Sociologists Identify Surprising Thanksgiving “Rituals”

Ever wonder where weird Thanksgiving traditions come from? Photo by Musicwala via Flickr.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade has been held annually since 1924. Turns out some families’ holiday “rituals” are more common than you might think. Photo by Musicwala via Flickr.

Sociology loves making the familiar strange, and few events blend the familiar and the strange as artfully as holiday family gatherings. The Week recaps a classic sociological study of Thanksgiving celebrations by Melanie Wallendorf and Eric J. Arnould, which sheds light on just how common our “quirky” family rituals can be. A particularly juicy conclusion was that interview respondents didn’t realize their party quirks were actually ‘traditions’ happening year after year at gatherings across the U.S. According to the article:

…a society is not always the best judge of its own customs…The data analysis revealed some common events in the fieldnotes that people rarely remarked on in the interviews.

Common practices included “The Giving of The Job Advice,” “The Telling of Disaster Stories of Thanksgivings Past,” and the ever-popular “After-Dinner Stroll around the Neighborhood.” These customs remind us just how much we share at this time of year. Who knows? The next awkward family gathering just might be a new field site!

Reciprocation Rules

Photo by Aine D via

Hoping to get an avalanche of Christmas cards and holiday letters this year? There’s just one rule: send out a pile of your own. That’s what a BYU sociology professor named Phillip Kunz did back in the ’70s, and his address stayed on others’ Christmas lists for nearly 15 years, reports NPR affiliate KERA news. The surprise? All those cards he sent, some 600, went to people he didn’t know.

Kunz’s little experiment involved sending about 300 personal holiday cards (hand-written!) and about 300 cards that just featured a family photo, but they all exerted a subtle peer pressure to reciprocate. He got long letters back from some of the strangers, and matching-sweater-photo-cards from others—some 200 responses in all. Robert Cialdini, a well-known emeritus social psychologist and marketing professor at Arizona State University, explains to journalist Alix Spiegel that the response reflects just how well the golden rule is drilled into us as kids: “We are obligated to give back to others, the form of behavior that they have first given to us,” he says. “Essentially thou shall not take without giving in return.”

Cialdini goes on to cite the implied social rules of give and take in common practices from tipping to using those pre-printed address labels charities send out. More nefariously, this is also what’s behind so much of the quid pro quo spotted in politics and when doctors prescribe medications because of the perks pharmaceutical companies have sent their way:

This doesn’t mean that the rule of reciprocation affects all of us all of the time…. But it is powerful. One of those invisible powerful things that can subtly shape how we behave even years after someone has given us something.

And that, of course, is how we end up guiltily eying that stack of Christmas cards every year. We have to write back, don’t we?