Scholarly literature on the effects of ritual?
April 29, 2015 3:18 PM   Subscribe

I would like books and journal articles written by grave people with PHDs out their ass on the physiological and psychological effects of rituals.

"Ritual" is left somewhat ill-defined.

I would like p-values and Bayes factors and nonlinear statistical treatments and simulation studies and that sort of thing. Rigor without being myopic is what we're looking for, here.
posted by curuinor to Human Relations (16 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Victor Turner didn't use a slide rule.

From some quick googling, most quantitative work dealing with ritual seems to be interested in measuring the efficacy of specific ritualized folk practices, rather than some aspect of the ritual experience itself. I'm not even sure how you'd go about trying to quantitatively evaluate that, unless you're coding qualitative data in some ordinal rubric.

Sorry if that was clumsily phrased, it's been a while since my undergraduate journey from anthro to soc.

I think it might help to firm up your idea of what 'ritual' is for this purpose, and which measurable aspects of that definition you're interested in.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:30 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't have numbers. I do have Eliade, who wrote extensively on ritual. The Sacred and Profane is a stellar work.
posted by General Malaise at 3:42 PM on April 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

You may have to be more specific with what you mean about "ritual" if you want something quantitative. Emile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane are both well-regarded scholarly works that deal with this question but they are more sociological and philosophical rather than drawing any quantitative conclusions. In fact I'm having trouble thinking of what sorts of quantitative analysis would be done on "ritual" in the general sense?
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 3:44 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I suppose you might look for quantitative conversation analysis of ritualized interactions. Although if you stretch that far enough, you're going to wind up in Goffman territory which may not be what you want.

Depending on the definition you have (hazily) in mind, you may also be stepping in the trap of assuming there is some set of universals that every ritual system must instantiate in some way in order to be a ritual system, and that such systems can be directly compared by these universals.

Have you read any ethnographic work on ritual, or looked at the history and evolution of anthropological scholarship on ritual? You might want to, before you get too invested in this project. Quantitative approaches are unpopular for a reason.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:16 PM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

There's been a good deal of scholarly work on the neuroscience of meditation, looking at effects that can be measured on brain scans.

There's also been a bit of work on glossolalia — looking, again, at what is going on neurologically when it happens. If I remember right, some of those studies even attempted to measure differences between "real" glossolalia (that is, moments when the speaker subjectively self-reported that the Holy Spirit was speaking through them) and "fake" glossolalia (that is, the same people just babbling nonsense syllables on request, without any self-reported spiritual involvement).

Not sure if either of those is what you're looking for, since they're more about the neuropsychology of altered states and less about ritual per se. But, like everyone else is saying, a clearer explanation of what sort of ritual (and what sort of measurements) you're interested in would be helpful.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:22 PM on April 29, 2015

Ritual is defined differently by different disciplines and often contains but is not exclusive to religious or spiritual ritual. Could you give us a hypothetical example of what you're looking for? That would be helpful.
posted by WidgetAlley at 4:26 PM on April 29, 2015

Response by poster: Balinese cockfights: ritual, yes
Catholic mass: ritual
Four people who have had a TTRPG game for like 30 years: probably some rituals in there
Individual prayer: no
Meditation: not really

If there's a Goffman sort of person working in this space, that would be alright.
posted by curuinor at 5:08 PM on April 29, 2015

Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity might interest you. Qualitative research can be rigorous too, you know.
posted by dr. boludo at 5:43 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Felicitas Goodman's Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-cultural Study of Glossolalia.

She did quite a bit of research on religious ritual and shamanism. Wikipedia has a list of publications.
posted by nangar at 6:01 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do you have journal access? I don't currently, but I'm finding google links to paywalled stuff that looks like it would work with search strings like "conversation analysis religious ritual" and "discourse analysis ritual" and "psycholinguistic ritual" and so forth.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:24 PM on April 29, 2015

Harvey Whitehouse, a big name in the cognitive anthropology of religion, could get you somewhere. My guess is that if you look up some of his more cited work you'd pick up the trail of a relevant literature to you. His bio says that his students have done experimental and other work, which might be more to your taste than the ethnographic work that is the core of a vast literature on ritual in anthropology, some of which is referenced in the above answers. (And much of which is very rigorous despite being qualitative.)
posted by col_pogo at 7:48 PM on April 29, 2015

I am on vacation this week but may have some sources to point you to when I am back to my library.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:19 PM on April 29, 2015

Response by poster: I have all the journal access. All of it!
posted by curuinor at 9:01 PM on April 29, 2015

Well are you going back to the daddy and reading Levi-Strauss and the Origin of Table Manners and all of that? Or is your starting point quite different?
posted by glasseyes at 9:32 AM on April 30, 2015

Response by poster: My starting point is that I read those people and they aren't very abstractable to understand general ritualized human behavior. Which is probably not their goal. And then I read the people who claim to be able to abstract out things to explain ritual and there are a lot of statements which are still not abstract enough. Something that can reliably and durably explain and predict human behavior throughout time and space would be nice, I thought.

And then you look at those people who try to do those things, and you begin to see a lot of crackpottery. It's not the case that mathematicalization and symbolicization avoids crackpottery, but I know a lot more ways to suss crackpottery out with math than with words
posted by curuinor at 10:58 AM on April 30, 2015

Best answer: I'm not sure that's going to work out, honestly. I mean, if you look at people who claim to have a fully general and abstract theory of human ritual with a mathematical basis, you end up with Hermetic Qabalah and Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn and all that florid weirdness, which is not exactly crackpot-free territory.

You alluded to Notes on a Balinese Cockfight upthread — one of Geertz's big points in that book, and Thick Description in particular, is that you can't just abstract away from local social and cultural details — that that stuff is what's important, and without it you can't understand what's really going on. Insofar as there is a scholarly consensus on this stuff, it's that the way to avoid crackpottery in studying ritual (or symbol-heavy cultural practices of any kind) is not with math, but with copious attention to social and cultural context and the specifics of individual people's lived experience. Which does make it hard to generalize, but... well, that's the current state of the art, it's as far as we've gotten, so there you go.

I agree that it would be really great if people found a way to go beyond that and form valid, universal, generalizable, deep explanations of why ritual is and how it works. But if there was a known way of doing that, the person who discovered it would be a household name and there would be a department doing it at every university.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:12 PM on April 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

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