Professor Harvey WhitehouseBack to People

Subjects: Archaeology and Anthropology
Department: Anthropology
Academic position: Professorial Fellow


Professor Whitehouse received his BA from London University (LSE) and his PhD from Cambridge University (King’s College), before taking up a Research Fellowship at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. From there he went to Queen’s University Belfast where he became founding director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture. He came to Oxford in 2006 to take up a newly created Chair in the School of Anthropology.

Research Interests

Professor Whitehouse is one of the founders of the cognitive science of religion field. He is especially well known for his theory of “modes of religiosity” that has been the subject of extensive critical evaluation and testing by anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, cognitive scientists, and evolutionary theorists. The modes theory proposes that the frequency and emotionality of rituals determines the scale and structure of religious organizations: low-frequency, highly arousing rituals bind together small but very cohesive groups of participants; high-frequency, less emotionally intense rituals create large anonymous communities that are more diffusely integrated. In recent years, this work has expanded beyond religion to examine the role of rituals of all kinds in binding groups together and motivating inter-group competition, including warfare, with data collection ongoing at field sites in Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Vanuatu, Brazil, the U.S., Spain, Croatia, the U.K., Mauritius, and Libya. Professor Whitehouse is also a founding co-editor of Seshat: Global History Databank, which contains a huge volume of data on historical societies going back 5000 years and is being used to test various hypotheses concerning the role of rituals in the evolution of social complexity.

Selected Publications

  1. Modes of Religiosity

Whitehouse, Harvey and Jonathan A. Lanman (2014). The Ties that Bind Us: Ritual, fusion, and identification. Current Anthropology, Vol. 55, No.6: pp 674 – 695.

Whitehouse, Harvey, Ken Kahn, Michael E.  Hochberg, and Joanna J. Bryson. (2012). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences:  Case studies concerning Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Religion, Brain, and Behavior, Vol. 2, No. 3: pp 182-20

Atkinson, Quentin D. and Harvey Whitehouse (2011). The cultural morphospace of ritual form; Examining modes of religiosity cross-culturally.  Evolution and Human Behavior. Vol. 32, No.1: pp 50-62.

Whitehouse, Harvey (2004). Modes of Religiosity: a cognitive theory of religious transmission, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Whitehouse, Harvey (2000). Arguments and Icons: divergent modes of religiosity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, Harvey (1995). Inside the Cult: religious innovation and transmission in Papua New Guinea, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  1. Identity fusion and extreme self-sacrifice

Newson Martha, Michael D. Buhrmester, and Harvey Whitehouse (2016) Explaining Lifelong Loyalty: The Role of Identity Fusion and Self-Shaping Group Events. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0160427. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0160427

Jong, Jonathan, Harvey Whitehouse, Christopher Kavanagh, Justin Lane (2015). Shared Negative Experiences Lead to Identity Fusion via Personal Reflection. PloS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0145611

Whitehouse, Harvey, Brian McQuinn, Michael Buhrmester, and William B. Swann (2014). Brothers in Arms: Libyan revolutionaries bond like Family. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol 111, No. 50:  pp 17783-17785. Early Edition www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1416284111.

Buhrmester, Michael D., W.T. Fraser, Jonathan A. Lanman, Harvey Whitehouse, & William B. Swann Jr. (2014). When terror hits home: Identity Fused Americans who saw Boston bombing victims as “family” provided aid. Self & Identity. DOI:10.1080/15298868.2014.992465.

wann, William B., Jolanda Jensen, Ángel Gómez, Harvey Whitehouse and Brock Bastian (2012). When Group Membership Gets Personal: A theory of identity fusion. Psychological Review, Vol. 119, No. 3, pp 441–456.

  1. The ritual stance in child development

Rybanska, Veronika, Ryan McKay, Jonathan Jong, and Harvey Whitehouse (In Press). Rituals improve children’s ability to delay gratification. Child Development.

Watson-Jones, Rachel E., Harvey Whitehouse, and Cristine H. Legare (2015). In-group ostracism increases high fidelity imitation in early childhood. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797615607205

Legare, Cristine H., Nicole J. WenPatricia A. Herrmann, and Harvey Whitehouse (2015). Imitative flexibility and the development of cultural learning. Cognition. Vol 142: pp. 351-361. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.05.020

Watson-Jones, Rachel, Cristine H. Legare, Harvey Whitehouse and Jennifer Clegg (2014). Task-specific effects of ostracism on imitation of social convention in early childhood. Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol. 35, No. 3: pp 204 – 210.

Herrmann, Patricia A., Cristine H. Legare, Paul L. Harris & Harvey Whitehouse (2013). Stick to the script: The effect of witnessing multiple actors on children’s imitation. Cognition, Vol. 129: pp 536-543.

Whitehouse, Harvey (2011). The Coexistence Problem in Psychology, Anthropology, and Evolutionary Theory. Human Development, Vol 54: pp 191-199.

  1. The evolution of social complexity

Whitehouse, Harvey (2016). Ritual and Social Evolution: Understanding social complexity through data. In B. Bozic et al. (Eds.): Computational History and Data-Driven Humanities pp. 1–12, 2016. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-46224-0 1

Whitehouse, HarveyPieter François, and Peter Turchin (2015). The Role of Ritual in the Evolution of Social Complexity: Five predictions and a drum roll. Cliodynamics 6(2): 199-210. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4836f93g

Salali, Gul Deniz, Harvey Whitehouse, and Michael E. Hochberg (2015). A Life-Cycle Model of Human Social Groups Produces a U-Shaped Distribution in Group Size. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0138496. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0138496

Turchin, Peter, Rob Brennan, Thomas E. Currie, Kevin C. Feeney, Pieter François, Daniel Hoyer, J. G. Manning, Arkadiusz Marciniak, Daniel Mullins, Alessio Palmisano, Peter Peregrine, Edward A. L. Turner, and Harvey Whitehouse (2015). Seshat: The Global History Databank. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution 6(1): 77-107.

Mullins, Dan, Harvey Whitehouse and Quentin Atkinson (2013). The role of writing and recordkeeping in the cultural evolution of human cooperation. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. Vol. 90, Supplement, June 2013: pp S141 – S151

Whitehouse, Harvey (2013). Rethinking Proximate Causation and Development in Religious Evolution. In P. J. Richerson and M. H. Christiansen. (eds.) Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion (Strungmann Forum Reports). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Whitehouse, Harvey Camilla Mazzucato, Ian Hodder and Quentin D. Atkinson (2013). Modes of religiosity and the evolution of social complexity at Çatalhöyük. In Ian Hodder (ed.) Religion at Work in a Neolithic Society: Vital Matters. Cambridge: CUP.