Camps, Rituals, and Nation-Building

Anthropologists have long argued that collective rituals help forge shared identity among participants, producing social cohesion. We test this claim in the context of Hindu-Muslim relations in India. We assigned 412 boys to three groups: (1) a standard 12-day youth camp featuring sports, lectures, and other fun activities; (2) a similar camp with additional ritual elements (engaging in synchronized, repetitive and symbolic actions like singing the national anthem, raising the national flag, and dancing in unison); and (3) a control group. Using behavioral outcome measures, we find that camp participation improved intergroup relations at least six weeks later, decreasing ingroup bias and increasing inter-religious group interactions. While rituals bolstered emotions and psychological well-being, they didn’t further influence intergroup relations. Our findings indicate that it is social gatherings that bridge group divides, while rituals primarily contribute to psychological welfare.

Written with Arkadev Ghosh (Briq Institute), Prerna Kundu (University of British Columbia), and Gareth Nellis (University of California, San Diego)