Ritual Research Paper

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For Durkheim (1964), ritual is social activity falling within the domain of the sacred. The sacred is opposed to the profane, which does not contain ritual action. Leach (1954), however, rejects Durkheim’s hard and fast distinction between sacred and profane, preferring to see these as aspects of social actions lying along a continuum. At one end are those actions that are largely technical and profane, while at the other are those which have no technical functions and are largely symbolic, aesthetic, and sacred. Most actions in between these two poles have aspects which are both sacred and profane. Ritual in Leach’s sense is, then, by no means confined to ideas of the sacred. By removing ritual as exclusively to do with the sacred, Leach is able to broaden the definition of ritual. He thinks of it as a message-making kind of activity, and so as an aspect of any kind of behavior in which repetitive or customary acts signal messages. Handshakes or wearing a tie in the office are as much forms of ritual as a priest praying to ancestors at a shrine. So-called magical and secular acts are therefore both communicative and both are examples of ritual action.

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Ritual for Leach is, then, a way in which humans communicate with each other different aspects of their social structure. Thus, we may be perfectly aware of social class or status differences and even be able to talk about them discursively. But we still signal or symbolize these differences in a number of short-cut ways, through distinctive accents, differences of dress and life-style, and even bodily movement and gesture. Sometimes we are not so conscious of the differences our ritual behavior communicates, and sometimes the differences exist simply through lack of knowledge of how to behave on, say, a formal occasion. In other words, the sociostructural approach argues that ritual action does not occur in a political and economic vacuum: politicoeconomic interests are always involved to some degree, even if sometimes minimally.

A second approach to the study of ritual emphasizes its logical qualities. Here, ritual communicates fundamental ideas that may be specific to a particular culture, or that may even be universal. It is an approach that owes much to structuralism in anthropology, which is predominantly associated with the work of Levi-Strauss. It runs very much from the idea of culture as organized through binary oppositions. Thus, Needham (1961) has suggested that, when a male diviner or shaman uses his left hand to throw the cowrie shells which he or his possessory spirit will interpret in order to understand the cause and course of an illness or misfortune, he is reversing a kind of natural order. For men are normally associated with the right hand and women with the left. But since diviners fall outside the realm of normal human capacities, being able to see what other humans cannot, it makes logical sense to reverse the equation of maleness with the right hand. There is no functional explanation for these kinds of ritual reversal for they are governed by proclivities of the human mind. That said, local political and economic circumstances can sometimes take up these proclivities and harness them to a cause. Thus, prophets leading religious movements may communicate their power and distinctiveness through rituals which reverse normal expectations. Many other kinds of ritual behavior, like some beliefs and myths, achieve their communicative effectiveness by reversing what is otherwise considered natural.

Now, while it is true that ritual may be thought of as communicating messages about status or about the way the human mind works or how the world is, it varies enormously in the degree to which it is elaborated. After all, a handshake can hardly compare with a full-scale ritual investiture of a monarch spread over days and involving thousands of people and lavish expenditure. To call both these kinds of activity ‘ritual’ clearly leaves out much of what is special to the latter. Similarly, some hunting and gathering peoples such as the African Mbuti forest dwellers do not perform elaborate rituals, while other African groups noted for their masquerades do. Peoples do, then, seem to differ in the relative amounts of ritual which they perform; although, in making this claim, there is a dangerous Eurocentric qualitative assumption that the significance of ritual is measured by the amount of time, materials, and people involved. Who is to say that an apparently slight activity, taking only a moment and few resources, may not in fact ‘say’ much more than a drawn-out ceremony of great proportions whose influence on people is in fact limited? Nevertheless, it is a useful if provisional starting point of analysis to try and understand how variations in the complexity and lavishness of ritual reflect those of social organization and cultural logic. Arising from this approach is another, which recognizes that as well as communicating messages about the current social structure or about fixed properties of the human mind, rituals also change things or enable changes to take place.

We may call this third, the transformational approach to ritual. For Van Gennep (1965), the rites of passage as marking changes of status in the human life cycle—for example, birth, puberty or adolescence, marriage, first child, first grandchild, and death— could be broken down into three phases: separation, liminality, and incorporation. In other words, the individual undergoing the ritual must first be separated from the community of which they are a member, perhaps by removal of the head hair or some other bodily alteration. They then enter the liminal phase in which they are regarded by members of the community as outside and beyond normal human society. This is the phase in which there is transition from one status to another, for example from child to adult, bachelor to husband, etc. Van Gennep saw this as a period of death, i.e., of the child, and of rebirth, i.e., of the adult. It is a theme elaborated in many later studies that showed the ritualization of death as the condition of new life or regeneration. The third and final phase is when the individual is reincorporated in the community, now no longer a child, but an adult with the rights and duties expected of this new status.

