Sure, you might have a tongue piercing. But would you consider something far more extreme for a bump on the social ladder? In episode 62, we’re joined by Dimitris Xygalatas from the University of Connecticut, who talks with us about how extravagant and painful rituals can foster greater subjective health and social standing. His open access article “Effects of Extreme Ritual Practices on Psychophysiological Well-Being” was published on August 30, 2019 in the journal Current Anthropology.

Ritual Pain for Social Gain - Dimitris Xygalatas
Ritual Pain for Social Gain - Dimitris Xygalatas
Ritual Pain for Social Gain - Dimitris Xygalatas Ritual Pain for Social Gain - Dimitris Xygalatas
@rwatkins says:
Next time, in episode 63 of Parsing Science, we’ll be joined by Susan Gelman from the University of Michigan. She’ll discuss her research into the use of generic language in scientific papers, which is especially problematic if researchers are overgeneralizing from selective or limited samples.
@rwatkins says:
While many of us might be interested in rituals that take place in far-off and perhaps exotic locations, most of us are also unlikely to ever actually experience them ourselves … either as a participant or an observer. So we asked Dimitris what he sees as the value of understanding extreme rituals, though the majority of us will never encounter them ourselves.
@rwatkins says:
As you might expect, the data confirmed that participation in the kavadi is not only painful, but also extremely stressful … particularly on the day of the ritual, when it was far higher than any other day before or after it. But what were the impacts on participants’ perception of their physical and psychological well-being after the ritual? Here’s how Dimitris summarizes his team’s findings about those measures.
@rwatkins says:
An interesting aspect of the study is that, in addition to collecting qualitative data through prolonged engagement with the people of Quatre Bornes, Dimitris and his team also unobtrusively collected various quantitative data points as well. This mixed methodological approach added valuable objective measurements on markers of participants’ autonomic nervous and immune system responses, allowing for a fuller examination of the ritual in its natural context.
@rwatkins says:
As anthropologists are concerned with the interactions between people and relationships among them, they undertake fieldwork to understand the complexity of social life. The relationships they develop with participants are therefore essential to their research, and this necessitates that they themselves play an important part in the narratives they construct as part of their research. Due to the many challenges inherent to conducting anthropological field research, we followed up by asking Dimitris how he and his team managed the complexities of this study.
@rwatkins says:
Dimitris leads the experimental anthropology lab at the University of Connecticut. Their research promotes methodological innovation and integration in the study of human behavior by combining in-depth qualitative field research with experimental methods and advanced technological tools. He and his team’s aim while on Mauritius was to examine the effects of the kavadi ordeal on participants’ physical and psychological well-being, without disturbing the ritual itself. Here, Dimitris explains what was required to recruit residents into his study, which collected data for three weeks before the ritual – and another three weeks after it – as well as during their long and painful pilgrimage to the mountain temple itself.
@rwatkins says:
While it exposes participants to the risk of trauma, scarring, and infection, participation in the kavadi also has many tangible — although more indirect — effects, such as increasing bonding, influencing social hierarchies, and promoting prosocial behaviors. We wanted to hear more from Dimitris about the complex reasons why Tamils in Mauritius choose to take part in this extreme ritual.
@rwatkins says:
Our interest piqued, Doug and I were curious whether Dimitris has ever been invited to take part in an extreme ritual himself … and, if so, how he handled the situation.
@rwatkins says:
Given the extraordinary pain and suffering that participants experience during the kavadi, Ryan and I wondered how often people commit to participating in the ritual, only to change their minds before climbing the hill to the shrine at the temple.
@rwatkins says:
Just a heads up: this clip contains some graphic descriptions of the kavadi, so if you’re with kids, or just aren’t in the mood, you might want to skip the next two and a half minutes. For everyone else, here again is Dimitris Xygalatas.
@rwatkins says:
One of the annual traditions I always enjoyed when I lived in Pasadena was the decoration of the elaborate floats entered into the Rose Parade … a tradition which, since 1890, has celebrated New Year’s Day. In the days leading up to the parade, volunteers meticulously cover floats in natural materials … which – if you’ve ever watched the event on TV or in person – include ample amounts of roses. While, at least by Western standards, the Thaipusam Cavadee festival in the town Quatre Bornes on the island of Mauritius culminates in a much more shocking fashion, the two events share more than a few similarities, as Dimitris describes next.
@rwatkins says:
From courting potential mates to mourning the death of members of a group, some in the animal world also seem to engage in ritual-like behavior. So Doug and I were interested to learn if these types of activities are indeed rituals and, if so, how human rituals differ from those of animals.
@rwatkins says:
While we might refer to our daily self-care routines as “morning rituals,” most of us nonetheless recognize that cultural rituals occur within the context of the traditions of a particular community. Some – like rites of passage – may provide access to such communities, while others may symbolically reaffirm our membership in them. We began our conversation by asking Dimitris to explain what rituals are, and how the extreme rituals he studies differ from our more typical ones.
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Hosts / Producers

Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins

How to Cite

Leigh, D., Watkins, R., & Xygalatas, D.. (2019, November 12). Parsing Episode – Ritual Pain for Social Gain. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.10302101

Music

What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers

Transcript

Dimitris Xygalatas: A lot of what creates pleasure, happiness, or meaning in our lives sometimes has to do with things like suffering.

Ryan Watkins: This is Parsing Science: the unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science, as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Ryan Watkins.

Doug Leigh: And I’m Doug Leigh. Today, in episode 62 of Parsing Science, we’re joined by Dimitris Xygalatas from the University of Connecticut’s Department of Anthropology. He’ll discuss his research into the kavadi: an extreme ritual involving pain and suffering, which not only has no discernible long-term harmful effects on its participants … it may actually improve their social status and psychological well-being.

Leigh: Here’s Dimitris Xygalatas.

Xygalatas: Hello, I’m Dimitris Xygalatas. I am an anthropologist and a cognitive scientist. I originally come from Greece, but have lived in seven different countries. I’ve now been in the United States for five and half years, and I work at the University of Connecticut. My background is both in anthropology and in cognitive science. So, I did my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast at the Institute of Cognition and Culture. And I also did part of my graduate studies at Aarhus University in Denmark, where I later became a faculty member. And later I went on to become the director of a research institute in the Czech Republic at Masaryk University which is called LEVYNA. It’s the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion, and this was the first Institute in the world to be exclusively dedicated to the experimental research on religion. And in fact this study originated when I was at Masaryk University.

And this is something beautiful about the scientific process, and the way the scientific community should – in principle – operate. So what happened was a colleague of mine sent me a paper that Sammyh Khan had coauthored, and cc’d the author. And I responded with some criticism; some methodological criticism. And Sammy wrote back, and he was very open to discussing this. So we we started this very interesting email exchange, which eventually led to me inviting him to give a talk at my institute, and eventually led to us applying and getting a grant that allowed us to to buy the equipment and recruit the team to do this study. So we ended up working together. And we went to Mauritius, and that’s how this study came about.

Leigh: While we might refer to our daily self-care routines as “morning rituals,” most of us nonetheless recognize that cultural rituals occur within the context of the traditions of a particular community. Some – like rites of passage – may provide access to such communities, while others may symbolically reaffirm our membership in them. We began our conversation by asking Dimitris to explain what rituals are, and how the extreme rituals he studies differ from our more typical ones.

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