21A.00 | Spring 2022 | Undergraduate

Introduction to Anthropology

Research Paper 2 - Ritual Design

For the first research project this semester, we conducted ethnographic research on “naturally occurring” ritual practices, applying social theory to the interpretation of empirical, qualitative data. For this second project, we will apply what we learned to designing our own new rituals.

Although anthropology is often thought of as a descriptive or interpretative social science, it has many practical applications. These include: applied anthropology, a “complex of related, research-based, instrumental methods which produce change or stability in specific cultural systems through the provision of data, initiation of direct action, and/or the formulation of policy” (Van Willigen 2002: 10); and design anthropology, “in which anthropological methods and concepts are mobilized in the design process” (Murphy 2016: 434). In this project, we will be drawing on these approaches to prototype useful new cultural forms.

Design Brief

Create shared rituals to enhance this class. An academic class is a ritual form with conventionalized form and function. Analyze the existing classroom protocols as a culturally conventionalized ritual form, and hack that form to change the function or improve the outcome. Initial parameters and constraints include:

  • The essential purpose of teaching anthropology must be upheld, but designers may specify content or create roles for instructional staff beyond the previously specified scope of the class.
  • The design must be human-centered and socially responsible, respecting the needs and experiences of all members of the classroom community.
  • If materials are needed, please check with the instructors. Once purchases are approved, we can make them ourselves or arrange reimbursement.


Workshop I (Session 15): Open-ended ideation

  • Working in 4–5 randomly assigned groups, develop lo-fi classroom ritual wireframe for presentation at end of class.
  • Use “Ritual Design Toolkit” (RDT) Section 1 (“Scope”) and Appendix A.
  • Decide on appropriate components for future phases.

Workshop II (Session 19): Small group work on specific design components

  • Working in 4–5 groups focusing on self-selected design components, develop lo-fi classroom ritual wireframe for presentation/crit at end of class period
  • Use RDT Appendix A

Workshop III (Session 24): Small group work on specific design components

  • Continuing to work in small groups, prepare a working prototype for testing/demonstration at the end of class

Workshop IV (Session 26): Ritual Performance

  • Run class according to new ritual protocols

Final Paper (due Session 26)

For the final paper, groups will create “portfolios” documenting their contributions to the overall ritual protocol redesign. If appropriate, the portfolio should include a multimedia appendix with photos or videos documenting the design process or final results (does not factor into page count). The portfolio should recapitulate the key elements from the RDT, explaining pertinent aspects of: (1) Context, (2) Aims and Goals, (3) Key Moments, (4) Behaviors, (5) Emotional and Tangible Outcomes. In addition, the paper should also cite at least one reading from class to show how the design applies anthropological ideas to address practical issues of classroom protocol.

Students may submit a 4-page paper individually reflecting on their group’s work. If you wish, each group can submit a single portfolio for a shared grade. In that case, you should add one additional page for each additional collaborator to the final word count. Thus five students, writing together, should submit a final paper of around 9 pages.


Murphy, Keith M. “Design and Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 45 (2016): 433–49.

Van Willigen, John. Applied Anthropology: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Praeger, 2002. ISBN: ‎9780897898331. [Preview with Google Books]

Examples of Ritual Design Practices

Stanford’s Ritual Design Lab

Harvard’s Vision Lab

Sacred Design Lab

Ezra Bookman

Jeltje Gordon-Lennox

Tiu de Haan

Kythe Heller

Casper ter Kuile

Student Examples

“21A.00 Lives In Us.” (PDF) 

“Ritual Design Reflection: Beginning.” (PDF)

“A Tale of Encouraged Social Experimentation.” (PDF) (Courtesy of Arbri Kopliku. Used with permission.)

Note: Student examples appear courtesy of MIT students and are anonymous unless otherwise requested.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2022
Learning Resource Types
Activity Assignments
Instructor Insights
Written Assignments with Examples