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Ritual Performance

The term or concept of “ritual” (and its related concepts “rite”, “ceremony”, “performance” and “ritualization”) has proven to be hard to define (Bell, 1992; Grimes, 2000; Nelson, 2012). It is sufficient to say that most definitions include one or two primary criteria of ritual: formality (repetitive nature) and expressivity (symbolic character). Others (e.g., Turner, 1969) have emphasized that ritual action entails a transformative process. (Religious) rituals can communicate, generate and teach belief, establish/reinforce an identity or sense of belonging, control, generate power, gender, and re-enact social positions and the social order of a group (Nelson, 2012).

Bodies are the sites where ritual action takes place. Yet, while scholars have recognized ritual as embodied action or behavior, and have made implicit reference to the body in their analyses of ritual(s), few studies have engaged in an explicit and elaborate discussion of ritual and embodiment (e.g. Bell, 1992; 2006; Mahmood, 2001; Mossière, 2012). An emphasis on embodiment will place, at the very least, the body at the center of ritual, and may help us better understand what rituals are, how they work, and how they affect individuals and groups, by asking either (or both) of the following questions. Firstly, how do rituals impact the body? Phrased differently, how do rituals shape, determine, and construct the body? Here, the body is the object of social action. Secondly, how does the body impact rituals? In other words, how do rituals emerge from a specific bodily practice, and how do bodies offer the “language” of ritual, and to what extent is the body a unique medium to perform rituals? Here, the body is the subject of social action (Bell, 2006). Moreover, in calling attention to the body in analyzing ritual, one should acknowledge the distinction between the material/natural body and the discursive/symbolic body (Pinn, 2010). The former entails the body as a physical reality, while the latter approach argues that the body is defined, built and shaped by social structures, thereby calling attention to notions of power, control and domination.

A brief case study will highlight in what ways attention to embodiment will influence the analysis of ritual. Readers should note, however, that scholars who take embodiment in ritual studies seriously will engage in a much more complex analysis of the mutual and intertwining constructions of bodies, performances, social structures, society and power. Take the salat, Islamic ritual worship, which consists of five daily prayers. Beforehand, Muslims must perform an ablution ritual, during which they wash parts of their body with water. The prayers are conducted facing the Kaaba in Mecca, and accompanied by a series of prescribed bodily positions, such as kneeling, standing, and prostrating. The salat, in sum, (1) consists of a range of bodily practices, performed by an active, material body that is always already informed and shaped by discourse, and (2) targets both the material and the discursive body.

Concerning the former, one may ask to what extent the body’s physique influences and can influence the performance of the ritual, especially if we take into account that pregnant, very sick, menstruating and disabled bodies are excused from performing the ritual. Gender also plays a role here, as prayers are prescribed differently for men and women, thereby calling attention to how the “stuff” of the body influences how the ritual should be performed. Moreover, bodily gestures and positions communicate and convey a range of ideas whose meanings rely on larger ritual and social systems: in the salat, kneeling, for instance, has a specific meaning in/through this ritual, which it would not have if the exact same bodily position was performed outside of the ritual. Concerning the latter, an emphasis on the body calls attention to how ritual shapes and informs bodies in both a material and discursive way. It should be clear that the prayer service has a significant impact on the material body in its emphasis on cleanliness and positions. Moreover, the salat constructs and disciplines Muslim bodies. It re-established their relationship with the divine, emphasizes that they are part of the umma, and in these ways re-enacts social position and order. The embodied ritual, in a way, (re-)creates a community (see also Turner, 1969). In doing so, the salat also creates a distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims. Yet, as shown by Saba Mahmood (2001), the salat does not only constrain or construct bodies, but, in performing ritual, the body can also be the site where self and identity are realized and reinforced.

Works cited

Bell, Catherine M., “Embodiment”, in: Jens Kreinath, Jan A.M. Snoek and Michael Stausberg (eds.), Theorizing Rituals, Vol. I: Issues, Topics, Approaches, Concepts, Leiden: Brill (2006), 533-43.

In this brief synthesis of texts on ritual and embodiment, Bell reviews major studies on the “body” and embodiment in anthropology, sociology, gender studies, and religious studies, before assessing the possible benefits of attention to embodiment in ritual studies. She discerns two approaches – how bodies shape rituals / how rituals shape bodies – and sees benefit in a possible third, social constructionist approach, informed by, for instance, Pierre Bourdieu, which combines insights from both approaches. Towards the end the text, Bell provides a few brief “case-studies” that highlight the role of the body in some ritual practices.

