Catherine Bell on ritual

RTRP quotes

In my work on local ritual in rural China, I’m quite resistant to theory. I’m not alone: many fieldworkers find themselves immersed in documenting the routine of ritual sequences and their social context, postponing any more grandiose theoretical perspectives. In the old dichotomy, my immediate concern is with what people do rather than what they may think. Of course, this glib characterisation begs many questions—which are brilliantly unpacked by Catherine Bell (1953–2008) in

in which she astutely unpacks the wide range of scholarship on this slippery topic. Illuminating the state of the field as it was then, she surveys the major themes, also significant in the disciplines of anthropology and ethnomusicology. She interrogates the work of the seminal figures such as Émile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, Ronald Grimes, Frits Staal, Clifford Geertz, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Stanley Tambiah, Victor Turner, and Jonathan Z. Smith (“ritual is work!”), noting where their interpretations concur and diverge.

Bell cover 2

Early in Ritual theory, ritual practice Bell observes that while the study of ritual clearly belongs within the fields of religion, society, and culture,

besides anthropologists, sociologists, and historians of religion, there are sociobiologists, philosophers, and intellectual historians who have turned to ritual as a “window” on the cultural dynamics by which people make and remake their worlds.

Bell not only explores ritual per se (sic!) but also unpacks the agendas of ritual studies within academia. Contending that “few if any of the current theories of ritual avoid a rather predetermined circularity”, she seeks “to break free of the circularity that has structured thinking about acting by undermining the very category of ritual itself”, and to

reassess what we have been doing with the category of ritual, why we have ended up where we are, and how we might formulate an analytic direction better able to grasp how such activities compare to other forms of social action.

She points out that

Truly thick ethnographic descriptions of particular rites rarely succumb to the systematic division of human experience evidenced in theoretical studies. When they do, it is frequently due to the influence of categories developed to empower theoretical discourse.

While querying the very validity of the term “ritual”, she concludes:

To try to discard the term ritual just when scholars have been successful in popularising its use would imply a desire for esoteric categories accessible only to the cognoscenti.

The thought–action dichotomy is indeed central to the ways in which scholars of ritual approach the subject. Bell notes Jameson’s question “to what extent is the object of study the thought pattern of the theorist rather than the supposed object, ritual”.

Performance theory, with its “primacy of the body”, appears to suggest a way through the dichotomies, but ends up erecting another extraneous mode of verbalising. As to practice theory (chapter 5), “practice would appear to be a ready tool to explore ritualization as a way of acting”, but yet again Bell notes “slippage”, finding that the term often succumbs to the expediencies of theoretical discourse.

I will use the term to highlight four features of human activity. Practice is (1) situational; (2) strategic; (3) embedded in a misrecognition of what it is in fact doing; and (4) able to reproduce or reconfigure a vision of the order of power in the world, or what I will call “redemptive hegemony”.


By way of Gramsci and Althusser, this leads to “ritualization”, a term that Bell favours:

a strategic way of acting, “a strategy for the construction of a limited and limiting power relationship”— […]
not a relationship in which one social group has absolute control over another, but one that simultaneously involves both consent and resistance, misunderstanding and appropriation.

Ritualization is

the way in which certain social actions strategically distinguish themselves in relation to other actions. In a very preliminary sense, ritualisation is a way of acting that is designed and orchestrated to distinguish and privilege what is being done in comparison to other, usually more quotidian, activities. […]

When put in the context of purposive activity with all the characteristics of human practice (strategy, specificity, misrecognition, and redemptive hegemony), a focus on ritual yields to a focus on ritualization.
Ritualization, the production of ritualized acts, can be described, in part, as that way of acting that sets itself off from other ways of acting by virtue of the way in which it does what it does.

I can concur that formality, fixity, and repetition are common features of ritual, and that it is in flux. Yet despite Bell’s advocacy of “ritualization”, I’m reluctant to adopt the term. I wouldn’t exactly mind if it were employed merely to describe what people do when they perform (or attend) rituals, like “musicking”. But without denying the role of deliberation, to “-ize” something already seems to suggest some kind of conceptual decision-making. Clearly it can be useful—to draw attention to “invented traditions”, or explicitly political rituals, for example.

Similarly, I adhere to the term “ritual specialist”, while one sometimes finds “ritualist”, which again sounds like someone with an “ism”. In a section on these specialists, Bell comments on their roles within any particular society:

No one group of ritual experts appears to have unqualified authority.

This is much in evidence in China, such as around Suzhou or Fujian.

