Ritual and Information Architectures

Posted on Fri 03 September 2010 in Situation Theory

(published and featured at the Open Anthropology Cooperative 09/03/10)

In a series recent blog posts, here, here and here, I have explored John Perry and David Israel's notion of an information architecture given in their paper Information and Architecture (pdf). In particular I have been exploring their notions of a coincident architecture and a combinative architecture. A coincident information architecture is an information system in which the architectural relationship between two indicating facts or signals induces a relationship in their respective indicated contents. Thus, to take a canonical example, a machine that simultaneously measures the weight and height of a person, by the fact that it is built in such a way, induces a relationship between the indicated contents of each measurement, namely that the belong to the same person. In a combinative architecture, the architectural relationship between indicating facts or signals reflects rather than induces their respective indicated contents. Hence, to take a canonical example, medical documents belonging to the same patient will be put into an envelope together, this relationship of being in the same envelope being a reflection of the fact that the documents pertain to the same patient. See my blog posts and their paper for more details.

It strikes me however, that this notion of coincident and combinative information architectures may find an application in the analysis of ritual. A few quick (and possibly naive examples):

Coincident Architecture

In order to be a coincident architecture between signals or indicating facts, the relationship between their respective indicated contents must have been induced by the architectural relationship between the signals or indicating facts. For example in some kinds of magic the ritual paraphernalia may be manipulated in some manner for the purpose of bringing about a desired effect upon the persons and object indicated, such as when a curse tablet is placed in a grave. Rites of separation often include acts of cutting, which might be thought of as inducing or causing the separation between the things or people that they represent.

These examples require much more careful exegesis. Instead I would take a (hopefully) more straightforward example of a Roman Catholic priest dressed in his priestly robes giving holy communion to the congregation. We might identify two contents:

1. The fact that the man is wearing the dress of a Roman Catholic priest carries the information that he is a priest of the Roman Catholic Church.

2. The fact that the man is giving holy communion the congregation indicates that he has or has assumed the ritual authority to perform that particular ritual act.

The underlined portions we call the indicating facts or signals, and the italicized portions the indicated contents.

We can connect these two contents by observing the (hypothetical) connecting fact that the man who is wearing the dress of a priest is the same man who is giving communion to the congregation, and therefore the man who is the Roman Catholic priest has or has assumed the ritual authority to perform that act. The induced relationship is that of identity.

Inducing an identity in this way may seem trivial, but it seems to me that such relationships are integral to ritual power and to the establishment of authority. In this case, the relationship between Church authority and holy communion and ritual authority.

Combinative Architecture

In a combinative architecture, the relationship between indicating facts or signals reflects existing relationships. The image in a mirror reflects the visage of the person in front of it. The crown on a king's head reflects the position he occupies. The fact that the priests stand before the congregation with their sacred paraphernalia reflects the positions they occupy as intermediaries between the congregation and God. The order in which warriors are called may signal the honor that their leader accords them. The boy who survives hardship to become a man demonstrates both his courage and resilience. All of these require more careful examination, and a legitimate claim can be made that these all play roles in inducing exactly what they reflect, something which should not be taken as abnormal. On the contrary, combinative and coincident architectures are frequently coupled.

The big-man who slaughters a thousand pigs for a feast demonstrates that he is a bigger man than the man who could only slaughter five-hundred. One cannot deny that this slaughter contributes to his status. But here I want to point to the material and economic constraints of the achievement itself. The fact that the first big-man was capable of slaughtering a thousand pigs for a feast is a reflection of his wealth and power. The fact the second big man was capable of slaughtering fiver-hundred pigs for a feast is a reflection of his wealth and power. The fact that the first big man was capable of slaughtering more pigs than the second is a reflection of the difference in wealth and power between them. This is not much different than a person's lifting 500 lb cannot help but to
attest to her greater strength than a person's lifting only 150 lb.

Final Thoughts

This is only a crude entry-point, more suggestive than substantive. My anthropology books are packed away; I no longer have Roy Rappaport's "Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity" on hand, and I'm afraid I do not have much time to engage the anthropological literature on ritual. A shame. I welcome this community's suggestions, or contributions to such an analysis, especially those like John McCreery who have spent so much time studying ritual.

I have sometimes found that maintaining the distinction is trickier than one might imagine. What Perry and Israel mean by induce is not always clear. Magic that is meant to cause an effect might be said to meant to induce an effect, but I am not sure that Perry and Israel would accept this interpretation. Also, Perry and Israel are very much interested in truth, facts, and such. Information is true content, content being a more general thing, something with which I suspect Rappaport may have agreed. But truth has an uneasy place not only in anthropology in general, but in the interpretation of ritual and magic in particular. Yet, I think that a fairly straightforward accommodation of the two views can be found, at least under fixed interpretation. More on that perhaps at another time.


Israel, David, and John Perry. Information and Architecture. In Proceedings of the Second Conference on Situation Theory and Its Applications, edited by Jon Barwise, Jean Mark Gawron, Gordon Plotkin,
and Syun Tutiya, 147-160. Vol. 2. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of
Language (CSLI), 1992.