Bell, Catherine M., Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1992).

Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice essentially a critical analysis of the theoretical discourse on ritual in the history of religions, feminist studies, anthropology, and other fields, is a landmark in Ritual Studies. Rather than offering a new theory on ritual, Bell attempts to “rethink” ritual, thereby reflecting on the category of ritual, offering some suggestions for new analytical directions, and advocating for an emphasis on a study of the process of “ritualization” rather than on ritual. For our purposes, Bell’s seminal text is useful for her emphasis on embodiment and the body in processes of ritualization. Ritualization, Bell argues, ultimately produces the “ritualized body”. Following Michel Foucault, Bell perceives the body as “the place where the minute and local social practices are linked up with the large scale organization of power (202).” Ritualization can empower or disempower social agents; in fact, Bell argues that ritualization is first and foremost a strategy for constructing certain kinds of power relationships. It follows, then, that ritualization is the “central way that power operates; it constitutes a political technology of the body (202).”

Grimes, Ronald L., “Ritual”, in: Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon (eds.), Guide to the Study of Religion, London: T&T Clark (2000), 259-71.

Mahmood, Saba, “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of Salat”, American Ethnologist 28:4 (2001), 827-53.

In ritual studies, the particular and definitive characteristic of ritual action as prescribed, formal and rule-governed behavior is often juxtaposed with spontaneous and informal activity. In this article, Mahmood uses her analysis of the performance of the salat among a women’s piety movement in Egypt to complicate this distinction. Calling specific attention to embodiment, Mahmood argues that different and specific organizations of “self” and “authority” convey, for each person, different relationships between informal and prescribed (or ritual) social behavior.

Mossière, Géraldine, “Experience, Subjectivity and Performance: An anthropological approach to Pentecostal rituals based on the body”, in: John P. Hoffmann (ed.), Understanding Religious Ritual: Theoretical Approaches and Innovations, London & New York: Routledge (2012), 54-72.

Mossière’s text offers us an example of an analysis of ritual that centers on the body. Bodies, Mossière asserts, are “the vehicle where ritual performances proceed (55).” Using Pentecostal ritual performance as a case study, Mossière specifically analyzes the transformative effects of ritual on both individual subjectivity and community construction. Following an understanding of the body as discourse, she argues that bodies can represent both the self and society; ritual performances have the ability to mobilize these notions, and as such enhance group solidarity and generate new subjectivities, new constructions of the self.

Nelson, Timothy J., “Transformations: the Social Construction of Religious Ritual”, in: John P. Hoffmann (ed.), Understanding Religious Ritual: Theoretical Approaches and Innovations, London & New York: Routledge (2012), 9-30.

Pinn, Anthony B. Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

Pinn’s work is this text consequential for scholarship on embodiment and religion because he brings together two strands of thought on bodies/embodiment that he then applies explicitly to analyses on religion in general and black religion in particular. Pinn introduces the body to readers by highlighting interdisciplinary approaches to studying the body—i.e., philosophical and social scientific approaches—and he elucidates how analysts using these approaches have interpreted the body as both a socially-constructed and material reality. Most importantly, he argues that both conceptions of the body are needed. Theologians have focused on the metaphorical body (the socially constructed body); but by adding focus on the latter—the physical, biochemical reality of bodies—more expansive theological analyses can emerge. In short, fuller black theological frameworks will emerge that privilege the lived experiences of persons in concrete social and historical circumstances rather than traditional and outdated sources, such as the spirituals and the blues. This work demonstrates how analysts can connect notions of religion/the religious with the embodied experiences and cultural productions of persons in variegated spaces/locations and times.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine, 1969.

Based on his structural analysis of symbolism in the ritual of the Ndembu tribe in Zambia (chapters one and two; see also Turner’s earlier work), Victor Turner argues in The Ritual Process that there are two opposing ways in which a society is constructed, or two different modalities of social life. The first is a society as a structured, differentiated and hierarchical system, and the second is “communitas”, which refers to an unstructured community or communion of equal individuals. For Turner, there must always be a balance between structure and communitas; societies, he argues, develop in a cyclical way in which structure is temporality suspended in the favor of rituals, which serve to kindle the sense of communitas. When human beings enter into a ritual, they become “liminal entities” according to Turner: they temporality lose their normal identities – which are defined by existing social structures – and become equal entities without status, all submissive to the ritual instructors.