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  • Look at theories of ritual whose work continues to inform the anthropological understanding of ritual, such as Van Gennep, Turner, and Cannel.
  • Look at examples of ritual through Baumann’s work.

PARA 1: What is ritual? 3 definitions


Van Gennep and Turners readings can help us to answer this question.

There are three ways of answering this question – there are 3 types of definitions about ritual:

  1. Substantive definitions. (What is a ritual about, what is the point of that ritual)
  2. Functional definitions. (In a functional sense what does ritual do. This is a Durkheimian idea about functionally and something that Gennep and Turner look at)
  3. Formal definitions. (Specifying some characteristic/feature that allows us to identify something as a ritual).

PARA 2: VAN GENNEP (1960) Rites of passage theory.

General key points:

  • He looks at functional kind of definition - how rites operate.
    • He has a Durkheimian interest in the maintenance of boundaries of sacred and profane, which he views as time-space dependent.
    • He discusses this with reference to the transitioning from one life stage to another, such as an occupation, graduating, coming of age etc. For him these are transitional rituals, and it is within these that the boundaries between scared and profane need to be kept apart and regulated so no harm comes to society.
    • Thus rituals are helping society guard itself from the kinds of instability that comes with life changes that people might be going through.


What does he say about classification of rites?


Gennep is interested in how rites operate, so he classifies them according to the operation they have:

  1. Sympathetic rites
  2. Contagious rites
  3. Animistic rites
  4. Dynamistic rites

In addition to this, he explains that:

♣ Rites can act directly. (you carry out a ritual either asking the power that exists for something to happen, or asking God for something to happen)
♣ Rites can act indirectly. (You carry out a ritual which that then sets in motion a series of events that ultimately gets what you what you want/what that ritual was for)

♣ Positive rites: volition to act in a particular way. (something that’s approved, something that is seen as to bring benefits e.g. fasting would be a positive rite)
♣ Negative rites: prohibition to act in a particular way. (E.g. Not eating pork is a negative rite in Islam. Pregnant women avoiding something.)



The 3 rites of passage and the pivotability of the sacred

  • His most important contribution is thinking about rites in terms of transitions in life courses or stages
  • These stages and transitions from one stage to another was what he called the ‘rites of passage’

1) Rites of separation (funeral, divorce)
2) Rites of transition (initiation, age groups, occupations, death)
3) Rites of integration (weddings, children formally adopted)

Therefore can see he is very interested in the idea of the sacred and profane, but its time and space dependent.

In addition to this, he looks at the pivotiablity of the sacred:
- He explains that the sacred is an attribute that is not absolute, it is brought into play by nature of situations

  • As people shift from one stage to another over a lifetime, they see sacred in places that, in the previous stage(s), were considered profane
  • The function of rites of passage is to reduce the harmful affects as conditions of people (as they move across stages) change.

A hindu women is considered impure by birth relative to a man. However, she is sacred to her husband and the men she could possibly marry.

When she is married she is sacred - can bring other women good luck.

When a women is pregnant, she is sacred to all over women, and sacred in comparison to all those other women.

After the women gives brith when the women returns to society, this relationship with the sacred changes but becomes stable.

Here we can see the pivotability of the sacred, as people shift from one stage to another over a life time.


PARA 5: TURNER (1969) The ritual process


This idea that Van Gennep had about rites of passage, particularly the states within each rite of passage, was taken forward by Turner. It is about the positions in social relations that define who you are.

He explains this in terms of a process, from separation, to liminality, and then reaggregation.

Symbolic behaviour signifying the detachment of the individual or group from an earlier position in the social structure

This is an intermediate phase in which the attributes of the ritual are ambiguous. A liminal person or “threshold person” is:
1. Neither here not there; betwixt and between the positions assigned by law, customs and conventions
2. Posses nothing
3. Are passive and humble; must obey, accept punishment without complaint
4. Develop an intense comradeship and egalitarianism.

The passage is consummated and the subject returns to a stable state once more, and, by virtue of this, has rights and obligations vis-à-vis others of clearly defined and structural type



  • The liminal phase offers a bled of lowliness and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship.
    ♣ It reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties.
    ♣ By ties, Turner refers here to, those characteristics that divide and organize society: caste, class, gender, rank hierarchies.
  • SO at first, the society is a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions
  • Whereas, in the liminal period, society is often unstructured, or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated communities, a commuinion of equal individuals who submit together the general authority of the ritual elders.
  • So it is really in the rites of passage and that liminal stage where you can really see communities taking shape.
  • It is not concerned with a persons rank or position, but idea of a whole person having relationship with a whole person.

PARA 8: Why does ritual matter (2007)


Cannell looks at questions such as:

♣ Why does ritual matter to informants, people who anthropologists study?
♣ Why does ritual matter to anthropologists?
♣ Deploys the difference between the answers to draw out the Christian roots of anthropology?

We can look at her ethnographic examples and how she uses it to make her points:

For the Latter Day Saints (Mormons or LDS) in America, the experience of the temple ritual is paramount in minds of those who have to go through the ritual and those who guard and regulate it.

♣ What it entails is never discussed, but the experience is constantly discussed and shared.
♣ It cannot be known from before, because that would make the experience rigidified, ordinary, standardized, institutionalized.
♣ Although the experience is considered living and full of potential, there is considerable anxiety around experiencing the “right” things.

For rural Catholics in Bicol – the Bicalano Christians – the experience of taking part in a ritual is important and transformative.
♣ An arena of transformative, healing participation for both individuals and groups.
♣ All rituals are understood as forms of ‘sharing’ in the feelings of the religious figure being addressed.
♣ Sharing the strength of the figure, by playing them in a Passion performance for instance, allows the subject to be healed but also to not find the ritual itself too taxing
♣ Less focus on interiority as Mormons, but experience is important. (taking part in sharing that allows ritual to occur)


PARA 7: Roy Rappaport (1999)


Rappaport’s definition recognizes that rituals do not have to be religious. However, the connection between ritual and religion, according to him, is:
Ritual is the form of action where the constituents of religion or the domain of the Holy are generated and integrated. The Holy is constituted of the sacred (the discursive aspect of religion, which can be expressed in language); the numinous (non-discursive, affective, ineffable qualities of religion); the occult (religion’s peculiar efficacious capacities) and the divine (spiritual referents e.g. gods, divinities, souls etc.). The holy has implications of wholeness and health.

Elements of Rappaport’s definition:

  • The encoding is not done by the performers themselves
  • Formality as decorum (this adorence to form)
  • There is invariance and conformity to the form of the ritual (even if there is some variance, the larger form of the ritual stays the same)
  • Unless there is a performance, there is no ritual


Baumann. (1992) Ritual Implcaites ‘Others’: Rereading Durkheim in a Plural society

  • This text looks at definitions of ritual and asks how we can work with Durkheim in a situation where different religions exist in the same place.
  • Baumann text is based on 4 years of filed research in a multi-ethnic suburb of London, Southhall. It is mainly of Punjabi origin, although there are also English, Irish and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds. He looks at how in a multicultural background, the presence of ‘Others’ and ‘outsiders’, however the context may define them, is almost a given when it comes to ‘public’ ritual.
  • CRITICISES DURKHEIM: He starts by criticizing Durkheim’s definition of ritual. Durkheim believes that rituals are limited to insiders, and that rituals are performed by the community. ‘We tend to take it as a given, on the whole, that rituals are symbolic performances which unite the members of a category of people in a shared pursuit that speaks of, and to, their basic values or that creates of confirms a world of meanings shared by all of them alike’ (p98) – in this quote Baumann is explaining Durkheim’s perspective.

But what Baumann sets out to show from his analysis is that it is not this way, and rituals almost always include some kind of ‘Other’. So here we can see ritual is not just limited to insiders. He proposed three propositions that seem to arise from the data:


Baumanns first proposition:

  1. First, instead of assuming that rituals are performed by congregations or ritual communities, I suggest that they may also be performed by competing constituencies

What we can infer from this is the use of the word congregation, which represents a community with a shared belief, and this being replaced with the word constituencies, which refers to group of people who have different beliefs but still participate within the ritual.


Baumanns second proposition:

  1. Secondly, instead of assuming that rituals celebrate the perpetuation of social values and self-knowledge, I suggest that they may equally speak to aspirations towards cultural change.

The definitions we have from those like Durkheim show that everything is smooth and homogenous.


His third proposition:

  1. Thirdly, instead of assuming that participation in ritual is limited to insiders, I suggest that we recognize the frequency of outsider participation not only in plural but also in non-plural societies.

He thus argues these three propositions in his text, in which he focuses throughout on the capacity of rituals to implicate ‘Others’.


Birthday example:


He gives the example of birthdays . ‘Their rites and ‘ours’
It explains how children of Punjbi parentage, are aware of the birthday parties given for their English, Irish and Afro-Caribbean peers, and thus parents began to respond to this new expectations form their children in the later 1970’s.

He gives the example of a birthday party of two young boys from a Sikh family. They had large wrapped presents and large shared birthday cake typical of birthdays in English homes. They also sang the English ‘Happy Birthday’ song.

However, the ritual at this stage was also inverted – each adult stepped forward in turn and fed the older boy, and then the younger boy, a piece of cake. WHEREAS ANGLO-AUROPEAN birthday parties typically assemble peers of the celebrants, this and many other London Punjabi rituals assemble their elders. The significance of feeding is anchored in the Sikh as well as the Hindu tradition an accessible not only to London Punjabis.

Thus can see in public ritual, the presence of ‘Others’ is virtually assured. Can see this with a quote from one of the parents reasoning’s: ‘You adjust to the new society, and you give the kids what they need here. I mean, if you don’t, you’re an outcast, isn’t it?’.
However he says ‘The parallel, entirely unsolicited, touches the core of my argument: that rituals I have described are concerned with negotiating relationships with ‘Others’, however, not contextually defined…’

So overall, we can see that the Durkheimian vision that underlies much of our understandings of ritual appears less than complete and leaves out most of what makes an ethnographic observation about these rituals worthwhile.