BBC – Extraordinary Rituals - What is ritual?

Extraordinary Rituals

By Harvey Whitehouse, Chief Consultant on the BBC Extraordinary Rituals Series and Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Oxford


Ritual is what we do because that’s what everybody else does. Humans are amazing copycats. No other animal copies behaviour to the extent that we do. Our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, will copy each other to a limited degree, especially when they can see how a behaviour leads to some useful outcome. Some species of birds are extremely good at this kind of copying – members of the crow family, for example, are able to remember long sequences of actions necessary to extract food from a puzzle box.

Where humans really excel, though, is in their ability to imitate actions that have no practical value at all. This is what enables us to pass on fashions and traditions – behaviours that tell us what groups we belong to. This is really what we mean by ‘ritual’ – actions that have to be performed simply because it’s the ‘done’ or ‘proper’ way to act in the group to which you happen to belong. The wearing of ‘big hair’ in Guizhou Province, Southwest China, is a great example of this.

When we participate in rituals we demonstrate to other people that we are good citizens, committed to collective goals.There’s no point joining in a ritual if you don’t want to affiliate with the group that performs it.

This can be especially obvious when groups compete with each other – for example by trying to drown out the opposition by chanting and singing at a football match or, in the ancient traditions of Siena, racing bareback on horses for the honour of your local community.

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