Week 3 Blog Post: Description of a Ritual
This assignment is adapted from Paul Kutsche’s book, Field Ethnography: A Manual for doing Cultural Anthropology.
Ritual “refers to an event or performance, often associated with the sacred, which is distinguished from ordinary day-to-day life by the use of special language, music, or dance” (Rosman and Rubel 1998: 27). Rituals often take place at important life moments such as birth, death, puberty. As the definition above mentioned, often times they are associated with the sacred, or religious events such as Passover or Ramadan. They can also be events which mark important events in the life of the community such as independence days, graduation ceremonies, State of the Union addresses, etc. Rituals can be formal or informal. Religious rituals like a wedding tend to be formal, while a family birthday dinner that follows a specific pattern can be considered an informal ritual.
Writing it up:
The assignment is to select a ritual (that you either observe or have observed in the past) and write a description of it. Your blog post should have a total (between the two parts) of between 500-700 words. The description has two parts:
Do an “ethnography” of the ritual. Describe the setting of the ritual, and the events that occur including who is there and what they are doing. Like the map assignment, pay particular attention to detail (is this a special location, what is the general atmosphere of the event?, etc.) If there is special music, dress, or language associated with the ritual be sure to mention it.
Analyze the ritual. In this section, try to answer (to the best of your ability) the question why. What function do particular events in the ritual have? For example, music at the beginning of a church service signals that the service is going to begin. In this section, also address the issue as to what the ritual does. Are people transformed through the ritual (marriage, initiation ceremonies)? Is the community strengthened? What does the ritual mean to the participants? Below, there is a list of different types of rituals. Try and place the ritual you observed into one of the typologies and explain what elements of the ritual led you to that category.
Classification of Ritual Types (this is not comprehensive, and oftentimes rituals fall into more than one category)
Rites of deference: rituals that show difference in status. These can be small rituals that we do to reinforce divisions of status within society. For example, opening doors for women, standing up when someone enters the room, etc. These can be indirect, such as having the right to interrupt another person in conversation, or arriving “fashionably late” for a party or a function.
Rites of passage: rituals associated with the change of status or an individual or a group of individuals. These are very common and can include, marriage, initiation, graduation, etc.
There are a variety of functions that are associate with rites of passage. They include the following:
- Closure. Rites of passage mark the end of stages of life or of situations. The more public and conscious the ritual, the more people are able to proceed to the next step.
- Stressing responsibility. New responsibilities taken on by those who are changing statuses are stressed–usually by stern warnings, or by formal speeches. The more elaborate the ritual, the easier it is for individuals to abandon old ways and take up new ones.
- Promotion of familiarity. Rites of passage allow for people or groups who do not know each other well to be brought together and to socialize with each other (such as weddings, or initiation events)
- Aid in readjustment. Rites of passage always disrupt the previous existing relationships. Ceremonies or rituals help people adjust to new roles.
- Enhancing solidarity. The disrupted portion of society pulls together again and asserts that it is still viable and intact.
Rites of intensification: rituals, for which the main purpose is to reassert social relations, to intensify social bonds. Rites of passage are also rites of intensification. However, rites of intensification are not necessarily rites of passage. Examples are weekly religious services, Thanksgiving, Memorial day, etc.
Some functions that are associated with rites of intensification are as follows:
- Value Repetition. Patriotic or other rituals that promote loyalty and also the particular values for which the institution prides itself. This includes rituals such as the pledge of allegiance.
- Enhancing solidarity. (See above)
- Activating Status relationships. Maintenance of the established status system. Examples would be a presidential inauguration or the coronation of a monarch. Opportunity to reinforce social structure.
Rites of reversal: these are times such as festivals when normal cultural prohibitions or taboos are lifted. These are times when we are permitted to “break the rules.” The best example is carnaval (Mardi Gras) in Brazil or New Orleans. It could also be a sporting event when fans can act in ways that they usually do not act in daily life (painting your face or body in team colors, singing particular songs).
Instrumental Rites: this is mostly associated with sacred or religious rites where a person or persons attempt to gain the help or communicate with whatever power or deity they believe in. The idea of “magical” incantations would fall into this type.