Van Gennep saw these features of rites of passage as also typifying other kinds of transition in addition to those of the life cycle, such as the seasonal or other movements of groups, fertility rites, and entering and leaving dwellings, special days or months, and cult societies. Victor Turner (1967) made the notion of liminality central to his work on ritual, extending to the idea of antistructure, by emphasizing the rejection of society on the part of people undergoing transition or in a marginal state, and also communitas, by which he meant the way in which people on ritual occasions temporarily transcended their normal, everyday social conflicts and cleavages and emphasized their common humanity. In addition to the life crisis rites of Van Gennep, Turner further distinguishes rites of affliction, which are held to reverse the effects of, for example, women’s infertility, crop failure, sickness, and other misfortunes adversely affecting the lives of people living together in a single village or other dwelling. They also enable people to move from one state to another, although not as part of the human life cycle, but more as part of the unpredictability of the human and social condition in which conflicts and contradictions are not so much represented in ritual as presented, addressed, and then redressed, an approach which thus builds on and advances that of Durkheim.

A subset of this approach might conveniently be called Marxist in the sense that social inequality and exploitation of a working by a ruling class is presupposed. A Marxist approach would, for instance, claim that the official, media, and public ritual attention devoted to the British royal family evokes ordinary people’s unquestioning compliance and loyalty, to the extent that they cannot see that the institution of royalty in fact underpins the system of landed privilege that defines an aristocracy and provides an imitative model for other ruling and bourgeois classes. The 1990s in the UK saw an extraordinary rise in the degree to which the media and many of these same ordinary citizens began to question the worthwhileness of royalty. Was this an example of royal rituals losing their capacity to retain subjects’ loyalty, a kind of demystification of ritual? Or is this a case of the different interpretations of ritual enabling social change to occur?

Royal rituals have been a common focus of anthropological analysis, in which their transformative power has been highlighted. Gluckman (1963) was dissatisfied with studies of royal and other rituals which saw them as simply affirming the sovereign’s authority and the solidarity of the society under his rule. Using the example of the Swazi Incwala royal ritual in southern Africa, Gluckman claimed instead that its socially cohesive function was only possible after it had revealed the society’s internal conflicts: such conflicts had to be addressed before they could be accepted as part of the normal social process. Beidelman (1966) criticizes Gluckman’s over-reliance on social conflict as needing to be expunged through royal rituals, and argues for a view of them as marking out the divine or mystical properties of kingship, so providing the king with legitimate recognition to reign over his subjects.

This example moves us on to a fourth approach to ritual, which is to see them not necessarily as achieving a particular social or logical function, but as expressive in and of themselves. Beattie (1966) attacked attempts to explain rituals as practical and intellectual attempts to solve problems. Rituals draw instead on people’s human predilection to engage in creative thinking, sometimes through culturally enjoined associations of ideas, and were thus closer to art and drama than to technology or science. Rituals in this sense do not ‘do’ things so much as express human dilemmas, symbolically and often under some kind of duress. They cannot be reduced to questions of whether they are rational or irrational, or true or false propositions, any more than aesthetics can be explained in these terms.

In many respects this explanation of ritual as expressive rather than functional, reproduces Leach’s distinction between technical and aesthetic acts as occupying two extreme poles of a continuum between which they are both aspects of any activity. Nevertheless, expressed in the way that Beattie did, it freed anthropologists from having to seek practical explanations for a particular form of ritual behavior. If a ritual appeared to perform a particular function in society, this could better be regarded as an unintended consequence of an activity whose participants did not have such consequences in mind. Thus, it may well be that the British royal rituals for a long time had the effect of persuading the public to accept the stratified status quo as rightfully headed and legitimized by the monarch and the monarch’s family. It may well be, moreover, that politicians and members of the ruling elite recognized, seized on, and developed this effect, so turning consequence into purpose. The expressive here becomes instrumentally effective. However, not all that which we understand as ritual behavior can be interpreted in this way. People throughout time do not normally calculate in advance what might pass as effective ritual, nor indeed separate ritual as a social category from nonritual; nor may we assume that what we define as rituals always have significant social and intellectual consequences.

Approaches to the study of rituals are not exhausted by the above, and indeed overlap in part. They represent, as much as anything, the discipline’s decision to divide up its findings in this way. An alternative method is to ask how anthropologists define ritual on the basis of their own ethnographic data. A recent example is a study of the Indian Jain rite of worship by Humphrey and Laidlaw (1994). Their intriguing starting point is the fact that in some societies people may distrust ritual practices as being empty or false, and yet continue with them. Similarly, noting that for many people, religion and ritual are seen as going together, they also refer to the way in which practitioners of some religions turn on their rituals as unworthy and even frightening. The European Reformation attempted to strip off from Christian religious belief what were regarded as some unacceptable ritual practices, as Wahabi reformers in Islam are doing today. By contrast, some argue that ritual is good for religion and humanity. Mary Douglas (1973) drew some of her own ideas from trying to understand the rejection of ritual in the Catholic Church by many of its senior adherents who also, for good measure, dispensed with the Latin language as if transparent clarity was all that mattered, over and above the expressive power of faith.

