RITES OF PASSAGE (Social Science)

A rite of passage is a series of rituals that conveys an individual from one social state or status to another—for example, from adolescence to adulthood, from single to married, from student to graduate, from apprentice to a full member of a profession, from life to death—thereby transforming both society’s definition of the individual and the individual’s self-perception. Such rituals of social transition mark culturally recognized stages of life and assist the individual and social group in adjusting to an individual’s new status and its implications for behavior and social relations. Transition rituals—rites of passage— reduce the ambiguity associated with change, protecting individual psyches during the vulnerable period by reducing uncertainty and stress. Transition rituals are often directed toward the relationships between social conditions and physiological conditions (e.g., birth, puberty, marriage, pregnancy, death), demarcating certain points of the life cycle as especially significant. Ritual association of symbols and physiological processes provides a means of shaping and controlling human emotions and biological drives and then explaining them within wider cosmo-logical frameworks.

Key social scientists who have studied rites of passage include Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957), who was the first to name and analyze them in 1908 in Rites de Passage; Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), one of the first anthropologists to conduct on-site ethnography, who studied the functions of ritual on the Trobriand Islands off the coast of Australia; Victor Turner (1920-1983), who analyzed the roles of ritual and symbol among the Ndembu of Africa (1967, 1969); Mary Douglas (19212007), whose work on symbols provided a profound understanding of their uses and effectiveness in ritual (1966, 1973); Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), whose The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) offers deep analysis of ritual’s roles in cultural preservation and revitalization; the biogenetic structuralists Charles Laughlin, John McManus, and Eugene d’Aquili (1979), who offer a neurologically based understanding of the effects of ritual and rites of passage; and Ronald Grimes, who explores first-person experiences of birth, initiation, marriage, and death (2000).


Robbie Davis-Floyd defines ritual as "a patterned, repetitive, and symbolic enactment of a cultural belief or value" (2004, p. 8). Rituals usually work to enhance social cohesion, as their primary purpose in most cases is to align the belief system of the individual with that of the group. Ritual’s role in rites of passage is fourfold:

1. to give humans a sense of control over natural processes that may be beyond their control, by making it appear that natural transformations (e.g., birth, puberty, death) are actually effected by society and serve society’s ends (Malinowski 1954);

2. to "fence in" the dangers perceived cross-culturally to be present in transitional periods (when individuals are in-between social categories and therefore call the conceptual reality of those categories into question), while at the same time allowing controlled access to their energizing and revitalizing power (Douglas 1966);

3. to convey, through the emotions and the body, a series of repetitious and unforgettable messages to the initiate concerning the core values of the society into which he or she is being initiated through the carefully structured manipulation of appropriately representative symbols, and thereby to integrate those values, as well as the basic premises of the belief system on which they are based, into the inmost being of the initiate (Turner 1967, 1969; d’Aquili, Laughlin, and McManus 1979); and

4. to renew and revitalize these values for those conducting, as well as for those participating in or merely watching, the rituals through which these transformations are effected, so that both the perpetuation and the vitality of the belief and value system of the society in question can be assured (Turner 1967, 1969; Geertz 1973).

Rites of passage generally consist of three principal stages, outlined by van Gennep as: (1) separation of the individuals involved from their preceding social state; (2) a period of transition in which they are neither one thing nor the other; (3) a reintegration phase in which through various rites of incorporation they are absorbed into their new social state (van Gennep [1908] 1966). Van Gennep states that these three stages may be of varying degrees of importance, with rites of separation generally emphasized at funerals, and rites of incorporation at weddings. Yet, the most salient feature of all rites of passage is their transitional nature, the fact that they always involve what Victor Turner (1967, 1979) has called liminality, the stage of being betwixt and between, neither here nor there—no longer part of the old and not yet part of the new. In the liminal phase of initiatory rites of passage, "the ritual subject passes through a realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state" (Turner 1979, p. 237). Of this liminal phase, Turner writes:

The passivity of neophytes to their instructors, their malleability, which is increased by submission to ordeal, their reduction to a uniform condition, are signs of the process whereby they are ground down to be fashioned anew and endowed with additional powers to cope with their new station in life____ It is the ritual and the esoteric teaching which grows girls and makes men____

The arcane knowledge, or "gnosis" obtained in the liminal period is felt to change the inmost nature of the neophyte, impressing him, as a seal impresses wax, with the characteristics of his new state. It is not a mere acquisition of knowledge, but a change in being. (1979, pp. 238-239)

One of the chief characteristics of this liminal period of any rite of passage is the gradual psychological "opening" of the initiates to profound interior change. In many initiation rites involving major transitions into new social roles, this openness is achieved through rituals designed to break down the initiates’ belief system—the internal mental structure of concepts and categories through which they perceive and interpret the world and their relationship to it. Ritual techniques that facilitate this process include hazing—the imposition of physical and mental hardships (familiar to participants in fraternity initiation rites), and strange-making—making the commonplace strange by juxtaposing it with the unfamiliar. In The Reversible World (1978) Barbara Babcock describes a third such device, symbolic inversion, which works by metaphorically turning specific elements of this belief system upside-down or inside-out, so that the high is brought low, the low is raised high, and the world in general is thrown into confusion. The end result of this inversion, however, is usually that core cultural elements— values, practices, hierarchies—are in the end firmly returned to their positions of centrality, reverence, and weight. Yet, rites of passage can be used to completely overturn these core cultural elements, creating new societies and new religions.

