Researchers at Oxford hope to provide the first steps towards harnessing a powerful medium: the ritual. Ritual binds groups together, and,

…for [lead researcher] Whitehouse, understanding the ways that rituals shape group behaviour is the first step towards finding out how they can be harnessed to dampen down conflict between groups. He hopes that such insights could help policy-makers to “establish new forms of peaceful cooperation, as well as bringing down dictators”. [1]

The problem: Groups are inevitably bound together around a common ideal. And, as with any medium, or conduit of information, it is the content of the information – the ideal – that is of utmost importance. As anthropologist Paul Hiebert argues:

“…rituals are nondiscursive. They speak of the transcendent – of our deepest beliefs, feelings, and values – which cannot be reduced to words. They point to mystery, root myths and metaphors, and fundamental allegiances, and express our deepest emotions and moral order” (Hiebert, 2008, p. 322).

That is, even if one harnesses the medium, what shall be the message? Who decides the metaphors and the meaning behind them? And if the medium is as powerful as it seems to be, who is responsible enough to shoulder that much power?

The project itself is fascinating, however, in that its insights should shed light on how to address the violence of war, terrorism, and genocide. Furthermore, while it is no great surprise that ritual binds people together in shared experience (whether by low-frequency and intense ‘imagistic’ ritual or relative benign but frequent ‘doctrinal’ ritual), it is the first project of its kind to collect data on such a massive scale; 60 ancient archaeological sites across the Middle East as well as current events (such as the recent uprising in Libya)  are under observation for clues into how ritual has driven social change, community, and conflict.

As suggested above, researchers distinguish between two types of rituals: ‘doctrinal mode’ and ‘imagistic mode’. While the imagistic mode of ritual is still alive and well and manifest in modern society (such as some college fraternity initiations), Whitehouse, in a podcast, considers that in general,

“…these low frequency emotionally intense rituals in large complex societies, have been fairly systematically eliminated because they present a threat to power holders in large societies. They still survive, they’ve often been relegated to particular roles for instance in the military. So we find, um, particularly intense low-frequency forms of hazing and initiation in military institutions for example where group cohesion is particularly important; you want your fellow fighters to stand by you on the battle field.” [2: 16min 10sec]

The issue I take is that the other kind of ritual, the doctrinal mode, are mostly visible, unless one is living within those rituals. Prayers, going to the Mosque, they are all very manifest, easy to identify, for a third-party observer. If you’re in the military, or a member of a church or a mosque, depending on how long you’ve been part of the group, it is unlikely that you’ll even notice those acts which are deemed ‘rituals’. They are invisible. Part of every day life. Part of being human.

They are invisible, just as rituals such as shopping are to a secular member of modern society.

That is to say, I do not for a moment consider it possible to drop ‘traditional’ forms of doctrinal mode rituals and not in some way take on new forms. Rituals form our deep affective understanding of the world, whether we are cognizant of them or not. And, while secularism suggests the elimination of many doctrinal mode rituals in modern large scale societies, I argue that they have not simply been eliminated, but replaced with something more appealing, especially to power holders.

Take post-war US society for example. Imagistic mode ritual, in the form of protest and civil unrest, was threatening to topple power and stability. What the brilliant public relations genius Edward Bernays succeeded in doing was to introduce mass ritual in the form of consumption [3], which succeeded in placating a nation, through the dissemination of a new ideal, a new affective metaphor that is consumerism. We all know, however, that consumption in its current form, and as a blind ritual, is unhealthy for us and our planet.

The point I want to make here, is, regardless of the medium through which they are shared, root metaphors and myths and moral orders, all of which operate at the affective, nondiscursive level of group processes, these are the levels at which conflict occurs.

Simply identifying the mechanisms by which a medium operates will not answer the more fundamental question of “whose truth shall be communicated?”

In any case, I look forward to reading more insights as the research progresses; they have funding until 2016. More info on the project here:

Here is a piece written by Whitehouse, referring to the project:

Here’s another (veryshort) reflection on the Nature article, here. Also here and here (much longer).


Hiebert, P. G. (2008). Transforming Worldviews: An anthropological understanding of how people change. Baker Academic (Grand Rapids, MI).

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