Oh, The Drama …

… Of Ritual

The terms "sacred" and "profane" were introduced by Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss (English , in order to model the part-to-whole relationship between everyday social interaction and roles, on the one hand, and the dramatic religious experience of ritual sacrifice, on the other. They argued that human societies are constituted by the relationship between profane:everyday and sacred:ritual sacrifice. They argued that society gains its cohesion--amid complex, often conflicting social relationships and obligations--by its constituent individuals working together on appropriately maintaining the profane-sacred boundary. More specifically, they emphasize that the practice of ritual sacrifice allows beneficiaries or sponsors of the sacrifice to reach the sacred, transforming and conditioning them as inextricably part of society, rather than apart individuals. Anthropologists now criticize the Mauss-Hubert model for being too static and simple--"totalizing" or homogenizing the impact of ritual across the community of participants--failing to allow for individual or factional experience and agency (see Kapferer 1997:188). Yet, the Mauss-Hubert model remains a useful point of departure for understanding ritual. The reason that ritual is so effective--indeed, what makes ritual ritual--is the dramatic, participatory staging of the journey from the everyday to the threshold of the sacred (or extreme) and back.

Anthropology and Sociology–two disciplinary identities with intellectual roots that became intertwined in the 19th century and have remained so ever since–have a fundamental interest in figuring out how social groups can have regular, structured, predictable, comparable features … and yet be composed of individuals with complex, all-too-often conflicting interests. What is the relationship between the individual and the group?

Part of the interconnection between Anthropology and Sociology has involved thinking about ritual. How can ritual–something we recognize in all human societies, however constituted and identified–explain why individuals subsume their own personal interests within those of the larger group? In this post I review and clarify some key ideas and developments in the study of ritual, in order to explain why ritual emerged in human biocultural evolution as an especially important component in diverse extant cultural systems.

Ritual exerts a critical non-nested hierarchical filtering function on the individuals, cliques, and factions that constitute the cultural system of which a set of ritual practices is part. More simply, ritual is not a static part of culture and can be influenced by individual or factional agency, BUT … and this is an important “but” … ritual is particularly effective at durably guiding and constraining how individuals think and act and feel. So … how does ritual have this effect on us? What is ritual, really? How could ANYTHING we do come back to influence our sense of identity and our patterns of decision-making, our habits and bodily techniques?

First things first. Some background. Much of the early work on ritual came from French Sociology and Ethnology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Four works continue to have substantial influence on how anthropologists and sociologists explain ritual and religion in human social life. Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss’s work on sacrifice (1964 [1898]), Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss’s work on so-called primitive classification (2009 [1903]), Arthur van Gennep’s classic synthesis of rite-of-passage or life-crisis rituals (2011 [1908]), and Durkheim’s highly influential, comprehensive work Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1995 [1913]). The main enduring insight from Hubert, Mauss, and Durkheim’s work is that ritual makes concrete key communal concepts about how society itself is subsumed by a larger sacred or sphere. This concretization of the sacred–otherwise only an abstract notion–provides a way for different members of the group to focus and experience a shared, dramatized, specific form of the supra-societal and supernatural. Ritual recreates a sense of the individual as inextricably part of society, which is in turn inextricably part of a cosmological order.

What is interesting about this phenomenon is that ritually shaped cosmologies vary from one society to the next, although different human societies exhibit their own expressions of the underlying form relating the group to the larger sacred sphere. It is worth noting that this theoretical framework is one of a non-nested hierarchy, linking the group to the sacred. Van Gennep provided a key solution, though, to what is missing in the Hubert-Mauss-Durkheim framework for explaining the analogy group-of-individuals:profane::coherent-society:sacred. We will get to van Gennep’s contribution in a moment. It is important to clarify what Hubert, Mauss, and Durkheim missed, something that becomes evident when we model the profane:sacred relationship as a structured non-nested hierarchical system. The figure above emphasizes not only a link between sacred and everyday or profane. It also highlights a zone of overlap, one that Hubert, Mauss, and Durkheim failed to recognize and explain. This threshold zone is no longer the normal, or everyday … but not yet sacred. This threshold zone is central to why ritual has such a dramatic impact on us (Turner 1969; van Gennep 2011 [1908]).

Essentially, the threshold zone is the staging and participation in the ritual itself. The participants’ attention may be thoroughly diverted by the symbolic drama or intensity of the sacred in the preparations for … and, of course, during the ritual. Yet, it is the ritual practices and built environment themselves that are self-definining, simultaneously, of the ritual AND its relationship–as materially grounded, embodied practice–to the profane and sacred. The ritual defines cultural beliefs about and experiences of the sacred.

