Discipline and the Arts of Domination: Rituals of Respect in Chimborazo, Ecuador

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What role do rituals play in discipline and the maintenance of “social order”? What are the ties between ritual symbols in various realms of social experience, from religion to politics, family, and labor? In “Discipline and the Arts of Domination: Rituals of Respect in Chimborazo, Ecuador,” Barry J. Lyons examines three separate yet interrelated whipping rituals recounted during his fieldwork in a Runa village in Ecuador in the early and middle 1990s, shedding light upon the often unrecognized relationship between ritual symbolism and social discipline.

Lyons’ analysis of whipping rituals on Ecuadorian haciendas shows how ritualized disciplinary practices can be both symbolic and instrumental, constructing and reproducing identities, while endowing hierarchy with the seemingly neutral moral language of respect. Lyons begins this analysis with a critique of the commonly assumed distinction between persuasion and coercion. Rather than viewing the coercive use of force as simply a product of failed persuasion, Lyons explains that coercion can also be a part of persuasion: the whipping rituals which he analyzes bear rich symbolic meanings that can have deep effects upon subjectivity and even symbolically elevate their enactors above earthly interests. Persuasion and coercion are hence not in conflict, and can be present simultaneously within disciplinary practice. Further critiquing James Scott’s analytical framework of public vs. hidden transcripts, Lyons demonstrates that disciplinary rituals and consent are always located within a complex system of social relations beyond the two-dimensional framework of public vs. private, with people taking on multiple roles or subject positions: for example, an adult may be an enactor of punishment towards a child, yet also a recipient of punishment from an elder. The symbolism of whipping rituals shaped these multiple forms of identity, while reaffirming the relations between them through the notion of “respect.”

Lyons’ first point of analysis is pascuanchina, a disciplinary ritual observed during holy week, in which penitents knelt, confessed their sins, and proceeded to be whipped with three lashes in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost. Such whipping was not perceived solely as a punishment but rather as a purification of sin and a means of transforming one’s internal moral disposition; the elder lashing the whip was perceived as a mediator of God himself and thus worthy of respect and even thanks from the penitent.  Lyons’ second point of analysis is the doctrina, a weekly prayer meeting in which hacienda authorities resolved social conflicts and reinforced the moral order of respect by means, yet again, of three whip lashes: expanding disciplinary practice from an annual observance to a weekly basis. Both of these rituals were far more than simple corporal punishment: they framed force and pain through symbolic meaning, intertwining social discipline with religious cosmology to affirm and enact the moral order of “respect” (respeto) and its accompanying hierarchy.

Lyons’ third point of analysis is disciplinary violence used by the hacienda labor regime. Here, the whip as a tool of moral purification and correction also became a tool of work discipline, while violence was often legitimated by drawing directly upon the model of ritual discipline and the “respect complex.” As in the aforementioned ritual settings, those punished were similarly obliged to kneel and to express their thanks for the whipping; even more tellingly, those exacting the punishment as overseers were often the same elders responsible for enacting the aforementioned rituals of pascuanchina and doctrina, thereby joining hacienda and religious authority in one individual, in an attempt to control interpretations of the violence of the labor regime. Accordingly, as a result of these symbolic elements blending cultural persuasion into violent coercion, fellow laborers could at times show little sympathy for victims of ritual violence, endorsing the authorities’ disciplining of “wild” resistance. Yet at the same time, the line between legitimate and illegitimate use of such violence was not always clear, and the “respect complex” could be used as a model for criticizing the widely resented violence of the hacienda. Respeto could thus either serve as a justification for the contentious hierarchical order or as grounds for contending this order, while remaining reliably beyond contention as an ideal model of the social order.

Lyons’ article demonstrates the potentially disciplinary aspects of ritual, at once symbolizing the moral order as well as affirming the authorities behind it. At the same time, Lyons’ analyses of these three distinct yet similar ritual forms draws attention to a rarely discussed aspect of ritual studies: the potential ties between ritual symbols or practices across social contexts. From religion to politics to advertising to daily interactions, rituals are an omnipresent aspect of human social existence: thinking through the ties and potential symbolic transferences between such rituals may be a promising direction for further study.

Interview With the Author

Kevin Carrico: What has inspired your work in the field of ritual, and in what ways does your work contribute to the study of these issues?

Barry Lyons: The central theoretical issue in my research has been the workings of hegemony and counter-hegemony. My fieldwork in the Ecuadorian Andes in the 1990s focused on the relationship between Indians and Catholic pastoral agents oriented toward liberation theology, in an area where the Church had historically supported a very oppressive hacienda system but had repositioned itself as an ally of Indian ethnic and political resurgence. Notions and practices of "respect" have shaped this relationship in very complex ways. I found that Indian villagers and mestizo priests alike drew on and refashioned hacienda-era rituals of respect in addressing contemporary issues. My Cultural Anthropology essay seeks to understand those rituals in relation to power and authority on the hacienda, while in other work I have examined the significance of “respect” in the 1990s.

Anthropologists have long regarded ritual as a way that societies make cultural assumptions tangible and impress social structural principles upon participants.  In recent decades, we have learned to see those assumptions, structural principles, and rituals themselves as contingent, contested creations. Recent theoretical approaches have also called into question some classic dichotomies such as that between the “symbolic” and the “instrumental”, “practical,” or “real,” with ritual traditionally identified with the symbolic. Taking up these insights, I have tried to show that ritual violence can be simultaneously symbolic and instrumental, persuasive and coercive, legitimate and contested, and that even the distinction between the ritual and the everyday, in this case ritual discipline and arbitrary violence, can be the object of strategic manipulation and contestation.

Kevin Carrico: How do you see the topic of ritual to be relevant at this moment in time?

Barry Lyons: The question brings to mind the classic idea that modernity, with its attendant rationalization and secularization, would lead to the disappearance or “irrelevance” of ritual, at least religious ritual.  Some of the Ecuadorian disciplinary rituals discussed in my essay have indeed disappeared under the impact of various modernizing projects.  Others, however, have persisted, some of them refashioned or imbued with new meanings in response to new circumstances.  The same modernizing projects that have undermined some rituals have also generated new ones.  Anthropologists’ contemporary recognition of the contingent, contested nature of rituals makes them all the more interesting, not only as a window into cultural meanings and social structure, but also as an arena in which diversely positioned actors advance and respond to one another’s projects and understandings.

About the Author

Barry J. Lyons is a sociocultural anthropologist whose research focuses on agrarian class relations, ethnicity, and religion in highland Ecuador. He has conducted fieldwork among Quichua-speaking indigenous people in a former hacienda community, together with archival research on the history of the hacienda and the region. His book based on this research examines patterns of authority and indigenous resistance on the hacienda and the hacienda's contemporary legacy. He has also written about how indigenous people today are reworking the memory of the hacienda as they create local versions of liberation theology and redefine their ethnic identity.

Dr. Lyons has received funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research for new research on race and identity among mestizo Ecuadorians and the impact of the indigenous movement.  Dr. Lyons is also interested in mestizo landowners' and indigenous laborers' images of masculinity and femininity and in how these images shaped the experience of the hacienda.

Additional Works by the Author

Remembering the Hacienda: Religion, Authority, and Social Change in Highland Ecuador. University of Texas Press (2006).

"A 'Hair-Racing' Experience". In Patricia C. Rice and David W. McCurdy, eds., Strategies in Teaching Anthropology. 3rd ed. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2003 (c.2004), pp.39-40.

"'To Act Like a Man': Masculinity, Resistance, and Authority in the Ecuadorian Andes." In Lessie Jo Frazier, Rosario Montoya, and Janise Hurtig, eds., Gender's Place: Feminist Anthropologies of Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, pp.45-63.

"Religion, Authority, and Identity: Intergenerational Politics, Ethnic Resurgence, and Respect in Chimborazo, Ecuador." Latin American Research Review, 2001, 36(1):7-48.

"'Taita Chimborazo and Mama Tungurahua': A Quichua Song, A Fieldwork Story." Anthropology and Humanism, June 1999, 24(1):1-14.

Related Links

Barry Lyons, Remembering the Hacienda

Table of Contents and Excerpt

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Questions for Classroom Discussion

1.    Lyons’ article innovatively highlights the use of ritual in constructing and maintaining social discipline across a number of fields (e.g. morals, family, labor). What other cases exist of the intertwinement of ritual and discipline? What effects might such an interpretation have for thinking about the place of ritual within society? What aspects of ritual might make it particularly applicable for discipline?

2.    Across Lyons’ cases of ritual discipline, a series of common symbols play a central role in both religious and more “secular” settings. Such symbols include the whip, the common administrator of whipping, and the recipient’s kneeling and penitence, present in every ritual from pascuanchina to hacienda discipline. How does this symbolic transference from one field to another influence these various forms of ritual? What other examples of such symbolic ritual transference are present in society today?

3.    Lyons’ analysis highlights the unclear border between persuasion and coercion within ritual violence. Where else in social experience do you see this line between persuasion and coercion blurred? What are the social and disciplinary implications of such overlap?

Related Readings

Foucault, Michel

1995    Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage.

Gramsci, Antonio

1971    Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith, trans. and eds. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Kurtz, Donald V.

1996    "Hegemony and Anthropology." Critique of Anthropology 16(2): 103-135.

Mitchell, Timothy

1990    "Everyday Metaphors of Power." Theory and Society 19: 545-577.

Roseberry, William

1994    "Hegemony and the Language of Contention." In Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico. Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds. Pp. 355-366. Durham: Duke University Press.

Scott, James

1985    Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

1990    Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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