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Action Parsing in Ritual and Non-Ritual action

Activity: Talk or presentation typesLecture and oral contribution

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Jesper Sørensen - Lecturer

  • Section for the Study of Religion

This paper will present a theoretical model as well as preliminary results from a number of experimental investigations into the fundamental cognitive processing of ritual action sequences. It is long tradition in the scientific study of religion and anthropology that ritual actions are distinct from instrumental actions on a number of counts (Boyer & Liénard 2006; Humphrey & Laidlaw 1994; Staal 1979). They expose an opaque relation between cause and purported effect; they are stipulated and thus not intentionally specified by the agents; and they contain a number of non-instrumental features such as extreme iteration, redundancy, and exaggeration. Building on the theoretical model of Sørensen (2007) it will be argued that in ritual actions two basic cognitive systems used to understand instrumental actions are disconnected: (a) a system that perceive and classify actions based on recognition of basic action gestalts specified by a local causal and intentional structure; (b) a system that organize such basic representation into more comprehensive schematic action representations defined by comprehensive causal frameworks as well a higher level intentional specification. This will be discussed based on experiments into the difference between action parsing in instrumental and non-instrumental actions.


Boyer, Pascal & Pierre Liénard (2006). “Why ritualized behavior? Precaution Systems and action parsing in developmental, pathological and cultural rituals.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29: 595-650.

Humphrey, Caroline & James Laidlaw (1994). The Archetypal Actions of Ritual. Oxford University Press.

Sørensen, Jesper (2007). “Acts that Work: A Cognitive Approach to Ritual Agency.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 19(3-4): 281-300.

Staal Fritz (1979). “The Meaninglessness of Ritual Action.” Numen 26: 2-22.
Emneord: Ritual, action, parsing, segmentation
29 Jan 2010

Event (Conference)

TitleMeaning and Interaction: Dynamic Models and Social Interaction
CityAarhus Universitet


  • Ritual, action, parsing, segmentation

ID: 19014155