Family rituals are practiced in different settings and are multidimensional. Steven J. Wolin and Linda Bennett (1984) have identified three types of family rituals that differ by setting and the degree to which they are connected to cultural practices. Family celebrations are holidays practiced and prescribed by the culture, such as Passover Seders, and rites of passage such as weddings. Family traditions are linked to family activities such as birthday customs, family vacations, and special anniversaries and are less culture-specific. Patterned routines, the third category of family rituals, are the least consciously planned but may occur on a regular basis, for example, dinnertime, bedtime routines, and the types of greetings family members make when they return home.
Barbara Fiese and colleagues make the distinction between routines of daily living and rituals in family life (Fiese et al. 2002). Routines and rituals can be contrasted along the dimensions of communication, commitment, and continuity. Routines typically involve instrumental communication conveying information that "this is what needs to be done." They entail a momentary time commitment, and once the act is completed there is little, if any, afterthought. Routines are repeated over time and recognized by continuity in behavior. Rituals, on the other hand, involve symbolic communication and convey "this is who we are" as a group. There is an affective commitment that leaves the individual feeling that the activity feels right and provides a sense of belonging. Furthermore, there is often an emotional residue where once the act is completed the individual may replay it in memory to recapture some of the affective experience. Rituals also provide continuity in meaning across generations with the anticipation for repeat performance and an investment that this is how the family will continue to be. When routines are disrupted it is a hassle. When rituals are disrupted there is a threat to group cohesion.
To illustrate, consider family mealtimes as an example. A mealtime routine may be an instrumental communication of who needs to pick up milk on the way home from work. Once the milk is procured, there is very little thought about the grocery store. And, often as not, this act may be repeated several times a week. The mealtime ritual, on the other hand, is conversation as a group that may include inside jokes, symbolic objects, and acts meaningful only to the family not easily detected by the outside observer. Once the family is gathered for the meal there is an affective reaction that may be as subtle as a sigh signifying that time has been set aside for the group and that other things are put on hold. There may also be elements of the gathering that have been passed down over generations, including prayers, dishes, and even topics of conversation.
Several authors have proposed typologies of family rituals (Bennett et al. 1988; Roberts, 1988). Janine Roberts (1988) has identified six ways in which families approach rituals. Under-ritualized families rarely practice family routines, often ignoring important milestones such as anniversaries or birthdays. Rigidly ritualized families prescribe strict rules for conduct and hold high expectations for attendance by all members. Skewed ritualization is evident when the ritual practices are linked primarily to one member of the family or one aspect of a family's life such as religion or ethnic heritage. Families who practice hollow rituals are characterized by a lack of meaningful affect in their group activities, emphasizing the routine aspect of family rituals without the symbolic component. Some families experience interrupted rituals due to sudden changes in the family such as illness or death. Families who practice flexible rituals maintain the symbolically meaningful aspect of family rituals and are able to adapt the roles and routines across the lifecycle.
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