On the difficulty of taxonomy, of defining “the plethora of ritual types” (RTRP, chapter 4),

Distinctions are routinely drawn between ritual studies and liturgies, religious ritual and secular ritual, ritual and ceremonial, secular ritual and secular ceremony, political ritual and civic ceremonial, private ritual and collective ritual, rites of rebellion and rites of solidarity, dramatic performance and ritual performance, the formality of games (in play and organized sports) and the formality of ritual, ritual and festival, festival and holiday, and so on.

Another theme that has grown in popularity is the ritual body (chapter 5), not least under the influence of feminist studies. Bell is always aware of the tricks of scholarly conceptualisation:

When discussing the ritual construction of the social body, Foucault, Comaroff, and Bourdieu all slide from a discussion of social practices into a discussion of ritual ones with little if any explication of the implied relation of ritual practices to social practices in general. They appear to mean that ritual practices either “model” social ones in an extreme way or that ritual practices are particular problem-addressing techniques.


The moulding of the body within a highly structured environment does not simply express inner states. Rather, it primarily acts to restructure bodies in the very doing of the acts themselves. Hence, required kneeling does not merely communicate subordination to the kneeler. For all intents and purposes, kneeling produces a subordinated kneeler in and through the act itself. […]
Yet if we take seriously the idea that even the exact repetition of an age-old ritual precedent is a strategic act with which to define the present, then no ritual style is autonomous. We need tools with which to analyse the particular play of forms of a style that purports to be autonomous.


People do not take a social problem to ritual for a solution. People generate a ritualized environment that acts to shift the very status and nature of the problem into terms that are endlessly retranslated in strings of deferred schemes. The multiplication and orchestration of such schemes do not produce a resolution; rather, they afford a translation of immediate concerns into the dominant terms of the ritual. The orchestration of schemes implies a resolution without ever defining one.

She comments:

One might conclude that many theories of ritual argue for the importance of what ritual does by making it as broadly encompassing, important, and mysterious as possible. Nonetheless, with some consistency, ambiguity has also been systematically identified as an important aspect of ritual.

Resistant as I am to Foucault, I rather like Bell’s précis:

People know what they do and they know why they do what they do, but they do not know what what they are doing does.

Bell goes on:

Clearly some things remain sufficiently consistent over time to give people a sense of continuity with what are believed to be precedents; but it is equally clear that traditions change in structure, details, and interpretation and such changes are not always fully recognised by those who live them. Many scholars designate as “tradition” that which does not change [?]; others attempt to combine change and continuity within the notion of tradition.

She illustrates “strategies of hierarchization” by Steven Sangren’s studies on Mazu pilgrimages in Taiwan, and refers to the orthodoxy–orthopraxy debate, a popular topic for China. She concludes that “textualization is not an inevitable linear process of social evolution”.

Part 3, “Ritual and power”, discusses the role of ritual in effecting social change or social conformity.

In brief, it is my general thesis here that ritualization, as a strategic mode of action effective within certain social orders, does not, in any useful understanding of the words, “control” individuals or society. Yet ritualization is very much concerned with power.

Bell refers to Singer’s work on the brahmins of Madras:

The fact that they responded to his abstract generalisations about Hinduism with an invitation to view a particular ceremony should not be taken as evidence of the fact that such a ceremony contains and expresses the essential whole of Hinduism. Rather, “Hinduism” existed for those brahmins only in terms of such activities. Hinduism for Hindus is not a coherent belief system but, first and foremost, a collection of practices. It is the collection of practices as such that needs to be explored further in order to understand their sense of religious action.

It seems that

ritualized activities specifically do not promote belief or conviction. On the contrary, ritualized practices afford a great diversity of interpretation in exchange for little more than consent to the form of the activities.


Despite the evidence for the ambiguous, unstable, and inconsistent nature of belief systems, recent literature persists in the view that ritual has an important social function with regard to inculcating belief.

Bell gives thoughtful discussions of “ideology”, “legitimation”, and “power”. She suggests that ritual activity is not the “instrument” of more basic purposes, such as power, politics, or social control; rather, ritual practices are themselves the very production and negotiation of power relations.

She deliberately avoids proposing a new theory of ritual.

Ultimately, the notion of ritual is constructed in the image of the concerns of a particular cultural era. Certainly, analysing the social and cultural import of ritual activities is a form of practice known only to secular societies that make a distinction between the pursuit of objective knowledge and the practice of religion. The study of ritual is surely a cultural corollary to the antiritualism that Douglas finds common in secular societies.

