Ritual as Social Glue: An Interview with Harvey Whitehouse

January 15, 2014 No Comments

Go anywhere in the world and you’ll find people regularly performing collective rituals — praying, singing, dancing, worshiping together. Catholic Mass, Jewish shabbat, and Salat (the formal worship in Islam) are all suffused with ritual actions, or prescribed ways of doing things according to accepted conventions. Beyond the major world religious, rituals — from painful initiation rites to elaborate gift-giving ceremonies — are an integral part of all cultures and belief systems.
Why are rituals such a pervasive feature of human social life? And what role might they have played in the evolution of our social behavior? These questions are just two among many that are currently being explored in the Ritual, Community and Conflict Project, headed up by University of Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse and funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council. In December 2013, freelance science writer Dan Jones interviewed Harvey about the project at his office in Oxford. The video of the interview is below.
Harvey Whitehouse is Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford and a Professorial Fellow of Magdalen College. His books include Inside the Cult (1995), Arguments and Icons (2000), and Modes of Religiosity (2004). Whitehouse currently leads several large collaborative projects investigating the role of ritual in the evolution of social complexity. His research uses a wide range of methods (especially fieldwork, experiments, surveys, and quantitative analysis of databases). Further information about his work can be found here and here.
Dan Jones is a freelance science writer covering all aspects of human behaviour. His writing has appeared in Nature, Science, New Scientist, Cosmos, Smithsonian Magazine, and many other magazines. You can follow him on Twitter @MultipleDraftz, and read his blog at

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Published On: January 15, 2014

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