This week’s lectures highlighted two very different rituals, Hauka spirit possession and Cypriot weddings, but both examples brought our attention to the relationship between a ritual embedded in a society and the ways that cultural change can be reflected in this space.

On Tuesday, Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous showed an example of spirit possession rituals in West Africa after French colonial contact.  What did it mean that these rituals had clearly changed since colonial contact? Why had the pantheon of inhabiting spirits become colonial characters? Catherine posed several alternatives, with links to relevant articles and books –  Was it simply a reaction to colonial power structures?  Was it a way for rural migrants to cope with their new chaotic, urban environment?  Was it a response to the dramatic/traumatic rupture of traditional power structure?  Was the mimicry of colonial characters and protocol a form of appropriation or was it a form of resistance?  Or does the ritual spirit possession signify something that falls in between these two poles – is it a claim to membership within a white, colonial society where they are considered inferior?

Friday’s lecture on Cypriot weddings revealed the ritual weddings being considered in a new way alongside changes in Cypriot society.  As Cyprus finds itself facing increased levels of  ‘globalising processes like Westernisation’, in Argyrou’s terms, he argues that weddings, because of their very public nature in Cyprus, should be seen as a rite of class distinction rather than solely a rite of passage.  MoanaGirl ties this into this week’s readings on Packaged Japaneseness and relates it back to our earlier discussions on inventing tradition.  See Brigitte’s slides, below, on Tradition and Modernity in the Mediterranean: The wedding as symbolic struggle by Vassos Argyrou, for more on Cypriot weddings.

And in case you missed the hintin the lecture today, the next three lectures will be very helpful

for preparing for the end of the semester


First up, you can view your ANZAC assignment on this blog here

Political ritual has been the focus for this week.  Through this framework, we’ve engaged with ideas of power and performance.  On Tuesday we looked at what constitutes a political ritual and how it can differ from a  public ritual such as Palio or Carnival.

Here’s what we came up with: Political rituals…

  • are routinised and orderly – the audience and participants will know exactly what to expect
  • are officially sanctioned and scheduled
  • aim for notions of solidarity, collectivity and unity in action and understanding
  • use public symbols to convey messages
  • create social history by cementing an event and its representation into the social fabric and collective memory
  • reiterate the significance of the event that is being celebrated to the wider society

The powerpoint slide from Tuesday’s class have already been posted on the blog.  Specific points in the slideshow were illustrated with youtube videos.  We saw clips of the Mass Games in North Korea as an example of using excessive displays of wealth, mass approval and material resources in order to demonstrate the productive fit between current leadership and the ‘rightness’ of life.  We also saw imagery and motifs of military might representing the strength of the nation and a focus on the collective rather than individuals – a focus on Kim Jong-il was the exception to this.  Two clips on the swearing in of the newest King of Tonga contextualised this specific political ritual and its displays of power within the current social and political climate in Tonga.  We also saw a short clip of Obama taking the Oath of Office to illustrate the how crucial order, ceremony and etiquette are in enacting the change that the ritual is supposed to bring about.  Since the Oath was initially recited incorrectly, Obama later asked the Chief Justice to come to the Oval Office and repeat the ritual to ensure that there was no uncertainty surrounding him taking over the Presidency.

On Friday we discussed performance and Victor Turner’s social drama approach.  The emphasis on performance is an emphasis on what rituals do.  Using a performative approach provides us with a language to talk about action.  It also situates the people involved in ritual as actors – they are now active agents, not just passive recipients.

Turner sees people and culture in continuous flux and transformation – so his approach to studying these is one that accounts for everything in social life to be in movement – he believes there is a strain towards order, but we don’t achieve it and anthropology needs to take the reality of chaos and disagreement into account –  he pulls from Sally F. Moore: “established rules, customs, and symbolic frameworks exist, but they operate in the presence of areas of indeterminacy, of ambiguity, of uncertainty and manipulability.  Order never fully takes over, not could it.”  Culture isn’t a fully articulated system or set of symbolic codes- it is changing, evolving, and indeterminate.  Turner thinks too much emphasis has been placed on fit, harmony & congruence in ritual studies – too functionalist.   Using the social drama as a unit of analysis will illuminate the complex relationship between the fact of social life and its representation

