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Ritual Studies


RITUAL STUDIES as a field of inquiry began with a research group established in 1977 by the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the international society of religious studies scholars. A decade later Ronald L. Grimes and Fred W. Clothey cofounded the Journal of Ritual Studies. Ritual studies is a distinct academic field that gives special attention to the performance aspect of the rites themselves (gesture, aesthetics, space, choreography, praxis, meaning) and not just to a rite's social function or cultural context.

Although the term ritual studies is often misapplied as a catchall category for widely divergent research, the field of ritual studies aspires to more than simply cultivating conversation and exchange among scholars from different disciplines. Ritual studies requires a research approach that is truly interdisciplinary. This field of study represents a movement away from more traditional text-oriented conceptions of ritual, and like anthropology and sociology, ritual studies endorses participatory fieldwork when possible. Yet ritual studies differs from the social sciences in its interest in both experiential meaning (phenomenology) and textual interpretation (hermeneutics) and in its concern with studying ritual's relationship to language, narrative, and myth. An excellent example that strikes the ritual studies ideal of balance in simultaneously studying text, action, and context is Sam Gill's Native American Religious Action (1998). Gill combines fieldwork data from Navajo culture with a careful exposition of the semantic content of prayer texts to show that the most culturally responsible way to study Navajo prayer is to consider it as a performative, pragmatic, and poetic ritual medium. Gill notes that the referential meaning of the prayer's words ought not be privileged apart from the prayer's actual performance or cultural context. In Gill's study prayer as a rite is not severed from its proper place in the history of Navajo oral tradition nor from its current position in the larger healing ceremony of which it is part.

Because many of the field's leading scholars work in religious studies departments, ritual studies has adopted the cardinal premise of the academic study of religion: that no single ritual tradition or practice ought to be used as a normative standard for analysis or classification. Any type of theoretical interpretation performed in ritual studies is understood as a comparative judgment, not as a value judgment. This does not mean that ritual studies eschews theology or liturgics. Once only the purview of Christianity, liturgics increasingly refers to the study of worship ritual in a variety of religious traditions. Whereas the global study of religious rites past and present is an expected province of ritual studies, it is not presumed that religious ritual is the highest form or most fully developed type of ritual. Ritual studies follows the lead of Sally F. Moore and Barbara Myerhoff's Secular Ritual (1977) in pursuing the study of secular ceremony and ritual as well.

A good reading list of texts on ritual is in Ronald L. Grimes's anthology, Readings in Ritual Studies (1996). Grimes's succinct introductions to each entry highlight many of the scholars and debates pertinent to the study of ritual. Reading these in conjunction with Catherine Bell's Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (1992) will provide a thorough introduction to the academic discourse on ritual. As Bell notes, many classic theories are marked by the use of binary oppositions and the Western philosophical split between thought and action, observer and observed. Because ritual is often viewed as simultaneously representing and fusing these polarities, Bell invites a more thorough integration of practice theory into ritual studies to resolve this seeming paradox. The concerns and sensibilities of ritual studies as a field are best articulated in Grimes's first monograph for classroom use, Beginnings in Ritual Studies (1982). Grimes also produced the first bibliography of ritual, Research in Ritual Studies (1985), that covers 1960 to 1983. This resource paired with Madeline Duntley's updated bibliographic essay "Ritual in the United States" (1997) organizes the diverse range and types of modern writings on ritual available to scholars in both the academic and popular press.

Since 1977 ritual studies has made significant strides in interdisciplinary research in three key areas: (1) mind-body and language; (2) popular culture and ritual; and (3) theoretical analysis and construction.

Mind-Body and Language

Ritual studies provides a variety of ways to study ritual in the wider context of human behavior. One option is performance studies. Richard Schechner defines performance as ritualized behavior both conditioned and permeated by play. Building upon Victor Turner's pioneering work, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (1982), Schechner measures "play acts" using six templates: structure, process, experience, function, ideology, and frame. In The Future of Ritual (1993) Schechner claims that players, spectators, and observers each may be independently analyzed in terms of these six templates, which in turn helps to break down the dichotomy of observer and observed (Schechner, 1993, pp. 2526). Performance studies has ties to kinesics (the study of the communicative role of bodily movements and facial expressions). Because ritual action often takes the form of carefully framed gestures, methods such as kinesic-style film study and dance-annotation analysis of ritual hold great potential for the study of ritual. But to date the theory of gesture remains rooted in conceptual categories of interaction ritual first established by Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959).

