- Barry StephensonBarry StephensonDepartment of Religious Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland
In contemporary scholarship, the term ritual serves double duty. On one hand, ritual is a theoretical concept; on the other, ritual is a catchall term for a diverse set of cultural forms or practices, such as worship, baptism, parades, coronations, and festivals. These two uses of the term ritual are typically intertwined. As a distinct concept and discourse, “ritual” emerges in early modern Europe during the Reformation era, accompanying the emergence of secular modernity, taking its place alongside related concepts such as religion, art, ceremony, culture, and the secular. In the post-Enlightenment period, the intellectual and cultural influences of Protestantism, Rationalism, and Positivism created a general climate of suspicion about ritual’s merits: ritual was often deemed a backward, premodern cultural form, just as religion was considered a stepping-stone on the path from a magical and animistic worldview to modern science. At the same time, however, there emerged within European culture a longing for a perceived loss of transcendence and sociality, which included the urge to recover or reinvent lost or suppressed rites and cultural performances. Running through European thought, culture, and scholarship is a tension between ritual’s conserving and transformative potential. In the 19th century, in the new disciplines of anthropology and sociology, and in the detailed, comparative study of textual traditions, ritual was given considerable attention, although research was largely focused on the practices of non-Western and historical cultures; this research, coinciding with the heights of European colonialism, was often saddled with prejudicial and stereotypical views of ritual. The turn, however, to studying ritual in the field (rather than only in texts) laid the foundation for the emergence, in the 1970s, of ritual and performance studies as an interdisciplinary area of research, shaped in part by feminist, postcolonial, and critical theories. An important feature of this “performative turn” was to explore the connections between ritual and art, especially performative arts such as music and drama. Until the mid-20th century, ritual, under the influence of structural functionalism, was usually theorized as a stabilizing, normative social practice. In the 1970s, there begins an effort, stimulated by the thought of Victor Turner, to develop a more dialectical understanding of ritual, emphasizing both ritual’s aesthetic, expressive qualities; its relationship to other performative genres such as music, theater, and sports; and its dynamic role in processes of cultural change and transformation.
- Religion and Art
- Rituals, Practices, and Symbolism