The disjunction between religion and ritual led Humphrey and Laidlaw (1994) to suggest another disjunction, which is that between the intention of actors in ritual and the ritual actions themselves. Sometimes intention and act fit, and sometimes they diverge irretrievably, but sometimes they are aligned. Such lack of fit is not to be understood as the result of mistakes in intention and performance, but as evidence of the way in which ordinary actions may become endowed with the quality of ritual. For these authors, ritual is a quality that actions take on: they become ritualized. While everyday actions are intrinsically intentional, ritual acts enter a kind of phenomenological space freed of such everyday intentions, and, paradoxically, are ‘intended’ to do so. There is here a ‘ritual commitment,’ a notion close to that expressed in a classical study of ritual by Gilbert Lewis (1980). Humphrey and Laidlaw (1994), moreover, oppose the idea that ritual is necessarily communicative and expressive of messages and beliefs. One is here reminded of Sperber’s (1975) view that symbols do not intrinsically mean anything. Rather it is people who interpret a symbol as such, and who thereby give it meaning. The concept of communication here has to be established. It may mean one person making an assertion and expecting a response from the hearer. Or it may simply mean making a gesture or uttering a conventional phrase (‘It’s hot today’), for which no response is expected and which is therefore really a form of what has been called phatic communion, a device to secure solidarity with another person. Rituals may sometimes communicate but, as Rappaport (1979) points out, so do many other kinds of phenomenon, and by privileging its expressive functions we miss what is otherwise distinctive of ritual.

The view that ritualization is a process by which actions become endowed with a ritual quality, shares something with Gerholm’s (1988) notion that ritual is, so to speak, partly made up as it proceeds. That is to say, there are at least some kinds of ritual for which precise textual rules do not exist or which have been forgotten, with the consequence that participants have little more than a sense of ritual occasion or commitment and endeavor to convey that sense in actions and words, inventing and borrowing as much as they can. This ushers in a query as to how much ritual depends on precise wording as well as actions. A Christian prayer depends heavily on personally composed as well as prescribed verbal forms, and is firmly regarded as ritual. But rituals are also organized through spatial orientation and bodily positioning. The many different kinds of Islamic prayer are also personally or formulaically verbal, but crucially require orientation to Mecca, while a particular class of prayer or devotion called salat is made up of a complex sequence of prostrations as well as recitations (Bowen 1989). In the event of the mosque imam taking on the recitations on behalf of the congregation, the prescribed bodily actions become the individual worshipper’s ritual responsibility and must be repeated if they are performed incorrectly. Parkin (1992) has argued that it is not always the case that the verbal is important in ritual, while set spatial directions and/orientations, and bodily gestures, movement, and positions are what mark off and so fundamentally characterize ritual.

A challenge is to avoid essentialist definitions of ritual which seek to set up criteria which must be met before this label can be applied to an activity. Phenomenologically, ritual is to do with the paradox of being both the agent of an action, but also being taken along by this same action. It presupposes being able to move within an action from citing its purpose to having no need, wish, or clear idea of what it is about, and yet valuing it. Nevertheless, ritual must have some kind of structure, the most elemental of which is that individuals alone or with others take up positions with regard to each other or with regard to objects, experiencing such positioning as unlike any other.


  1. Beattie J 1966 Ritual and social change. Man: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1: 60–74
  2. Beidelman T O 1966 Swazi royal ritual. Africa 36: 373–405
  3. Bowen J R 1989 Salat in Indonesia: The social meanings on an Islamic ritual. Man: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 24: 600–19
  4. Douglas M 1973 Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. Barrie and Jenkins, London
  5. Durkheim E 1964 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Allen and Unwin, London
  6. Gerholm T 1988 On ritual: A postmodernist view. Ethnos 53: 190–203
  7. Gluckman M 1963 Rituals of rebellion in south east Africa. In: Gluckman M (ed.) Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa. Cohen and West, London
  8. Humphrey C, Laidlaw J 1994 The Archetypal Actions of Ritual. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  9. Leach E 1954 Political Systems of Highland Burma: A study of Kachin Social Structure. G. Bell, London
  10. Lewis G 1980 Day on Shining Red: An Essay in Understanding Ritual. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  11. Needham R (ed.) 1961 The left hand of the Mugwe: An analytic note on the structure of Meru symbolism. Africa 31: 28–33
  12. Parkin D 1992 Ritual as spatial direction and bodily division. In: De Coppet D. (ed.) Understanding Rituals. Routledge, London
  13. Rappaport R A 1979 Ecology, Meaning, and Religion. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA
  14. Sperber D 1975 Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  15. Turner V W 1967 The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
  16. Van Gennep A 1965 The Rites of Passage. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London


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