"Men wearing masks": Issues of description in the analysis of ritual

Sociological Theory 13 (3):301-327 (1995)
Abstract
Since Durkheim ([1912] 1965), the concept of ritual has held a privileged position in studies of social life because investigators recurrently have treated it as a source of insight into core issues of human sociality, such as the maintenance of social order. Consequently, studies of ritual have typically focused on rituals' function(s), and, specifically, whether ritual begets social integration or fragmentation. In this frame, students of ritual have tended to ignore other, equally fundamental issues, including (1) how actions, or courses of action, constitute a ritual, and (2) whether ritual is best understood as an aspect of all social action or a specific type of it. Drawing on Durkheim's overlooked contemporary, Van Gennep ([1908] 1960), I argue that analyses of ritual must describe how participants enact an occasion as ritual through distinctive activities and sequences of these. Analysts of ritual must attempt to ground the relevance of their descriptions in the participants' demonstrable orientations, an undertaking with more general implications for the study of social action
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