“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.

Human rites

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.