When the work and reputation of scientists suffer ritual degradation, a range of tactics can be deployed to resist and rework the psychological and social impacts. Five key resistance tactics to degradation in science are revealing degradation rituals, redeeming the reputation of the targeted scientist, reframing the degradation as unfair, redirecting attention to other domains, and refusing to cooperate with the rituals. These tactics are illustrated through three case studies of scientists targeted for conducting research threatening to the interests of powerful groups.


The perceived trustworthiness and competence of scientists are key forms of currency in science that facilitate their careers and standing in the field. Attacks on the reputation of scientists and the quality of their work therefore can have far reaching impacts. These include professional impacts such as the interruption or destruction of scientific careers, status impacts from loss of qualifications and income, and personal impacts such as alcoholism, depression, and loss or disruption of relationships with colleagues, friends and family. The adverse impacts of attacks on scientists also include the potential hindrance of scientific innovation, often via the chilling effect on peers who witness the treatment of those targeted.

We focus here on one particular way of understanding methods for attacking dissident scientists, namely as a degradation ritual in which the status and honour of an individual are lowered. Such rituals have received relatively little attention, yet they are crucially important when considering the obstacles potentially faced by innovators in the face of a hostile establishment or orthodoxy. We focus on ways of challenging these rituals, something hardly ever analysed, in the hope of offering insight to innovators in all fields.

Features of degradation rituals can be classified in terms of the types of agents who enact the rituals, the contexts in which these rituals occur, the means by which degradation rituals are performed, and the impacts or relative severity of the rituals (Thérèse and Martin, 2010). Here we propose a complementary five-part schema to classify and understand tactics of resistance deployed by targets of degradation rituals in science in their attempt to deflect attacks and undo the negative impacts on their personal identity and professional status.

Given that stakeholders in current knowledge and practices are often threatened by innovators, and have the resources and authority to impose sanctions, it is to be expected that innovators are likely to be targets for degradation rituals. Understanding methods for resisting such rituals and their effects is therefore useful for those who seek to challenge powerful groups or orthodox views and those who support a system of science that is genuinely open to new ideas.

Our approach draws on a variety of literatures. One is writing on degradation rituals, as discussed in the following section. Another is research on suppression of dissent, especially in science (Martin, 1999; Moran 1998), which can be located within the wider context of free speech and free inquiry. A third relevant body of literature is the study of strategy and tactics in social engagements (Jasper, 2006; Martin, 2007). Studying tactics against degradation rituals thus can contribute insights to the study of degradation rituals, dissent, and social strategy. This is thus an interdisciplinary exploration of an issue with relevance to several interdisciplinary fields.

In the next section, we outline our approach to ritual in general and degradation rituals in particular and summarise the implications of this approach for exploring the role of ritual degradation in science (and potentially in other professional or social contexts) and key forms of resistance to its effects. We then outline five key types of tactics of resistance to degradation.

Subsequently, we apply our model to three cases of scientists whose work and reputation suffered different forms of ritual degradation, illustrating the tactics of resistance adopted by the targets. In the conclusion, we reiterate the value of viewing attacks on scientists in terms of ritual degradation and the need for further research on ‘resistance work’ in science and other professional contexts, namely where attempts are made to restore reputations that have become, in the language of anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966), ‘polluted’.

A political approach to ritual degradation

The traditional functionalist approach to ritual presumes that it ensures social integration and social reproduction ( Durkheim, 1995/1914) . However, this approach provides no obvious handles for conceptualising resistance. For our purposes, we adopt instead a perspective on ritual that enables a better understanding of social systems that are contested or deserve to be. While rituals can be seen as expressions (Geertz, 1973) or performances (Turner, 1974, 1982) of core values in any socio-cultural system or group, they can also be usefully understood as forms of strategic action geared to produce specific social and power effects that may not always be achieved.

Useful for our purposes is the notion of ritualisation, which has been advanced especially in the work of Catherine Bell (1992, 1997) as well as others ( Bloch, 1989; Bourdieu, 1991; Couldry, 2003; Lukes, 1975; Rappaport, 1999) . This concept highlights distinctive and strategic practices that aim to mark off certain activities, persons and things as privileged or ‘sacred’ while others are demarcated as anathema or ‘profane’. While this idea echoes the sacred/profane distinction made famous by Durkheim, commonly used to explain social order and reproduction as opposed to social conflict and change, the strength of this approach to ritual is sensitivity to contexts where these practices may not achieve their goals. Ritualisation serves both to give particular individuals or groups privileged access to symbolic and material resources – such as credibility, status, funding and jobs – and to limit or exclude access by others. The study of degradation rituals brings into sharp relief the virtues of an understanding of ritual as an exercise of power.

Some rituals, such as rites of passage (van Gennep, 1960), transform subjects into valued social categories, for example boys into warriors or separate individuals into married couples. In contrast, the targets of degradation rituals suffer either status demotion within the group or are completely excluded from legitimate group membership. Most if not all societies deploy formal and informal rituals designed to humiliate, shame and ‘spoil’ the identity of individuals who have transgressed social norms (Goffman, 1963). More formal and stylised degradation ceremonies performed in the presence of a representative audience involve either the symbolic and literal expulsion of the individual from the group or a reduction of that person’s status within the group setting. Relatively informal, less stylised rituals of degradation, such as shunning, ignoring, excluding or berating a person, may also result in tainting or polluting a person’s identity and in-group status (Cox, 1970; Weinstein, 2004, p.218).