The tendency towards “textualization” is pervasive (on text and context, see e.g. my citation of an early article by Bell in Bach—and Daoist ritual, under “Eternal truths?”). Jameson implies that we textualize not because rites are intrinsically like texts, but because we approach both looking for meaning as something that can be deciphered, decoded, or interpreted.

For Levi-Strauss among others, what is distinctive about ritual is not what it says or symbolises, but that first and foremost it does things: ritual is always a matter of “the performance of gestures and the manipulation of objects”.

Bell has cogent comments on ritual and language.

Tambiah shares with many other ritual theorists a concern to show how ritual communication is not just an alternative way of expressing something but the expression of things that cannot be expressed in any other way. Yet this shared concern has led theorists to widely dissimilar conclusions: that ritual is less ambiguous (i.e., more precise and effective) than ordinary language; that ritual is more ambiguous than ordinary language; and that the development of sophisticated verbal communication actually obliterates the vestigial need for ritual communication. […]

Rituals without textual roots and textual commentary easily come to be regarded as magical, pseudoscientific, or devotional attempts to achieve direct results. When fixed in writing, prayers are “repeated” verbatim at the expense of adaptive invention, opening a gap between the language of ritual and the language of daily life. The exaggeration of this gap through the use of archaic language may lead to the emergence of archaicization as a basic strategy of ritualization.

* * *

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Just as insightful (and perhaps a somewhat easier read) is Ritual: perspectives and dimensions. This is how Bell opens the book:

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.

Part One discusses the history of theories about ritual and religion, Part Two the spectrum of both ritual and ritual-like activities, and Part Three the fabric of social and cultural life that forms the context in which people turn to ritual practices—and even to ritual theories. As Bell argues, “talk about ritual may reveal more about the speakers than about the bespoken”.

The book opens with a passage from the Confucian philosopher Xunzi, as translated by Burton Watson:


Or in her imaginative paraphrase:

In effect, he warns against the temptation to reduce this complex phenomenon to simplistic formulas or strict categories. He also suggests that elaborate theories constructed by means of labyrinthine methodological considerations will only lead one away from reality. Finally, he reminds us that we will never understand ritual if we are apt to look down on what other people do and view their actions from a position of intellectual or observational superiority.

Bell introduces early styles like the “myth and ritual” school of William Robertson Smith and James Frazer, Mircea Eliade’s phenomenological approach to myth, and Freudian psychoanalysis—mostly “caught up in the quest to find both the historical origins and the ahistorical or eternal essence of religion”. As she reminds us,

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.

The emphasis moved on to the social function of ritual, with scholars such as Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown, and Malinowski, as well as “neo-functionalists” like Rappaport; and scholars loosely grouped under structuralism, like Bateson, Evans-Pritchard, van Gennep, Gluckman, Mary Douglas, Lévi-Strauss, Victor Turner, Tambiah, and Geertz (Bell discussed the latter’s classic article on a “failed” Javanese funeral in Ritual theory, ritual practice, pp.33–5, cf. my humble discussion of a Chinese funeral). Still later, rather than stressing how ritual functions, scholars returned to what ritual means, the subject of Part Two.

Bell continues to debate the interpretation of “culture” and the greater emphasis on social change, introducing linguistics and semiotics into the heady mix. She cites Frits Staal on Indian vedas:

As a mantra, the verse is taken out of its textual context and turned into a series of highly stylised sounds, the meaning of which is of no consequence. Indeed, many Brahman ritual experts are quite ignorant of what the sounds actually mean, but they are highly skilled in rendering them precisely according to the rules. Hence, for Staal, ritual is rule-governed activity that can be understood only as such. Its meaning, he continues, would be nothing more than the various rationales that may have accrued to it over time and as such of no use in analyzing ritual as ritual: “Like rocks or trees, ritual acts and sounds may be provided with meaning, but they do not require meanings and do not exist for meaning’s sake.”

More performance theory:

Performance theorists are concerned with the peculiar efficacy of ritual activities, which distinguishes them from literal communication, on the one hand, or pure entertainment, on the other.

Part Two explores the spectrum of ritual activities. In the first chapter Bell offers a provisional sixfold taxonomy, based on the rituals on which most studies have focused, usefully illustrated with a wide range of examples:

The next chapter thickens the plot by pondering less clear-cut instances, ending (pp.164–6) in a reminder of the importance of incorporating emic taxonomies, with a succinct exposition of the links between Chinese ritual and theatre.