For example, in studying the Moonies (followers of the Korean evangelist Reverend Sun Myung Moon), the sociologist Marc Galanter (1989) found that many of those who attended one of the five-day workshops ostensibly offered to explain the religion to interested newcomers ended up converting—even if their original reason for going was to learn enough about the religion to talk a loved one into getting out. How could this happen? Participants sat through many hours of lecture, during which they were bombarded with an overload of confusing information, resulting in a narrowing of their cognitive abilities. Interspersed between lectures were periods of playful fun—volleyball, dancing—during which the newcomers were made to feel wholly important, wholly wanted, wholly loved. Allusions were made to Moon in connection with the Second Coming of Christ, and it was suggested that if newcomers were truly blessed, they might see visions of Moon himself during their regularly scheduled meditation periods. Not surprisingly, many did. Neuropsychologist John McManus explains:

As this process is continued over time, the cognitive reality model begins to disintegrate. Learned versions of reality and previously instrumental responses repeatedly fail the initiate. Confusion and disorganization ensue____ at this point the individual should be searching for a way to structure or make sense out of reality, and in terms of the initiation, his search constitutes the launching point for the transformation of identity. (1979, p. 239)

The breakdown of their belief systems leaves initiates profoundly open to new learning and to the construction of new categories. Any symbolic messages conveyed to an initiate during this opening process can thus be imprinted on his or her psyche as deeply "as a seal impresses wax" (Turner 1979, p. 239).


Military initiation rites constitute a classic example of hazing, strange-making, and symbolic inversion. In the rite of passage of Marine basic training, the initiate’s normal patterns of action and thought are turned topsy-turvy. He is made strange to himself: His head is shaved, so that he does not even recognize himself in the mirror. He must give up his clothes, those expressions of individual identity and personality, and put on a uniform indistinguishable from that of other initiates. Constant and apparently meaningless hazing (e.g., orders to dig ditches and then fill them up) break down his cognitive structure. Then through repetitive and highly symbolic rituals (such as sleeping with his rifle), his physical habits and patterns of thought are literally reorganized into alignment with the basic values, beliefs, and practices of the Marines.

Cross-culturally, the most prominent types of rites of passage are those dealing with life crises. They accompany what Lloyd Warner has called the movement of a man [sic] through his lifetime, from a fixed placental placement within his mother’s womb to his death and ultimate fixed point of his tombstone … punctuated by a number of critical moments of transition which all societies ritualize and publicly mark with suitable observances to impress the significance of the individual and the group on living members of the community. These are the important times of birth, puberty, marriage and death. (1959, p. 303)

The sequence of these life-crisis events that Warner uses refers to the baby’s birth and not to the woman’s giving birth, nor to her transition into motherhood. Thus, this sequence reveals a strong male bias that for many years influenced a general neglect within anthropological research and theory regarding the significance of women’s rites across cultures. Arranged from a non-gender-biased perspective, the sequence would have to read: birth, puberty and coming of age, marriage, childbearing, menopause, death. (By now, female life transitions have been studied intensively by female anthropologists.) Additionally, for some cultures, we would have to add first haircuts, adolescent circumcision, debutante balls or quinceaneras, ritual scarring or tattooing, and other such to this list.

For example, in Birth as an American Rite of Passage (2004), Davis-Floyd analyzed obstetric procedures as rituals that convey the core values of the U.S. technocracy— a society organized around an ideology of technological progress—to birthing women. These core values center around science, technology, and institutions. The IV is the symbolic umbilical cord to the hospital, communicating to the laboring woman the powerful message that she is now dependent on the institution for her life. Likewise, the electronic fetal monitor (to which nowadays nearly all laboring women in developed countries are attached by means of two giant belts around their stomachs) serves as a powerful symbol of the cultural supremacy of science and technology—it makes the laboring woman dependent on a machine to help her produce her baby. The ability of symbols to imprint their messages onto an individual’s psyche is clearly expressed in the words of an interviewee, who said, "As soon as I got hooked up to the monitor, all everyone did was stare at it. Pretty soon I got the feeling that it was having the baby, not me" (Davis-Floyd 2004, p. 107). As this example shows, as an individual experiences the messages conveyed by a powerful symbol, her cognitive system can be partially or completely realigned around those messages. Whether the individual is giving birth, becoming an adult in the eyes of her society, undergoing a religious indoctrination, or being initiated into the army or a secret society, the ritual processes that constitute rites of passage are very much the same.

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