A random response to a Facebook Question…
What are my “final” conclusions about rituals?
Although I reserve the right to change my mind, at the moment I would say that ritual is a unique form of communication, a type of language. Not simply words, written or spoken. Nor is it simply the gestures and non-verbal forms of body language. Ritual includes action, words, and emotion. Ritual is a form of communication between individuals, communities, societies, and the sacred…it is a language all its own.
Just like language, ritual can be used to build up or tear down. It can be used to create change or stop it in its tracks. It can bring order to chaos, help people see something they haven’t seen before, be a magnifying glass into the conflict between culture and society, or welcome an individual into a new community or way of being.
The only way to understand any specific ritual is by being part of the community or by learning the “language” the ritual is speaking. You can try to learn a ritual through translation but that will never be quite right. Because ritual is a complex mix of communication that includes performance, and play, seriousness and triviality, one cannot simply watch and see a ritual to understand. You must be a part of it to understand the language.
It can be performance, play, art, or seriousness, or all of these wrapped up into one. Ritual is repetition, rules, and structure, in much the same way that grammar is related to the spoken or written word. You can no more change the direction of polka dancers than change to order of words in a sentence. And the people know the rules. The “locals” know the rules of a Javanese funeral, a Bruce Springsteen concert, or a 4th of July fireworks show. If you break the rules of a ritual, it is kind of like putting words in the wrong order in a sentence; it sets you apart as an outsider, not a native of the language.
Ritual is language. It is complex; it is a way to communicate who we are and a way to set ourselves apart from others. It is language and just like language, it is a powerful force in creating and recreating communities.
….one final point…Durkheim rocks!! :-)