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Ritual Studies


Ritual studies, sometimes called "ritology," is an emerging field which attracts scholars from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, psychology, religious studies, psychiatry, biology, sociology, and the performing arts. In Beginnings in Ritual Studies (1995), Ronald Grimes, a major authority in the new field, indicated that its originality consists not in the fact that people are studying ritual, but in their attempt to do so in a way which brings a variety of methodological perspectives into dialogue within a cross cultural and comparative context. The American Academy of Religion (AAR) has provided a forum for that discussion; in 1977 the AAR held the first Ritual Studies Consultation as part of its annual meeting.

Ritual studies is a field of some complexity, a factor due largely to its interdisciplinary nature. In an attempt to identify and classify works in the field. Grimes collected 1,600 sources and grouped them under four major categories: ritual components, ritual types, ritual descriptions, and general works in various field clusters (1984, 1985). The sub-headings under each of the first two categories illustrate the great number of topics open to exploration. Under ritual components Grimes lists the following: action, space, time, objects, symbol and metaphor, group, self, divine beings, and language. Among ritual types he includes: rites of passage, marriage rites, funerary rites, festivals, pilgrimage, purification, civil ceremonies, rituals of exchange, sacrifice worship, magic, healing rites, interaction rites, meditation rites, rites of inversion, and ritual drama. Although action is one among many ritual components, Grimes assigns it a place of primacy in the study of ritual. Theodore Jennings agrees and emphasizes the role played by bodily action in the knowledge attained by people through their participation in ritual. Much work remains to be done in elaborating methods to facilitate the study of ritual action.

Relation to Liturgical Studies. While the study of liturgy engages scholars in the exploration of questions from a variety of theoretical and methodological standpoints, it has been suggested that the unifying principle and distinguishing characteristic of liturgical theology is its focus on the living worship of the Church. Since liturgy is a form of ritual action which embodies that worship, it would seem that liturgical scholars have a place within the broader field of ritual studies. The dialogue between liturgy and cultural anthropology emerged in North America, in the wake of the liturgical reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council. Criticism of some aspects of the reformed Roman Catholic liturgy by such anthropologists as Mary Douglas and Victor turner has revealed a certain lack of sensitivity to the nature of ritual in the process of reform. A growing desire on the part of some liturgical scholars to investigate such topics as ritual celebration, ritual symbols, and the process of ritual change led them to venture into the field of cultural anthropology. This interdisciplinary move was supported within the north american academy of liturgy.

Until recently liturgical scholars engaged in the study of rites centered their attention on liturgical books or texts as their chief source material. There is a growing recognition among scholars of the need to expand this focus to include liturgical/ritual performance as a source for liturgical theology, liturgical spirituality, and pastoral liturgy. Several attempts to study liturgical performance have already been made. Phase Two of the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life (1983) included empirical descriptions of liturgical celebrations as part of its data. Also, the Ritual/Language/Action Study Group of the North American Academy of Liturgy has pursued an interest in the study of ritual first expressed in 1976. In recent years the group has been concerned with the question of methodology. Instruments designed by members of the group for the purpose of studying liturgical performance have been used in actual field research and reports have been made at the annual meetings. The experience has provoked a number of questions which are being studied by those engaged in the project.

Diversity of Approaches. Many students of ritual have directed their attention to the study of symbols, but the diversity of symbol theories has made this a difficult task. There is an emerging criticism of the overdependence of symbol theory on linguistic models and a realization that more attention must be directed to symbolic action. Although the study of symbolism occupies a place of primacy in the field, there are some who would challenge this and who question the attention given to the quest for symbolic meaning.

The study of ritual in relation to society remains an area of great interest, and the works of Mary Douglas and Victor Turner continue to command attention. In Natural Symbols (1970) Mary Douglas argued that the propensity for ritual and the body symbolism inherent in ritual are factors that can best be understood when placed in correlation with a more basic set of social relationships. She offered a formula for classifying those relationships that attempted to discern the relative strength or weakness of a society in terms of "group," recognized by boundaries, and "grid," the rules regulating the relationship of an individual with others in the group. Much of her research since then has been directed toward working with and refining this group-grid diagram as a tool to be used in cultural analysis.

Victor Turner's contribution to the field of ritual studies is manifold. This becomes especially apparent when one attends to the development that took place in his own thought. A brief description of this journey can be found in the prologue to On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience, a collection of Turner's essays edited posthumously by his wife and collaborator, Edith Turner. Turner began his field work after having been trained within the British structural-functionalist school of anthropology. That gave him a predisposition to view ritual symbols as the reflection or expression of social structure. However, his own experience of studying ritual within its social context persuaded him of the inadequacy of this approach.

Turner's investigation led him to formulate a theory of society as a dynamic process which incorporates dimensions of structure and anti-structure. He presented ritual as a process within the larger social process and emphasized the creative and transformative capabilities of ritual symbols. Turner credited Arnold van Gennep's identification of the liminal or transitional stage of rites of passage with providing inspiration for his own processual view. The notion of drama was central to his understanding of the social process, and he even ventured into the field of theater in pursuit of a richer understanding of performance.

Before he died in 1983, Turner had found a new area of interest in the work of those who were investigating the neurobiology of ritual. He discovered there some possible biological foundations for his hypothesis about the manner in which ritual symbols operate. This encounter also led him to see a need for further dialogue between those involved in brain research and those engaged in the study of culture. Turner's own work presents a good illustration of the complexity of the field of ritual studies.

Methodological Considerations. Those who venture into the field and attempt to study ritual performance face the tasks of gathering, reporting, and interpreting data. Each has its own problems. Should one approach the ritual with a list of categories or questions for the purpose of focusing one's attention, or should one go without such a framework? If one chooses the former approach, on what basis does one choose the categories and questions? What is the balance between participation and observation in one who is attempting to be present as a participant-observer? The task of reporting is equally complex because it means choosing an appropriate style and making decisions about content and degree of detail. Finally, the work of interpretation calls for the choice of a particular theoretical framework and engages one in the exploration of such problems as the meaning of interpretation and the role of the interpreter in the whole process.

The Journal of Ritual Studies promotes interdisciplinary collaboration among scholars engaged in the study of ritual. It is concerned with such topics as theories of ritual, the biological bases of ritual, methods for studying ritual, ritual and myth, ritual texts, and specific types of ritual. Such a forum provides a stage for a new phase in the development of the field.

Bibliography: c. m. bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York 1992). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (New York 1997). m. collins, "Critical Ritual Studies: Examining an Intersection of Theology and Culture," The Bent World: Essays on Religion and Culture, ed. r. may (1981) 127147. e. g. d'aquili, "The Myth-Ritual Complex: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis," Zygon 18 (1983) 247269. m. douglas, Cultural Bias (London 1978). r. l. grimes, Beginnings in Ritual Studies (Columbia, SC 1995); Research in Ritual Studies: A Programmatic Essay and Bibliography (Metuchen 1985); "Sources for the Study of Ritual," Religious Studies Review 10 (1984) 134145; Reading, Writing, and Ritualizing: Ritual in Fictive, Liturgical, and Public Places (Washington, D.C. 1993); Readings in Ritual Studies (Upper Saddle River, N.J.1996); Ritual Criticism: Case Studies in its Practice, Essays on its Theory (Columbia, S.C. 1990). t. w. jennings, "On Ritual Knowledge," The Journal of Religion 62 (1982) 111127. m. searle, "The Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life," Worship 60 (1986) 312333. e. l. b. turner, "Encounter With Neurobiology: The Response of Ritual Studies," Zygon 21 (1986) 219232. v. turner, ed., Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual (Wash., D.C. 1982); On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience, ed. e. l. b. turner (Tuscon 1985).

[m. m. kelleher]

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