A ritual is a set of prescribed activities that has a religious/cultural significance to a cultural group, folk culture, or subculture.
Rituals are a key component of religion, although their scope also extends to secular, everyday life. A ritual can involve actions, words, gestures, or objects, all of which are performed/used in a defined sequence.
Rituals are present in all known human societies, and they mark important events like weddings, funerals, etc. They often aim to establish a divine connection and also give people a shared sense of community. Moreover, they create a sense of order and meaning in a chaotic world.
Several other theories explain the rationale behind rituals, which we will discuss later. First, let us talk about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Definition of Rituals
John Scott, in the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, defines ritual as
“…an often-repeated pattern of behaviour which is performed at appropriate times, and which may involve the use of symbols.” (2014)
The English term “ritual” comes from the Latin word ritualis, meaning “that which pertains to rite (ritus)”. Ritus referred to the correct way of doing something in Roman juridical & religious contexts.
The concept of ritus is possibly related to the Vedic religious term ṛtá, meaning “the lawful and regular order of the normal, and therefore proper, natural and true structure of cosmic, worldly, human and ritual events” (Boudewijnse, 1998).
Rituals can be split into numerous genres, such as religious rites, rites of passage, etc. They can even include mundane secular activities. Erving Goffman created the concept of “interaction rituals” that refer to the ritualized code of everyday behavior, like shaking hands (1967).
Through these activities, Goffman argued, actors acknowledge a shared reality and preserve each other’s sense of self. They also create social relationships and are essential for maintaining social order & cohesion.
- Baptism: Baptism is a rite of passage, meaning that it marks a person’s transition from one status to another. It is a sacrament of initiation and adoption, which accepts one into the society and the religion of Christianity. Baptism is typically performed with water, by sprinkling or immersing.
- Isoma Ritual: The Isoma ritual is a rite of affliction, meaning that it is done to get a person or a society rid of something unwanted. The Isoma ritual is practiced in Zambia to cure a childless woman’s infertility. It makes the women reside with her mother’s family to placate the spirits.
- The Last Rites: Most cultures have rites associated with death and mourning, such as the antyesti in Hinduism, the antam sanskar in Sikkism, etc. In Christianity, the last rites are the last prayers and ministrations given to a person right before death.
- New Year’s Day: New Year’s Day is a type of calendrical rite. These are performed at particular times of the year, often associated with a change of seasons or particular agricultural activity. As Bell writes, these impose a cultural order on nature (1997).
- Hindu Puja: The Hindu Puja is a rite of prayer & sacrifice. These involve offerings given to please or placate divine powers. Marcel Mauss points out that the distinguishing feature of a sacrifice is that it destroys the offering to transfer it to the divine powers.
- Ramadan fasting: Ramadan fasting is an example of a rite of fasting. In the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims all over the world partake in this communal fasting. It is also a period of prayer, reflection, and service to the community.
- Amrit Sanskar: Amrit Sanskar is a kind of water rite practiced in Sikhism. It is one of the four Sikh Sanskaars and initiates a person into the Khalsa (the Sikh brotherhood). Upon initiation, one is expected to devote themselves to Waheguru (Almighty God).
- Wedding Rites: Wedding rites are another type of ritual, associated with fertility. Wedding rites represent the familial/communal sanction of the ceremony, which is seen to signify a life-long commitment. They are often authorized by religious figures.
- Political Rituals: Political rituals establish the authority of rulers. Traditionally, they used to set the ruler apart from the masses, assigning him a divine authority. Today, elected representatives also perform political rituals while taking office.
- Graduation Ceremony: The graduation ceremony is an example of a rite of passage. It is a ceremonial event that involves things like like wearing a cap and gown, getting a diploma/degree on the stage, etc. Often friends and family also join to show support.
- Lighting candles at a religious altar
- Saying grace before meals
- Celebrating a birthday with cake and candles
- Celebrating an annual public holiday
- Making a wish on a shooting star
- Lighting a bonfire on the summer solstice
- Raising a toast to celebrate a special occasion
- Wearing a lucky charm or amulet
- Checking your horoscope
- Praying five times a day (Muslims)
- Knocking on wood for good luck
- Blessing your food before eating it
- Throwing salt over the shoulder for good luck
- Making a wish on a dandelion
- Tossing coins into a fountain
- Saying a prayer before bed
- Reciting a pledge of allegiance (Namely, USA)
- Kneeling in prayer
- Burning incense during meditation or prayer
- Having a wake after a funeral
- Participating in a religious pilgrimage
- Placing flowers at a grave site
- Pouring libations to honor ancestors
- Breaking a glass at a Jewish wedding
- Exchanging rings during a wedding ceremony
- Holding a baby naming ceremony
- Taking communion during a church service
- Holding a seder during Passover
- Lighting a menorah during Hanukkah
- Making offerings at a Buddhist shrine
- Smudging with sage or other herbs
- Creating a vision board for manifesting goals.
