Essay on Ritual

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Ritual involves conventionalized, stylized, communicative and meaningful human actions. Sometimes rituals are planned special occasions that generate powerful emotional responses among participants. Religious and political ritual is a case in point. By contrast other uses of the concept point to a low key presence in everyday life. Sometimes this is referred to as interaction ritual.

The canonical text for the study of ritual in social science is Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Here, Durkheim (1968 [1912]) drew upon ethnographic material about Aboriginal Australia to argue that societies needed periodically to renew social bonds and solidaristic ties. Tribal gatherings involving ritual activity performed this function. They involved the manipulation and invocation of sacred and profane symbols, totems, and supernatural forces; coordinated bodily motions and expressive actions; feasting and sexual activity; the enactment of myths and legends. The result was a heightened emotional sensibility and a sense of excitement that Durkheim called collective effervescence. Although he drew his material from what he thought of as a ”primitive” society, Durkheim explicitly intended his insights on the characteristics and social functions of ritual to have universal relevance. Subsequent work by W. Lloyd Warner on American small-town life and by Edward Shils and Michael Young on the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II supported this contention. Robert Bellah, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner developed slightly later arguments consistent with Durkheim’s vision of a ritually integrated or ritually organized society. This approach has been criticized for assuming social consensus and normative integration.

The period extending through the 1970s and 1980s saw new visions of ritual as an instrumental political strategy emerging. Steven Lukes (1975) and David Kertzer argued that we needed to understand rituals as events with sponsors that were attempts at domination. Scholars like Stuart Hall in the emergent area of cultural studies read of youth subcultures as ”rituals of resistance” characterized by stylized critique of the dominant social order. Michel Foucault spoke of the ”spectacle of the scaffold” and the ways this reproduced systems of control. These perspectives have been critiqued for subordinating meaning to struggles for power or for having an overly purposive view of ritual action.

A second front against the Durkheimian mainstream emerged out of Erving Goffman’s work on face-to-face interaction. What Goffman (1967) called interaction rituals were everyday encounters between people in which appropriate displays of deference and demeanor were expected. These offered mutual confirmation of the value of the self, of social status, and of role expectations, thus providing a sense of ontological security and allowing interactions to be successfully accomplished by more or less reflexive social agents. Recently Randall Collins has combined this line of thinking with conflict sociology. Collective identities and solidarities are built from the bottom up through ”interaction ritual chains.” These not only generate pro-social emotions, such as enthusiasm and esprit de corps, but also play a role in the formation of stratification hierarchies and exclusionary cliques. Some are inside the ritual interaction and derive psychological and network benefits, others are kept out.


  1. Durkheim, E. (1968) [1912] The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Allen & Unwin, London.
  2. Goffman,    (1967)   Interaction   Ritual. Aldine, Chicago, IL.
  3. Lukes, S. (1975) Political ritual and social integration. British Journal of Sociology 9 (2): 289—308.

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