The surrounding literature from anthropologists and psychologists highlights how individuals and groups interact with social structures, forces, norms, and rituals in their daily lives. In the early to mid 1900s, anthropologists focused on small, isolated societies that had been stigmatized as “primitive” (Erickson and Murphy 2013). Early anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski felt the need to record information on such primitive societies as they felt that these miniature populations would be lost with time. The theory of historical particularism becomes relevant to this blog, which refers to the idea that every culture has its own separate, individual culture and history. Habitualization emerges where members of a social group share a behavior, idea or object with one another and this constitutes the culture of that group (Murdock, 1940).
An understanding of culture cannot be fully recognized and appreciated without comprehending each on its own terms. I draw heavily on literature from psychology, sociology, and anthropology to understand the underlying environmental factors and behavioral dynamics in past global societies and climates. In this comprehensive post, I present how culture becomes embodied, accepted, and perceived through separate rituals over time. One of the authors on this blog discusses rituals in terms of happiness. Instead, I will present how anthropologists described societies to the public that were considered isolated in the 1900s, and how rituals were viewed at that time.
The Evolution of Behavior: How did culture, rituals and collective behaviors begin?
The evolutionary perspective in anthropology and psychology has been subject to debate and serves as a framework for how human behaviors and cultures manifested and developed through time (Allik and McCrae, 2002). Authors Allik and McCrae (2002) state that “trait-related genes play a role in variations in personality and may occur from accidents of ancestral migration, genetic drift, and natural selection.” Predictable evolutionary mechanisms can contribute to cultural, patterns of change.
Anthropologically, the beginnings of evolutionary thought began with Sir Edward Tylor in the 19th century. He ranked cultures from the most primitive to the most advanced, setting the stage for slow, gradual evolution. The research that he conducted provided the first explanation for how and why cultures change over time. Researchers have focused on why human behaviors have transformed and have been selective in making specific evolutionary adaptations(Shennan, 2006, p.265). Alternatively, Niko Tinbergen and Charles Darwin have had the most influential research contributing to evolution and focused their studies on animals.
Behaviors including aggression, cooperation, and altruism have all helped researchers to understand both animal and human behavior (Brown et al, 2011). According to sociologist, Emile Durkheim, groups become cohesive and powerful by sharing “thought and action processes” which is termed as “collective effervescence” (Durkheim, 1965). Collective action becomes imperative when facing group threats. Currently, it has been up to debate whether animals embody a culture as well while experimental data has been significantly lacking. Animals have to receive much stricter testing parameters than humans (LaLand and Hoppitt, 2003). Rituals develop as humans gain an understanding of a specific culture and collective reciprocity. In this next section, I will bring attention to cultural rituals which are shared behaviors among group members and help maintain social order.
Recent articles that highlight rituals in unique cultures also show how similar behaviors, norms, etiquette, and cultures are formed. A ritual is defined as a “patterned, repetitive behavior” that sometimes is associated with a supernatural realm (Miller 209). Anthropologists categorize rituals by how and when groups interact with time (periodic and non-periodic rituals).
In order to understand rituals and culture norms, it is recommended one might take a step back and review where these belief systems emerged. Rituals allow people to share similar beliefs and values, and people who participate in this shared value system are considered “trustworthy” (Watson-Jones & Legare, 2016). In rituals, sequences of actions that occur are characterized by rigidity and repetition, and influence one’s self control” (Tian, Schroeder, Haubl, Risen, Norton & Gino, 2018). Cultural rituals can be as minor as saying a prayer before, or can be as large as the yearly Kula Ring involving hundreds of members coming from all over to exchange gifts. Separate cultures shift and overlap, and all of these rituals are so unique and hold a society together. In this next section, the Kula Ring, pilgrimages, Australian rituals, Fijian Island rituals, and also a satire involving how some may view American culture and rituals are presented.
