Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Ritual and Performance in Special Events

Catherine Bell, one of the world’s foremost scholars on ritual, organized ritual activities into six main characteristics: formalism, traditionalism, invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance.[i] In my previous blog entry, I talked about one of these, invariance, at a corporate special event. In this blog, I want to discuss the importance of performance.

This refers to what ritual has in common with theatrical performances, dramatic spectacles, and public events. As Bell says, comparisons of ritual with performance “rest on a recognition that the performative dimension per se – that is, the deliberate, self-conscious ‘doing’ of highly symbolic actions in public – is the key to what makes ritual, theater, and spectacle what they are.” She goes on to state what those of us in the event management industry have known for a long time, that “performances communicate on multiple sensory levels, usually involving highly visual imagery, dramatic sounds, and sometimes even tactile, olfactory, and gustatory stimulation. By marching with a crowd, crying over a tragic drama, or applauding an unconvincing politician, even the less enthusiastic participants of the audience are cognitively and emotionally pulled into a complex sensory experience that can also communicate a variety of messages. Hence, the power of performance lies in great part in the effect of the heightened multisensory experience it affords: one is not being told or shown something so much as one is led to experience something.” As I have mentioned before, our ancestors learned very quickly that events influence people and good performances, whether by politicians, priests, army generals, or real performers, can be used to emotionally draw audiences in to buying any message if the event is organized well.

Emile Durkheim, sometimes regarded as the founder of sociology, had it right when he first theorized that performing rituals created and sustained “social solidarity.”[ii] Anthropologist Victor Turner further defined the communal spirit generated by social groups participating in rituals – or as I would prefer to call them – events, with the term communitas. He discusses this concept in his many writings but one statement best explains it. “Is there any one of us who has not known this moment when compatible people – friends, congeners – obtain a flash of lucid mutual understanding on the existential level, when they feel that all problems, not just their problems, could be resolved---.”[iii] What these scholars theorized through direct observation of primitive peoples has now been reinforced through the research of biogenetic structuralists (Biogenetic structuralism is a complicated name but a promising field that applies knowledge of human evolution to cultural behavior. Interdisciplinary, it brings together anthropology, psychology, and the neurosciences.). In summary, here is the logic of their current thinking:

1. Modern humans are “hardwired” for ritual behavior.[iv]
2. Ritual behavior overcomes social distance between individuals and helps to coordinate group action.[v]
3. Emotions weight decisions and influence actions.
4. Emotions may be elicited by sensory stimuli.[vi]
5. Rituals with high levels of sensory stimuli, (e.g. rhythmic drivers such as music and dance), will therefore be the most effective in bringing social groups and individuals together and in motivating action.

In short, it has finally been proven that highly performance-driven ritual activities should be the most effective in conveying messages. So what does this mean for special events? Quite simply, it means that the judicious use of highly rhythmic music and dance can greatly enhance the reception of a message, whether that message is a secular one (e.g., how to generate more sales, feeling patriotic, giving to charity) or a religious one (e.g., feeling closer to God). As I said, those of us who have produced events already know this. We just did not know the science behind it.

[i] Bell, C. (1997). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 138-169.
[ii] Durkheim, E. (1965). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.
[iii] Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications. pp. 44-48.
[iv] Karecki, M. (1997). Discovering the Roots of Ritual. Missionalia.
[v] Guthrie, C. (2000). Neurology, Ritual, and Religion: An Initial Exploration. Retrieved August 1, 2008, from http://www.geocities.com/iona_m/Neurotheology/Neuroritual.html.
[vi] Alcorta, C.S. and Sosis, R. (2005). Ritual, Emotion, and Sacred Symbols: The Evolution of Religion as an Adaptive Complex. Human Nature, Winter 2005, Vol.16, No.4. pp. 323-359.

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