Why are interactional rituals such an integral part of our daily lives? This is a particularly interesting question and one which is worth investigating. Rituals have existed since the dawn of humanity and, according to many historians, human societies have undergone a major ‘deritualisation’ process. ‘Deritualisation’ refers to how, following the industrialisation of many societies, the (predominantly religious ceremonial) rituals that influenced people’s lives up until the Middle Ages gradually began to disappear from (or at least decreased in importance in) social interactions. Yet, according to sociologists, such as Erving Goffman, and linguists, for example the authors of this blog, this deritualisation process only altered the way in which rituals were manifested but did not, even remotely, influence the importance of rituals in daily interactions. No better evidence exists to support the validity of this view than the current implications of interactional ritual behaviour versus the need for social distancing.
One might argue that the most common example of the historical embeddedness of rituals is the custom of handshaking in many European countries (handshaking is less prevalent in the UK) and its equivalent in other countries. Indeed, according to many researchers, the ritual of handshaking developed from the chivalrous custom of demonstrating that a person was unarmed. From the point of view of the historical interaction scholar, the majority of our interactional rituals are historically embedded. In social distancing, it is not relatively superficial and formalised rituals, such as handshaking, that cause problems, but other rituals such as the complex cluster of interactional rituals that are based on the need to be ‘nice’ to other people. These interactional rituals range from the expectation to engage in small-talk, to leaning towards a person and directly looking at him/her when engaging in conversation, through to refraining from aggression (e.g. warning the other person to keep their distance).
A major advantage of research on interactional rituals, in our view, is that it allows us to systematise and analyse these rituals in the context of social distancing. Of course, the question arises: would such an analysis make social distancing any easier to implement? The answer to this question might well be no, but for the fact that research provides information which is particularly useful when formulating recommendations about how we should communicate our need for social distancing to other people.
The Research featured in the blog was supported by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Momentum Grant (LP2017/5)