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Rites of Passage

Ritual, Performance, And Rites Of Passage

Ritual behavior as classically applied to humans has four characteristics. First, ritual is a stylized or stereotyped, repetitive, pattern of behavior. Second, it is associated with religious beliefs and practices and in some sense deemed to be sacred. Third, it contains a temporal element in that rituals are held at set times and have a liturgical order. Last, ritual has a spatial element because it often takes place in a specified location with actors also being spatially coordinated. Sometimes, however, the second and third characteristics are rather loosely interpreted so that secular events like graduations, installation of officers, the visit of foreign dignitaries, and pilgrimages to Disneyland can be described in ritual terms (Kertzer 1988). In this expanded interpretation, what is deemed to be sacred spreads beyond religion to what is valued in secular life. Turner wrote about theater performance much in the same way as he interpreted Ndembu religious practices (Turner 1977), as a social and ritual drama, symbolically rich in expressing cultural meanings and indications for how a society structures the lives of its people. Rituals are for Turner always associated with rites of passage that mark a transition from one status state to another.

The extension of ritual performance to modern life has its most extensive expression in performance theory, especially the writings of Turner himself and those of Richard Schechner. The collection of works found in By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual, (edited by Richard Schechner and Willa Appel) is the best source for the extension of the analysis of ritual into contemporary practice. Schechner organizes the range of performance events subject to this type of analysis into an event-time-space chart that includes, among many others, sporting events, executions, and hostage crises. This model for cultural analysis has also found its way into folklore studies as found, for example, in the analysis by Liz Locke (1999) of the Rocky Horror Picture Show as a social drama and as containing the three central elements of rites of passage.

Turner's model for cultural performance in complex societies suggests that the performance event can be parsed into ritual stages that mimic what occurs during a rite of passage. These are the stage of separation, a liminal stage, and a stage of reaggregation. The value of this partition is that it is a way of organizing symbolic data and because symbols evoke emotion, the analysis heightens the awareness of the undercurrents that drive the passions of the performance. As Turner phrases it, there is an effort in such symbolic expression to unite the organic with the sociomoral order. Examples are in courts of law (Garfinkel 1956), but also in the vast infrastructure of quasi-judicial bodies that regulate everything from global trade to health and the environment (Adam 1999).

Although the elements of separation and reintegration in the ritual process of social dramas are similar to those of nontechnological societies, Turner does find a degree of difference for the liminal stage. The overriding characteristic of being in the liminal state is the status of ambiguity, of being betwixt and between. In what Turner refers to as technologically simpler societies, the liminal state is associated with transformative creatures, with monsters and chimera. Masks are a usual ritual element, as are drugs and states of trance. There is an exchange of communication, conversations between those in the liminal state and the mixed-up creatures and figures inhabiting the netherworld. This has overtones in theater but can be extended also to sporting events (Bromberger 1995).

Turner does make the distinction between obligatory rites of passage as are found in less technological societies and those of a secular industrialized world where participation is voluntary. He refers to this voluntary aspect as liminoid, and it is in this venue in which the various genres of cultural performance, like theatre, festivals, parades, public executions, sporting events, and so on, are occasioned.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily & Marriage TraditionsRites of Passage - Rites Of Passage Cross-culturally, Cultural Performance, Social Drama, And Rites Of Passage