible is historic fiction that also centers heavily around traditions and rituals. The memory of the farmer age and its many horrors has probably tained the terms “ritual” and “tradition” for Western audiences up to the point where we don’t remember the positive aspects they had (especially in the forager era). But this is not true everywhere on the planet: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are hyper-advanced cultures that maintain traditions and rituals (such as buddhism, muism and shinto) that aren’t specifically tied to the farmer age and thus have a chance of surviving for centuries to come.

    In scifi there are the Klingons (space vikings after all) and Vulcans from Star Trek, the Minbari from Babylon 5, the Imperium from Warhammer 40k, the Imperium from Dune, the Nox from Stargate.

  • Cambias

    There are also plenty of rituals we just don’t call rituals because we pretend there is a completely pragmatic, non-ritual reason for doing them. Examples:

    Political Demonstrations: These have minimal effect on changing the minds of politicians and voters, but they are profound emotional experiences for the demonstrators. To gather in a group, chanting, dressing distinctively, and feeling an intense bond with the others (and hatred of the Other Side) — what is that but a religious rite?

    Rock Concerts: Music, psychoactive substances, sensory distortion, a charismatic individual in charge, group singing and ecstatic dancing — an ancient Mystery cult or medieval Sufi would feel right at home at this ritual.

    Moviegoing: In an era of big flat-screen TVs and movies on demand, there is no reason for cinemas to exist, but they do. You gather with others in a special place, eat special food (where else do you get popcorn?), there are familiar stages as you sit through the trailers, the no-smoking and turn-off-your-phone announcements, and then the show begins which will send you on an emotional experience.

    We have a need for ritual and what one might call religious behavior, and when religion stops meeting those needs, politics and entertainment step in to fill the void.

    • Yes lots that we do can be seen as ritual. But still our behavior is less ritualized that was our ancestors’.

      • unpleasantfacts

        This can all be explained by a world that changes more often than it did in the past if we assume that it takes some time for rituals to become established and that rituals are destroyed by change. (Also, there are more non-ritual entertainment options in a wealthier society)

  • jhertzli

    An SF story featuring a ritualized society: “Jungle substitute” by Brian W. Aldiss

  • brendan_r

    And I’m back talking about Sam Walton again, this time on rituals.

    “Walton had visited a tennis ball factory in Korea where the employees did calisthenics and a company cheer together, Walton liked the idea so much he encouraged his employees to do the same.

    “My feeling is that just because we work so hard, we don’t have to go around with long faces all the time — while we’re doing all of this work, we like to have a good time. It’s sort of a ‘whistle while you work’ philosophy, and we not only have a heck of a good time with it, we work better because of it,” Walton said, according to the company.”

    Wal-Mart had farmer values, at least in it’s early days, and in its core territory.

    In terms of the ease of managing big orgs, it seems as if info tech is making things easier as cultural changes simultaneously make them harder. I’m guessing the Wal-Mart cheer goes over better in 1980 Arkansas than 2014 Baltimore.

  • You hypothesize that industry-era folks are less ritualized and increasingly revert to forager ways because of decreased fear levels. Then, foragers should be less ritualized than (early) farmers, your claim being that fear peaked at the transition to agriculture.

    [The idea (as I understand it) is that rituals serve to allay fear.]

    • Marvin VanArsdale

      They also serve to build and maintain social bonds.

  • Lord

    We have more privacy but we probably need it due to high densities. While there was limited privacy in homes and towns, nature was never farther away than a walk.

  • Marvin VanArsdale

    Almost every libertarian I have encountered, while not always hostile to ritual, is not someone who generally derives pleasure from ritual. Even things like attending their own graduations, music concerts and live sporting events.
    That probably coincides week with the lack of political cohesion libertarians have.

    • Robert Koslover

      Well yes, unfortunately it is difficult for people to unite in powerful collective expressions of devotion to individualism. Hence the rarity of free societies. Enjoy your individual liberty while it lasts. http://www.bartleby.com/73/1593.html

      • The premise that individualism is difficult to express collectively doesn’t imply that individualists have no affinity for ritual, for they need not celebrate individualism itself; for example, they might celebrate the market (or some such).

        No, I don’t think you’ve explained this libertarian peculiarity that suggests libertarianism appeals to a narrow personality type.

        This is at least a weak clue that libertarians favor ‘liberty’ because of their peculiar temperament.

  • polymathwannabe
  • Philip Goetz

    “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.” — Publishers suppress novels that celebrate different values. They think people won’t like them. They’re probably right, but it’s seldom clear whether editorial wisdom is true or shibboleths.

