When I was an undergraduate, early on I learned about the value of interdisciplinary studies. Had I been on a conventional academic track, that probably wouldn’t have happened, but I was lucky enough to be in a department that brought together anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, theologians, and religious studies scholars. In such an environment, the sharp defense of disciplinary turf was not only unwelcome — it simply made no sense.
Even so, universities remain structurally antagonistic to interdisciplinarity, both for intellectual reasons but perhaps more than anything for professional reasons. Anyone who wants to set themselves on a track towards tenure needs to get published and academic journals all fall within and help sustain disciplinary boundaries.
I mention this because when questions are raised such as what’s happening in Libya? or the more loaded, what’s gone wrong in Libya? the range of experts who get called on to respond, tends to be quite limited. There will be regional experts, political scientists, and perhaps economists. But calling on someone with an understanding of the human function of ritual along with the role different forms of ritual may have had in the development of civilization, is not an obvious way of trying to gain insight into events in Benghazi.
Moreover, within discourse that is heavily influenced by secular assumptions about the problematic nature of religion and the irrational roots of extremism, there is a social bias in the West that favors a popular dismissal.
What’s wrong with Libya? Those people are nuts.
Philip Weiss helped popularize the expression Progressive Except on Palestine — an accusation that most frequently gets directed at American liberal Zionists. But over the last two years a new variant which is perhaps even more commonplace has proliferated across the Left which with only slight overstatement could be called Progressive Except on the Middle East.
From this perspective, a suspicion of Muslim men with beards — especially those in Libya and Syria — has become a way through which a Clash of Civilizations narrative is unwittingly being reborn. Add to that the influence of the likes of Richard Dawkins and his cohorts on their mission to “decry supernaturalism in all its forms” and what you end up with is a stifling of curiosity — a lack of any genuine interest in trying to understand why people behave the way they do if you’ve already concluded that their behavior is something to be condemned.
A year ago, the science journal Nature, published an article on human rituals, their role in the growth of community and the emergence of civilization.
The report focuses on a global project one of whose principal aims is to test a theory that rituals come in two basic forms: one that through intense and often traumatic experience can forge tight bonds in small groups and the other that provides social cohesion less intensely but on a larger scale through doctrinal unity.
Last week, the State department designated three branches of Ansar al Shariah — two in Libya and one in Tunisia — as terrorist organizations. The information provided gives no indication about how or if the groups are linked beyond the fact that they share the same name — a name used by separate groups in eight different countries.
There’s reason to suspect that the U.S. government is engaged in its own form of ritualistic behavior much like the Spanish Inquisition busily branding heretics.
Maybe if the Obama administration spent a bit more time talking to anthropologists and archeologists rather than political consultants and security advisers, they would be able to develop a more coherent and constructive policy on Libya. I’m not kidding.
In Nature, Dan Jones writes: By July 2011, when Brian McQuinn made the 18-hour boat trip from Malta to the Libyan port of Misrata, the bloody uprising against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had already been under way for five months.
“The whole city was under siege, with Gaddafi forces on all sides,” recalls Canadian-born McQuinn. He was no stranger to such situations, having spent the previous decade working for peace-building organizations in countries including Rwanda and Bosnia. But this time, as a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Oxford, UK, he was taking the risk for the sake of research. His plan was to make contact with rebel groups and travel with them as they fought, studying how they used ritual to create solidarity and loyalty amid constant violence.
It worked: McQuinn stayed with the rebels for seven months, compiling a strikingly close and personal case study of how rituals evolved through combat and eventual victory. And his work was just one part of a much bigger project: a £3.2-million (US$5-million) investigation into ritual, community and conflict, which is funded until 2016 by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and headed by McQuinn’s supervisor, Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse.
Rituals are a human universal — “the glue that holds social groups together”, explains Whitehouse, who leads the team of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, economists and archaeologists from 12 universities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Rituals can vary enormously, from the recitation of prayers in church, to the sometimes violent and humiliating initiations of US college fraternity pledges, to the bleeding of a young man’s penis with bamboo razors and pig incisors in purity rituals among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea. But beneath that diversity, Whitehouse believes, rituals are always about building community — which arguably makes them central to understanding how civilization itself began.
