Rite of passage (Anthropology)

Rites of passage are rituals which mark the passing of one stage of life and entry into another, e.g. birth, puberty, marriage, initiation to the priesthood, or death. They are also known in English by the French equivalent, rites depassage, and by the term ‘life-crisis rituals’. The concept was first brought to attention by the Belgian scholar Arnold van Gennep and became an important part of the analytical framework of many in British anthropology of different theoretical persuasions, including Audrey Richards, Max Gluckman, Edmund Leach, Mary Douglas, and especially Victor Turner.

Van Gennep (1960 [1909]: 1-13) distinguished three kinds of rites of passage: rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of incorporation or aggregation. He noted that rites of separation often take prominence in funeral ceremonies, that transition rites may be important in pregnancy, betrothal or initiation, and that rites of incorporation are often highly developed in marriage ceremonies. However, it is more usual to think of these three as elements in a single rite which includes each form – separation, transition, incorporation – as a separate phase.

A key concept here is that of ‘liminality’ (from Latin limen, ‘threshold’). Van Gennep saw transition rites as ‘liminal’, while rites of separation are ‘preliminal’, and rites of incorporation are ‘postliminal’. The liminal phase is when things are not as they are in the ordinary world: roles may be reversed (men acting as women, the elderly as if they were young, etc.). The best examples to illustrate van Gennep’s classification are initiation ceremonies. Commonly these involve an individual leaving his or her group and even experiencing a symbolic ‘death’ (the separation), then proceeding through a phase in which he or she is secluded, perhaps taking on roles otherwise inappropriate for the individual’s age or gender (the transitional or liminal phase), and finally rejoining the group but with a new, adult status (the incorporation). Initiation rituals the world over take this form, and indeed van Gennep himself compared examples from Africa, Australia, North America, Europe, and Asia.

Turner’s contribution was to emphasize the implications of these rites for our conceptions of society itself. Like many who have found the concept ‘rites of passage’ useful, he conducted fieldwork in Central Africa, where at puberty both men and women undergo extensive ritual activities in order to mark initiation into adulthood. Turner remarked (e.g. 1969) that these rites of passage negate normal rules and the social hierarchy of society, and emphasize instead the bonds between people which enable society to exist. He called the latter communitas -the very negation of social structure which the liminal phase of initiation (and other) rituals draws on for its symbolic power.

As the title of one of Turner’s best-known books indicates, he used van Gennep’s schema as a way of emphasizing the processual nature of ritual. This also enabled him to expand his concern with the liminal moment from life-crisis rituals to other moments of social transition, such as pilgrimages. Leach (1961) had already emphasized the importance of symbolic reversals in marking the passage of time. The classic example in European history was the moment of carnival, when the lower orders were able to enjoy a brief, but bounded, moment of licence -communitas, or anti-structure, in Turner’s terms -and the poor could mock and laugh at the rich. While functionalists like Gluckman had stressed the conservative results of such rites of reversal, recent inter-disciplinary research in history, anthropology and literary studies, influenced by Bakhtin’s work on the carnivalesque, has reopened the question of possible links between symbolic reversals and political resistance (Bakhtin 1984; Ladurie 1979).

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