Theory of Ritualized Behavior

In my anthropology of religion course, we are now looking at ritual. While preparing for class, I reviewed a recent synopsis of ritual theory which is so good that I have decided to post the entire segment. Many thanks to Sheila Coulson, Sigrid Staurset, and Nick Walker for the following, which comes from their 2011 Paleo Anthropology article, “Ritualized Behavior in the Middle Stone Age: Evidence from Rhino Cave, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana”:

Although the fundamental question of why humans invest time and resources in performing rituals remains unanswered (e.g., Rappaport 1971: 66; 1999), the recurrent components of ritualized behavior are well-known (e.g., Rappaport 1979: 173–246; Rappaport 1999; Sperber 1975). These include actions that become highly controlled and require sustained attention and focus (see Knight 1999: Table 12.1 for a summary of traits). The actions performed are not completely novel behaviors but frequently combine familiar elements and actions into novel sequences. These include a specific way of organizing the flow of behavior, characterized by the following: compulsion (one must perform a particular sequence), rigidity (it must be performed the way it was performed before, with no deviation from the remembered pattern), goal demotion (the actions are divorced from their usual goals), redundancy (the same actions are often repeated inside the ritual), and a restricted range of themes. Acts involving artifacts are noted as ready-to-hand candidates to fulfill various ritual functions, as their normal function can be readily transformed—a feature which is likely to be salient and attention-grabbing (Liénard and Lawson 2008: 167; Liénard and Sørensen in press).

A new and important component of ritual behavior is proposed through costly signalling theory (Irons 2001; for a summary see Sosis and Alcorta 2003: 266–268). This posits that ‘rituals are costly-to-fake signals that advertise an individual’s level of commitment’ (Sosis and Alcorta 2003: 267). To thwart ‘free-riders’ (e.g., Sosis 2003: 93) actions must be effortful and essential to the practices—they involve the surrendering of hard-won resources and frequently take time and energy away from other necessary pursuits. Importantly, these pursuits become costly through their role in communal ritual. As stated by Knight (1999: 229) ‘in ritual performance, reverse pressures apply, driving signallers to prolong, to repeat and to incur heavy costs.’ Ritual practices generate belief and belonging in participants by activating multiple social-psychological mechanisms that interactively create the characteristic outcomes of ritual (Durkheim 1961[1912]).

This encompasses an array of possible manifestations around three key constituent behaviors—assembly, attentional focus, and effortful action (also see Marshall 2002). Attentional focus, it is predicted, would include aspects such as spectacle, structure, and de-individuation (for example, through the ritual taking place in darkness). Darkness is a particularly common feature (Knight 1999: 230), and it is proposed that the smaller the number of people participating in the ritual, the more likely the use of darkness (Marshall 2002: 373). Products and paraphernalia of ritual, it is anticipated, will often be destroyed after use, an example of this is the monastic practice of weaving baskets only to immediately burn them (Marshall 2002: 376).

If ritual practices are sufficiently compelling or ‘natural’ (as defined by Liénard and Boyer 2006: 815) this will increase the likelihood of their being transmitted and repeated over time. It is anticipated that when ritual performance is successful, it generates a whole new cognitive domain—a virtual world discernible on another representational level from the currently perceptible or ‘real’ one (Durkheim 1961[1912]; Gellner 1992: 36–37; Knight 1999: 229; Turner 1970).

Recently, Watts (2009: 62) proposed that “collective ritual— with its formal characteristic of amplified, stereotypical, redundant display—might be expected to leave a loud archaeological signature.” This proposition was made in connection to the role of ochre use within early ritual and its connection to the Female Cosmetic Coalitions model (e.g., Knight 1999, 2009, 2010; Power 1999, 2009; Power and Aiello 1997; Watts 1999, 2002, 2009). In this model it is proposed that, from the Middle Pleistocene, practices occurred in response to reproductive and mate-control stresses experienced by females. The use of artificial pigment, particularly ground red ochre, is one possibility suggested for scrambling the obvious biological signal of imminent fertility. It is proposed that reproductive taboos were enacted through rituals involving body painting and dance (Power and Aiello 1997: 165). A further discussion of the merits of this theory is outside the range of this paper. However, one overarching aspect can be investigated further—the role of the color red within these proposed collective rituals. Obviously,
when replicating a ‘sham menstruation,’ as noted for the Female Cosmetic Coalitions model, the color range would be restricted. However, the role of color and a particular preference for hues of red has been noted in numerous studies (e.g., Barham 2002, 2005; Eriksen 2006; Hovers et al. 2003; Marshack 1981; McBrearty 2003; McBrearty and Stringer 2007; Morris 2005; Van Peer et al. 2004).

Pigment plays a central role in virtually all of these studies. A notable exception is the investigations on the Early Mesolithic of Southern Germany conducted by Eriksen (2006), where it is argued that categories of lithic artifacts were intentionally heated to alter the brightness of the color of the stone. In common with intentional heat treatment to improve the knapping properties of a stone, this also involved terminating the alteration process before the blank or tool was too damaged to be used. Eriksen (2006: 152) argues that a conscious choice of color could have acted as a cultural marker.

For those not familiar with the African Middle Stone Age site of Rhino Cave, this post provides some background.

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5 thoughts on “Theory of Ritualized Behavior

  1. Dominik Lukes

    Thanks this is a very useful review. But it seems to me to miss that behaviors are ritualized on a scale. So for example, modern US marriage rituals exhibit a rather significant amount of flexibility within a prescribed schema – while being still very resource intensive. But rituals like the oath of allegiance are very rigid but also very low cost.

    I would propose that linguistic, rather than cognitive, foundations are better to explain ritual. Rituals, on this view, are akin to idioms. They, too, are rather cognitively expensive because they have to be learned as non-compositional units (or sometimes even anti-compositional as in ‘I could care less’) but they offer a great degree of variation – from things like “kick the bucket” to “let alone”.

    The explanation of why people will let themselves be bankrupted by rituals (like hospitality or religious donations) can be then derived from them seeking some sort of metaphoric unity. I think that this explanation can co-exist quite nicely with the resource-use hypotheses.

  2. Cris Post author

    This particular take on ritual probably tends toward the cognitive-behavioral because the authors are archaeologists who are looking for evidence of ritual behavior in an archaeological setting. Obviously, language doesn’t fossilize or leave material traces, so this could explain why they don’t mention it. I agree that language plays an important role in ritual, as does metaphor, but if we view it from a ground up or archaeological perspective, it’s probably best to begin with embodied ritual that manifests itself in some kind of material way.

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