What roles might the concept of ritual play in the study of contemporary society and culture? As one of the founding concepts of our discipline, ritual has long been a cornerstone of anthropological thought: from the works of Emile Durkheim through Gregory Bateson, Claude Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner, countless classics have been built upon this infinitely perplexing and thus fascinating aspect of human life. In recent decades, however, ritual has undergone a rapid retreat from the forefront of anthropological consideration. Although ritual’s role in the initial formation of anthropology does not grant it permanent immunity to transitions in scholarly interest, its recent departure also should not be casually interpreted as proof of irrelevance.
Ritual is arguably a universal feature of human social existence: just as one cannot envision a society without language or exchange, one would be equally hard-pressed to imagine a society without ritual. And while the word “ritual” commonly brings to mind exoticized images of primitive others diligently engaged in mystical activities, one can find rituals, both sacred and secular, throughout “modern” society: collective experiences, from the Olympics to the commemoration of national tragedies; cyclical gatherings, from weekly congregations at the local church to the annual turkey carving at Thanksgiving to the intoxication of Mardi Gras; and personal life-patterns, from morning grooming routines to the ways in which we greet and interact with one another. Ritual is in fact an inevitable component of culture, extending from the largest-scale social and political processes to the most intimate aspects of our self-experience. Yet within this universality, the inherent multiplicity of ritual practices, both between and within cultures, also reflects the full diversity of the human experience. It was then neither pure coincidence nor primitivist exoticization that placed ritual at the center of the development of anthropological thought: it was instead ritual’s rich potential insights as an object of sociocultural analysis.
In this spirit, this curated collection presents five cases of ritual for readers’ consideration and reflection. We hope that these examples, which combine careful attention to both the common features and unique social circumstances of each, might encourage a reconsideration of the locus of this “old-fashioned” category of anthropological inquiry within contemporary scholarly work. Toward this goal, we aim to raise a number of questions for reflection and discussion: What, in fact, is ritual? Where does ritual originate? What forms does ritual take, and how do these various forms constitute “ritual”? What are ritual’s effects, and how are they achieved? How does ritual frame our social experiences, and how does actors’ input in turn re-frame ritual? What are the relationships between ritual symbols across social fields (religious, political, sexual)? Who exercises control in rituals; or do rituals exercise control upon their actors? And how, in the end, does the study of ritual processes contribute to an understanding of contemporary sociocultural processes?
In considering these questions, this collection features articles on contemporary ritual situations from a wide array of cultural contexts. Journeying from Ecuador to China to Israel to Brazil to San Francisco, and including everything from shamanistic curing rituals to media rituals, disciplinary rituals, national spectacles, and identity pilgrimages, the rituals examined herein bring people together and pull people apart; they frame experience or are themselves re-framed; they help people see who they are and who they are not; they exercise power and resist power; and every once in a while, as readers will see, they simply perplex their intended audience. But no matter the results, each of these studies demonstrates the continued relevance and insights of this “traditional” anthropological category for the study of culture today.
We begin our ritual excursion with Danny Kaplan’s 2009 article “The Songs of the Siren: Engineering National Time on Israeli Radio,” in which Kaplan expands Benedict Anderson’s discussion of the simultaneous reading community of the nation to analyze the role of music radio in shaping collective experience and national sentiment. Particularly at times of national commemoration or emergency, Kaplan argues that Israeli disc jockeys draw upon a common habitus to produce a unified musical atmosphere which engineers national mood shifts, at once playing a central role in determining the importance of events within public consciousness, while also affirming national identity through the construction of collective experience. Kaplan’s case not only draws attention to the expansion of ritualistic collective experiences beyond local audiences through the development of modern mass media, but also highlights the essential role of ritual in the production and reproduction of the modern nation-state.
In Emily Chao’s 1999 article “The Maoist Shaman and the Madman: Ritual Bricolage, Failed Ritual, and Failed Ritual Theory,” a Naxi shaman attempting to treat a madman combines invocations to the gods with Mao-era political slogans in a ritual that leaves its audience thoroughly perplexed. Chao uses this unique case to analyze the uncertain identifications of the Naxi of western China in the post-Mao era, as well as to open the analysis of ritual to the often overlooked possibilities of contingency and even failure. Chao’s analysis of this truly once-in-a-lifetime ritual brings us away from the standard fare of established ritual institutions to highlight the initial moment of creation and reception, and particularly its uncertainty, while at the same time evocatively locating this moment within larger social processes.
Barry Lyons’ 2005 article “Discipline and the Arts of Domination: Rituals of Respect in Chimborazo, Ecaudaor” examines disciplinary rituals on Ecuadorian haciendas. Lyons traces the deployment of whipping rituals in both religious and labor settings, arguing that the corporal practice of whipping across these social fields was intertwined with cultural and particularly symbolic meanings to produce a “respect complex” which acted not only upon people’s bodies (“coercion”) but also upon their minds (“persuasion”). Lyons’ examples not only highlight the potentially disciplinary aspects of ritual practice, whether corporal or symbolic, but also point to potential links between symbols across ritual practices, suggesting a potentially promising direction for future consideration.
Robin Sheriff’s 1999 article “The Theft of Carnaval: National Spectacle and Racial Politics in Rio de Janiero” recounts the history of the magnificent Carnaval from the perspective of poor Brazilians of color in the hillside shantytown of Morro de Sangue Bom. Unveiling a history of class tensions and racial exclusion beneath the glamorous and harmonious exterior of Carnaval, Sherriff traces the gradual disappearance of local samba groups from this spectacle, now safely enclosed within the pricey Sambodromo, a process which her informants call “the theft of carnaval.” Sheriff’s analyses highlight the role of ritualized spectacles in the production and suturing of national identification beyond divisions of class, race, or gender, while also importantly raising issues of power, ideology, and ownership often overlooked in the study of ritual.
Finally, Cymene Howe’s 2001 article “Queer Pilgrimage: The San Francisco Homeland and Identity Tourism” examines how the city of San Francisco has been constructed as a “queer homeland” through a form of pilgrimage that reinforces participants’ sense of identity. Lesbian and gay tour guidebooks chart many of the city’s symbolic spaces, and events, such as the LGBTQ Pride parade and Dykes on Bikes, serve to create a sense of queer authenticity. Like other forms of pilgrimage, these spaces of “arrival” allow visitors to establish a sense of communion with other like-identified people and, at the same time, experience new dimensions of selfhood. Howe argues that the multiplicity of identifications that are created within and among the ritualized spaces does not result in a totalizing or singular notion of “queerness.” Rather, the process of pilgrimage is a mediation between the self, the other and a particular place. Howe’s article presents a novel perspective on how ritualized activities constitute, affirm, and reproduce ideals of identity and provide places of recognition even as they remain flexible and open to different readings and modes of subjectivity.
The supplemental page for each article includes a discussion with the author about ritual and its role in his or her work. Additionally, considering the ritual concept’s far-reaching effect upon other academic disciplines, from sociology to history to political studies, this collection includes across-disciplinary discussion featuring John Gillis (History), Ronald Grimes (Religion), Elizabeth Pleck (History), and Denis Fleurdorge (Sociology), highlighting the many ways in which ritual can be used to understand contemporary society.
The editor and the contributors hope that this collection will not be an end in itself, but may instead be the beginning of a sustained discussion of ritual’s place in contemporary sociocultural analysis, a discussion that would not only shed light upon the phenomenon of ritual, but indeed upon human experience in general.
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2006 Social performance: symbolic action, cultural pragmatics, and ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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1964 Sacrifice: its nature and function. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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1988 Ritual, politics, and power. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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