The Kula Ring – A Melanesian Exchange System
First discovered by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in 1922, the Kula also known as the Kula Ring is described as an exchange system in the Argonauts in the Western Pacific. The Trobriand tribes in the Pacific Islands undergo a large journey to receive and exchange gifts at several separate islands enacting structured reciprocity and altruistic behavior. The objects are not deemed as valuable but through the act of giving and exchanging people become intertwined and bonded which further creates harmonious relationships between separate tribes. The processes behind this specific ritual and the activation of beliefs during this momentous journey contributes to social cohesion and structure. A more in-depth explanation of the Kula Ring can be found with this blog post, The Conundrum of the Kula Ring in Papua New Guinea.
Another form of ritual is called a pilgrimage which is defined as a “round trip travel to a sacred place or places for religious devotion (Miller 211). Places such as Mecca in Saudi Arabia for Muslims, Jerusalem in Israel for Jews, and Bod Gaya in India for Buddhists are common locations where people journey to.
In 1969, Victor Turner (anthropologist known for his work on rites, rituals and symbols) defined three sequences of life cycle rituals to pilgrimage: The pilgrim disengages and separates himself from everyday life, enters a “liminal stage” during the actual journey and finally returns to be reintegrated into society in a transformed state (Erickson et al, 211). The liminal stage is when a person is no longer in the previous status, but is not a full member of another level. Overall, rituals are very demanding and also transformative for an individual. One becomes further connected to their kin, friends, and other groups that partake in these rituals.
Fijijan Island Rituals: Social Norms, Etiquette and Dinner Behavior
According to American anthropologist Dorothy Spencer in “Etiquette and Social Sanctions in the Fiji Islands” (1938), Fijian etiquette regulated the behavior of individuals towards one another in various situations (264). She observed that for the principal meal of the day, Fijians were to be dressed and washed properly. The men ate first, and the women waited upon the men to finish eating. When the chiefly men finished their meal, they clapped their hands to show respect (265). Eating rituals and social behaviors became facilitated through these Fijian social norms, and everyone had to follow these rules of etiquette in order to cohere to their group. As a participant observer in several tribes in India and Fiji, Spencer was able to accurately portray their customs, rituals, and daily lives through her writing.
Australian Tribes: Religion and ritual
John Lubbock demonstrates his knowledge of ritualistic, patterned behaviors in Australian tribes from his home in Europe. He uses a biased and superior tone in his writing, believing that societies progress from a simple to complex state. He reveals that the tribes are at a lower state in society because they lack descriptive words, but he has no basis for this because he did not actually know the tribe’s dialect or attempt to learn their language at all.
Additionally, Lubbock describes the Australian tribe’s religion in his writings, and said that their belief in invisible beings appears “common among savages” (Lubbock 1868:340). Although he believes in an “omnipotent and all-powerful, God,” he still coins the tribes as savages and disregards their beliefs. Marriage rituals in these Austrian tribes could be instigated by either a man or a woman. He judges that these savages did not understand paternity, and only could recognize kinship through the female line. At this time, beliefs from tribes all over the world were thought to be primitive, and the readers can see how these mannerisms do not enable audiences to see the realities of a culture. Out of all the authors presented in this blog, Lubbock writes with the most critical tone and verbiage, and lacks a cultural relativistic understanding of their culture.
Satire of American Culture through Commonly Known Rituals
In Body Ritual Among the Nacirema, anthropologist Horace Miner, portrays American rituals from an outsider’s point of view. Miner wants his readers to think outside of the box and re-think how other cultures could view American culture from an etic (outsider) perspective. In this article, Miner reveals that rituals hold civilizations together. American rituals are presented in a satirical way, allowing the reader to view American culture and behaviors most see as common as primitive, so that racist notions about other societies are rightfully dispelled. Believing that people have become so used to their own customs, Miner expresses American culture through daily rituals such as brushing one’s teeth, visiting a psychiatrist and going to the hospital.
Miner highlights the ritual of brushing one’s teeth. He says, “the Nacirema “have “revolting” private mouth-rites” that involves putting “hog-hairs” into their mouths (Miner 1956:58). He also says, “their gums bleed, their jaws shrink” (1956:504). While reading this passage, the reader sees how a common activity that mostly everyone engages in daily becomes revolting and shocking to an etic perspective. Miner also presents a well-known “listener,” who Americans refer to as a psychologist. He says that this “witch doctor” has power to “exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads of people who have been witched” (1956:504). The use of “witch-doctor” and “exorcism” stages the Nacirema as supernatural beings, but Miner wants the reader to avoid classifying them this way.