Biogenetic structuralism is an approach in ritual studies exploring the connection between ritual and myth from a neurological and evolutionary point of view. It tempers the humanistic orientation in ritual theory by suggesting that ritual mediates between genetic codes and ecological adaptation. In The Mystical Mind (1999) the psychiatrists Eugene G. d'Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg map responses to ritual action in various areas of the brain. For example, the site of emotional discharges associated with different types of religious experiences can be located using brain imaging experiments on Tibetan Buddhist meditators. D'Aquili also collaborated with Charles Laughlin and John McManus in The Spectrum of Ritual (1979), a collection of essays on the genetic foundations of ritual, and in Brain, Symbol, and Experience (1990).

Studies of ritual and violence often begin with the findings of ethologists such as Julian Huxley in the article "A Discussion on Ritualized Behavior in Animals and Man" (1966). Ethologists see many connections between animal and human ritualized behavior, especially in human imitation of animal behavior in certain totemic rites in aboriginal societies. Human aggression and gender display, like those of animals, are hedged with stylization, symbolization, and repetitiveness. This is a topic addressed by Walter Burkert, René Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith in Violent Origins (1987). The three authors' diverging viewpoints on violence and ritual are typical of academic debates over the role of violence in the origins of religion itself. Whereas this book deals with the universal tendency of ritual to take violent form in sacrifice and scapegoating, other scholars prefer an evolutionary perspective to locate the origins of ritual as engendering less-negative contributions to human society and community. For instance, Roy A. Rappaport's Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999) treats ritual in a positive wayas humanity's "basic social act." Rappaport combines evolutionary biology with ecology, semiotics, philosophy, and communications theory to argue that ritual both communicates and creates morality, obligation, and convention. Ritual, in short, makes society possible.

Interest in psychology within ritual studies begins with Volney Patrick Gay's Freud on Ritual (1979), where Gay challenges the commonly held interpretation of Sigmund Freud's negative view of ritual as repressive and as a collective version of personal neurosis. Ritual studies recognizes the existence of nonpathological, private ritualizing and explores the therapeutic uses of ritual. A major part of Religious and Social Ritual (1996), edited by Michael B. Aune and Valerie DeMarinis, is devoted to the effective use of ritual in clinical settings and of the similarities and differences between ritual and psychotherapy.

The collaborative work of Robert N. McCauley and E. Thomas Lawson represents the best examples of the cognitive science of ritual. McCauley and Lawson examine the cognitive machinery essential to a participant's ritual competence. In Bringing Ritual to Mind (2002) McCauley and Lawson utilize experimental research in cognitive psychology. They look at ritual transmission and those factors that determine the survival of ritual systems and what motivates participants to perpetuate them over time. McCauley also presents research on what he calls "sensory pageantry" in "Ritual, Memory, and Emotion: Comparing Two Cognitive Hypotheses" (2001). McCauley explores how ritual meaning and experience are contingent upon environment and how ritual frequency and infrequency contribute to a rite's meaning and efficacy.

McCauley and Lawson also forge important links between semantics and ritual in Rethinking Religion (1990). Here they argue that linguistic theories offer strategic insights for the study of religious rituals, especially for examining the internal structure of ritual. Another volume examining the interconnection between ritual and language is Ritual and Semiotics (1997), edited by J. Ralph Lindgren and Jay Knaak. Of particular interest is Lindgren's work on magic, where he argues that a semiotic (the study of signs and symbols) investigation of ritual reveals the process of social beliefs in flux and in turn allows one to see ritual as an open-ended, flexible sign system.

Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (1995), edited by Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki, offers several linguistic analyses of ritual and magic. Magic presents a taxonomic (categorical) challenge to the study of ritual that these authors resolve in part by substituting the term ritual power for magic. Magic is thus liberated from its negative connotations by revisioning it as empowerment by ritual means. Another treatment of ritual and language is Richard K. Fenn's Liturgies and Trials (1982), a study of performative utterance and the ritual efficacy of language used in court proceedings. Grimes's Ritual Criticism (1990) also utilizes J. L. Austin's speech-act theory for use in determining and assessing the many ways a rite can fail. Grimes presents nineteen categories of ritual failure, some of which are: gloss (covers up problems), breach (failure to follow through), opacity (act unrecognizable or unintelligible), misframe (genre misconstrued), contagion (act leaps beyond proper boundaries), flop (failure to evoke proper mood), and violation (act effective but demeaning).

