2 minute read

Rites of Passage

Rites Of Passage Cross-culturally, Cultural Performance, Social Drama, And Rites Of Passage

Writing in French in 1909, the European comparative sociologist Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957) delineated in Les rites de passage (published in English in 1960) a structure for transformative ritual practices he considered universal and common to all cultures. Although they vary greatly in intensity, specific form, and social meaning, rites of passage are ceremonial devices used by societies to mark the passage or transition of an individual or a group from one social status or situation to another. Rites of passage resolve life-crises; they provide a mechanism to deal with the tension experienced by both individuals and social groups during ambiguous occasions including, but not limited to, birth, puberty, marriage, and death.

By facilitating these life course transitions, rites of passage hold considerable emotional importance for both the individual and society. To take on a new social identity, the former must negotiate an often-arduous status passage. Furthermore, society must assist individual members in accomplishing these rites and, when these occasions are complete, recognize the new standing of the initiate.

By adopting a comparative approach to develop his taxonomy of social rites, van Gennep noted that these social customs are used to mark specific moments of the life course. Many societies use these ceremonies to articulate events that hold significance not only for individuals and families but the larger society as well. Associated with each life stage is a specific social status and a definitive set of obligations and responsibilities that the incumbent is expected to fulfill. As the individual advances the normative, sequential stages of the life course—generally from infant, adolescent, spouse, parent, elder, to deceased—taking on a new social role at each phase. Rites of passage function to accomplish status transitions; they provide a mechanism for individuals and their societies to recognize those who negotiate the rites as intrinsically different beings.

Although rites of passage are used to accomplish a wide variety of different social transitions, van Gennep found that they typically involve a tripartite structure involving three sequential stages. During rites of separation (séparation), initiates are removed physically from the social group. Mortuary or funeral rituals, for example, are used to achieve the distinction between the world of the living and the realm of deceased ancestors.

Transition (marge) or liminality rites accentuate the often-profound changes an initiate undergoes. The debutant undertaking transition typically experiences a condition of liminality, a marginal status that is socially betwixt and between the former status and an uncertain future. Transitional rites are ambiguous periods. The initiate may receive special instruction and knowledge essential for those reincorporated within the society. Often during the liminal stage, the human body is itself the object of ritual process. A young person, for example, may be required to undergo painful surgical procedures such as body piercing, scarification, or circumcision. The healed wounds permanently signify the status change.

The third stage is that of incorporation (agrégation) or reaggregation. This phase involves the reintegration of the transformed individual into the social group, albeit in a new capacity. Van Gennep underscored that this tripartite pattern of human transitions mimics the pattern of nature and the cosmos, a continuous sequence of birth, being, and rebirth. As the earth regenerates through the passing seasons, the new growth of spring following the dead of winter, so too do families and societies.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily & Marriage Traditions