In social dramas Turner begins with disharmonious moments – these are large scale arguments, combats, or even rites of passage.  It is a process driven model, more interested in staging, plot, movement, change & commentary than a the structure of the event (however, Turner does lay out a structure for social dramas).   The term social drama emerges for two main reasons – 1 -Turner relies on theatrical terminology to make his point – 2- he is talking about events that are “inherently dramatic because participants not only do things, they try to show others what they are doing or have done – in other words, actions take on a performed quality

Turner calls social dramas “an eruption from the level surface of ongoing social life” and structures them into four stages: breach, crisis, redressive action (schism).  In The Anthropology of Performance, Turner elabourates:  1- Breach of regular norm-governed social relations; 2- Crisis, during which there is a tendency for the breach to widen.  Each public crisis has what I now call liminal characteristics, since it is a threshold (limen) between more or less stable phases of the social process, but it is not usually a sacred limen, hedged around by taboos and thrust away from the centers of public life.  On the contrary, it takes up its menacing stance in the forum itself, and as it were, dares the representatives of order to grapple with it; 3- Redressive action ranging from personal advice and informal mediation or arbitration to formal juridical and legal machinery, and, to resolve certain kinds of crisis or legitimate other modes of resolution, to the performance of public ritual.  Redress,too, has its liminal features, for it is “betwixt and between”, and as such, furnishes a distanced replication and critique of the events leading up to and composing the ‘crisis’.  This replication may be in the rational idiom of the judicial process, or in the metaphorical and symbolic idiom of a ritual process; 4- The final phase consists either of the reintegration of the disturbed social group, or of the social recognition and legitimation of irreparable schism between the contesting parties.

We also discussed Kertzer’s idea that rituals themselves are a field of political struggle, as opposed to rituals simply being a vehicle to communicate the results of a political struggle – think about the political campaign season compared to an inauguration, for example.

We continued with Kertzer’s Rite Makes Might idea and discussed mass rallies and public demonstrations or protests – ex: G20 protests.    Symbolism and symbolic behaviour is at the forefront here – there are obviously competing symbolic systems involved – we’ve talked about power and performance and the way rituals/rites make convincing arguments about the way the world works and who is in charge – but people don’t automatically buy into these systems and beliefs – When you think about rituals and power you need to consider the balance between structuring forces and agency.

Books, articles and authors that came up in class this week

Irving Goffman – The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Victor Turner – Dramas, Fields & Metaphors -Also,  The Anthropology of Performance

David Kertzer – Ritual, Politics & Power

Jeffrey C Alexander – Cultural Pragmatics –  Also, From the Depths of Despair

The focus this week was still on public rituals, and much of what has gone on in class has already made its way onto the blog.  We’ve got a roundup of the Palio posts and powerpoint slides with general info on public rituals.

We watched an ethnographic film on Shrovetide celebrations in the Baden region of Germany.  The Weekly Blog Ritual followed this up with a collection of videos from other regions of Germany.

Carnival was discussed:
•   It is a Christian ritual. It has its origin in the Middle Ages and is strongly connected with the Catholic church.
•    Carnival ist therefore limited to countries of predominant catholic denomination: Central and Southern Europe and Latin America.
•    Carnival is derived from Italian carne levare = farewell to meat.
•    Shrovetide is derived from to shrive = to hear the confession, to assign penance, and absolve.
•    Traditionally, Carnival is a time of liminality, for crossing the line, when men dress as women, and the poorest take over the city‘s streets, covered in glitter and gold.
•    Carnival was/is the time of masquerades, excessive eating, drinking, dancing, playing and performing, before Ash Wednesday brings it all to an end and Lent, 40 days of abstinence begins
•    Most public celebrations happen between Thursday and Tuesday, when life is lived on the streets and in pubs.

We finished up this weeky by using our general knowledge of public rituals and drawing on Carnival and the Palio as models to construct our own public ritual for New Zealand.

On Tues we talked about ritualised behaviour and how what seems commonplace and ordinary to a New Zealander often seems quite odd to an outsider.  cmphilli takes this logic to Peru and explains how she found greeting everyone with a kiss bizarre at first.  Coincidentally, this post at Crooked Timber just popped up and discusses a new type of greeting kiss that has recently emerged.

Our mini-observation (watching these youtube vids) served as a practice for your assignment.  You should have a basic idea of taking fieldnotes and drawing preliminary conclusions from them.

