Women-Centered Rituals and Levels of Domestic Violence

A Cross-Cultural Examination of Ritual as a Signaling and Solidarity-Building Strategy


  • Kate J. Stockly Center for Mind and Culture, Boston, MA
  • Stephanie Arel Center for Mind and Culture and New York University and 9/11 Museum and Memorial
  • Megan K. DeFranza Center for Mind and Culture and Boston University
  • Damian Ruck University of Tennessee
  • Luke Matthews RAND Corporation
  • Wesley Wildman Boston University New York University and 9/11 Museum and Memorial




costly signaling theory, domestic violence, ritual, women, religion, solidarity, marriage residence patterns


Prior research indicates that ritual can be a source of social solidarity by signaling trustworthiness and group commitment. A separate line of research expects domestic violence against women to be more common in societies with post-marital residence at the husband’s birthplace (i.e. patrilocality). Thus, we hypothesized that when wives are able to construct strong bonds with the female members of their communities through solidarity-building rituals, they gain social support capable of inhibiting violence, leading to lower overall levels of domestic violence--especially in patrilocal societies. Results indicated that certain types of women-centered rituals were associated with lower levels of sexual and domestic violence; however, we found inconsistent effects according to patrilocal residence. Women-centered rituals were not found to be associated with beliefs about the husband’s prerogative to punish and dominate his spouse, and patrilocality did not contribute to the effects we found.

Author Biography

Kate J. Stockly, Center for Mind and Culture, Boston, MA

Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Mind and Culture and a PhD student at Boston University in the Graduate Program in Religion.


Alesina, Alberto, Benedetta Brioschi, and Eliana La Ferrara. 2016. ‘Violence against Women: A Cross-Cultural Analysis for Africa’, NBER Working Paper Series. Doi: https://doi.org/10.3386/w21901. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3386/w21901

Alvarez, H.P. 2004. ‘Residence Groups among Hunter-Gatherers: A View of the Claims and Evidence for Patrilocal Bands’, in B. Chapais and C.M. Berman (eds.), Kinship and Behavior in Primates (New York: Oxford University Press): 420-42.

Anderson, Kristin L. 1997. ‘Gender, Status, and Domestic Violence: An Integration of Feminist and Family Violence Approaches’, Journal of Marriage and the Family 59.3: 655-69. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/353952. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/353952

Atran, S., and A. Norenzayan. 2004. ‘Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape: Counter­intuition, Commitment, Compassion, Communion’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27: 713-30. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X04000172. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X04000172

Atran, S., and J. Henrich. 2010. ‘The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competi­tion Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions’, Biological Theory 5.1: 1-13. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1162/BIOT_a_00018. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1162/BIOT_a_00018

Bates, Douglas, Martin Maechler, Ben Bolker, and Steve Walker. 2015. ‘Fitting Linear Mixed-Effects Models Using lme4’, Journal of Statistical Software 67.1: 1-48. Doi: https://doi.org/10.18637/jss.v067.i01. DOI: https://doi.org/10.18637/jss.v067.i01

Bulbulia, J. 2004. ‘The Cognitive and Evolutionary Psychology of Religion’, Biology and Philosophy 19: 655-86. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-005-5568-6. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-005-5568-6

Bulbulia, J. 2012. ‘Spreading Order: Religion, Cooperative Niche Construction, and Risky Coordination Problems’, Biological Philosophy 27: 1-17. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-011-9295-x. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-011-9295-x

Brown, Judith K. 2004. ‘Transitions in the Life-Course of Women’, in Carol R. Ember and Melvin Ember (eds.), Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Men and Women in the World’s Cultures (New York: Kluwer Academic Plenum Publishers): 163-74.

Burnham, K.P., and D.R. Anderson. 2002. Model Selection and Multimodal Inference: A Practical Information-Theoretic Approach (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2nd edn).

Chagnon, Napoleon A. 1977. Yanomamo: The Fierce People (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 2nd edn).

Cohen, E. 2007. The Mind Possessed: The Cognition of Spirit Possession in an Afro-Brazilian Religious Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195323351.001.0001

Cohen, J. 1988. Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2nd edn).

Cronk, Lee. 1994. ‘Evolutionary Theories of Morality and the Manipulative Use of Signals’, Zygon 29: 81-101. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9744.1994.tb00651.x. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9744.1994.tb00651.x

Cunradi, Carol B., Raul Caetano, and John Schafer. 2002. ‘Religious Af?liation, Denominational Homogamy, and Intimate Partner Violence among U.S. Couples’, Journal for the Scienti?c Study of Religion 41.1: 139-51. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5906.00106. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5906.00106

Davis, William David. 1971. ‘Societal Complexity and the Nature of Primitive Man’s Conception of the Supernatural’. PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Divale, William, and Albert Seda. 1999. ‘Codes on Gossip for Societies in the Standard Sample’, World Cultures 10.1: 7-22.

Durkheim, Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: The Free Press).

Ellison, Christopher G., and Kristin L. Anderson. 2001. ‘Religious Involvement and Domestic Violence among U.S. Couples’, Journal for the Scienti?c Study of Religion 40.2: 269-86. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/0021-8294.00055. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/0021-8294.00055

eHRAF. 1996. ‘eHRAF World Cultures’ (New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files, Inc.).

Ember, Carol R., and Melvin Ember. 2004. ‘Gender-Based Social Groups’, in Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Men and Women in the World’s Cultures (New York: Kluwer Academic Plenum Publishers): 128-36. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-29907-6_13. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-29907-6_13

Fortunato, Laura 2017. ‘Insights from Evolutionary Anthropology on the (Pre)history of the Nuclear Family’, Cross-Cultural Research 51.2: 92-116. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1069397117691006. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1069397117691006

Fox, R. 1983 [1967]. Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Gelles, Richard J. 1993. ‘Through a Sociological Lens: Social Structure and Family Violence’, in Donileen R. Loseke, Richard J. Gelles, and Mary M. Cavanaugh (eds.), Current Controversies on Family Violence (Newbury Park, CA: Sage): 31-46.

Heady, Patrick, and Mikolaj Szoltysek. 2017. ‘Editor’s Introduction: Murdock and Goody Revisited’, Cross-Cultural Research 51.2: 79-91. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1069397117693806. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1069397117693806

Heise, Lori L., and Andreas Kotsadam. 2015. ‘Cross-National and Multilevel Corre­lates of Partner Violence: An Analysis of Data from Population-Based Surveys’, The Lancet 3: e332-40. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(15)00013-3. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(15)00013-3

Henrich, J. 2009. ‘The Evolution of Costly Displays, Cooperation, and Religion: Credibility Enhancing Displays and their Implications for Cultural Evolution’, Evolution and Human Behavior 30: 244-60. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005

Hill, Kim R., et al. 2011. ‘Co-Residence Patterns in Hunter-Gatherer Societies Show Unique Human Social Structure’, Science 331.6022: 1286-89. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1199071. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1199071

Howell, Marilyn J., and Karen L. Pugliesi. 1988. ‘Husbands who Harm: Predicting Spousal Violence by Men’, Journal of Family Violence 3.1: 15-27. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00994663. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00994663

Hrdy, S.B. 2009. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press).

Huber, Brad R., and LaWanda Simmons. 2014. ‘SPSS ?le ANTH 491 PSF 60 Variable List.doc’. Online: http://huberb.people.cofc.edu/www/Cross%20Cultural%20Data/PSF_60_Spring%202016.sav.

Huber, Brad R., Vendula Linhartova, and Dana Cope. 2004. ‘Measuring Paternal Certainty Using Cross-Cultural Data’, World Cultures 15.1: 48-59.

Irons, William. 1996a. ‘In Our Own Self-Image: The Evolution of Morality, Deception, and Religion’, Skeptic 4: 50-61.

Irons, William. 1996b. ‘Morality as an Evolved Adaptation’, in J.P. Hurd (ed.), Investigating the Biological Foundations of Morality (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press): 1-34.

Irons, William. 1996c. ‘Morality, Religion, and Human Nature’, in W.M. Richardson and W. Wildman (eds.), Religion and Science: History, Method, and Dialogue (New York: Routledge): 375-400.

Irons, William. 2001. ‘Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment’, in R. Nesse (ed.), Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment (New York: Russell Sage Foundation): 292-309.

Jollife, I.T. 2002. Principal Component Analysis (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2nd edn).

Kaplan, H. 1994. ‘Evolutionary and Wealth Flows Theories of Fertility: Empirical Tests and New Models’, Population and Development Review 20: 753-91. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/2137661. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/2137661

Kirby, Kathryn R., Russell D. Gray, Simon J. Greenhill, Fiona M. Jordan, Stephanie Gomes-Ng, Hans-Jorg Bibiko, Damian E. Blasi, Carlos A. Botero, Claire Bowern, Carol R. Ember, Dan Leehr, Bobbi S. Low, Joe McCarter, William Divale, and Michael C. Gavin. 2016. ‘D-PLACE: A Global Database of Cultural, Linguistic and Environmental Diversity’, PLoS ONE 11.7: e0158391. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0158391. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0158391

Kramer, K.L., and R.D. Greaves. 2011. ‘Postmarital Residence and Bilateral Kin Associations among Hunter-Gatherers’, Human Nature 22.1-2: 41-63. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-011-9115-7. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-011-9115-7

Lagacé, Robert O. (ed.). 2011. Sixty Cultures: A Guide to the HRAF Probability Sample Files (Part A) (New Haven: Human Relations Area Files).

Lewis, M.P. 2009. ‘Ethnologue, Languages of the World’ (SIL International).

Levinson, David. 1989. Family Violence in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Newbury Park: Sage Publications). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4757-5360-8_18. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4757-5360-8_18

Lienard, P., and Pascal Boyer. 2006. ‘Whence Collective Rituals? A Cultural Selection Model of Ritualize Behavior’, American Anthropologist 108.4: 814-27. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2006.108.4.814. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2006.108.4.814

Margolis, Maxine L. 2004. ‘The Relative Status of Men and Women’, in Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Men and Women in the World’s Cultures (New York: Kluwer Academic Plenum Publishers): 137-45. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-29907-6_14

Marlowe, Frank W. 2004. ‘Marital Residence among Foragers’, Current Anthropology 45.2: 277-84. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1086/382256. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/382256

Matthews, L.J. 2012. ‘The Recognition Signal Hypothesis for the Adaptive Evolution of Religion: A Phylogenetic Test with Christian Denominations’, Human Nature 23: 218-49. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-012-9138-8. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-012-9138-8

Matthews, L.J. 2016. ‘Mutualistic Cooperation—Why Religion is Common but Saints are Rare’, Religion, Brain and Behavior 7.3: 253-55. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2016.1156561. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2016.1156561

Mernissi, Fatima. 1987. Beyond the Veil: Male–Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, rev. edn).

Miller-McLemore, Bonne J. 1996. ‘Protestantism and the European-American Family: Like Oil and Water’, in William Scott Green and Jacob Neusner (eds.), The Religion Factor: An Introduction to How Religion Matters (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press): 166-85.

Murdock, G.P. 1981. Atlas of World Cultures (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press).

Murdock, G.P., and D.R. White. 1969. ‘Standard Cross-Cultural Sample’, Ethnology 8: 329-69. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/3772907. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/3772907

Murdock, G.P., and W.F. Wilson. 1972. ‘Settlement Patterns and Community Organi­zation: Cross-Cultural Codes 3’, Ethnology 11.3: 254-95. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/3773219. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/3773219

Nakagawa, S., and H. Schielzeth. 2013. ‘A General and Simple Method for Obtaining R2 from Generalized Linear Mixed-Effects Models’, Methods in Ecology and Evolution 4: 133-42. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2041-210x.2012.00261.x. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2041-210x.2012.00261.x

Naroll, Raoul. 1967. ‘The Proposed HRAF Probability Sample’, Behavior Science Notes 2: 70-80. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/106939716700200202. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/106939716700200202

Nason-Clark, Nancy. 1997. The Battered Wife: How Christians Confront Family Violence (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press).

Nason-Clark, Nancy. 2000. ‘Making the Sacred Safe: Woman Abuse and Communities of Faith’, Sociology of Religion 61: 349-68. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/3712520. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/3712520

Paige, Karen Ericksen, and Jeffry M. Paige. 1981. The Politics of Reproductive Ritual (Berkeley: University of California Press). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/9780520311732

Quinn, Naomi. 1977. ‘Anthropological Studies on Women’s Status’, Annual Review of Anthropology 6: 181-225. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.an.06.100177.001145. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.an.06.100177.001145

Sanday, Peggy. 1981. Female Power and Male Dominance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Sanderson, Stephen K., and Wesley W. Roberts. 2008. ‘The Evolutionary Forms of the Religious Life: A Cross-Cultural, Quantitative Analysis’, American Anthropologist 110.4: 454-66. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2008.00078.x. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2008.00078.x

Sear, Rebecca. 2017. ‘Family and Fertility: Does Kin Help In?uence Women’s Fertility, and How Does This Vary Worldwide?’, Population Horizons 14.1: 18-34. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1515/pophzn-2017-0006. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/pophzn-2017-0006

Sosis, Richard. 2003. ‘Why aren’t we all Hutterites? Costly Signaling Theory and Religious Behavior’, Human Nature 14: 91-127. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-003-1000-6. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-003-1000-6

Sosis, Richard. 2006. ‘Religious Behaviors, Badges, and Bans: Signaling Theory and the Evolution of Religion’, in P. McNamara (ed.), Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter our Understanding of Religion (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers): 61-86.

Sosis, Richard, and Candace Alcorta. 2003. ‘Signaling, Solidarity, and the Sacred: The Evolution of Religious Behavior’, Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 264-74. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/evan.10120. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/evan.10120

Sosis, Richard, and Jordan Kiper. 2013. ‘Religion is more than Belief: What Evolutionary Theories of Religion Tell us about Religious Commitment’, in M. Bergmann and P. Kain (eds.), Challenges to Religion and Morality: Disagreements and Evolution (New York: Oxford University Press): 256-76. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199669776.003.0014. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199669776.003.0014

Straus, Murray A., Richard J. Gelles, and Suzanne K. Steinmetz. 1980. Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family (Garden City, NY: Anchor).

Strassmann, B.I., et al. 2012. ‘Religion as a Means to Assure Paternity’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 9781-85. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1110442109. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1110442109

Turner, Victor. 1995. The Ritual Process (Chicago: Aldine de Gruyter).

Wilson, David Sloan. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Whitehouse, Harvey. 2004. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press).

Whyte, Martin King. 1978a. The Status of Women in Preindustrial Societies (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Whyte, Martin King. 1978b. ‘Cross-Cultural Codes Dealing with the Relative Status of Women’, Ethnology 17.2: 211-37. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/3773145. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/3773145

Yllo, Kersti A. 1993. ‘Through a Feminist Lens: Gender, Diversity, and Violence: Extending the Feminist Framework’, in Donileen R. Loseke, Richard J. Gelles, and Mary M. Cavanaugh (eds.), Current Controversies on Family Violence (Newbury Park, CA: Sage): 47-62.

Young, Frank W. 1965. Initiation Ceremonies (Indianapolis, IN: BobbsMerrill Co.).



How to Cite

Stockly, K. J., Arel, S., DeFranza, M. K., Ruck, D., Matthews, L., & Wildman, W. (2020). Women-Centered Rituals and Levels of Domestic Violence: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Ritual as a Signaling and Solidarity-Building Strategy. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 14(1), 95–123. https://doi.org/10.1558/jsrnc.38921



CLOSED-Special Issue- Religious Diversity + Cognitive Science of Religion: New E