Popular Culture and Ritual

One of ritual studies' most important contributions is its ability to bridge academic and public interest in ritual. Liberating Rites (1998) by Tom Driver and Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals (1998) by Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley are books by theologians who target both popular and academic audiences. Anderson and Foley offer guides for creating new rites for nontraditional life transitions (divorce, retirement, miscarriage), and Driver provides theoretical guidelines and maxims for improving existing rituals. Driver also distinguishes between two central types or modes of ritual action: confessional (effecting revelatory self-disclosure) and ethical (effecting social change through action). Yet Driver also notes how these two modes overlap. First, the two modes serve in tandem to enhance ritual's potential to inspire liberation and justice. Second, the ethical and confessional modes work together to impede ritual's destructive tendencies.

Anderson and Foley offer new perspectives on the interconnection between ritual and narrative. Narrative is not simply the particular mythic story a rite imparts but is the actual storytelling occurring before, during, and after the rite that in part imbues ritual action with meaning. Narrative is emotionally charged because it augments and frames ritual action in life transition ceremonies of birth, marriage, and death. Far from taking the creation or refinement of new rituals flippantly, Anderson and Foley are aware of the profound danger and risk involved in the task of ritual revitalization and innovation. Ritual may be used intentionally and unwittingly to embarrass, destroy, or disturb as well as to unify, satisfy, and heal. Their discussion of the categories "mythic" (a rite that intentionally glosses over contradictions and enacts the ideal) and "parabolic" (a rite that intentionally addresses and resolves contradictions and problems) is applicable beyond the Christian context and helps interpret secular and non-Christian rites as well.

Ritual studies research in popular culture helps locate new ritual practices and media on the ritual spectrum. Gregor Goethals's The TV Ritual (1981) shows ways in which television viewing, especially of such sporting events as the Super Bowl, share many of the dynamics and characteristics typically associated with ritual. Bobby C. Alexander, in Televangelism Reconsidered (1994), argues that televangelism is itself a ritual practice. Television viewing becomes a ritual site of the celebration of community and legitimacy of conservative subcultures rather than merely a reflection of such ritual activity occurring elsewhere.

Studies of life passages experienced by women offer new critiques of old theoretical paradigms. In Birth as an American Rite of Passage (1992) Robbie E. Davis-Floyd presents hospital obstetrical procedures as ritual. For mothers, the social convention of in-hospital birth becomes a status quoenforcing rite of passage. In this so-called technocratic birth rite, the mother is made subservient to and accepting of her obligation both to patriarchal institutions and to society's cultural control over natural processes such as birth and death. Other fieldwork studies of modern women use feminist theory to refocus attention upon the role of the body in rites of passage. Jone Salomonsen's Enchanted Feminism (2001) suggests how ritual in a coven is perceived as a reclamation of divine immanence. Thus self-healing and transformation are dependent upon actualizing eco-magico interdependence through ritual. Nikki Bado-Fralick's article "A Turning on the Wheel of Life: Wiccan Rites of Death" (1998) also uses field research on Wiccans to claim that ritual transformation is more than a spontaneous mental attitude or reorientation that results from a ritual event. Instead, transformation is itself a somatic process that is learned by the body over time. This requires a much longer time frame to take effect than implied by theories such as the instantaneous participatory unity that Turner calls "communitas." Here ritual studies provides gender-specific case studies that build upon the concept of "ritual knowledge"the idea that ritual meaning is acquired primarily through somatic or bodily performance first articulated by Theodore W. Jennings Jr. in "On Ritual Knowledge" (1982).

