HARVEY WHITEHOUSE is best known for his theories of ritual and group cohesion, based originally on field research in Papua New Guinea, which have been extensively discussed and extended by social scientists and experimental psychologists. He has directed a number of large collaborative research programmes using psychological experiments, cross-cultural fieldwork, economic games, large-scale surveys, and social simulations. His recent 'Explaining Religion' project (funded by the European Commission) set out to explain both recurrent and variable features of religion and to describe and predict changes in religious systems over time.
Whitehouse's latest project on 'Ritual, Community and Conflict' (funded by the ESRC) investigates the causes and consequences of rituals in human societies. Using carefully controlled psychological experiments the project examines how young children in Western and Pacific Island societies acquire and understand ritualized actions. The project also explores the effects of collective ritual participation on in-group cohesion and out-group hostility building on work in social psychology and behavioural economics and gathering data from sites in North America, the Middle East and Africa. In collaboration with a team of archaeologists working mainly in Turkey Whitehouse is building a database to investigate how changes in the frequency and emotionality of ritual life relate to the shift from foraging to farming. With biologists and historians he is constructing a wiki-based database on ritual and group formation over 5,000 years of global history. Together with civil war experts Whitehouse has also been studying the role of ritual in the rapid formation and reproduction of modern rebel groups. Drawing on large databases of this kind, agent based models are being used to simulate the role of ritual in the evolution of social complexity.
Whitehouse 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.
Whitehouse is the author of Inside the Cult, Arguments and Icons, and Modes of Religiosity and has edited numerous volumes of essays.