Ritual and Emotion in Social Movements
Updated: Jun 5
Social movements need to sustain participant engagement over the medium to long term, and many do so by emphasizing rituals for reinforcing group solidarity. Indeed, both sociologists and anthropologists have long emphasized the importance of rituals—pre-determined behavioral, intellectual, and emotional practices—for all manner of group activities, from private corporations to military units.
“The repeated experience of ritual participation,” one scholar notes, often “produces a feeling of solidarity—‘we are all here together, we must share something’…[as well as] collective memory —‘we were all there together.’” Participation in these togetherness ceremonies produces a community of feeling that both produces and reinforces participants’ courage and commitment to act, even in the face of painful threats.
The social bonding effects of rituals have been theorized and empirically validated in multiple studies. In fact, scholars can now empirically show that rituals of both a secular and a religious nature can produce similar social bonding effects.
Consider “Extinction Rebellion,” a UK-based climate justice movement that often begins its protests with the ritualized lighting of a torch. This “beacon of truth,” ER leaders say, serves to remind participants that they are “united in love,” strengthening their shared commitment to each other and their shared goal of climate justice through disobedience.
Another secular ritual occurs in Turkey, where women convene every Saturday in Istanbul’s Galatasaray Square to protest their children’s politically motivated disappearance. These rallies have been a constant since 1995, drawing “hundreds of demonstrators” who sit on the ground, in silence, for thirty minutes, “holding photographs of their missing sons.” This ritual draws on similar practices developed in Argentina by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who began their own silent vigils at a major urban landmark in 1977.
Although the mothers in Turkey and Argentina come together in silence, other rituals are louder, including using chants or songs.
As one scholar of protest-through-singing notes, “The singing voice is known to be the most effective instrument in expressing definite emotions,” and in group settings, “collective singing has been found to be a powerful force.” The amassing of bodies in one place, and their engagement in synchronized behaviors such as song, can create powerful emotions of solidarity as human nervous systems become attuned to one another, transferring energy from one body to another.
In Israel, to take one example, a conservative movement of Jewish nationalists protesting the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza strengthened participants’ will through ritualized singing of religious songs. Melodies with rapid tempos and major keys lifted demonstrators’ spirits and “filled them with euphoria” along with synchronized dancing, a behavior that other scholars have found “to strengthen social attachment and increase cooperation.”
 A classic exploration of the role of ritual, face-to-face gatherings, synchronized movements, singing, and other sound-and-visual experiences comes from Randall Collins (2004) Interaction Rituals Chains, Princeton University Press.  Mabel Berezin (2001). “Emotions and Political Identity: Mobilizing Affection for the Polity,” p. 93. In Goodwin et al, Passionate Politics.  Ruth Braunstein, Brad R Fulton, and Richard L Wood (2014). "The Role of Bridging Cultural Practices in Racially and Socioeconomically Diverse Civic Organizations." American Sociological Review 79/4:705-25.  For a recent exploration of the emotional impacts of religious rituals, see Sarah J. Charles et al. (2020). “Religious Rituals Increase Social Bonding and Pain Threshold.” PsyArXiv.  Sarah J. Charles et al (2021). “United on Sunday: The Effects of Secular Rituals on Social Bonding and Affect.” PLoS ONE 16(1): e0242546.  See https://extinctionrebellion.uk/event/opening-ceremony-lighting-a-beacon-of-truth/.  Carlotta Gall (September 29, 2018). “Turkey Clamps Down on a Group Erdogan Once Championed: Grieving Mothers.” The New York Times.  The March of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, UNESCO.  Moshe Bensimon (2012). “The Sociological Role of Collective Singing during Intense Moments of Protest: The Disengagement from the Gaza Strip.” Sociology, 46(2), 241–257.  Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains.  Bensimon (2012), “The Sociological Role,” p.246.