  • As you say, wealth only decreased ritual indirectly, by enabling introverts. If wealth declines in an em scenario, so what? What could be more individuating than total virtual reality.

    • IMASBA

      The relation shows hysteresis. Increasing wealth decreases ritual, but whether decreasing wealth causes ritual to increase depends on what happened in the past. Simply put the toothpaste of individuality cannot be put back into the tube. If wealth declines in the future people won’t just quickly forget about atheistic and individualistic arguments, rituals will increase but they’ll be more voluntary and less plentiful than they would have been if the renaissance, enlightenment and industrial revolution had not happened in between the two points in time with low levels of wealth.

      • If wealth declines in the future people won’t just quickly forget about atheistic and individualistic arguments

        But the question isn’t whether they’ll quickly forget but whether they’ll do so eventually.

      • IMASBA

        I doubt it. as long as some marginal information infrastructure remains (literacy, and a number of skilled professionals to keep technology going, probably to many to draw them only from a tiny aristocracy and even if they were all drawn from an aristocracy ritual would be kept down because the masses would want to emulate the ways of the aristocracy).

      • Trimegistus

        More voluntary?

        Think about Party rallies in North Korea, or even China. Your absence or lack of enthusiasm will be noted, comrade, so you’d better participate.

        Decreasing wealth tends to be empowering for psychopaths with guns, and some of them like to see people participating in rituals.

  • Philon

    “. . . how lonely and disconnected we modern folks often feel because we lack the rituals that gave deep meaning to so many humans before us.” “Deep meaning?” I can see how following lots of rituals would make people feel *comfortable*, but where’s the *meaning*?

    • Where is the meaning in anything? Really, farmer folks got as much or more meaning from their rituals as you ever get from anything.

      • Philon

        “Where is the meaning in anything?” Are you asking for a definition of the word ‘meaning’? How about this: an action is meaningful to the extent that it produces good or avoids bad? Perhaps comfort is a good and discomfort a bad (if comfort is the good and discomfort the bad relevant to ritual), but they seem relatively small potatoes. Perhaps rituals produce social solidarity and avoid social conflict–more important upshots, though, of course, rituals sometimes work contrariwise. And rituals tend to have significant opportunity costs.
        By the way, I never claimed to get a lot of meaning in my own life.

      • IMASBA

        It’s about “the meaning of life” really. Or why you should bother to get out of bed in the morning, rituals help us feel like some things give meaning to our lives. The goal is not to achieve “good” things, the goal is to elicit emotions that enable us to draw a (for humans) satisfactory division between what we find “good” in the first place and what we do not.

        In essence it goes like this. “Social cohesion/solidarity is good.” Why? “because it makes life more pleasant and longer.” Why is that a good thing? “Because of the joie de vivre we get from feeling like pleasant experiences and life itself have meaning (rituals help with that).”

      • By the way, I never claimed to get a lot of meaning in my own life.

        Do you really mean to say that you do little “to produce good or avoid bad”?

      • Philon

        Well, what is to count as “a lot” or “little”? I think my life is less meaningful that those of Barack Obama, LeBron James, Bill Gates, (fictionally) the hero of a typical novel, and many other figures of whom I am aware. I suspect I am at the median for meaningfulness, well below the average. How about you?

        (I was pushed into autobiography only by Robin Hanson’s reply.)

  • kibitzer9

    Nice post…so true.

    Formal balls and dances — as described in Jane Austen (eg Pride and Prejudice) and Tolstoy (plenty in War and Peace) — had some quite rigid rules of behaviour. There was a fixed number of scheduled dances, and each woman had a dance card, and people would book dances with each other by writing them on the card.
    In some circles in the UK, this still happened as late as the sixties, but it then completely disappeared.

    It’s a pity, because this system offered a lot of social structure and a place for everyone (everyone who was invited, that is). The host would take care to invite approximately equal numbers of men and women, and it was rude not to dance, so by the pigeonhole principle, everyone got some dances (of course, possibly not with who they wanted). As a man, it was polite to at least ask your hostess to dance…
    There were conventions about how to dance – you were supposed to know certain steps.
    People of all ages and generations were present.
    There were rules about who you should talk to, and who could address whom first.
    You were supposed to mix and talk with a number of people. Couples were not supposed to stay together for the entire evening.

    Why did these occasions disappear? I don’t know. All the rules seemed stuffy and boring, and it didn’t fit with the 60s ‘class free’ society..
    But we’ve all been to unstructured parties where people don’t know how to mix, nobody knows how to do any dance well, everyone is clumsily negotiating vague social conventions so that nobody knows quite what to do…

    Which system was better? I really don’t know 🙂