Building bigness : religious practice and social support in rural South India

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This dissertation investigates the ways in which people in two villages in Tamil Nadu, India use religious practice to gain insight into the underlying character and intentions of others. More broadly, it is an evaluation of the social causes and consequences of religious action and a test of the "costly signaling theory of religion." In these villages, residents sometimes undertake what can be quite dramatic religious acts: walking on a bed of hot coals, piercing their cheeks with spears, sacrificing animals, and getting possessed. They also pray in their homes, worship at temples, and attend church services. Drawing from survey data providing reputational evaluations and social support network data, this dissertation elucidates the social consequences of religious practice, both for the individuals who undertake these ritual acts, and for the communities of which they are a part. The data show that those who are involved, and involved in costlier ways, in the religious life of the village are not only seen as more devout, but also seen as having a wider suite of prosocial traits. In accordance with those reputational qualities, villagers are more likely to go to a person for support of any kind, if he/she is involved in the religious life of the village. Greater religiosity does not just burden a person with requests for assistance: such individuals are themselves better able to access the social support so necessary to one's livelihood. Many of these supportive bonds are between religious co-participants: shared participation in rituals increases the likelihood of a support tie between individuals, and, at the group structural level, results in more dense and reciprocal ties between participants. These results provide broad support for the costly signaling theory of religion, but also suggest more complex relationships. The scale of the audience (which make some acts "dramatic" and some "subtle") and the diverse types of "cost" (including not only what is endured in carrying out a ritual act, but also the external threats of gossip and censure) mean that there is quite a range of religious acts to be undertaken. Importantly, villagers are differentially able to undertake those various acts because of their relative social positions.


Type of resource text
Form electronic; electronic resource; remote
Extent 1 online resource.
Publication date 2015
Issuance monographic
Language English


Associated with Power, Eleanor A
Associated with Stanford University, Department of Anthropology.
Primary advisor Bird, Rebecca (Rebecca Bliege)
Primary advisor Luhrmann, T. M. (Tanya M.), 1959-
Thesis advisor Bird, Rebecca (Rebecca Bliege)
Thesis advisor Luhrmann, T. M. (Tanya M.), 1959-
Thesis advisor Jones, James Holland
Thesis advisor Sosis, Richard
Thesis advisor Thiranagama, Sharika
Advisor Jones, James Holland
Advisor Sosis, Richard
Advisor Thiranagama, Sharika


Genre Theses

Bibliographic information

Statement of responsibility Eleanor A. Power.
Note Submitted to the Department of Anthropology.
Thesis Thesis (Ph.D.)--Stanford University, 2015.
Location electronic resource

Access conditions

© 2015 by Eleanor Alice Power
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-NC).

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