Ritual

Xavier Marquez reviews Randall Collins' book Interaction Ritual Chains.

A ritual, for Collins, is basically an amplifier of emotion. (I pause to note that an amplifier of emotion is not necessarily a generator of emotion, though it is not clear whether or not Collins sees any important distinction here). We are literally “pumped up” by a successful ritual – we experience a buzz, exhilaration, enthousiasmos, “collective effervescence.” A great lecture, a sports spectacle in a vast stadium, a great concert, a fire-and-brimstone sermon, the rituals of solidarity among small military units; these interactions motivate us, that is, they set us in motion, send us on our way to act beyond the immediate confines of the group situation (to read the book discussed in the lecture, follow the news of your sports team or music band and wear the team colors, proselytize for your sect, attack the enemy, and perhaps also to do the crappy jobs necessary to gather the material resources to do all of these things). Not every ritual is successful, of course (and not every ritual is equally successful for all participants, even when the ritual is generally successful – more on this point later); some ritual situations bore us, sending our attention wandering, and we end up feeling drained and depressed: think of a boring meeting at your workplace, or an awful lecture. These rituals are demotivating; as Collins puts it, they sap our “emotional energy.

Perhaps the most important bit is this one (emphasis mine):

Though Collins does not say this, this view implies that ritual is prior to belief: belief “in” a cause, or a leader, or a god, or anything of the sort is primarily attachment to particular symbols of group membership that have been charged with value by powerful rituals, and should tend to decay in the absence of rituals “recharging” these symbols. (Collins suggests that a week is a good estimate of the half-life of the emotional charge of most symbols; hence the weekly services of churches or the weekly frequency of many intimate rituals, for example). Moreover, motivated reasoning should be ubiquitous, as indeed it seems to be; for the most part, we do not reason our way to most of our important beliefs, but acquire these through participation in communities with their interaction rituals (which may not look like obvious rituals; note that as long as we are participants in a successful interaction ritual, our focus is on the things the ritual is about, not on the ritual itself). Sociologists time and again find that many (most?) people join social movements before they acquire clear beliefs about issues; we then justify these beliefs ex post and defend them against perceived threats. And when a particular belief becomes entangled with an identity – when it becomes, in other words, a focus in some chain of successful interaction rituals, circulating as a marker of membership in some group– it then becomes more or less immune to rational argument. This is not to say that we cannot on occasion reason our way to various positions; but solid “belief” (in the sense that people most people have in mind when they say that they believe “in” something, ranging from Christianity to socialism) needs a lot of help from interaction ritual chains (understood as repeated, focused interactions that charge certain symbols with value). Belief without ritual and community is typically a fickle thing, discarded just as easily as acquired.

Just as Marquez's review caused me to want to purchase and read Collins' book immediately, I hope you'll want to go read Marquez's review after this short tease.

The personality of suicide bombers

The fact that suicide bombers are usually mild-mannered members of the middle class seems counterintuitive. After all, the middle class tend to be well-educated, well-behaved, good family membersnothing like the bloodthirsty tough guys or criminals we imagine when we think of terrorists. They bear little resemblance to English football hooligans or rabble-rousers. No other form of violence has a higher proportion of females than suicide bombers, even though females are usually more conformist than males.

Why is this so? I suggest it is because suicide bombing is the easiest form of violence for conventional middle-class people to carry out, if they decide to commit violence at all.

From an article from 2008 by the great Randall Collins. Still relevant, exposing many myths about violent behavior which are still commonly accepted by many people, including many in the media.

Clandestine, confrontation-avoiding violence such as suicide bombing is a fourth pathway around confrontational tension. It succeeds only because the attacker is good at pretending that he or she is not threatening at all. People accustomed to the typical macho forms of violence are not good at this; gang members would make lousy suicide bombers. But mild-mannered middle-class people are ideal for it. Since they are not confrontational by nature, they do not have to control a blustering or threatening demeanor that would warn their victims. Self-directed introverts, they do not need to hear cheering as they stalk their prey. Middle-class culture is especially accommodative, adept at maintaining a smooth surface of conventionality. Whatever our private feelings, we learn not to express them on the job, in social situations, or in public. This is good training for carrying a bomb under ones clothing until the target is so close that massive damage is certain.