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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

What do Eurovision, sport, and ritual warfare have in common?

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Giant hamster wheels. Drag. Key changes, peasant costumes, and voting blocs. Sometimes it seems that the Eurovision Song Contest is about anything but the music.

In fact, I'd argue that music is the least important part of Eurovision. If its Twitter feed is anything to go by, millions of people around the world tune every year to be entertained by, and criticize, everything and anything that Eurovision represents.

Covering cultural differences, artistic performance, nationalism, and politics, Eurovision appears to be a microcosm of human experience. Kitsch experience, to be sure, but quintessentially human nonetheless.

"What on earth are you talking about?" I hear you exclaim, "Can't you see that Eurovision is just for fun, that there's no deeper meaning?"

Let me explain. I'm not saying that Eurovision is profound, in the sense that we can derive some life-changing philosophy out of it. But it is worth stopping to think about why it is so popular and has been going for so long. Understanding why people like things helps us understand people themselves. And I don't just mean Eurovision's impressively-sized audience. It can give us insights into what it means to be human.

So, what can Eurovision possibly tell us about humanity? I started pondering this question when a friend asked me for my anthropological perspective. At first I baulked at giving her a response. Eurovision 2014 was half-way through, and I hadn't been able to make head or tails of it. How can it be all about the music if some countries seemed to submit serious songs, while others treated it like a joke?

Then another friend spoke up. "It's exactly the same as sport," she said, "it's all just a display of nationalism." I immediately disagreed. Sure, Eurovision has clear and prominent nationalist elements, but I couldn't help feeling that it unites Europeans more than it divides them. It's a common tradition, full of rituals and cultural memes that Europeans participate in and that are understood, and appreciated, in many corners of the world.

My second friend is right that Eurovision has a lot in common with televised sport. They're big budget productions, aimed at mass audiences, in which teams formed along national lines compete to be the best. While this nationalism is generally pretty benign, sport has been used extensively in the past as a way for totalitarian regimes to show their might. One only has to think of the Olympic Games in Berlin (1936), Moscow (1980), and Beijing (2008) to realize just how important sports success can be to nationalized political power.

It's not just in global geopolitics that we witness this role of sport. In a past PopAnth article I wrote about how ritual warfare and sport have so many similarities that when the British colonized the Trobriand Islands, they banned ritual warfare and taught the locals to play cricket instead.

But knowing that Eurovision, sport, and ritual warfare all have the potential to drive nationalist sentiments doesn't answer the question. Rather, it misses the point.

First, when my friend wrote off Eurovision as "just nationalism," she implied that defending one's group is undesirable. This is a misunderstanding of how, and why, human beings create and defend group boundaries. We are social beings, so all human societies have some kind of system of belonging to collectives. Our groups provide us with company, entertainment, help us manage resource distribution, and feature procedures for decision-making. We don't defend the boundaries of these groups just because we hate outsiders. Rather, we defend them because group belonging helps us operate efficiently and gives us emotional support.

Second, Europeans are diverse and mobile, and there is no reason why they should vote along national lines. In modern society especially, many of us belong to multiple groups at once. We have more than one nationality or place of residence, such as in the case of the British singer who performed for Spain in Eurovision 2014. We root for the drag queen Conchita Wurst, winner of this year's contest, because we identify with her stand for gender diversity. Or we vote for Ukraine rather than Russia to express a political stance.

None of these behaviours can be reduced to nationalism. In each case, there is far more going on. But they do underline a crucial point about groups: they are as much about cooperation as they are about competition. Even ritual warfare is not about destroying the enemy: that's why it's called "ritual."

This is why, when you are attending a Eurovision party, or placing a bet on your favourite team down at the pub, you are not "just" enjoying yourself or "just" being nationalistic. You are also engaging in a practice, as old as humanity, of expressing yourself as an individual and as a multifaceted social being.

It's a common tradition, full of rituals and cultural memes that Europeans participate in and that are understood, and appreciated, in many corners of the world.

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Farid Mammadov's performance at Eurovision. Photo by Albin Olsson [CC BY-SA 3.0].
Farid Mammadov's performance at Eurovision. Photo by Albin Olsson [CC BY-SA 3.0].