Myerhoff, Barbara G.

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MYERHOFF, BARBARA G. (19351985), American anthropologist and scholar of religion, myth, ritual, and symbolism. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised there and in Los Angeles, Myerhoff received her bachelor's degree in sociology and her doctorate in anthropology from the University of California at Los Angeles; her master's degree in human development was awarded by the University of Chicago. Her entire professional career was spent as a member of the University of Southern California's department of anthropology. Writing and conducting research since the sixties, Myerhoff studied a variety of types of social groups. She distinguished herself through her contributions to the development and application of symbolic anthropology.

Myerhoff's scholarly writings analyze those morphological features of ritual that allow it to be effective in secular as well as sacred settings and in pre- and post-colonial societies, as well as modern and post modern ones. She understood ritual and its constituent symbols to be capable of formulating experience for its participants and of allowing them to transform their daily roles and statuses by encountering alternate social relations and versions of reality. She eventually ascribed the efficacy of ritual to its feature of repetitive action and to its sensory components, which create certainty through performance. Rituals are the medium for enacting the system of meaningsprimarily ideologicalthat constitutes a religion. These ideas found their earliest expression in her doctoral research on the shamanic religion of the Huichol Indians of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental, whose results were published as The Peyote Hunt of the Huichol Indians (1975).

Following this work, Myerhoff turned to the study of ritual in modern society. She explored the commonalities and differences between rituals in complex and primitive societies, indicating that ritual continues even in modern societies to provide messages of order and predictability as well as to set the stage on which cultures and individuals can create and present themselves to themselves. These themes are explored in Secular Ritual: Forms and Meanings (1977), which Myerhoff coedited with Sally Falk Moore (see especially their introduction, "Ritual Work and the Problem of Meaning," pp. 324).

Her subsequent ethnographic research on the place of religion in complex society led her to claim that, although most men and women continue to require what religion had traditionally provided them, this cultural system is now lacking and hence they are on their own to seek out such experiences where they may. Thus, she analyzed ritual-like expressive and reflexive genres in contemporary society: journal keeping, storytelling, and autobiography. All are areas in which the religious function of self-presentation and the creation of meaning occur.

Myerhoff's study of elderly California Jews, Number Our Days (1979), focused on improvised or "nonce" (i. e., nonrecurring) rituals that wed traditional and secular, and open and closed, features (see also her paper "We Don't Wrap Herring in a Printed Page: Fusions, Fictions and Continuity," in Secular Ritual, pp. 199226). She demonstrated that such rituals provide meaning for people by their evocation of childhood and domesticity, creating an orderly sense of personal as well as cultural continuity in their lives. Myerhoff's work on elderly Jews was the subject of an Academy Award-winning film by Lynn Littman (with whom Myerhoff collaborated), also called Number Our Days (1977). Their second collaboration, In Her Own Time (1985), concerned her final fieldwork with Orthodox Jews in the Fairfax community of Los Angeles and focused on her relationship with the community during the last months of her life.

Myerhoff's symbolic anthropology, while always culturally specific, paid an unusual amount of attention to universal problems of meaning in human life. She saw these problemsincluding the need for self-reflection and the urge to create an orderly worldas the substance of religion across cultures, and along with anthropologist Victor Turner and others, she formulated a dynamic view of religion as a symbolic process in society.


Other publications by Myerhoff concerning her work among the Huichol Indians are "Return to Wirikuta: Ritual Reversal and Symbolic Continuity in the Peyote Hunt of the Huichol Indians," in The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, edited by Barbara A. Babcock (Ithaca, N. Y., 1978), pp. 225239, and "The Huichol and the Quest for Paradise," Parabola 1 (Winter 1976): 2229. Myerhoff's work on autobiography and related genres is represented by an essay she wrote with Deena Metzger, "The Journal as Activity and Genre, or Listening to the Silent Laughter of Mozart," Semiotica 30 (1980): 97114, and by her introduction to A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Studies, edited by Jay Ruby (Philadelphia, 1982), in which her essay "Life History among the Elderly: Performance, Visibility, and Re-Membering" also appears (pp. 99117). A number of Myerhoff's essays were collected posthumously in a volume edited and with an introduction by Marc Kaminsky, Remembered Lives: The Work of Ritual, Storytelling and Growing Older (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1992). In 2000 Myerhoff was named a Woman of Valor by the Jewish Women's Archive. The Woman of Valor website about her and her work can be found at by following the link to exhibits.

Riv-Ellen Prell (1987 and 2005)