Part Three, “Contexts: the fabric of ritual life”, opens by reminding us that

A ritual never exists alone. It is usually one ceremony among many in the larger ritual life of a person or community, one gesture among a multitude of gestures both sacred and profane, one embodiment among others of traditions of behaviour down from one generation to another. In other words, for each and every ritual, there is a thick context of social customs, historical practices, and day-to-day routines that, in addition to the unique factors at work in any given moment in time and space, influence whether and how a ritual action is performed. The warp and weft of handed-down customs and real-life situations form the fabric from which specific rites are constructed and found meaningful.

The three chapters here discuss, in turn, types of ritual context (“ritual density”); ritual change; and ritual reification. Under the first rubric, Bell further discusses orthopraxy and orthodoxy (pp.191–7), and the distinctions between traditional–secular and oral–literate cultures.

Ritual change is a related theme (for China, cf. Guo Yuhua, and my own work; see also e.g. the Alevi cem ritual in Turkey and the diaspora).

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. […]

Most theories of ritual have been rooted in ethnographic observations of oral societies, which afford less perception and evidence of historical change. These ritual traditions particularly give the impression—to both the indigenous peoples and foreign observers—that they are a matter of deep structures that do not change. Even though there is evidence that such rites are imperceptibly but homeostatically changing all the time, this constant modification is not usually interpreted as discrete instances of long-term processes known as change but simply as limited and commonsensical arrangements necessary in particular instances. […]

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?

Bell gives examples of social circumstances causing ritual traditions to transmute, of ritual being deliberately refashioned or invented, and the impact on modern ritual of new forms and forums of expressive media from tourism to video. The latter section includes stimulating reflections on Staal’s 1975 project to film a twelve-day Vedic fire ritual in Kerala—here’s a trailer:

Bell also ponders the impact of tourism and the media on ritual in Taiwan and China.

Ritualized activities can be taken as traditional within a very short time; they can also be very flexibly appropriated; they may be practised more or less faithfully despite strong reservations about every aspect of them.

Given the convulsive history of 20th-century China, it may seem natural for one’s encounter with ritual there to highlight ritual and social change, as I have done. But, at least in the field of local Daoism, most studies have shown quite the opposite tendency, portraying ritual as an ideal, timeless repository of ancient wisdom and communal cohesion; under the influence of traditional sinology, both Chinese and Western scholars have subscribed to this notion.

The final chapter discusses ritual reification, exploring

the ways in which scholarly study of certain types of religious and cultural practices has generated the notion of “ritual” and how, in turn, this notion has affected these religious and cultural practices.

Here Bell notes a successive layering of scholarly and popular attitudes, ranging from an early modern “repudiation” of ritual at home while finding it prevalent in so-called primitive societies, to a subsequent “return” to ritual that recognised it as an important social and cross-cultural phenomenon, followed by a tendency to “romanticize” ritual by both practitioners and theorists as a key mechanism for personal and cultural transformation.

* * *

While I heartily applaud the task of seeking to elicit meaning, Bell herself offers many salient caveats. She presents an extensive menu, from which we choose according to our predispositions.

As with anthropology and ethnomusicology (nay, much of modern academia), the study of ritual is beset by exalted theoretical concepts. I deduce that terms which were coined in good faith can become smokescreens; for scholars, safely back in their ivory tower after beating a retreat from the field, local ritual practices may become a virtual playground where they can dress up in theoretical costumes. Somewhere in the ritual studies manual there should be a reminder: “Don’t lose touch entirely with the society on which you impose”.

Bell only touches in passing on fieldwork—which is crucial, depending to a large extent on how the fieldworker chooses (consciously or not) between these various approaches (for a Chinese instance, see here). As she observes,

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.

I think of Nigel Barley’s succinct portrayal of the divisions between academia and fieldworkers.


Li Qing (second left) leads the Pardon ritual, Yanggao 1991—
in what turned out to be a a reinvented version.

It may sound sensible that impressionable young students should have to grapple with these theories before embarking upon fieldwork; but I’m grateful that my head wasn’t filled with such concepts, and that I plunged right into the “spit and sawdust” of fieldwork, learning on the job, and only turning later (albeit sketchily) to theoretical underpinning (see my work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists).

53 GN and WM amused cropped
Relaxing in the scripture hall between rituals,
Daoists Golden Noble and Wu Mei are amused by my notebook.

My own wariness of grandiose theory may be neither here nor there, but it’s further evidence of Bell’s point that we all approach the topic by way of our personal histories. Her critical work stands as an exemplary resource for us to negotiate the complexities of ritual studies.