Garfinkel (1956) in a classic paper proposed the conditions required for a successful degradation ceremony: an institutionally authorised denouncing agent who administers the degradation on behalf of the group; a denounced agent who is the target of discipline and punishment in the form of demotion or expulsion in response to a perceived transgression of social norms; and an assembled audience serving to ratify the legitimacy of the event and to evoke shame, humiliation and passive acceptance in the target. In essence, a degradation ritual can be seen as a recurring means by which groups attempt to ensure compliance of their members with social norms by expelling or lowering those who appear to flout them.

Garfinkel’s approach to degradation can be seen as functionalist: he did not consider the possibility of resistance to the degradation ceremony by the target (the degraded agent) or the audience. (Indeed, Garfinkel did not consider the notion of audiences separated in time and space from the original degradation ceremony.) By considering degradation rituals as types of power struggles, we are able to examine resistance and its potential benefits.

Degradation rituals, such as punishment rituals, have been investigated in subsistence-based societies historically studied by anthropologists. The concept of degradation rituals has also been applied to a wide variety of other social and organisational contexts such as the treatment of entrants to ‘total institutions’ such as asylums and military camps (Goffman, 1961); proceedings in legal and courtroom settings (Antonio, 1972); punitive management practices and corporate organisational rites such as change management ( Loeser and Burrus, 2009; Moch and Huff, 1983; Trice and Beyer, 1984) ; health care procedures such as questionable but popular surgical techniques or the collection of sensitive medical histories (Brown et al., 2003, pp.230-231); punishment of corporate crime (Levi, 2002); educational settings ( Hull, 1976; Westhues, 2004) ; and media practices ( Carey, 1998; Yadgar, 2003) .

In contrast, there is a relative lack of research on degradation rituals in science, including their nature, effects, and responses to them (for treatments, see Thérèse , 2003, 2011; Thérèse and Martin 2010). It could be argued that studies of ‘boundary work’ in science – contestations over the demarcation of science from non-science, for example astronomy from astrology ( Gieryn, 1999) or even delineations within science that suggest a spectrum of ritual pollution (Swedlow, 2007) – imply, but have not made explicit, the notion of ritual degradation in science.

The five-part schema we present of resistance tactics to degradation is both empirical – with insights drawn from a range of case studies in science – and instructive – useful as a potential resource for those seeking to deflect or renegotiate the potentially severe psychosocial and professional impacts of degradation rituals.

Resisting degradation rituals in science

In order to stimulate ideas for resisting degradation rituals, it is useful to examine the ways powerful individuals and groups reduce adverse reactions to actions potentially perceived as unjust. Consider, for example, torture, something universally condemned but carried out by many governments in the world. To reduce outrage from torture, a crucial technique is to hide it: torture is nearly always carried out in secrecy. Those who are tortured are commonly devalued with labels such as criminals, terrorists or enemies. When torture practices are revealed to wider audiences, they might be said not to be so serious (as in the case of sensory deprivation), due to ‘rogue operations’ and labelled ‘abuse’ rather than ‘torture’. Sometimes investigations are carried out, usually exonerating perpetrators or imposing light penalties on low-level operatives. Finally, opponents of torture may be threatened or subject to reprisals. These five methods of outrage management are:

  1. Cover up the action
  2. Devalue the target
  3. Reinterpret the events, including by lying, minimising, blaming and framing
  4. Use official channels to give an appearance of justice
  5. Intimidate targets and observers.

Each of these five methods was used in relation to torture of Iraqi prisoners by US prison guards at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, exposed to the world in 2004 (Gray and Martin, 2007). The same five sorts of methods are also found in a range of other areas, including censorship (Jansen and Martin, 2003), sexual harassment (McDonald et al., 2010), massacres (Martin, 2007) and genocide (Martin, 2009). Therefore, it is plausible to assume the same methods might be used to reduce outrage from the use of degradation rituals.

To increase outrage over injustice, each of these five sorts of methods can be challenged. This gives rise to the following counter-methods (Martin, 2007).

  1. Expose the actions
  2. Validate the target
  3. Interpret the events as unjust
  4. Avoid or discredit official channels; instead, mobilise public support
  5. Resist intimidation

These five counter-methods can be conveniently encapsulated in five Rs: reveal, redeem, reframe, redirect and refuse. We propose these tactics as plausible ways to resist degradation rituals in science and potentially in other professional and social domains.

No necessary chronological sequence is intended by our sequential consideration of these five tactics. Nor do we suggest that these activities are exhaustive of all potential outrage-management techniques. We also acknowledge that these are overlapping, mutually supportive rather than discrete forms of action.

To illustrate these tactics in relation to a degradation ritual, we use the example of employers requiring workers to see employer-chosen psychiatrists, a technique commonly used to discredit and dismiss whistleblowers (Lennane, 2000). Workers who refuse can be penalised or dismissed for refusing orders. Seeing a psychiatrist carries the risk of being certified as insane, especially by ‘hired gun’ psychiatrists who serve the interests of employers, and then dismissed. For co-workers to think of one as mentally ill is degrading, and visiting a psychiatrist can be a degradation ceremony.

Source: Prometheus, Vol. 32, No. 2, June 2014, pp. 203-220, doi 10.1080/08109028.2014.969022