Now, scholars from disciplines and subfields more closely allied with the humanities–including philosophy, religious studies, and post-processual archaeology–have noted that ritual simply doesn’t work as an independent ontological category (Bell 1992; Nilsson Stutz 2003). No one has come up with a formal definition of ritual that is necessary and sufficient to include all instances of ritual that we actually consider ritual, while excluding those that common experience tells us shouldn’t really be called rituals. For instance, if we focus on features of choreography, rhythm, special paraphernalia, then we have to grapple with whether marching band practice really fits inside the ritual-definition arena. If we focus on your grandmother evoking the “sacred” when she insists on reading your tea leaves–concerned, no, anxious as she is about why you’re not married yet–then we have to grapple with this question: how structured and formal does the departure from everyday life have to be to enter the ritual-definition tent? So, as Catherine Bell has cogently argued–and as Nilsson Stutz has elaborated–ritual is a heuristic concept for understanding the dynamic between largely unreflected practice and the intentional staging of a departure from the profane, or messy everyday experience, with the journey continuing to the threshold of the sacred, before returning … As the figure above left suggests, the return from the ritual journey gives a little more order and purpose and harmony to the everyday. Or, as Nilsson Stutz has emphasized, the return from ritual can give the participants an experience that a crisis has been solved, and a new order or direction can be undertaken by the community. But because there are arbitrarily infinite degrees and forms of symbolically constructing separation from the everday, it is best to talk of ritualization–rather than ritual per se–as a fundamental aspect of human life (Bell 1992). Thus, social practices and real-time embodied material contexts will be more or less ritualized–and ritualizing–than other practices and contexts in a given society and historical moment (Nilsson Stutz 2003). Rituals, then, must always be understood and analyzed in cultural context.

But this doesn’t necessarily entail that ritualized and ritualizing behaviors in different societies are completely unique. There is room for useful comparison. Indeed, it is evident that ritual practices in far-flung, unrelated communities exhibit formal, sociological, and psychological similarities (Liénard & Boyer 2006). Why do ritualized and ritualizing practices and contexts tend to involve this symbolic pattern of dramatizing a departure from everyday unreflected routine, toward the marked, the non-routine, the special, and even the sacred? This brings us finally back to what Arnold van Gennep observed. Focusing on life-crisis rituals (birth, coming-of-age, marriage, mortuary practices), van Gennep noted that available ethnographic reports showed a striking regularity. As these rituals involve taking a focal participant (or participants) from one social state or identity to another, the rite of passage often involves creating an intermediate role or identity, one that is no longer the old identity at time A, but not yet the intended one to be assumed after the ritual, at time B. The ritual, van Gennep realized, had a lot to do with “no longer, not yet.” The ritual creates a setting–and thus, experience for the participants–that is marginal to the proper everyday functioning of society. As Nilsson Stutz (2003) underscores, this marginal setting can allow the community to deal with the inevitable change in the culturally constructed social fabric. There may be collective dramatized celebration, commemorating, grieving, or forgetting the social person(s) soon to be lost. And there will be celebration and anticipation of the person(s) soon to be transformed … with a concomitant transformation of the community’s overall set of social relationships. Thus, what van Gennep observed as a cross-cultural pattern was how human communities utilize ritualized and ritualizing practices to deal with and control social change. It is hardly socially effective, then, for community members to accept arbitrarily and suddenly that young Fred is no longer a boy and now a man. A ritual that puts Fred in a dramatic, public situation where he’s no longer a boy, but not yet a man really has an effect on Fred–and on everyone else’s–experience, understanding, and memory. The ritual allows Fred and society to resume their daily lives … but now incorporating Fred as a man (cf. Nilsson Stutz 2003).

