Eleanor Power on Rituals, Community, and Signaling
Date: July 24th, 2016

Walking across hot coals.  Piercing your cheeks with sharp skewers. Pulling your skin with sharp hooks.  What would possess individuals to do such things?  And are they crazy?!  Dr. Eleanor (Elly) Power, a postdoctoral fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, explains what would motivate people to engage in such “odd rituals” and the fascinating and extensive ethnographic study she conducted for several years in two small villages in India.  Our conversation begins with explaining the concept of “ritual,” which Dr. Power defines as a symbolic, repeated, and public activity.  While acknowledging the presence of private rituals, Elly focusses attention on the public aspect of rituals as the public displays make “odd behaviors” (e.g., firewalking) as it seems to be counter to what many people would consider “rational” behavior.  We review some previous explanations for such “extreme” ritualistic actions such as people are simply irrational or are deluded by ancient beliefs.  Elly notes that many of these explanations that rely upon “timeless” traditions are not quite true given that some of these practices are relatively new.  Dr. Power then turns to an explanation that relies upon the idea of signaling behavior amidst uncertainty, noting that many different academic fields began studying the importance of signaling around the same time.  Relying on insights from anthropology, economics, and sociology, Elly argues that many of these public rituals that involve costly behavior help members of a society identify which individuals are the most trustworthy and likely to be cooperative.  Such signals are important in coordinating behavior and building community relations.  Dr. Power describes the nature of her two years of fieldwork, including intensive surveys and mapping out the various network connections between individuals.  She finds that those who are involved in these public rituals are often at the center of important social networks.  Interestingly, individuals who are “spiritually possessed” tend not to be as connected.  We discuss what “possession” means and how it can range from a few short minutes of shaking at a church service or more intense behaviors in private.  The conversation concludes with some of Elly’s reflections on what she has learned, and what has surprised her, over the course of her studies.  She notes that people around the world are often the same despite different cultures and we all tend to worry about our reputations.  Recorded: June 16, 2016.



Eleanor Power’s bio at the Santa Fe Institute.

Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Society at Chapman University (info on graduate student colloquia).


Larry Iannaccone on Sacrifice and Stigma.

David Patel on Religion and Social Order in Iraq.

Colleen Haight on Jewish Peddlers in 19th Century America.

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