Theoretical Analysis and Construction

Because scholars of ritual studies recognize the importance of studying contemporary ritual, many of the field's most notable contributions to theory are in the areas of ritual change and ritual criticism. Elizabeth H. Pleck's Celebrating the Family (2000) assigns ethnic identity an important role in the alteration of family celebrations over time. She also links many drastic changes in holidays and rites of passage directly to commercialization and emphasizes the often ignored market dimension of rituals as a product. Several of Pleck's examples highlight the latent ethnocentricity in many interpretive strategies concerning life transition rituals. For example, in the Hispanic quinceañera (coming of age or debutante birthday ball for fifteen-year-old girls) scholars may focus on the event as a secular occasion with sexist conservative gender and restrictive status implications. Yet the participant herself may see the event as a mystical religious rite of blessing and consecration that directly results in status elevation. Grimes's Ritual Criticism (1990) introduces an interdisciplinary method called ritual criticism to resolve this dilemma of how to include scholar and participant views in one interpretive framework. Ritual criticism is "the interpretation of a rite or ritual system with a view to implicating (involving) its practice" (Grimes, 1990, p. 16). Ritual criticism uses evaluative judgments only insofar as they are necessary to take into account the contexts and circumstances in which ritual knowledge is produced.

Yet another way to discover ritual's "core" is to use the typologies offered by Bell in Ritual (1997). Ritual attributes of formalism, traditionalism, disciplined invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance help interpret and organize a wide range of contemporary examples of "ritual-like" activities that often fall outside other interpretive and classificatory models. Bell also broadens the concept of ritual change, which is usually defined as ritual alteration and innovation, to include ritual immutability by showing how changelessness is an important way ritual is actively responsive to rapidly changing social contexts.

In Deeply into the Bone (2000) Grimes shows the theoretical implications of realizing that rites of passage paradigms are theoretical hybrids constructed from the work of Arnold van Gennep, Turner, and Mircea Eliade. Grimes demonstrates that the widely accepted tripartite model of separation, transition, and reincorporation so often used as the template for all rites of passage is far from universal in scope. In fact rites of passage theory is rooted in data gleaned specifically from aboriginal male initiation rites. Yet in the twentieth century this three-part rites of passage model came to be used as the theoretical lens for viewing virtually all types of ritual activity, ancient and modern, aboriginal and postindustrial. Current research in ritual studies demonstrates that theories originally based on aboriginal male initiation are less useful in interpreting contemporary life transition rites and women's rituals. If rites of passage theory is not the reflection of universal human ritual experience that it was once commonly believed to be, then both practitioner and scholar must avoid the temptation to conform ritual experience and interpretation to fit the expectations and parameters supplied by these classic rites of passage templates. Grimes provides more flexible theoretical guidelines for interpreting contemporary rites of passage; these guidelines respond to situational variety and offer an alternative to the fixed typologies proposed by Bell in Ritual.

Once dominated by North American researchers, ritual studies is gaining international exposure both in research groups and in degree-granting programs. Ritualtheorien: En einführendes Handbuch (1998) is the premier handbook for European use. The Institut für Religionswissenschaft at Germany's University of Heidelberg hosts the Heidelberger e-Journal für Ritualwissenschaft. This institute's theoretical contributions include introducing new methods called interrituality and ritualisticsthe comparative study of complexes of structurally interlinked rituals. In the Netherlands, Thomas Quartier leads a ritual group at the University of Nijmegen, and the Netherlands School for Advanced Studies in Theology and Religion (NOSTER) sponsors research on liturgics, ritual praxis, and community. Helen Phelan of the University of Limerick in Ireland directs a master of arts degree program in chant and ritual song. One of the insights of Phelan's edited collection Anáil Dé, the Breath of God: Music, Ritual, and Spirituality (2001) is how the study of ritual music demonstrates the viability of the practice-performance model as a research method for ritual studies (Phelan, 2001, p. 56).

Europeans are also engaged in developing definitional and conceptual alternatives to the term ritual. Jan A. M. Snoek challenges the North American tendency to use rite and ritual as synonyms, in contrast to non-American scholars, who use rite to refer to the building blocks of ceremonies. The international standardization of ritual studies terminology remains a challenge for the field, especially regarding key concepts such as ritualization or ritualizing variously employed as synonyms for ritual action, for emergent rites-in-the-making, or in reference to habitual, repetitive gestures that parallel, but do not qualify as, rites.

See Also

Anthropology, Ethnology, and Religion; Ceremony; Liturgy; Performance and Ritual; Rites of Passage, overview article; Ritual.


Alexander, Bobby C. Televangelism Reconsidered: Ritual in the Search for Human Community. Atlanta, 1994.

Anderson, Herbert, and Edward Foley. Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine. San Francisco, 1998.

Andresen, Jensine, ed. Religion in Mind: Cognitive Perspective on Religious Belief, Ritual, and Experience. Cambridge, U.K., 2001.

Aune, Michael B., and Valerie DeMarinis, eds. Religious and Social Ritual: Interdisciplinary Explorations. Albany, N.Y., 1996.

Bado-Fralick, Nikki. "A Turning on the Wheel of Life: Wiccan Rites of Death." Folklore Forum 29, no. 1 (1998): 322.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford, U.K., 1992.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford, U.K., 1997.

Bellinger, Andrea, and David J. Krieger, eds. Ritualtheorien: En einführendes Handbuch. Opladen and Weisbaden, Germany, 1998.

d'Aquili, Eugene G., and Andrew B. Newberg. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. Minneapolis, 1999.

d'Aquili, Eugene G., Charles Laughlin, and John McManus. The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis. New York, 1979.

d'Aquili, Eugene G., Charles Laughlin, and John McManus. Brain, Symbol, and Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness. Boston, 1990.

Davis-Floyd, Robbie E. Birth as an American Rite of Passage. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

Driver, Tom F. Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual. Boulder, Colo., 1998. Originally published as The Magic of Ritual. San Francisco, 1991.

Duntley, Madeline. "Ritual in the United States." In Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook, edited by Stephen D. Glazier, pp. 257275. Westport, Conn., 1997.

Fenn, Richard K. Liturgies and Trials: The Secularization of Religious Language. New York, 1982.

Gay, Volney Patrick. Freud on Ritual: Reconstruction and Critique. Missoula, Mont., 1979.

Gill, Sam. Native American Religious Action: A Performance Approach to Religion. Columbia, S.C., 1987.

Goethals, Gregor. The TV Ritual: Worship at the Video Altar. Boston, 1981.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, N.Y., 1959.

Grimes, Ronald L. Beginnings in Ritual Studies. Columbia, S.C., 1982; rev. ed., 1995.

Grimes, Ronald L. Research in Ritual Studies: A Programmatic Essay and Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J., 1985.

Grimes, Ronald L. Ritual Criticism: Case Studies in Its Practice, Essays on Its Theory. Columbia, S.C., 1990.

Grimes, Ronald L. Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage. Berkeley, Calif., 2000.

Grimes, Ronald L., ed. Readings in Ritual Studies. Upper Saddle River, N.J., 1996.

Hamerton-Kelly, Robert G., ed. Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, René Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation. Stanford, Calif., 1987.

Huxley, Julian. "A Discussion on Ritualized Behavior in Animals and Man." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, ser. B, 251, no. 772 (1966): 274524.

Jennings, Theodore W., Jr. "On Ritual Knowledge." Journal of Religion 62 (1982): 111127.

Lindgren, J. Ralph, and Jay Knaak, eds. Ritual and Semiotics. New York, 1997.

McCauley, Robert N. "Ritual, Memory, and Emotion: Comparing Two Cognitive Hypotheses." In Religion in Mind: Cognitive Perspective on Religious Belief, Ritual, and Experience, edited by Jensine Andresen, pp. 115140. Cambridge, U.K., 2001.

McCauley, Robert N., and E. Thomas Lawson. Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

McCauley, Robert N., and E. Thomas Lawson. Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Meyer, Marvin, and Paul Mirecki, eds. Ancient Magic and Ritual Power. Leiden, Netherlands, 1995.

Moore, Sally F., and Barbara G. Myerhoff, eds. Secular Ritual: Symbol and Politics in Communal Ideology. Assen, Netherlands, 1977.

Phelan, Helen, ed. Anáil Dé, the Breath of God: Music, Ritual, and Spirituality. Dublin, 2001.

Pleck, Elizabeth H. Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge, Mass., 2000.

Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Salomonsen, Jone. Enchanted Feminism: Ritual Construction of Gender, Agency, and Divinity among the Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco. New York, 2001.

Schechner, Richard. The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance. New York, 1993.

Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York, 1982.

Madeline Duntley (2005)

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