From the perspective of non-nested hierarchical systems, ritual practices in general are those that act as a critical filter–or better yet, a lens–between the unreflected of the everyday, on the one hand, and the state of self-awareness that the ritual evokes and focuses. This is a self-awareness of a connection between the everyday, profane context of unreflected social practice and something larger–something more powerful, perhaps immanent but usually hidden in the everyday … or perhaps something that is beyond the everyday or the usual bounds of experience. What is important to note is that ritual’s critical filter or lens function is a joint behavioral and symbolic construction by the participants, again, directing their attention toward something so attention-grabbing and dramatic, that they don’t realize they’ve created the “sacred” themselves, essentially by bringing themselves out of the profane, to the threshold of the sacred. At this point, the ritual is an emotionally and cognitively consuming phenomenon for the participants; they experience having embarked on a dramatic journey. Rituals typically aim to have happy endings, in the sense that the participants complete the round trip, from the profane/everyday to the threshold of the sacred … and back. The impacts on the participants may vary, but ritual tends to have narrative coherence, with symbols that evoke cultural beliefs, values, and identities embedded in other cultural media–including myths, everyday practices, and material culture. Thus, the ritual round-trip from the profane to the threshold of the sacred and back tends to be a story about transformation, change, renewal, cleansing, rebirth, or some evocative combination of these.

To my knowledge, ritual has not been modeled in terms of a non-nested hierarchical system–explicitly analogous to other non-nested hierarchical abiotic and living systems. (Note that this is a more specific model than Rappaport’s (2000 [1984]) framework for ritual contributing toward an overall cultural adaptive system.) But in linking the everyday or profane to the symbolically constructed sacred, ritual exhibits a hierarchical filtering structure that shares basic similarities with abiotic and biotic systems. Consider the figure to the left, which is redrawn from Allen & Starr (1982: Figure 6.2). It shows a hypothetical simple building as a physical non-nested hierarchical system, defined by the fact that the component walls and rooms behave in ways that cannot be entirely decomposed from the whole building. The building is then defined by its component rooms, the insulating properties of their walls, their arrangement within the four walls … But the building is also defined by its well-insulated walls that filter the effects of solar energy/shade gradients outside. The non-nested hierarchical structure moves from room to building to outside environment. Of course, evolution has shaped non-nested hierarchical environments as resilient features of biotic systems. Perhaps the simplest, most foundational non-nested hierarchical relationship in earth’s biological evolutionary history is that between the intracellular and extracellular environment, mediated by the cell membrane and other proximate structures. This is illustrated immediate below.

Considering ritual’s symbolic structure as just such a non-nested hierarchical system may be an important theoretical step in understanding ritual’s role in human evolution as biocultural evolution. Symbolic systems emerge through our cultural practices and discourse. Many of these systems have a marked-unmarked structure, in which the marked symbolic category itself is the filter that–when engaged–brings out the non-nested hierarchical relationship between it and the more encompassing unmarked category. In earlier posts I have discussed marked-unmarked systems and the role they play in power hierarchies; marked-unmarked symbol sets can be moving, evocative metaphors of embodied power relationships in human cultures. With ritual, the metaphor is inverted. It is the sacred that is marked AND more powerful. It is the everyday that is unambiguously less potent … and unmarked. Indeed, building on Victor Turner’s important arguments about the marginal or liminal nature of ritualized and ritualizing practices and contexts (1969), it is this inverted relationship that arguably has guided many communities with institutionalized sociopolitical hierarchies to construct and act out rituals in which it becomes apparent that marked, low-status roles in everyday life are closer to the sacred–and thus especially potent–in the ritual context. Poets, musicians, clowns may be marginal in mundane settings, but they may become the conduits of sacred power that flows to higher status individuals or groups, whose power in the everyday is such that they feel and act as if their position in society is entirely natural, is unmarked.

In order to approach the powerful marked domain, it is important to define the degree of power as so great or so dangerous that humans who spend most of their lives dealing with the everyday can only approach the threshold … that is, if they want to return. In other words, ritual is a human social phenomenon defined by the marked-unmarked symbolic structure of the drama or metaphorical journey being staged. Even if it is minor departure from routine, involving cleansing or prayer. This raises a key point. The generative, open-ended nature of human language can structure embodied activities and experiences that point toward wholly arbitrary “sacred” phenomena, which are in turn related to overarching ideological narratives about the way society should be in everyday life. Human language itself takes on the properties of a non-nested hierarchical system, which recursively becomes part of the environment in which biocultural evolution unfolds. Ritual shapes the organization of the group, which becomes a key ecological component influencing more direct, everyday determinants of fitness, including family formation processes, access to calories and nutrients, access to technological raw materials and products, formation of extra-familial long-term alliances and networks.


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Bell, C. M. (1992). Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Durkheim, E. (1995). Elementary Forms Of The Religious Life: Newly Translated By Karen E. Fields. (K. E. Fields, Trans.). New York: Free Press.

Durkheim, E., & Mauss, M. (2009). Primitive Classification (Routledge Revivals). (R. Needham, Trans.). New York: Routledge.

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Turner, V. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Rutgers, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.