Rituals and ritualization can be found in all aspects of contemporary social life: religion, education, politics, popular culture, work life, family life, friendship, consumption, and leisure. Formal ceremonies such as religious observances, weddings, funerals, or oaths of office are familiar; the rest of social life is also punctuated by small bits of ritual and ceremoniousness, which we often overlook. From the rules of politeness to military codes of honor, from the celebration of birthdays and holidays to presidential inaugurals, from the conduct of board meetings and superior–subordinate communication to the conduct of a symphony orchestra concert, from dinner parties to Super Bowl parties, to the groups of television viewers gathered for news of disaster and crisis, the distinctive moments of life are marked by ritual.
Formal Rites And Ceremonies
How ritual works is most easily observed in formal ceremonies, so the discussion will begin with those examples. In a religious service, wedding, or oath of office, people perform scripts of symbolic activities, including words, gestures, movements, music, dress, and decoration to connect with larger realities, meanings, and values, create new social realities, or manage social change. These are all matters of what Durkheim (1995) called the serious life, and his analysis of how ritual connects individual and group is the classic source of ritual studies. These examples and Durkheim’s criteria show how important it is not to confuse ritual with routine and habit.
Most often, formal rites and ceremonies are performed in places and times that are set aside from everyday life, so that participants’ explicit connection with the serious life through such rituals is also separated from the routine (Eliade 1959; Turner 1977). Religious ceremonies, for example, are conducted in buildings with architectural elaborations that symbolize this separation and direct attention toward a symbolized center, via doors, entranceways, inner and outer rooms, altars and podiums, furniture, decoration, and lighting. When religious ceremonies are not in locations built for the specific purpose, the room or building is decorated and furniture arranged to mark its religious function. Outdoor ceremonies are not in random locations, but oriented to natural features to guide attention in the ways needed by the religious practice, whether it be facing Mecca, a sacred mountain, or a beautiful view.
Setting aside time and place for ritual helps create a social mood called liminality, from the Latin for threshold, which was first identified in regard to rites of passage (van Gennep 1960). In the transition from one known social status to another, whether boys and girls to men and women, the citizens of one country to those of another, single people into a married couple, or citizens into office holders, the ceremony itself is a threshold and as long as the participants are involved in it, their social roles and relations are ambiguous. Turner (1977) pointed out how the subjunctive mood of most rituals is related to this liminal characteristic; the ritual is a timeout for what could be or should be, for promises rather than descriptions, for concentrating on ideals rather than actualities. One form of the subjunctive mood is role-leveling or role-reversal in masquerade, carnival, licentiousness, or games – think of Carnival preceding Lent or the silly games at a wedding reception. These performances also become symbolic markers that the ceremony is outside normal social time, place, and conduct. The contrast of these liminal experiences with everyday life provides some of their power to produce social change or reinforce values, as they demonstrate new possibilities and provide compelling memories, normative guides, and evaluative terms for later behavior.
So far, the examples are of formal rites and ceremonies, usually with some sort of official sanction and purpose, with recognized and accepted forms, performed in special places and times, symbolically and performatively marked as such, with a characteristically subjunctive mood. Such rites and ceremonies connect a people to the things they take most seriously, and have the capacity to create, maintain, and transform social realities. These are important things in the life of any person, organization, community, and society, even when they are infrequent.
The Fundamental Role Of Communication
Notice the fundamental role of communication in rites and ceremonies. Along with the essential verbal performances are layers of other symbolic forms required by the ritual.
There is little about a ritual left to chance; almost everything is chosen for its symbolic value and thus falls within the general category of the communicative. Such perfectly ordinary phenomena as standing up or sitting down, when performed in rituals, are ways of saying things that produce meanings, cognitions, and emotions. From body movement, posture, gesture, and clothing, through music, chanting, marching, food, and drink, to decoration and architecture, rites and ceremonies are thickly communicative phenomena. There is no rite or ceremony without communication and their communicative performances are the effective mechanisms of their consequences (Rothenbuhler 1998).
It is important to recognize the formality of the effective communication in ritual. One does not say just any old thing, or move one’s body as one pleases in a ritual. It is not just that some communicative forms are required in ritual, but that all communication be according to form. The center of the ritual is the performance of a script of signs and symbols not encoded by the performer, but imposed by the ritual, implicitly required by the community (Rappaport 1999). Beyond that, all other statements or movements are whispered or made small. It is the proper performance of this package of communication, including the non-performance of the disallowed, which produces the effects of ritual. From the point of view of the communication scholar, it is appropriate to say that ritual is communication and could not exist or do what it does in any other way. (This also provides a starting point for a ritual perspective in communication theory; see Carey 1988; Rothenbuhler 1998.)
The Continuum Of Ritualization
The formality of communication in these cases and its recognized, usually intentional, effectiveness defines one end of a continuum. On the other end of the continuum are the tiny bits of formality in otherwise very informal and often thoughtlessly performed communication, such as standardized greetings among friends, introductions, or the arrangement of seating at work or social gatherings. Goffman (1967) was the pioneer of this area of study, and it is communicative form that is in play here; how things are done is key, because the form is read symbolically. There is no information shared between two co-workers who say good morning in the same way each day, for example, but its form may be a valuable ritual of relationship. These bits of symbolic formality are consequential – they create, maintain, or alter social realities, identities, and relations; they define situations and their obligations or licenses. Like the most formal and important of rites and ceremonies, then, these little formalities of everyday conduct also provide contact with the serious life – and we can see, then, that they should not be dismissed as mere habit or routine. The field of ritual studies, then, as some famous anthropologist quipped, covers everything from handshakes to coronations.
