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

Harvey Whitehouse is currently the recipient of an ERC Advanced Grant (2016-2021) to test and develop his theory of modes of religiosity. 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, Harvey Whitehouse’s 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. This research has become increasingly global in reach with data collection currently ongoing in Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, Vanuatu, Brazil, USA, Spain, Cameroon, and Libya. Whitehouse is also a founding director of Seshat: Global History Databank, which contains a huge volume of data on historical societies going back 10,000 years and is being used to test various hypotheses concerning the role of rituals in the evolution of social complexity.

Selected Publications

Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history

Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter Francois, Patrick E. Savage, Thomas E. Currie, Kevin C. Feeney, Enrico Cioni, Rosalind Purcell, Robert M. Ross, Jennifer Larson, John Baines, Barend ter Haar, Alan Covey, Peter Turchin (2019) Nature 568, 226-229

Dying for the group: Towards a general theory of extreme self-sacrifice

Harvey Whitehouse (2018) Behavioral and Brain Sciences 42

The evolution of extreme cooperation via shared dysphoric experiences

Harvey Whitehouse, Jonathan Jong, Michael D. Buhrmester, Ángel Gómez, Brock Bastian, Christopher M. Kavanagh, Martha Newson, Miriam Matthews, Jonathan A. Lanman, Ryan McKay & Sergey Gavrilets (2017). Nature: Scientific Reports 7.

Brothers in Arms: Libyan Revolutionaries Bond Like Family

Harvey Whitehouse, Brian McQuinn, Michael Buhrmester, and William B. Swann (2014). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 111, No. 50: pp. 17702-17703