Re: Rites of Passage

Len Piotrowski (
Wed, 14 Aug 1996 19:23:21 GMT

In article <> Shannon Adams <> writes:


>Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax wrote:
>> These remarks are addressed mostly to Shannon.
>> wrote:
>> >
>> > In article <>, Shannon Adams writes:
>> >
>> > >I am just finishing a paper dealing with a rite of passage among
>> > >the people I studied. But I have a few curiosity questions for all you
>> > >theorists and ethnographers.
>> > >
>> > >What purpose do rites of passage serve beyond the transfer of status?

The questions, of course, begs a functionalist response, which I am sure you
are aware, is rather a dry well for social-psychological purposes. Such
"needs" analysis to find reasons to account for socio-cultural behavior are
invitations into a fruitless search for absolute mechanism.

>From a social-psychological perspective, I would suggest a look at "rites of
passage" marking the beginning and ending of a state of liminality as a
general hermeneutical process of encounter, interpretation, and understanding.
A re-definition of person, place, and position must, as all meaningful human
actions, take place in emergent, social contexts. Without those conditions of
audition, one's own meaning for self in relationship to the rest of society is
"undefined." Either you seek definition for the situation, in what ever manner
is available to you, or experience the obverse state of anomie.

>> What do you mean by transfer of status? Funerals are a rite of passage
>> which tend to recognize a change in status rather than transfer status.
>> (One exception is ritual murder which causes the change in status.) :)

>Actually funerals are rites of passage, albeit they are decidedly more
>identifiable as such among people who believe in an afterlife (and especially
>peoples who revere ancestors). "Change" "Transfer" I don't see the
>difference (even if the transfer is from socially alive to socially dead).

I believe this is exactly what was meant by the original definition and it's
association with the concept of liminality. The power of this concept lies in
it's generalization to various human actions and situations.

>> > >Is there some social-psychological motivation? What are the implications
>> > > >for secular (not ritual) peoples?
>> Here's a good question for you: are you sure that these "secular" people
>> are without rituals? I think we like to believe that we are completely
>> free of superstition and bias, but a little self-examination will reveal
>> that these things still cling to our psyches. (One of my favorites is
>> the person who believes that he/she has completely shed all her/his
>> biases and superstitions. This, in itself, is evidence of the superstition
>> of completely dispassionate science. But I digress.)

>I guess what I was pointing at was persons who cannot identify formal rites
>of passage in their lives, although that statement lends the argument a
>particularly individual psychological tone. But on the other hand I've heard
>rumors (can't think of who I could attribute this to so I'll call it a rumor)
>that some theorists are explaining extreme aggression and meloncholy among
>American adolescents to a lack of formal rites of passage. In effect they
>are existing in a state of liminality (no clearly defined status) for 8 to 12
>years. Geez, I'd be upset and depressed too!! I _think_ someone else (can't
>remember who) was using this explanation for the increase in body piercing
>among American adolescents. Something to the effect of if the society at
>large cannot give them identifable rites of passage they will create their
>own (the piercing).

I equate this with the social interactionist concept of "definition of the
situation." Faced with a changing and liminal situation, with no formal
(ritual or otherwise) social means of re-definition of one's self, place, and
position in society, either a form of collective behavior should result (mob,
milling, riotous like behavior - or on an individual level, a sense of
"cognitive dissonance"), and/or new and spontaneous forms for re-defining the
situation will arise to resolve the liminal state.

>> Maybe the way to approach the question, Shannon, is to ask what kinds of
>> rituals we so-called secular people have? Anyone else out there want to
>> throw in with some examples?

>High School graduation. Initiation into frats. Signing of divorce papers.
>Funerals, just had to say it again ;) I guess another question is do these
>rituals have the same kind of mystical effect (this is coming from Victor
>Turner so don't flame me) and personal and religious affirmation of status
>(Eliade) that seem to be essential to these events.
>Can anyone see my biases yet ;)

Nothing wrong with an interest in the mystical and religious affirmation
effects on self and social meanings. I would tend to view these aspects as
representative cases of a general phenomena of liminality and it's
re-definition. And so, High School graduation, initiation into frats,
signing of divorce papers, funerals (something I have spent some time
looking at from an archaeological context, by the way), mystical and religious
experiences, are all examples of transitions of a person(s) relation and
relationships to others in a social context. Such meaningful relational change
involves one's own meaning of the self as well as how socially significant
others view themselves and those moving through that liminal world. This does
not necessarily imply a human "need" to define the situation or one's self in
relation and relationship. It can be easily grasped as simply the nature of
human conduct and social-psychology, that is, as a discursive, meaningful
social interaction. "Rites of passage" through liminal states, are processes
working out the meaning of these social changes through human social

Hope this provides something worthwhile to think about.