Most social scientists endorse some version of the claim that participating in collective rituals promotes social cohesion. The systematic testing and evaluation of this claim, however, has been prevented by a lack of precision regarding the nature of both ‘ritual’and ‘social cohesion’ as well as a lack of integration between the theories and findings of the social and evolutionary sciences. By directly addressing these challenges, we argue that a systematic investigation and evaluation of the claim that ritual promotes social cohesion is achievable. We present a general and testable theory of the relationship between ritual, cohesion, and cooperation that more precisely connects particular elements of ‘ritual,’ such as causal opacity and emotional arousal, to two particular forms of ‘social cohesion’: group identification and identity fusion. Further, we ground this theory in an evolutionary account of why particular modes of ritual practice would be adaptive for societies with particular resource acquisition strategies. In setting out our conceptual framework we report numerous ongoing investigations that test our hypotheses against data from controlled psychological experiments as well as from the ethnographic, archaeological, and historical records.
Rights statement: Copyright 2014 The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.