To explore these possibilities, and to tease apart how this social glue works, Whitehouse’s project will combine fieldwork such as McQuinn’s with archaeological digs and laboratory studies around the world, from Vancouver, Canada, to the island archipelago of Vanuatu in the south Pacific Ocean. “This is the most wide-ranging scientific project on rituals attempted to date,” says Scott Atran, director of anthropological research at the CNRS, the French national research organization, in Paris, and an adviser to the project.
A major aim of the investigation is to test Whitehouse’s theory that rituals come in two broad types, which have different effects on group bonding. Routine actions such as prayers at church, mosque or synagogue, or the daily pledge of allegiance recited in many US elementary schools, are rituals operating in what Whitehouse calls the ‘doctrinal mode’. He argues that these rituals, which are easily transmitted to children and strangers, are well suited to forging religions, tribes, cities and nations — broad-based communities that do not depend on face-to-face contact.
Rare, traumatic activities such as beating, scarring or self-mutilation, by contrast, are rituals operating in what Whitehouse calls the ‘imagistic mode’. “Traumatic rituals create strong bonds among those who experience them together,” he says, which makes them especially suited to creating small, intensely committed groups such as cults, military platoons or terrorist cells. “With the imagistic mode, we never find groups of the same kind of scale, uniformity, centralization or hierarchical structure that typifies the doctrinal mode,” he says.
Whitehouse has been developing this theory of ‘divergent modes of ritual and religion’ since the late 1980s, based on his field work in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere. His ideas have attracted the attention of psychologists, archaeologists and historians.
Until recently, however, the theory was largely based on selected ethnographic and historical case studies, leaving it open to the charge of cherry-picking. The current rituals project is an effort by Whitehouse and his colleagues to answer that charge with deeper, more systematic data.
The pursuit of such data sent McQuinn to Libya. His strategy was to look at how the defining features of the imagistic and doctrinal modes — emotionally intense experiences shared among a small number of people, compared with routine, daily practices that large numbers of people engage in — fed into the evolution of rebel fighting groups from small bands to large brigades.
At first, says McQuinn, neighbourhood friends formed small groups comprising “the number of people you could fit in a car”. Later, fighters began living together in groups of 25–40 in disused buildings and the mansions of rich supporters. Finally, after Gaddafi’s forces were pushed out of Misrata, much larger and hierarchically organized brigades emerged that patrolled long stretches of the defensive border of the city. There was even a Misratan Union of Revolutionaries, which by November 2011 had registered 236 rebel brigades.
McQuinn interviewed more than 300 fighters from 21 of these rebel groups, which varied in size from 12 to just over 1,000 members. He found that the early, smaller brigades tended to form around pre-existing personal ties, and became more cohesive and the members more committed to each other as they collectively experienced the fear and excitement of fighting a civil war on the streets of Misrata.
But six of the groups evolved into super-brigades of more than 750 fighters, becoming “something more like a corporate entity with their own organizational rituals”, says McQuinn. A number of the group leaders had run successful businesses, and would bring everyone together each day for collective training, briefings and to reiterate their moral codes of conduct — the kinds of routine group activities characteristic of the doctrinal mode. “These daily practices moved people from being ‘our little group’ to ‘everyone training here is part of our group’,” says McQuinn.
McQuinn and Whitehouse’s work with Libyan fighters underscores how small groups can be tightly fused by the shared trauma of war, just as imagistic rituals induce terror to achieve the same effect. Whitehouse says that he is finding the same thing in as-yet-unpublished studies of the scary, painful and humiliating ‘hazing’ rituals of fraternity and sorority houses on US campuses, as well as in surveys of Vietnam veterans showing how shared trauma shaped loyalty to their fellow soldiers. [Continue reading…]
When people talk about nation-building, they talk about the need to establish security, the rule of law and the development of democratic institutions. They focus on political and civil structures through which social stability takes on a recognizable form — the operation for instance of effective court systems and law enforcement authorities that do not abuse their powers. But what makes all this work, or fail to work, is a sufficient level of social cohesion and if that is lacking, the institutional structures will probably be of little value.
Over the last year and a half, American interest in Libya seems to have been reduced to analysis about what happened on one day in Benghazi. But what might help Libya much more than America’s obsessive need to spot terrorists would be to focus instead on things like promoting football. A win for the national team could work wonders.
In the video below, Harvey Whitehouse describes the background to his research.