Pilgrimage Research Paper

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Pilgrimage involves the movement of a traveler or group of travelers away from home, usually with a specific, sacred goal in mind. In most cases, the term implies a journey to a place that has been sanctified by the presence or actions of a divinity or holy figure. Certain variations on this pattern are possible. Pilgrims sometimes wander continuously without a fixed destination, or the journey may be considered to occur in a purely metaphorical sense, involving spiritual development and transformation within the person. This research paper focuses, however, on the most common understanding of pilgrimage: literal movement across space that may also result in the crossing of conventional cultural, social, and religious boundaries.

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1. Themes In The Study Of Pilgrimage

Social scientific studies of pilgrimage were relatively sparse until the 1970s, although in the 1950s Eric Wolf had published a short but influential article on pilgrimage to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico (Wolf 1958). Since the early 1970s, research has expanded and covered all of the world religions. Such academic engagement reflects a continuing and even increasing interest in pilgrimage that has become evident among participants who have better access than ever before to safe and effective modes of travel.

Many earlier studies adopted Durkheimian, functionalist perspectives in analyzing the significance and effects of pilgrimage. In other words, they interpreted the process of traveling to and gathering at a sacred place as providing ritualized opportunities for social unification and moral regeneration within populations that were normally widely dispersed. For instance, Wolf (1958) argued that the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City represented a dominant symbol for the whole nation, condensing various historical, mythical, and cultural themes and focusing them on the activity of pilgrimage to a single place.

The most influential social scientific approach to the subject has come from the anthropologist Victor Turner (see, for instance, Turner and Turner 1978). He notes that, after an original founding event such as a vision, journey, or martyrdom, pilgrimages most frequently involve the gradual organization and routinization of the sacred journey. More speculatively, Turner argues that pilgrimage in the world religions shares certain characteristics with rites of passage in tribal societies. In both forms of ritual, the person is removed from the space and time of the everyday social environment and undergoes an emotionally and physically testing experience that can have lasting effects on perceptions of self-identity. Pilgrims thus enter the realm of what Turner calls social anti-structure or communitas. He means by these terms that pilgrimage can involve the stripping away of everyday social statuses among participants, resulting in liberation from conformity to conventional norms and hierarchies. Pilgrims ideally cultivate direct and egalitarian bonds of comradeship during the temporary, setapart time of their journey and dwelling at a shrine. Communitas therefore has the potential to contain an element of social critique since it puts the taken-for-granted quality of conventional institutions in question. Representatives of orthodoxy in many of the salvation religions often feel ambivalent towards pilgrimage and attempt either to suppress or control its tendencies to foment lay frustration with religious hierarchies.

Turner notes further that pilgrimage is frequently associated with images of death and rebirth, mirroring the symbolic destruction and reconstruction of the religious traveler’s identity. For instance, many who go on the major pilgrimage (or hajj) to Mecca will choose to be buried in the white robes they wore on the pilgrimage. It is believed that these people will thus present themselves at the Last Judgment in the garb appropriate to a rejection of worldly, profane actions.

Turner’s work has proved to be so significant partly because it appears to provide a vocabulary and theoretical framework that can be generalized and applied to varied cultural contexts. However, numerous subsequent works have criticized aspects of his thesis that pilgrimage is inherently antistructural in form and significance. Authors have pointed out that such a paradigm is possibly more reflective of a Christian ideal of human fellowship than of social and political realities in religious systems in general. Many examples of pilgrimage appear actually to reinforce situations of conflict between participants. For instance, Messerschmidt and Sharma (1981) examine Hindu pilgrimage in Nepal and find that caste and class divisions are not transcended through common engagement in the ritual. They argue further that conventional Christian ideals of egalitarianism and homogeneity contradict certain Hindu assumptions concerning the inevitable persistence of religious hierarchy.

Powerful and widely cited criticisms of the Turnerian paradigm are contained in a book that is ostensibly devoted to studies of Christian pilgrimage but presents arguments that have much wider application. Eade and Sallnow (1991) characterize pilgrimage sites as ideal locations for contesting, rather than consolidating, the sacred among religious participants. As centers of power that can provide religious legitimation for political aspirations, shrines often present powerful incentives for a particular interest group to attempt to control the behavior and beliefs of religiously motivated visitors (the point is illustrated clearly by the politically charged and often violent history of Jerusalem). Pilgrimages, according to this view, provide the material and ideological focus for competing discourses and agendas, not only between sacred and secular authorities, but also between lay pilgrims and clerics, locals and incomers, members of different denominations, and so on. Sacred sites are described by Eade and Sallnow as the equivalent of empty symbolic vessels waiting to be filled by the possibly mutually contradictory assumptions of the various people who visit them. The authors also suggest that to regard pilgrimage as a unitary institution is highly problematic, even within a single religious system, since it can contain so many historically specific behaviors and meanings. They add, however, that Christian and perhaps other forms of pilgrimage can be conceptualized as involving a basic triad of ‘person,’ ‘place,’ and ‘text.’

In fact, Turner did anticipate at least some of the later criticisms that have been leveled at his model of pilgrimage. He was aware of the potential for pilgrimage sites to be co-opted by political elites, the fragility of states of communitas, and the capacity of pilgrimage sites to encourage widely differing interpretations from pilgrims. However, the notion that pilgrimage should be seen as an arena for contestation as much as cooperation has proved popular in recent years. Its adoption by many scholars is not surprising since it resonates with contemporary social scientific perspectives that have been influenced by postmodern understandings of culture as unstable, fragmentary, and open to multiple appropriation.

A less controversial set of issues, discussed by Turner and others, is raised by the contention that pilgrimage can encourage participants to consider themselves part of translocal religious and cultural systems. Among Hindus, for instance, a sense of participation in a sacred geography that covers the whole of the Indian subcontinent can be cultivated by travel to shrines. Some devotees choose to circumambulate the entire country, visiting sacred spots along the way. Holy places themselves may be officially or unofficially ranked in importance, thus constituting an internally heterogeneous but widely dispersed framework of sites. Among Christians, Jerusalem (located within ‘the Holy Land’ itself ) has often been regarded as the pre-eminent location for pilgrimage, containing as it does so many sites associated with biblical events. It is followed in importance by other locations of transnational importance, such as Rome or Compostela, and then by pilgrimage locations that have significance in national or more narrowly defined regional contexts.

2. Methods Of Study

Pilgrimage raises unusual problems in relation to conventional social scientific methodologies. Any given site is located within a much wider political, economic, and religious framework that must be taken into account in analysis. As a religious practice, pilgrimage has often complemented (and incorporated) other translocal activities like trade, tourism, and exploration. Pilgrims themselves may move across geographical, social, and religious boundaries, so that the scholar is faced with a diffuse and literally shifting object of study.

Various methods can be used to encapsulate the most important aspects of the phenomenon. Pilgrims can be followed as they journey to a shrine (Gold 1988, Frey 1998). More commonly, a single pilgrimage center or shrine is focused upon, and the activities of various pilgrim groups observed as they pass through the sacred center (Dubisch 1995). At a wider, macro level of analysis, whole systems of pilgrimage within a religious tradition may be studied (Turner and Turner 1978), or comparisons made between pilgrimage systems in the various world religions (Coleman and Elsner 1995).

The fact that pilgrimage sites tend to persist over time provides a good opportunity to combine historical with sociological interests (Turner and Turner 1978), and much work in this area demonstrates the ways in which a given site can retain its identity as a sacred place despite the fact that it is appropriated by different and sometimes competing religious systems over perhaps hundreds of years. Guadalupe, for instance, provides a good example of a shrine that has probable pre-Christian as well as Christian roots. The mixture of religious associations increases its significance as a site whose symbolism and mythology can be invoked in current debates concerning the relationship between precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial identities in Mexico.

3. Future Themes Of Research

Pilgrimage has the potential to be at the center of much future research that could be of importance to the social sciences in general. As a social phenomenon, it encourages the researcher to engage with some key theoretical debates in a variety of disciplines. The current popularity of pilgrimage as an activity raises the question of its significance for predictions of secularization and/or religious revitalization in various parts of the world. Some scholars have also speculated over the extent to which apparently secular activities such as going on holiday or visiting the graves of pop stars share the same structural features as pilgrimage. Certainly, it seems likely that tourism and pilgrimage will become increasingly intertwined in many cultural contexts in the future, given the popularity and flexibility of both activities. In addition, pilgrimage studies are relevant to ongoing discussions of the significance of processes of globalization in the modern world. Studies of sacralized forms of travel, involving the transference of people, ideas, and objects across national borders, can complement other research that is concerned to understand how social, cultural, and political units are being transformed by developments in technologies of mass travel and communication. Furthermore, in a world that is characterized by the displacement of populations from traditional homelands, pilgrimage may emerge as an increasingly important institutional means through which to unite diasporic communities. Tweed (1997) has recently argued, for instance, that pilgrimage allows Cuban exiles in Florida to map the landscape and history of their country of birth on to a new environment. Finally, pilgrimage provides many possible avenues of research in the light of increased social scientific interest in the body and embodiment, ranging from a focus on beliefs in miraculous healing to analysis of forms of movement associated with travel to and around sacred shrines.


  1. Coleman S, Elsner J 1995 Pilgrimage: Past and Present in the World Religions. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  2. Dubisch J 1995 In a Different Place: Pilgrimage, Gender, and Politics of a Greek Island Shrine. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  3. Eade J, Sallnow M J (eds.) 1991 Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage. Routledge, London
  4. Frey N L 1998 Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  5. Gold A G 1988 Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  6. Morinis A (ed.) 1992 Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT
  7. Messerschmidt D A, Sharma J 1981 Hindu pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas. Current Anthropology 22: 571–2
  8. Turner V, Turner E 1978 Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. Columbia University Press, New York
  9. Tweed T A 1997 Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  10. Wolf E 1958 The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican national symbol. Journal of American Folklore 7(1): 34–9


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