- Burning effigies during a bonfire festival
- Reciting a mantra or affirmations
- Writing in a gratitude journal each day
- Participating in a sunrise or sunset ritual
- Creating a sacred space for prayer or meditation
- Taking part in a sweat lodge ceremony
- Observing a moment of silence to honor the dead
- Taking part in a traditional tea ceremony
Characteristics of Rituals
Rituals, according to Catherine Bell, are characterized by the following (1997):
- Formalism & Rule-Governance: Rituals use a rigid set of formal expressions. They oblige participants to use limited vocabulary, syntax, intonation, etc. and are often more about style than content (Bloch, 1974). In doing so, they support traditional forms of hierarchy & authority. Rituals are also rule-governed, that is, they have norms that define the limits of what is acceptable or can even prescribe every move.
- Traditionalism/Historical Nature: Rituals are linked to historical precedents. This is different from formalism as a ritual may be informal and still be associated with a historical event. For example, the American Thanksgiving dinner goes back to the 17th century when Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts & celebrated their first harvest. The historical event itself may not be real, but it is the appeal to history that matters.
- Invariance: Rituals are unchanging and aim for timeless repetition. Bell argues that rituals often carefully choreograph each move. One of the key instances of invariance is bodily discipline (such as fasting in Ramadan), which is meant to shape dispositions. It is often performed by groups together.
- Symbolism: Rituals appeal to symbols/figures, whether divine or secular. They often implore supernatural beings to fulfill an individual/social demand. They can also involve secular elements, such as the national flag, which represents a country’s unity. Rituals make certain objects sacred (like the diya in Hinduism) through a process of consecration, setting them apart from the profane.
- Performance: Rituals involve actions that are performed in an almost theatrical way. Their performance shapes the participant’s understanding of the world, allowing them to reduce the chaos of the world into a more coherent set of meanings. So, through actions, rituals shape thoughts—“not only is seeing believing, doing is believing” (Myerhoff, 1997).
Émile Durkheim on Rituals (The Sacred & The Profane)
Durkheim made a strong distinction between the sacred and the profane, placing rituals in the former category.
The sacred and the profane are central concepts for understanding religion and its role in society. According to Durkheim, the sacred is that which is set apart from the everyday world; it is associated with the supernatural/divine and therefore has a special significance.
In contrast, the profane includes the mundane aspects of everyday life. It is characterized by a utilitarian and practical nature, while the sacred evokes awe and reverence. Durkheim placed rituals in the category of the sacred.
He argued that rituals create solidarity and are necessary to hold society together. For him, the action was the key component in rituals as he believed that actions are what lead to thoughts and not vice versa.
In other words, he assigned rituals a fundamental epistemological role: they transmit the “necessary building blocks of thought” (Scott, 2014). Religion, according to Durkheim, creates a shared sense of meaning by delineating what is sacred and what is profane.
Many famous sociologists have explored the rationale behind rituals. These include Durkheim and Gluckman, as explained below.
Durkheim’s ideas are a good example of the functionalist approach. These theories argue that rituals are necessary to maintain social order and cohesion. They allow people to connect with something beyond themselves, thereby creating a shared sense of meaning and bringing order to a chaotic world.
Rituals can also serve as pressure valves, temporarily inverting the social order only to preserve its authority in the long run. Max Gluckman coined the phrase “rituals of rebellion” for this, and gave the example of the first-fruits festival (incwala) of the South African Bantu kingdom.
In this festival, the king is insulted, women dominate men, and the young have authority over the old. This temporary inversion allows tensions to be expressed and then once again reinforces the social order.
In complete contrast to these functional approaches is the Marxist view. It argues that rituals transmit “false consciousness” by misrepresenting the true patterns of social relations (which are exploitative) in society.
Maurice Bloch, for example, argues that rituals produce conformity by enforcing a limited form of expression (restricted vocabulary, grammar, etc.). Therefore, they deny the possibility of making political arguments and instead uphold traditional authority (1986).
Rituals are a set of prescribed actions that hold religious or cultural significance.
They are present in all known human societies in the form of religious rites, rites of passage, funeral rites, etc. While many scholars associate rituals only with religion, their scope also extends to the secular, everyday world.
Rituals provide a shared sense of meaning and thereby maintain social order. However, as Marxist thinkers argue, they can disguise the actual (exploitative) nature of social relations. Therefore, it is vital for societies to constantly evaluate and rethink their cultural practices.
Bell, Catherine (1997). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford University Press.
Bloch, Maurice (1974). “Symbols, Song, Dance and Features of Articulation: Is Religion an Extreme Form of Traditional Authority?”. Archives Européennes de Sociologie. Cambridge University Press.
Bloch, Maurice (1986). From Blessing to Violence. Cambridge University Press.
Boudewijnse, Barbara (1998). “British Roots of the Concept of Ritual,” in Religion in the Making: The Emergence of the Sciences of Religion. Brill.
Gluckman, Max (1963). Order and Rebellion in South East Africa: Collected Essays. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Goffman, Erving (1967). Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. Aldine Publishing Company.
Myerhoff, Barbara (1997). Secular Ritual. Van Gorcum.
Scott, John (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford.