Catherine Bell on ritual

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I’ve just added a page outlining Catherine Bell’s masterly surveys of ritual and the history of ritual studies, where she considers themes that are also significant in the related disciplines of anthropology and ethnomusicology.

Bell astutely unpacks the wide range of scholarship on this slippery topic, interrogating the work of the seminal figures such as Durkheim, Eliade, Grimes, Geertz, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Bourdieu, Tambiah, Staal, and Victor Turner. Noting where their interpretations concur and diverge, she seeks “to break free of the circularity that has structured thinking about acting by undermining the very category of ritual itself”.

As a taster, just a few of her wise insights:

While the activities we think of as “ritual” can be found in many periods and places, the formal study of ritual is a relatively recent and localised phenomenon. When made the subject of systematic historical and comparative cultural analysis, ritual has offered new insights into the dynamics of religion, culture, and personhood. At the same time, it has proven to be a particularly complicated phenomenon for scholars to probe—because of the variety of activities that one may consider ritual, the multiplicity of perspectives one may legitimately take in interpreting them, and the way in which defining and interpreting ritual enter into the very construction of scholarship itself.

We focus on explaining those things that constitute a problem of some sort for us. Hence, we are highly motivated to use our own assumptions and experiences to explain that problem in such a way as to make our world more coherent, ordered, and meaningful.

Part of the dilemma of ritual change lies in the simple fact that rituals tend to present themselves as the unchanging, time-honoured customs of an enduring community. Even when no such claims are explicitly made within or outside the rite, a variety of cultural dynamics tend to make us take it for granted that rituals are old in some way; any suggestion that they may be rather recently minted can give rise to consternation and confusion. […]
It is pertinent to ask if a rite that is well over a thousand years old actually works today in the same way or means the same thing to people that it did when it was new, or only fifty or five hundred years old. […] Does the age of the rite, with its progressive distance from the rest of the social world, make it stand for something different today than centuries ago? Are meanings left behind or simply layered and relayered with new connotations and nuances?

I conclude the page with some thoughts on fieldwork, and my own experiences in China, setting forth from Bell’s comment:

Scholarship on ritual, as in many other areas, does not usually proceed so directly from data to theory. Most often, explicit theories or implicit assumptions lead scholars to find data that support or challenge these views. Hence, what counts as data will depend to a great extent on what one already has in mind, the problem that one is trying to solve.

One thought on “Catherine Bell on ritual

  1. Pingback: Catherine Bell on ritual | Stephen Jones: a blog – Dinesh Chandra China Story

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