Ritual Performance and Risk
One of the by-products and effects of safety bureaucracy is the reduction of personal agency. That is, people are controlled by process, systems and rituals rather than by relationship, interactive engagement and human mediation. The process of displacement then makes paperwork the goal of the process not its method to an outcome. then Why should I have a conversation with someone or surface their unconscious when a checklist will do? Why engage in communal enactment when an audit of objects will do the trick? Count the hazards, produce a report and police behaviours.
Unfortunately, many associate the use of the language of ‘ritual’ with religious observance but this is not so. In recent years there has been extensive research in Anthropology, Social Psychology, Educational Cognition and Neuroscience into non-religious ritual:
- Baker, S., (2014) Social Tragedy, The Power of Myth, Ritual and Emotion in the New Media Ecology. Palgrave. New York.
- Bell, C., (2007) Teaching Ritual. Oxford, London.
- Bell, C., (2009) Ritual Theory and Practice. Oxford, London.
- Furst, P., (1999) Flesh of the Gods, The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens. Waveland Press. Long Grove.
- McLaren, P., (1999) Schooling as Ritual Performance. Toward a Political Economy of Educational Symbols and Gestures. Bowman and Littlefield. London.
- Miller, A., (2012) Healing the Unimaginable, Treating Ritual Abuse and Mind Control. Karnac. London.
- Rapport, R., (1999) Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge, London.
- Schechner, R., (1995) The Future of Ritual. Writings on Culture and Performance. Routledge. London.
- Sherwin, D., and Shewin, M., (2018) Turning People Into Teams, Rituals and Routines That Redesign How We Work. BK Publishers.
- Stephenson, B., (2015) Ritual, A Short Introduction. Oxford, London.
- Turner, V., (1982) From Ritual to Theatre, The Human Seriousness of Play. PAJ Pub., New York.
I have also written blogs before about ritual:
I once had a clash with a safety person when I used the word ‘ritual’ in relation to enactments of safety. The person became indignant, how dare I use such a word for the repetitive heuristics associated with saving lives? So, I asked him if he had ever studied about rituals, had any studies in Anthropology or Sociology, studied anything in political ecology or economy and the answer was no, but he was sure there was no rituals in safety.
One of the first books I ever read on ritual was by McLaren who uses the word ‘ritual’ to describe the symbols, myths, gestures and cultural processes of schooling. At the time I was lecturing students in Education at Canberra University and not one student in the cohort of 350 (discussed in tutorials) thought the word was out of place.
One is not likely to understand the nature of ritual without some engagement with: semiotics as a language, gesture as a language, cultural studies, Anthropology, Linguistics, Religious Studies or Social Psychology. None of these disciplines are known to the engineering-behaviourist worldview of safety.
In a previous occupation and in work in community, family and youth services I encountered endless numbers of people who had been victims of ‘ritual abuse’. I found the work so personally distressing that I had to give up that work after only 3 years. My brother Graham was able to stay in such an environment helping victims of ritual abuse for over 40 years. You can read about Graham’s amazing work here:
I think you have to be specially gifted to sustain such work.
Ritual abuse refers to any organized repetitive action that is situated. Rappaport suggests that rituals involve ‘the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers’. It is important to understand the notion of ‘performance’ in its holistic sense (see Elam http://lanlib.alzahra.ac.ir/multiMediaFile/2231244-4-1.pdf ). Unfortunately in safety, the word performance has become to mean some behaviourist goop about outcomes, behaviours and policing. Rituals are about performative acts NOT for assessment but that create salvic meaning and purpose by their enactment. Eg. in safety, a risk assessment is deemed to ‘save lives’.
In Neuroscience there has been some research about the neurobiologic mediation of rituals. That is, the ritual creates embodied memory through performance. In a similar way we remember many things without thinking by heuristics, habits and routines. The orbitofrontal cortex regulates the emotional limbic system and production of dopamine. In this way, the enhanced dopamine creates strong attachment to embodied acts and embodied attachment to memories, performance and satisfaction in process. This also helps explain why in ritual abuse sometimes the victims become attached to the perpetrator, despite the abuse. Indeed, the enactment of the abuse gives certainty and attachment.
You can watch more about this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQC_8jwCtbo. It is a sad fact that there has been so much ritual abuse of children in Australia (https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/our-inquiry ).
However, when we think of ritual we don’t need to consider some elaborate or planned act. We all exercise rituals daily just in greetings by hand shake (or nods and elbow bumps during Covid19) and uttering ‘hello’ as acts of politeness. All of our acts of greeting help create social cohesion and trust. The importance of gesture by resonance is well demonstrated (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0 ). In a similar way, we can affect the mood of a room by our gestures and presence.
When rituals are enacted they take over the control of the behaviour of the individual. The performer effectively puts themselves into the hands of the ritual. The ritual then controls the performance and the participants become actors.
In ritual, one forgets oneself and allows the ritual to enact its heuristic effectiveness or ineffectiveness. It doesn’t really matter, once the ritual is enacted, it’s very enactment becomes the outcome so that any measurable outcome becomes irrelevant. It is in the feeling of the behaviour (the embodiment of the act) that the dopamine receptors are triggered and the emotional satisfaction of performance triggers certainty. As long as the ritual is undertaken then something effective must have happened.
All ritual promotes an ‘historical consciousness’ and ‘tradition’. We see this in ‘safety minutes’, ‘safety shares’ and ‘safety moment’. Once the ritual is empowered it is difficult to take away, like all traditions and rituals, we are creatures seeking certainty. Taking away a ritual often creates an anxiety that its demise promotes anti-safety, despite the fact that the ritual doesn’t work (that is not effective).
Why is understanding ritual so Important for safety?
First of all, we need to understand that ritual is not inherently ‘bad’. However, reflection and critique of the many processes of safety that are ritualized ought to be a regular activity of leading in safety. If one simply wants to keep a ritual for its symbolic importance then fine, but watch out for attributions of certainty to processes because they instil hubris and overconfidence, which increases risk. The trouble is, the engineering-behaviourist-compliance culture of safety often cements in place rituals that don’t work that are attributed as effective.
I often ask in the Profile survey (https://www.humandymensions.com/services-and-programs/miprofile/ ) if workers feel that safety messaging and acts are excessive. In the last survey with a construction company this was ranked at 96%. What a strange outcome that in hyper-safety (see Amalberti Navigating Safety (2013) we see worker’s desensitized to safety? How interesting that when one crusades about safety (read fixation as safety ‘geek’, safety ‘warrior’, safety ‘hero’ etc) that one makes workplaces less safe!
Of course, Zero is the greatest creator of ritual. When one engages with the absolute and perfection, one needs rituals to confirm the effectiveness and security/certainty of the ideology. We see this in global safety where ordinary daily safety rituals (https://visionzero.global/resources ) are imbued with salvic purpose. Didn’t you know that Zero can restore sight, make limbs grow back and heal cancer? There is nothing more certain that the way Zero creates religious ritual in the face of fallibility.
One of the main reasons in understanding rituals is to raise consciousness of rituals, where they occur, what they do, how they work and whether they help in tackling risk. This is where we become more aware of meaningful and meaningless ritual. One of the most important things in reflection is to embrace rituals that work in helping people tackle risk and jettison rituals that create desensitization to risk and overconfidence in risk.