Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Functions of Ritual

Another essay from Anth 116; it's broader than before, but dovetails nicely with the established line of thinking.

Rituals, the world over, form a model from which social norms are delineated. By this I mean that rituals create a "one-way mold" (where those who participate travel), such that by entering, a person becomes changed from passing through the ritual process. Rituals are one-way vehicles, in a sense, because upon coming out of the mold the result is that a certain set of normative qualities will have been etched upon the passenger(s), the intention being that the passenger/participant has been made ready for whatever is to come. These qualities (whether good or bad) are made permanent by the fact that one cannot do the reverse process and rid themselves of the ritual's resultant outcome.

From this, we know that rituals are mainly laid down in order to institute a systematic means for societies, both large and small, to shape and hone their members by taking individual identity and merging it with group identity (thereby creating the "model citizen"). This implies that there is forethought given to how a society should be run. Often, this forethought extends from adherence to myths and sacred allegories exhibiting origin or creation motifs important to the society in question, which can also be models used to define the processes, thoughts, and actions involved with ritualistic behavior. Invariably, rituals are supposed to exert a certain "positive pressure" (from the standpoint of the group) on those who participate. Whether the ritual is enjoyable, obligatory, or purely ceremonial, those going through the ritual should feel they are doing the thing that is most right for them and that they should continue.

In all reality, however, rituals do not always produce the desired results. Participants who are not physically, mentally, or emotionally "prepared" for a ritual can display resistance or even outright opposition to the ritual or its participants. This problem tends to be handled most easily by holding such rituals only during specific times, during specific practices, or in specific places so that those participating may be better able to handle it.

Rituals that have their procedures changed for whatever reason will lead to problems of incongruity or lack of conformity which can create obvious conflicts considering how inured the participants become toward ritual specifics. A major historical example of this culminated during The Reformation, before such time the Roman Catholic Church had engaged in breaking from traditional practices with the institution of indulgences and other forms of elitism, resulting in the loss of numerous lives and the split of the Christian church. The multitude of branches within Christianity that developed afterward is also evidence of how important the specifics can be, considering that this is all that separates some church denominations.

More commonly, though, participants who have grown disaffected toward or become “jaded” by rituals in their society are perhaps a more telling case of how the individual interacts with the group through ritual practice. Jaded individuals can occur when one is over- or under-saturated with the precepts of a ritual, or a particular set. This generally happens as a result of unbalanced conditioning prior to the ritual in question. Take the following for example. A young boy or girl is raised in a Christian home, is publicly schooled, and spends time with friends who are mainly non-Christian. Now, if this child is harshly drilled upon on how to live life as a Christian by his or her parents, what with conflicting examples everywhere else, the child will grow up to be over-saturated with Christian precepts and buck the rituals set forth by those precepts, seeing them as restraints more than guides. Then again, if the child is given little or no attention by the parents at all in this regard, he or she will be under-saturated and look down on other ritual practitioners (as opposed to the ritual itself) as bigoted or woefully biased. Keeping in mind the ritual-as-mold idea from before, one can see how certain participants of ritual can come out “oddly shaped” or even marred by these extenuating circumstances. Ultimately, rituals can have the opposite effect on those participating in them if the proper qualifications are not met or the proper measures not taken.

Rituals need not act differently only in negative ways, however. In going through the process of ritual, an individual might be placed among a select group of people within his or her society. Rituals can serve as an initiation in this way, transforming a person’s "persona" from what it was into something new. A prime example of this would be military basic training. For another example, consider someone who is clearly not a "morning person." If that person was then required to go to work every day at an early hour, they would gradually get used to the morning ritual of, let's say, shower, coffee, and a newspaper. Suddenly they're a morning person (even if they don't care to admit it)! In comparing this identity-solidifying aspect of ritual with how ritual causes us to conform to groups, it's interesting to note how some will seek anonymity within the confines of the ritual, deriving a measure of peace from the sameness, while others seek a unique take, setting themselves apart within the whole in their selectivity (e.g. types of: shower gels/scents or hair products used; rare coffee brand or tea used instead; magazine or online periodical used).

The identity-based purpose of ritual can have a very staying effect on the participant. This permanence will often remain until the participant engages in a similar ritual that has uniquely different identification values placed upon it. If the morning person mentioned above became friends with a regular coffee house goer and racquetball player, the morning person may feel compelled to forego much of their morning ritual in lieu of creating a new ritual of afterwork meetings with the friend (i.e. taking coffee and discussing the day's issues in the coffee house, then showering upon returning home from racquetball). In essence, partaking of two separate rituals, wherein one supplants the other, is akin to changing one’s name, and is truly one of the few ways rituals can be "undone."

Without a doubt, ritual and its function in group ownership and formation carries a deep meaning when looked at through the glass of history. Moreover, I think ritual bears even more significance when put in the context of the individual. Certainly, rituals are remembered (from the past) as belonging to group activity, but it is experienced (in the present) through the individual, and it is because of this that we can discern its meaning. Ritual means to reaffirm; as is evidenced by how a ritual can become so only through repeated instances. Ritual means to communicate; passing down what was learned (often times from the “beginning”) to the present. And in summation, ritual means to take shape (or grow); traveling through a mold to leave what was, and become what is to be. Foremost, though, we must not forget that each element of ritual and its many functions described above are exercises of the self, or rather, the individual. No two people are the same, and thus no two people who experience ritual can do so in the same way. In the midst of ritual, it is all about the one doing it; afterward, it is all about those who have done it.

[This one required quite a bit of editing and rewriting, mainly to better direct the essay from point to point. After a first reading, I was baffled. I must have had a lot of disparate thoughts running through my head when I put this down, because it only just barely held together. Hopefully now it reads like it should. Or not...?]