The Dynamics of Habit and Ritual: Theories from China

The Dynamics of Habit and Ritual: Theories from China

Michael Puett’s lunchtime talk offered an exploration of theories of human psychology and group dynamics as they arose in early China and agues that these theoretical understandings have much to offer contemporary practice.

As a scholar and anthropologist, Michael works on early Chinese ethics, philosophy and religion. He also conducts contemporary fieldwork in China in which he identifies a resurgence of interest in earlier Chinese thought, as young people come to reject both Chinese communism and western neoliberalism as adequate models for addressing present-day concerns.

Recording of the talk

The idea to invite Michael to talk at the Tavistock Institute came from hearing him speak previously on ritual dynamics in China at a symposium on the anthropology of play. The ritual dynamics Michael described seemed to resonate with Tavistock understandings of and psychodynamic approaches to role, task, authority and leadership as they play out in the dynamics of group (including organisational) relationships.

As we introduce Tavistock concepts into Chinese organisations through our programme of work with Hua Jing Psychology, developing the Tavistock Institute China, what are the implications for their organisational design? Through the Tavistock’s experiential learning approach, activities we have run so far in China have already raised questions on and stimulated new dynamics around, governance and regulation and how these impact on the ‘social’ and the ‘task’ aspects of the organisation.

Michael’s talk was intended as an exchange with Tavistock thought and practice – given the historical interest in eastern thought of early psychoanalysts whose work continues to inform Tavistock practice; the potential similarities between Chinese notions of personhood, group dynamics and ritual, and the practice of Group Relations, coaching and organisational consultancy as it has developed in the distinctive Tavistock tradition; as well as our ongoing organisational development work in China.

Michael Puett is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University. He is also a non-resident long-term fellow for programmes in anthropological and historical sciences and the languages and civilizations of East Asia at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala. He is the author of The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China and To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China as well as the co-author, with Adam Seligman, Robert Weller, and Bennett Simon, Of Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. His most recent book, co-authored with Christine Gross-Loh, is The Path: What Chinese Philosophy Can Teach Us About the Good Life

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