Tue, 5 December 2023
Most of us recognize the presence of ritual, whether in a religious observance, an athlete’s weird pre-competition tics, or even the cadence of our own morning ablutions. In general, most of these rituals are seen as harmless and probably a little unnecessary (or even silly). But according to cognitive anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas, ritual often serves a positive purpose for individuals – synchronizing them with their communities or relieving their stress.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Xygalatas defines for host David Edmonds what his research considers ritual, citing two important characteristics of ritual: causal opacity (such as rain dances not actually creating precipitation) and that the ritual matters, often greatly, to the participants. What isn’t ritual, he notes, is habit – although habits can veer into ritual/
“Utilitarian actions can become ritualized,” Xygalatas says, “and to that extent, they can be considered as rituals. So .. because I am a very avid consumer of coffee, when I get up in the morning, I always have to make a cup of coffee – [and] it always has to be in the same cup.”
Xygalatas then describes fieldwork he’s done on “high-intensity” rituals, ranging from firewalking in Spain or an “excruciating” annual religious procession in Mauritius. These efforts – part ethnography and part lab experiment – have given him unique insight into the results of jointly experienced ritual, much of which he detailed in his recent book, Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living. (In a blurb, Jane Goodall wrote the book shows “how and why our most irrational behaviors are a key driver of our success.”)
An associate professor in anthropology and psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut – where he heads the Experimental Anthropology Lab – Xygalatas also discusses the transdisciplinary scope of his work. This reflects his own roots in both anthropology and religious studies (he is a past president of the International Association for the Cognitive and Evolutionary Sciences of Religion).