Doctoral Dissertation Research: Social Causes and Effects of Costly Religious Practices

Project: Research project

Project Details


Doctoral student, Eleanor A. Power, supervised by Dr. Rebecca Bliege Bird (Stanford University), will undertake research on the social consequences that stem from the enactment of public rituals. Evolutionary anthropologists argue that individuals are motivated to perform such rituals, especially costly ones, because they provide actors with social capital. These scholars hypothesize that devotees distinguish themselves through dramatic displays of devotion, gaining reputation and fostering interpersonal bonds with co-participants. This project will provide one of the first empirical evaluations of these hypotheses through a combination of quantitative data collection and qualitative participant observation.

The research will be carried out in a rural community in Sivagangai District, Tamil Nadu, India. The site is appropriate because rituals there entail particularly clear costs, which will highlight the theoretical issues being investigated. In these rituals, devotees carry firepots in lengthy processions, pierce their skin with hooks and spears, and painfully contort their bodies when suddenly possessed by a deity. Detailed records of villagers' participation in public rituals will be coupled with metrics of individual reputation and group-level social cohesion to determine if the nature of participation in public rituals influences one's reputation and one's social capital in positive ways. The researcher will employ social network analysis to enumerate the social consequences of ritual practice, both in terms of individual gains in social capital and in terms of larger structural consequences.

This project seeks to parse out some of the social causes and effects of religious practice. While the data will be collected in a particular South Indian village, the proposed motivations for and consequences of ritual participation are meant to be general: reputational gains, strengthened interpersonal bonds, and social cohesion are not particular to this one village. Thus this project will result in a set of general claims about how the nature and variability of public ritual performance are related to social position and social structure. The project will have relevance for the ongoing debates among evolutionary anthropologists, cognitive scientists, evolutionary psychologists, sociologists, and economists about the function of religion in society. Supporting this research also supports the education of a social scientist.

Effective start/end date9/1/118/31/13


  • National Science Foundation: $9,710.00


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