Between these two extremes, each of which has its own research literature, lies a vast and varied territory with its own more recent, growing literature. We could call this the study of ritualization, examining the various degrees of attention to form and propriety of communication and its consequences in meaning and morality.
Dayan and Katz (1992), for example, drew attention to media events such as state visits, state funerals, royal weddings, the Pope’s travels, or the Olympic Games. In such cases, television coverage takes a ritualized form: the normal schedule is interrupted, coverage is carried live, and the tone of journalism is more reverential or pedagogical than adversarial or inquisitive. Audience members engage in a kind of “dressed up” viewing; they pay more attention to media events than normal television, plan their viewing ahead of time, watch in groups, and think and talk about their viewing later. Other work has expanded the media events frame to the analysis of conflict, denigration, and ongoing news coverage (Liebes & Curran 1998). The implicit analytical thread that ties all this work together is a focus on ritualization, a tendency for a heightened sense of social importance to be expressed in a heightened degree of attention to form, and its corollary, a tendency to respond to certain communicative forms as signs of social importance.
Coman (2005) shows that journalists ritualize in covering media events, in that the form of their coverage is a ritual frame that signals the audience which events are worthy of ceremonious attention and constructs the journalists’ authority to do so. Couldry (2003) shows how ritualization operates in the entertainment and celebrity system as well. By constituting “the media” as a socially important category and maintaining what he calls the myth of the mediated center, all players in the media, not just those involved in the “serious” pursuits of journalism, gain status and authority.
Ritualization By Audiences
Media audiences also ritualize. Again, there are continua of ritualization and of socially sanctioned seriousness. On one end are major events of widely recognized importance, as in Dayan and Katz’s (1992) first formulation of the media event concept. Audiences for other big events in the media, such as the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards, can exhibit similarly ceremonial patterns of attitude and behavior, though usually here with more playfulness, less attention to values, and less sense of social obligation.
On a smaller scale, some aspects of ritualization can appear in regard to otherwise ordinary television. Sports fans can treat each game as an occasion for ceremonial gathering and identity work. Fans of particular television shows can gather, enjoy one another’s company, and use the story lines as fodder for value-laden conversation. Small ritual structures can be built in family life to set aside times and places to watch TV together, or to have some private time away from the others. Even lone viewers, whether devotees of a show or a genre, can ritualize their viewing, investing it with a greater degree of importance than the rest of their weekly routine.
Rituals And The Media
Ritual, defined as the performance of appropriately patterned behavior to symbolically effect or participate in the serious life, is present wherever formal behavior is used to bring about desired social ends or to control undesired ones (Rothenbuhler 1998). Formal rites and ceremonies such as funerals, weddings, and inaugurations, on the one hand, and the little bits of ceremoniousness in otherwise ordinary, everyday activities such as handshakes, introductions, and dinner parties are both important and imply a continuum of ritualization. The group activities of everyday life often involve heightened attention to symbolic form or attention to the communicative significance of the way in which things are done, hence a kind of ritualization.
In contemporary societies, the media are one of the major sponsors of ritual. Their endorsement of an event as worthy of full ceremonial, media event coverage is a major commitment of resources to making it so, and a crucial signal of social value. Short of that, both the media and their audiences engage in a variety of ritualizations that mark some activities and events as distinct and important in the ordinary flow of life.
Combining these studies of ritualization among media professionals and audiences with the older literature on the small rituals of everyday life yields a provocative conceptual view: there are underlying continua of social life from religion to politics to entertainment. Entertainment is not all for fun, but also involves identities, values, and social judgments, just as religion and politics require the pleasures of aesthetic expression. The study of ritual helps to illuminate these connections.
- Carey, J. W. (1988). Communication as culture: Essays on media and society. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.
- Coman, M. (2005). Cultural anthropology and mass media: A processual approach. In E. W. Rothenbuhler & M. Coman (eds.), Media anthropology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 46–55.
- Couldry, N. (2003). Media rituals: A critical approach. London: Routledge.
- Dayan, D., & Katz, E. (1992). Media events: The live broadcasting of history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Durkheim, É. (1995). The elementary forms of the religious life (trans. K. E. Fields). New York: Free Press. (Original work published 1912).
- Eliade, M. (1959). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion (trans. W. R. Trask). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
- Gennep, A. van (1960). The rites of passage (trans. M. B. Vizedom & G. L. Caffee). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1908).
- Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. New York: Anchor.
- Liebes, T., & Curran, J. (eds.) (1998). Media, ritual and identity. London: Routledge.
- Rappaport, R. A. (1999). Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Rothenbuhler, E. W. (1998). Ritual communication: From everyday conversation to mediated ceremony. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Turner, V. (1977). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (Original work published 1969).