The Glue that Binds

Posted on January 31, 2013 by

There are certain things I miss about my first scientific love, ecology. Mostly it is being able to travel to neat places, like the Yellowstone or the Kruger National Park in South Africa, to commune with neat animals there.


Bison in the Yellowstone National Park (photo by the author)

But on the whole I don’t regret divorcing ecology and becoming a social scientist. One of the perks of my new discipline is that I get to appreciate the “hidden side of things” much more.

To give an example, every other year or so, my university requires me to don funny clothes and participate in the graduation ceremony (naturally, these commencements happen every year, but we the faculty take turns attending them). Every time I am strong-armed by my department head into going to the graduation, I am reminded of how when I was a school kid in the Soviet Moscow, we were required to add our bodies to the welcoming crowds that supposedly spontaneously flocked to greet visiting dignitaries who traveled from the official airport of Vnukovo to the Kremlin (my school was close to the travel route, Lenin Avenue, which is why we were particularly prone to be called to do our duty). I remember that one of those dignitaries was Richard Nixon (in 1972, I think).


Lenin Avenue (image from

Actually, there was some refreshing honesty about these functions under the Soviet regime – everybody called participation in them as “voluntary-coerced” (seriously!). And the only cost was time, whereas when I attend UConn commencement, not only do I have to wear ridiculous and uncomfortable clothing, I even have to pay for it out of my own pocket.

Last time I participated in the commencement, however, it was an incredibly interesting experience. The proceedings were exactly the same, but in the interval since the previous graduation I met Harvey Whitehouse (who is, incidentally a big cheese in UK anthropology – as the Wikipedia describes him, “Professor Whitehouse holds a Statutory Chair in Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford and is a Professorial Fellow of Magdalen College”). Harvey’s passion is understanding human rituals, and he infected me with his fascination with this puzzling feature of human sociality (we also got a big research grant to study the role of rituals in the rise of complex human societies, so I had additional, weighty, reasons to be thinking about this topic).

In any case, as I was going through the last graduation ceremony at UConn, I started to apply Harvey’s theories to the experience, and it suddenly began making an awful kind of sense! Graduation is clearly a ritual. But what is ritual, in general terms?

The Wikipedia gives the following definition: “A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value.” Fine as it goes, but I like the definition given by Harvey and his colleague Quentin Atkinson better. They defined a ritual as “any conventional action sequence performed by two or more individuals where the physical–causal function of the act is underspecified or opaque.”

This definition is pretty opaque in its own right (the joys of scientific prose!), but it can be put in much simpler words. A ritual is something that takes place at two levels. There are surface reasons why people do it, but much more important is the deeper, concealed layer, “the hidden side of things” to which I referred in the beginning of the post.

Consider a ritual such as Mardi Gras, in which I participated on numerous occasions when I lived in Louisiana. It’s a lot of fun – parades, music, dancing, feasting, drinking to excess, and (reportedly) wild sex!

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras in New Orleans (image from

In the anthropologist jargon, this is a “euphoric” ritual. Such rituals are extremely common in human societies, they could even be a universal feature (well, there are exceptions, such as Jean Calvin’s Geneva, but they don’t last long). The reason people take part in such euphoric rituals is because it’s fun. But there is also a much more important – hidden – reason, about which the participants don’t have any inklings. Such rituals make people feel connected to each other. They provide a quintessential psychological glue that binds a community together, and makes it much more capable of collective action. And, naturally, communities that are socially cohesive will be much more likely to survive in the competition against other, less cohesive groups.

This logic of cultural group selection is even clearer when we consider the opposite kind of ritual, which Harvey and other anthropologists call ‘dysphoric’, involving painful, frightening, disgusting, or humiliating features. It’s easy enough to understand why people flock to a Mardi Gras celebration, but why is hazing in the military or fraternities so prevalent and difficult to eradicate? Why do initiates agree to undergo painful, degrading, and even life-risking ordeals?


Masonic initiation ritual

It turns out that the answer, when we look not for a proximate, surface explanation, but for an ultimate, deep and evolutionary one, is the same. Shared experience in dysphoric rituals results in incredibly strong ties binding the group into one cohesive whole. This is why the military puts recruits through the boot camps. Unit cohesion and willingness to sacrifice one’s life for buddies makes for an army that will fight effectively and defeat its less cohesive opponents.

This means that rituals are not simply actions performed for their ‘symbolic value.’ Rather, rituals are psychological devices for building up social cohesion. On the surface, a ritual could be fun, or alternatively, an harrowing ordeal, but at the deeper level they all serve the same function – making groups more internally cohesive so they can more effectively compete against other groups.

It was an amusing exercise to see how this theory gets implemented in the UConn commencement. The graduation ceremony has some euphoric and (mainly) dysphoric elements, both very mild, naturally enough. The (very mildly) euphoric part was the procession – it’s quite remarkable how we humans enjoy moving synchronously with others (more on this in a wonderful book by William McNeill, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History).


UConn Commencement

The dysphoric parts were sitting on uncomfortable chairs and having to endure the platitudes uttered by the commencement speaker. The humiliation part was parading in medieval attire and, especially, wearing the utterly ridiculous mortar hat. (I noted that our university president was particularly embarrassed about the hat thing – and his was the beret-type, which is more comfortable than the mortar board. Nevertheless, he took it off and hid it under the podium as soon as he got the opportunity to do so).


UConn President Austin in a funny hat (source)


UConn President Austin sans hat (source)

I am not saying that this particular ritual was a very effective way to build cohesion on the part of faculty, or the university as a whole. People who imposed it on us were as clueless about the hidden side of things as the participants of last year’s graduation – they simply copied it from other universities, who got it from medieval colleges when cohesion was really important for survival. So this raises an interesting possibility that rituals may start as devices important for cultural group selection, but later lose their evolutionary function and persist in a kind of cultural inertia. Whatever the conclusion, the anthropological theory of rituals allows us to look at why we do things from a new perspective.

Incidentally, human rituals, and our research on their role in the rise of complex societies, have recently become quite a hot topic. See, for example, a recent Nature article and Harvey’s piece in the Aeon magazine.

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