Professor Harvey Whitehouse
+44 (0)1865 274705
Teaching and research interests
Teaching and research interests
Socio-cultural evolution, cognitive science of culture, religion and ritual.
Following two years of field research on a ‘cargo cult’ in New Britain , Papua New Guinea in the late eighties, Harvey Whitehouse developed a theory of ’modes of religiosity that has been the subject of extensive critical evaluation and testing by anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, and cognitive scientists. The modes theory explains the scale and structure of religious organizations in terms of the frequency and emotionality of rituals: low frequency emotionally arousing rituals bind together small groups of participants; high frequency, less exciting rituals create large anonymous communities that are more diffusely integrated. Whitehouse explains these patterns in terms of cognitive mechanisms (such as imitation, memory, and analogical thinking) and cultural selection pressures (such as between group competition). Recent efforts to test the modes theory have applied a wide range of methods including psychological experiments, economic games, large-scale surveys, and agent-based models. Whitehouse led much of this research as director of the Explaining Religion Project (2007-2010), which sought to explain both recurrent and variable features of religion and to describe and predict changes in religious systems over time. Funded by the European Commission and employing seven postdoctoral researchers in Oxford, this project involved 14 collaborating universities across Europe and North America.
Professor Whitehouse is currently directing the Ritual, Community, and Conflict project, funded by a five-year Large Grant from the ESRC (2011-2016), which examines the causes and consequences of rituals in human societies. The first part of the project builds on collaborations with cognitive psychologist Cristine Legare (Texas at Austin), originally funded by the McDonnell Foundation and the Fell Fund, to explore the origins of the ritual stance by examining how children acquire and understand ritualized actions. Together with Jon Lanman (Oxford), Miriam Matthews (Oxford) and Ryan McKay (Royal Holloway) the second part of the project explores the effects of ritual participation on ingroup cohesion and outgroup hostility. The third part of the project focuses on the role of ritual in the evolution of socio-political systems. In collaboration with archaeologists Ian Hodder (Stanford) and Camilla Mazzucato (Oxford) Whitehouse is building a database on the Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk in Turkey and together with modellers Quentin Atkinson (Auckland) and Michael Hochberg (Montpellier) using this material to investigate how changes in the frequency and emotionality of ritual life relate to the shift from foraging to farming. In collaboration with biologists Peter Turchin (Connecticut) and historian Pieter Francois (Oxford) Whitehouse is also building a wiki-based database on ritual and group formation in the Roman Empire with the aim of extending this to cover over 5,000 years of recorded history on global scale through the gradual involvement of a wider community of historians. In collaboration with civil war expert Brian McQuinn (Oxford) Whitehouse is meanwhile examining the role of ritual in the rapid formation of modern rebel groups where cultural selection pressures are very intense, currently based on field research being undertaken by McQuinn in Libya.
In addition to his research endeavours, Professor Whitehouse has been heavily involved in the creation of new academic programmes. He was founding director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University Belfast and of Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology of Mind. In 2006, Whitehouse was elected to a Chair in Social Anthropology at Oxford University and to a Professorial Fellowship at Magdalen College. While Head of Oxford’s School of Anthropology (2006-2009) he helped to establish the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology.