Ritual- Conversation and Commentary with Authors

Commentary by John R. Gillis

Question (Kevin Carrico): How did you become interested in ritual and how did you come to incorporate this concept into your research? How has the concept of ritual contributed to your understanding of culture, social, political, or historical processes in your work?


Historians of American and European family life had given remarkably little attention to ritual in the 1980s when I began to think about this subject. In fact, historians of the modern period in all areas had simply assumed that ritual belonged to earlier periods, to premodern cultures generally. One group that did not subscribe to this perspective were my ethnographical friends in Sweden, who, in the absence of an empire to study, had "brought anthropology home" earlier than had the Americans, British, and French. People like Orvar Lofgren and Jonas Frykman guided me to sources and insights that I would not have otherwise been aware of.

I had used the concept of rites of passage to advantage in some of my earlier work on the history of youth groups and marriage, but it only gradually dawned on me that ritual had not disappeared in the modern era, but actually proliferated. It turns out that the Victorian era generated an immense amount of daily, weekly, and annual rituals, that the Victorian home was designed as a kind of stage for symbolic performances.

As I began to document the process of proliferation, I began to ask myself what would explain the fact that even as families people lived with began to fragment under the pressures of modernity. It turned out that what I was observing was a complex social/culture process in which in people were creating families to live by to compensate the families they were finding it ever more difficult to live with. Ritual was providing a virtual world that satisfied needs that were not being fulfilled in other ways. By incorporating past into present by memory, families were creating for themselves identities they were unable to sustain in the turmoil of the present moment. The imaginative geography of "home" provided yet another way in which people found a solid point in an otherwise chaotic world. As it turned out much of this ritual work was performed by women, one of the reasons why it had been so invisible to most of my male dominated profession.

Other historians have since attempted to apply this approach to groups beyond the middle class English and Americans that I had studied. The pattern of proliferating rituals of birth, marriage, passage, and death turns up there as well. But family studies scholars have stubbornly ignored this dimensions of family life, preferring statistical or structuralist terms that do not require a close examination of consciousness. Cultural and literary studies have been more receptive, but ritual remains something that most sociologists and historians still think of as ephemeral rather than central.

Commentary by Ronald Grimes

When I first began studying ritual in the 1970s, doing so was a way of breaking the stranglehold of two widely held assumptions in religious studies: (1) that the preferred way to study a religion is to examine sacred texts and (2) that religion is mainly a matter of belief. Influenced particularly by Victor Turner in anthropology, Erving Goffman in sociology, and Richard Schechner in performance studies, several member of the American Academy of Religion coined the term “ritual studies” and, accordingly, started the Ritual Studies Group and the Journal of Ritual Studies. For some of us ritual studies mandated doing field research and opening up the concept of ritual so we could more fully explore its connection to other cultural activities such as theater, sport, music, and dance. It also mandated doing serious interdisciplinary reading and research, particularly in anthropology.

My first field research was on the Santa Fe Fiesta in New Mexico. There was no way to make any sense of it without the concept of ritual. However, the event is so complex that I could not make sense of it using only the concept of ritual. Much else shows up in the fiesta: parades, processions, melodrama, speech-making, buying, selling, singing, dancing, and so on. Also, the fiesta is so conflict- ridden, that one could not make some of the usual assumptions about ritual, for example,  that rituals are necessarily religious or nice, therefore good for communities. Festivals also make havoc of any assumption that rituals are clearly bounded events or that they can be decoded into messages. Because of my work on the fiesta,  subsequent research and writing have often focused on ritual’s role in domains other than religious institutions: on the streets, on stages, in classrooms, in film. And I am often studying situations in which there conflict.

Every book I’ve written (other than my doctoral dissertation) has been on ritual, so it is an anchor, the central concept in all my writing. However, as I use it, the concept sprawls, taking in much that others might exclude. So the concept “ritual” is a way into other disciplines and into activities that other religious studies scholars might not consider off the map.

Commentary by Elizabeth Pleck

Like John Gillis, my work has been concerned with what anthropologists call "rites of passage," including a book about the growth of lavish weddings. Count the number of dissertations and scholarly books about weddings in the last five years. Not a huge number but a lot more. I would say that the interest arises because of celebrity weddings, the coming of age of the twenty somethings who are marrying lavishly, and the political edge of the demand for same-sex marriages. All of the various theories of ritual are there, such as functionalism or performance studies, but I would say that the gains have come from more ethnography, not from any new theory of ritual being developed.

The history of rites of passage seems a territory fairly well laid out; it seems harder to get a handle on the way to incorporate the study of repetitive, highly stylized behavior into history, probably because historians, if they think about such matters, see them as outside of history, rather than the behaviors that make meaning in a historical moment.

Commentary by Denis Fleurdorge

I have always been interested in politics, and particularly in political sociology. I received an undergraduate degree in political science, and proceeded to defend my doctoral thesis in sociology at Sorbonne under the guidance of Professor Claude Rivière. Rivière is one of the first researchers to have developed a generalized theory on profane (non-sacred) rites (Les rites profanes, Paris, PUF, 1995) and on political liturgies (Les liturgies politiques, Paris, PUF, 1988). The notion of ritual has long been the terrain of ethnologists and anthropologists researching “exotic societies,” but over the past twenty years, the discipline of sociology has reinvested itself in this topic, making rites and rituals legitimate objects of study for sociologists. One need only reread Emile Durkheim in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life to be convinced, or reassured, of the validity of such an approach for the field of sociology. In this work, Durkheim clearly lays the foundation for a sociology of rites and ritual not only in the religious field, but also in the profane aspects of life, as well as the political. The relevance of my interest in ritual and the political “thing” is based, however, not only on Durkheim but also on more contemporary research in sociology (Rivière, Javeau, Piette, Lardellier, etc.). In addition to a number of articles, I have thus far published two books on this question: Rituals of the President of the Republic (Les rituels du président de la République- Paris, PUF, 2001) and Rituals and Representations of Power (Les représentations et les rituels du pouvoir- Paris, Zagros, 2005). I will be publishing a new work on this topic in January 2012 through Imago entitled: When the President Appears: Practices and Rituals of the Republic (Lorsque le président paraît. Pratiques et rituels de la République).

My approach is not intended to present the political field as an autonomous and closed social domain, but to retain the idea that political practices, in this case ritual, participate to a great extent in a larger whole, as one of the dimensions of a given society (cultural labeling/ marking). Rituals are not situated alongside but rather within society, along with a number of other social dimensions: religion, beliefs, institutions, social practices, economy, art, etc. While it is perhaps true that politics has its own rules and values, and its own unique practices, none of these particularities conflict with the other social projects which structure society. Marking births and deaths, sharing a meal, visiting or inviting friends, and other such acts are not the unique preserve of any particular social field, and are in fact revealing of social practices in general: non-political as well as political.The richest aspect of researching this topic is analyzing actual political practice (representations, ceremonies, rituals, etc.), in which all of us have participated as spectators or observers. Diving directly into the empirical details of living political practice by a living power moves beyond the mystifying illusions cultivated by a media-mediated reality. Although such analysis admittedly cannot provide either a definitive or exhaustive perspective, it does take note of certain trends (the solemnity of the moment), certain concentrations (the gathering crowd), certain fixations (the attentiveness of ritual actors), and certain movements saturating the ritual space with carefully codified spatial control and temporal regulation.

Finally, in general throughout my research, I consider it important to identify a system, namely “political ritual,” in which the various elements or components can be considered as recurring ritual structures, and can thus underpin a functional and permanent frame for understanding the ritual phenomenon. By reaching an understanding of the different modes of expression and representation of “presidential practices,” it is not only possible to establish an inventory of the composite elements of this “system,” but also to develop an interpretation of the relationships between these different elements, as well as their relationship to other social “systems.”

Commentary by Danny Kaplan

My main research interest is in how rituals provide a sense of social belonging, which transforms into a sense of national identification. My engagement with ritual as a mechanism of national solidarity came from a practical question. I previously studied narratives of friendship in the lives of Israeli men and explored how friendship, as a cultural construct, also figured as a forceful metaphor for the ties of national solidarity. Yet as I made this comparison, I felt that the move from interpersonal ties to the collective sphere remained hypothetical. In order to explain the mechanisms of national solidarity, and not only its symbolism, I decided to look at social interactions at the mezzo level of organizational networks and public events, and chose to systematically study a variety of fields—from NGOs to media and popular culture—where institutional agents explicitly attempt to mobilize people’s identifications and engineer their sense of national solidarity. The key to this social engineering lies in rituals of sociability.  My approach to ritual follows the elementary Durkheimian view of ritual as a cyclic, recurrent activity that provides symbolic confirmation of collective values and emotions shared by members of the community and reinforces their sense of stability, security, and belonging.

Commentary by Cymene Howe

My interest in ritual, particularly for my research on queer pilgrimage, was motivated by questions about the possibility of a queer homeland, a territorialized and yet semiotically rich companion to what Kath Weston (1998) has called the “gay imaginary.” In the case of San Francisco, tourism--as a modern quest for experience and a way of seeking authenticity--coincided with the practice of pilgrimage. Journeying to a site of significance and reaching a destination of meaningful arrival were combined in the twin projects of tourism and pilgrimage. Using the classic formulation of a rite of passage developed by van Gennep and the Turners, I found that queer-identified persons were in a unique position vis-à-vis the practice of pilgrimage. On the one hand, the epic journey to San Francisco was a separation from the social world “back home,” a liminal space to enjoy communitas with other gay folk, followed by a return and reincorporation that left one transformed. While this rendering of pilgrimage as a rite of passage is a very familiar one, I was also interested in how queer pilgrimage was distinct. Many lesbian and gay identified people, for example, are not accepted as a legitimate normative part of the social “body” from which separation traditionally occurs in a rite of passage. Rather, queer folk may be viewed as outside of the norm because of their sexuality, and this is where the touristic trope of “escape,” as opposed to pilgrimage, was equally important.

Commentary by Barry J. 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.

Commentary by Robin E. Sheriff

My initial inspiration for this essay was a straightforward ethnographic one:  while living in the slum community I call Morro do Sangue Bom, I was continually struck by the depth and complexity of my informants’ attachment to the carnival(s) of Rio de Janeiro.  As any anthropologist knows, carnival is as much an idea or a collection of (possibly contradictory) ideas, as it is a cultural event.  As a ritual, a dramaturgy, a spectacle, or a total social fact, carnival is a fertile site for theorizing collective action.   Although I sidestep, in the article, the theoretical debate about whether carnival functions to “domesticate the masses” or serves as a rehearsal for revolution, I was privately plagued by the question during my fieldwork.  In truth, I had hoped to uncover the latter in the course of my research but feared that I was mostly observing the former.

Commentary by John R. Gillis

Question (Kevin Carrico): In the past, rituals were presumed to be practices of “non-modern others.” All of the work in this volume, as well as of the contributors to this discussion, testify against this tendency. Yet at the same time, there is no denying that ritual has been on the retreat in recent decades from the forefront of anthropological analyses. Why is this so? And, counter to this tendency, how is ritual relevant today to social/ cultural/political/ historical analysis?

Is ritual still relevant today? Of course it is. It is one of the basic elements of human culture, present at all times and places, deserving of much more attention that it usually gets.Of course, it can become an obscure specialization, over-theorized, and off-putting. As a historian, I have found many of the more theoretical approaches to be unreadable and impenetrable. I would hazard a guess that this explains part of the reason why ritual has been in recent retreat. Returning to a tradition of close observation and even participant observation might help rescue this situation. This is less easy to do when the subject is historical, but with a little more imagination the past can also yield interesting results.

Commentary by Denis Fleurdorge

In terms of theory, there has indeed been less discussion. This may be due to the fact that the great debates are in the past: Durkheim (collective belief vis-à-vis sacred “things”); Mauss (the efficacy of the rite); Levi-Strauss (belief and myth; rite and social cohesion); Turner (symbolic systems); Douglas (ritual in daily life); Van Gennep (the rites of passage), etc. This may also be due to the nature of rituals (whether religious, profane, or political), in that they have a high degree of malleability. Any and all research projects on ritual lead the researcher to at least redefine the notion of rite or ritual, and then in turn adapt it to the form and context of his or her object of study. Yet there is also a sort of irreducible “anthropological core” common to all rituals: “words uttered, gestures performed and objects handled,” (671) in the phrasing of Claude Levi-Strauss (The Naked Man, Paris, Plon, 1971) or Emile Durkheim (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life). Thus all social acts have another dimension more important than simply their use value, in that they can be inscribed, to varying degrees, in a dimension of ritual or ritualization.

To put it another way, researchers do not fundamentally reshape the intrinsic nature of ritual, but rather offer a unique highlight of this phenomenon without reducing the depth or relevance of other researchers’ work. Without being exhaustive or definitive, one can note three main currents in ritual research: ritual as an expression of belief (the sacred, religiosity, magic); ritual as an expression of symbolic thought (conflicting, to a certain degree, with the aforementioned expression of belief); and ritual as a means of reintegrating the social field (secular and institutional approaches). One could add to this brief overview certain other approaches that have been less well-recognized but remain essential, such as Claude Javeau’s work on “micro-rituals” and “micro-activities” (Taking the Trivial Seriously- Prendre le futile aux serieux, Paris, CERF, 1998).

My research is devoted to rituals- specifically political rituals, and particularly those of the President of the French Republic. In my research, I view presidential rituals (specifically those of the President of the French Republic) as a kind of social ceremony, considering the status of the principal actor (the President) as well as the context of expression, in which a particular value is attributed to that which is “said” or “done.” Located halfway between religious and secular rituals, these presidential rituals are prescribed acts, at once tied to particular circumstances yet repeatable, which tend to be organized into particular sequences. They mark the recognition of a certain status, while arousing the feeling of belonging to a community. They are also a “propaganda tool” drawing upon exemplarity and emotion to link form and event, past and present, transition and innovation, spectacle and contemplation. Somewhat less commonly, they can be a means to influence or guide the course of political life within a society.

There are many aspects of these rituals which, if we take into consideration the particular illocutionary force of all representations of presidential power, can be identified as a certain type of linguistic act. But rather than projecting a priori the categories and modes of linguistic analysis onto ritual, it is more suitable to proceed from the self-evident observation that any ritual act carries, either explicitly or implicitly, a certain semantic charge or a message addressed to certain recipients. One can also say that any such message is complex, and makes use of two main modes of expression. The first is of the spoken order, meaning the content of presidential discourse. The second then is of the non-verbal order, consisting of particular gestures, postures, attitudes, presentations of the self, handling of objects, utilization of symbols, and above all, the particular situational context.

While deciphering the signs present in presidential rituals, I also look at certain repetitive behaviors within these rituals: particular comportments in welcoming the president across the gap separating individuals; particular behaviors of recognition (recognition by the President, but also recognition of the President); socializing behaviors in the acts of offering, inviting, and saluting; imitative behaviors, included on the one hand in acts borrowed from other spheres besides the political (military, religious, monarchy, etc.), as well as on the other hand providing illustrative models for non-presidential rituals (such as those of the Prime Minister, prefects, or local elected officials). In general, the ritual ceremony and the ritualization of gestures, within its specific context, prevents misinterpretations of the gestures of others, as well as allowing one to distinguish, by extension, particular gestures or comportments that are “normal” (in the Durkheimian sense of the term), or ritualized.

Presidential rituals are certainly not “original works” in this regard. They use, borrow, and recompose particular shapes or elements already in existence; such borrowing is in fact one of the first manifestations of their belonging to the social field as a whole. These basic, borrowed elements include, for example, various gestures, facial expressions, or vocal expressions, which by certain norms and convey social values. Both Erving Goffman (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life) and, from another perspective, Edward T. Hall (The Hidden Dimension and The Silent Language), have shown the necessity of acquiring such modes of comportment within the different forms of socialization proper to a given culture.

Such culturally prescribed gestures, physical and/ or verbal, serve at once as instruments (or modes) of communication and as means of social identification. They are inseparable from the codified perception of the environment (both time and space), social distance (proximity and difference in status), and protocols of interpersonal interaction (standards of politeness amongst others). Thus, these presidential rituals can be broken down into a set of constitutive components (“gestures performed,” “words uttered,” and “objects handled”), structured by the rules of protocol and precedent, rules organizing the sequences of the ritual process, as well as prescriptions concerning the respective roles and interactions of ritual actors and their utilization of symbolic objects.

The role of individual interpretations in distinguishing presidential rituals from their predecessors’ cannot be overlooked. Nor can one overlook the historical dimensions of these rituals, involving change within continuity, for with the exception of some quite recent creations, these ceremonies all make use of a number of well-established practices, allowing us to assess the presence of the past in the practices of the present (repetition, pure and simple), as well as, from another perspective, the imprint of contemporary contingencies and necessities upon heritage from the past. Coded in distinctions across time and centered upon the individual figure of the president, rituals of presidential power exist concretely only through these individual interpretations that can in turn alter their composition. The history of this personal ritual potential is composed of the succession of these individual actualizations, in the same way that each of these individual interpretations is founded upon the conditions of the ritual and the times. In this manner, each president imprints the mark of his personality, style, and choices upon predefined ritual forms. Thus, beyond their standard framework, presidential rituals possess this coefficient of originality that can bring about all sorts of deviations. These deviations, through which the specific intentions of the principal actor are expressed, and whose main effects are destined to change (and even sometimes distort) the original meaning or scope of the ritual, may take the form of specific and deliberate novel choices, or may at times take the more diffuse form of the adoption of a new “style.”

But we may add that none of this is the main point of significance. The real work in this research consists in going beyond the veil of appearances, which can at times be weighty (protocol, precedence, order, etc.), and at other times even folkloric (parades, military reviews, a discordant juxtaposition of symbolic elements, etc.), to discover the fundamental great unknown that generates the power of this type of representation, not only in its conception, but also in its reception by the public to whom it is addressed. Are presidential rituals then “tools” of communication specific to the political field, vectors of a dominant ideology, means of persuasion and social cohesion, strategic elements available only to those of a particular status (namely that of the President of the Republic) or a particular man (which can be misappropriated for personal ends), or moments of original witness unveiling and valorizing sovereign decisions? In all cases, these rituals, in their presidential specificity, reveal a power that gives society to itself, in so far as the image that it develops and provides is deemed society’s proper image. At the same time, rituals also reveal a national history capable of being enacted in daily life, throwing us back into the past (as can be seen in commemorative ceremonies).

Developing a system for interpreting presidential rituals leads one to take into account, without any distinctions, any and all acts of the President of the Republic that are directly linked to his status. The activities of the President, that is to say his day-to-day work schedule, are highly codified: protocol and precedents (or deference) govern his actions. It is apparent that the presidential life does not leave much space for a personal life. All activities are subject to the presence of a third party, and thus a potential witness (for example, aides, ushers, butlers, subordinates, officials, the Republican Guard, police, etc). Each activity can be a ritual in its own right or be “introduced” by ritual forms or sequences. The President has no intimate moments; each and every one of his actions is inevitably the result of concentrated choice, rationality, situational calculations, and a certain “self-measurement” (or “self-presentation,” in Goffman’s words). Presidential being is overrun by the “appearance” of its title, leading its holder to representation over presentation; this is one characteristic that, explicitly or implicitly, unites all of the different Presidents of the Republic. And this is how my research came to focus on a survey of the whole collection of presidential acts.

Commentary by Danny Kaplan

I believe that rituals of sociability understood as a vehicle for collective identity as I discussed here may be a key factor in understanding the perpetuation of nationalism across the globe, despite pressures of globalization and hybridization. The significance of national solidarity is probably more accentuated in the Israeli case, given its prolonged involvement with violent conflict, but I suggest that rituals of sociability may likewise operate in other national cultures, perhaps in more subtle ways, as mechanisms that promote national solidarity. Whether one examines examples of media and popular culture in emergency events or in everyday life, it is interesting to follow rituals of sociability and to ask why and in what ways they sustain and nourish national sentiments, particularly as social rituals could offer myriad alternative forms of collective identification.

Commentary by Cymene Howe

Ritual has an enduring life because it demands a time outside of time, where one’s focus, often a collective focus, is magnified. It is an opportunity to qualify some of the ineffable qualities of human existence in more material, observable and practicable ways. And in this sense, it is hard to imagine humanity without ritual. In my more recent research I have been less focused on the canonical forms of ritual and more interested in the ritualized aspects of political performance and how these may intersect with different forms of spectacle.

Commentary by Barry J. 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.

Commentary by Robin E. Sheriff

We can define “ritual” in many ways but as the articles in this online collection attest, whatever it is, it remains the bailiwick of anthropology.   Way back when, we sharpened our theoretical teeth on ritual, especially in those sites where capitalism and colonialism were expanding and dramatically altering, if not altogether swallowing, a diversity of cultural landscapes.  I might suggest, and many have, that new rituals are constantly being churned out of the maelstrom of colliding cultures and the processes of globalization—though whether they are rituals in the senso stricto of say, Gluckman, Douglas, Turner or Geertz, is often hard to precisely determine.  I think it isn’t merely sentimentalism or romanticization that would prompt me to point out, along with my informants in Morro do Sangue Bom, that in many times and places, ritual, real ritual, is giving way to spectaculization.