The Glue that Binds

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

As a professor, Peter Turchin finds himself strong-armed into attending graduation every few years, which reminds him of his childhood in Soviet Moscow, where he and his neighbors had to line the streets and welcome visiting dignitaries.

After meeting anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse though, he finds such rituals make a certain kind of sense:

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!

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?

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.

Speaking of the graduation procession, he adds, it’s quite remarkable how we humans enjoy moving synchronously with others.


  1. Ben says:

    Who would have thought that “shared experience” binds us together! (Or that, because of our fundamental similarity, that we then engage in shared experience.)

    The salient cliodynamic takeaway here might be developing measures such as ‘strength of binding’, ‘durability/longevity’, “transmissibility of bond”, etc.

  2. etype says:

    Professor Turchin’s understanding of “ritual” is quite superficial — it is a fascinating and potent subject — but that is common among academics today. To understand at an elementary level the purposes of these “shared experiences” I suggest Gustave Le Bon’s The Mob.

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