Lastly, Miner also justifies how anthropologists have negatively viewed other small cultures by portraying an American visit to the hospital. The imposing temple also known as “laptiso” are where the very sick Nacirema go. The “ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple even recover” (1956:505). He displays American hospitals as ruthless and severe. However, these practices are unfamiliar, so it is easy to characterize them as horrible.
Ultimately, Miner’s use of language and choice of words make it difficult for the reader to actually see that he is referring to American rituals and culture. In comparison to Lubbock’s article, most historians and anthropologists at this time based their theories on reason and ethnographic and archaeological data. However, cultures that may seem unfamiliar should still be examined and treated with respect. In the next section, I will reveal how a ritual becomes contextualized and understood psychologically.
Psychological Interpretations of Ritual and Cultural Norms
In order to understand rituals, the psychological component needs to be briefly articulated. Psychologically, culture is characterized as “fragmented,” where people experience culture as little bits of information and schematic structures” (Brewer & Caporeal, 2006). Past developmental and cognitive theories improve on Jean Piaget’s idea of schema, which is a framework that organizes and allows for the interpretation of information. The presentation of social belonging, inclusivity, and acceptance have strong effects on emotional patterns and cognitive processes, whereas a lack of attachment to an individual or group can be correlated with ill effects on health, adjustment and well-being (Baumeister & Leery 1995). Young children are socialized into learning how to behave in certain social settings at the time that they are born. Mothers influence their children by giving direct and indirect guidance in understanding the right from the wrong (Nucci & Weber, 1995). Therefore, rituals and cultural norms are learned and socialized over time. Factors affecting the emergence and persistence of social norms as well as how and when children start to notice, accept or negate social norms all plays a role in the creation of a ritual.
Significance in Anthropology
In this rapidly changing pluralistic world, the older literature presented in this blog allows for a better understanding of the transmission, rise, and development of cultures, and also allows for a stronger awareness of global differences and rituals. Cultures have been primarily studied qualitatively and quite ethnocentrically in tone in the past, but with the growth of technology, social media, and the internet, more multivariate quantitative data has opened new doors to analyze a culture faster and in more in-depth separate parts. It’s up to the individual to decide whether to reject or accept each learned behavior as they grow older in order to conform to a larger group or belief system. When a new religion and/or ritual moves into a culture it becomes blended with other belief systems and behaviors, or simply takes over. By blogging about the varieties in rituals and cultures, an understanding of these past cultures, rituals, and also our own cultures that we deem as common can now be seen as substantial and worthy of further study.
Archer, M. (1985). The Myth of Cultural Integration. The British Journal of Sociology, 36(3), 333-353. doi:10.2307/590456
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin , 117, 497-529.
Boyd, Richerson and Henrich. 2011. The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation, PNA
Brewer, M.B& Caporeal, L.R. (2006). An evolutionary perspective on social identity: Revisiting Groups. In M. Schaller, J.A. Simpson &D.T. Kenrick (Eds.), Evolution and social psychology (pp.143-161). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Brown, Dickins, Sear and Laland. 2011. Evolutionary accounts of human
Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy. 2013. A History of Anthropological Theory, 4th ed. University of Toronto Press.
Lubbock, John. (1868) On the Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man. From the Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London. pp.328-341.
Murdock, G. (1940). The Cross-Cultural Survey. American Sociological Review, 5(3), 361-370. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/2084038
Spencer, Dorothy M. (1938). Etiquette and Social Sanction in the Fiji Islands. American Anthropologist pp.263-270.
Tian, A. D., Schroeder, J., Häubl, G., Risen, J. L., Norton, M. I., & Gino, F. (2018). Enacting rituals to improve self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(6), 851-876. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000113
Watson-Jones, R.E, & Legare, C.H. (2016). The Social Functions of Group Rituals.