We also talked specifics regarding van Gennep and his tripartite structure for rites of passage.  You should all be familiar with the lingo in its various forms:

  • pre-liminal = separation,
  • liminal = marge, isolation, enclosure, metamorphosis
  • post-liminal = aggregation, re-incorporation

We discussed rites of passage which correlate to biological events, ie, birth, puberty and death.  As Catherine Bell explains:  “Life-cycle rituals seem to proclaim that the biological order is less determinative than the social” (p94). She goes further:  “Physical birth is one thing; being properly identified and accepted as a member of the social group is another” (pg 94).

What she means is that what makes these life stages interesting and significant is the social & cultural meaning that is attached to them.  We can look at rite of passage rituals and get a glimpse into this deeply rooted cultural logic.

Today we discussed loosing your virginity as a rite of passage.  We looked at cross cultural examples as ways to view highly formal and less formal versions of a rite of passage.  We also discussed how rites of passage are embedded in broader cultural beliefs.

The Sambia from New Guinea were our first example.  We discussed ideas of sex as work and sex as play, and the ways that the males’ rite of passage was entwined with beliefs regarding semen being the ultimate life force which transforms boys into men.

The Arab Muslim community in Augila, Libya was our second example. We looked at brides loosing their virginity as a rite of passage taking place within the wider rite of passage of a seven day wedding celebration.  We discussed the symbolic shift after the bride’s deflowering – she becomes a member of her new family by marriage rather than belonging to her birth family.

We also looked at understandings of loosing your virginity in the US and looked at the case of Natalie Dylan as an example of how unstated norms can become apparent when they are transgressed.  Despite the various meanings attached to loosing your virginity across multiple subgroups in the US, the commoditisation of virginity drew nearly universal condemnation.

We also tied the meanings of loosing your virginity to broader social themes such as notions of romantic love, understandings of sexuality, religious & cosmological beliefs, expected gender roles, notions of the public vs the private, economic/property transactions, understandings of children outside marriage, and its relationship to marriage as an social institution.

General things to keep in mind when you are thinking about rites of passage

  • what cultural themes are apparent?
  • is the rite about social recognition or personal identification?
  • how long does the liminal stage last – what goes on during it?
  • what are the symbolic elements involved?
  • what does the rite say about social hierarchies and/or gender roles?

We looked at rituals in the broadest way possible this week.  You will be examining the different varieties of rituals in more depth as the course goes on.  We compared the definitions and examples of ritual that the class generated to a few basic anth definitions.  We also watched two clips of land-divers from Vanuatu as examples of a ritual that you would be less familiar with and to demonstrate how a ritual can fit into multiple categories simultaneously:

Here are all the definitions you came up with in class:

  • Rituals are collective, repetitive, have meaning for those involved, are structured.
  • Rituals can change the status of the person involved.  They involve social cohesion and are governed by rules.
  • Rituals can structure life and they rely on symbolism.
  • They emphasis boundaries.
  • Rituals are sets of standardised actions in set situations.  Rituals are culturally variable.
  • Rituals are taught and learned.
  • Rituals create shared experiences and create order from disorder.
  • They mark individual and groups life.
  • They are both structured and flexible at the same time.
  • Rituals are a reflection of social interaction to create structure & solidarity.
  • Rituals are learned actions with symbolic meaning that are prescribed by society & culture.
  • Rituals are symbolic action and have an ideal outcome.

As a class you teased out the key ideas related to ritual in your own definitions. But as promised, here are the other definitions we looked at this morn from The Anthropology of Religion (2000):

Ritual defined in the most general and basic terms is a performance, planned or improvised, that effects a transition from everyday life to an alternative context within the everyday is transformed (Bobby Alexander 1997, 139)

Religious ritual is ‘prescribed formal behaviour for occasions not given over to technical routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical (or non-empirical) beings or powers regarded as the first and final causes of all effects (Turner, 1982, 79)

Traditional religious rituals open up ordinary life to ultimate reality or some transcendent being or force in order to tap its transformative power (Alexander 1997, 139)

Ritual is a culturally constructed system of symbolic communication. It is constituted of patterned and ordered sequences of words and acts, often expressed in multiple media, whose content and arrangement are characterized in varying degree by formality (conventionality), stereotype (rigidity), condensation (fusion), and redundancy (repetition) (S.J. Tambiah 1979, 119)

We briefly discussed the different types of rituals based on Catherine Bell’s (1997) types of ritual action.  We ended up modifying her model a bit: