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Initiation Rituals

Special rituals and requirements for new members of a group are called initiation rituals. Many social organizations are quite demanding of new members. Anthropologists have a term—mortification rituals—for initiation ceremonies that inflict pain or humiliation or otherwise mortify the new member of the group. To mortify is, literally, to threaten death, and mortification rituals often threaten death either actually or symbolically.

What are mortification rituals?

For example, in the initiation ritual for the Freemasons, the candidate is blindfolded and then led around by a rope around his neck. As the candidate approaches the oath of secrecy, the sharp point of a sword is place against his left breast. The Skull and Bones secret society at Yale puts a new member into a coffin. Members chant at him and he is "reborn" into the society.

Hazing is one variety of initiation ritual. Now banned on many college campuses, hazing rituals can be painful, humiliating, or dangerous. In a typical hazing ritual, new members of a group are forced to endure pain or ridicule. For example, first-year student at a military school may be given insulting names (like "grunts," "rats," or "pleebs") and required to perform humiliating services for older students. At one United States Air Force base, pilots who had just received honorary wing pins were welcomed into the exclusive group of senior pilots by having the wing pins pounded into their flesh. (The commanding officer was fired when that particular ritual gained national attention.)

How does dissonance theory explain the effectiveness of tough initiation rituals?

Mortification rituals encourage the comraderie that results from shared experiences of hardship, familiar to any war veteran. Also, as implied by cognitive dissonance theory, people who sacrifice for a group are more likely to adopt a positive attitude toward the group. Once they have engaged in behavior that implies that group membership is worth paying a high price, they are likely to convince themselves that group membership is very valuable. To feel otherwise would make it hard to explain why they went through the trouble and discomfort involved in joining the group.

Painful or stressful initiation experiences have a long history in the human species. In many cultures, young men or women are forced to submit to painful body alterations like circumcision or tattooing, as a symbol of entry into adulthood.

Physical stress can serve to make a new group member dependent and obedient, weary and incapable of thinking clearly, ready to do only what he or she is told to do. Dreifus (1982) quotes a young woman describing conditions at a weekend retreat for a religious cult:

How can physical stress make a new recruit more susceptible to group pressures?

We were allowed only four or five hours of sleep a night. There were also three-hour-long lectures, during which we sat on the floor, and we played a lot of exhausting games in which we learned to function under a group leader. I got so tired that it was hard to think straight.

Similar procedures are used to harden a Marine, with a few important differences. For example, Marines are supposed to be allowed eight hours sleep a night. As reported by Orr Kelly (September 10, 1979), an associate editor of U.S. News & World Report, a new recruit at Parris Island undergoes quite a stress test.

What are techniques used to harden new Marines?

From the moment the apprehensive recruits step out of the buses...and take their places on yellow footprints painted on the pavement, the pressure never lets up.

At breakfast, long before dawn, they march through the chow line silently and at attention. Sixteen hours later, they lie at attention on their bunks and sing the Marine Hymn.

Parris Island is a carefully designed pressure cooker in which 23,400 men and 2,500 women a year are stripped of their individuality and converted, in 10 weeks and two days, into Marines.

"We teach them how to stand and how to talk," says Staff Sgt. G.F. Jones, a drill instructor. "Everything they knew, we've taken away from them. All they know is what we tell them."

They are taught to speak, and even think, of themselves as "the recruit." The word "I" is gone as surely as the hair that falls to the barbershop floor early on the first morning at the recruit depot.

How are newcomers to an organization often "infantilized"?

Often newcomers to an organization are infantilized (rendered babylike) with a shaven head, long flowing robes, or rules of conduct that forbid them from speaking unless spoken to. The significance of a shaven head has been understood since the Biblical story of Samson. It indicates the taming of the wild man and submission to control or discipline. At our university, it was once the practice to shave the heads of first year football recruits before the first practice. When a new Buddhist monk, Hare Krishna devotee, football player or army recruit gets his head shaved, it is powerful symbolism that he is "in the organization now."

Mystery also plays a role in group cohesion. When a new member is recruited to a "secret society" or similar organization, promises are shared, oaths recited, sacred responsibilities pronounced and accepted. Access is allowed to secret writings or places.

Consider the typical graduation ceremony at a college or university. Students and faculty in long flowing robes listen to speakers make weighty pronouncements. Dignitaries hand out scrolls. It is an echo of ancient rites signifying initiation into a guild consisting of the educated elite.

What is the end effect of intense initiation experiences, for those who survive?

One function of intense experiences like boot camp and initiation ceremonies is to create a common bond among members of a group. Marine training may be tough, and a lot of people might "wash out," but the survivors share a pride felt by every Marine. Precisely because Marine training is tough, it is meaningful. Similarly, if every male in the village goes through the same public circumcision ceremony, there will be a common bond. Blood brothers (those who have shared in some painful ritual) are close because of their mutual understanding and sacrifice.

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey