The Study of Ritual Practice: Social and Cultural Anthropology

Table of Contents

Anthropologists study the evolutionary origins of humanity intending to understand various diverse and distinct forms of cultural and social existence globally. By examining the behaviour of people in different communities, these professionals link past and present activities, local and universal practices, and time and space to understand human societies (Diah et al. 2014). Haviland et al. (2011, p. 2) define anthropology as “the study of humankind in all times and places.” According to Prasojo and Ismail (2013), anthropology is beneficial as it establishes tolerance and peaceful lives. Whenever people fail to understand and appreciate one another, the issues of prejudice and war often emerge (Ember, Ember & Peregrine 2011). Thus, people have different cultural and social beliefs and practices; however, when such diversity is managed correctly, they live in harmony and progress. Notably, rituals and rites of passage are some of the essential components of cultural and social anthropology as they shed light on the various behaviours that shape people’s lives (Westman 2011). Different communities develop, follow and maintain many rituals and rites of passage. Although many people associate rituals and ceremonies of passage with religious beliefs, these practices are also observed and embraced in the secular world; therefore, anthropologists should study and understand these practices are either religious or secular-based.

Rituals and Anthropology

In anthropology, the study of human behaviour helps in revealing people’s beliefs. Anthropologists maintain that routines are generally repetitive and stylised, and they are passed down from one generation to another to protect the identity of communities (Scupin & DeCorse 2012). According to Wu (2018), the study of rituals is a primary element in anthropology, and many anthropologists think that these practices are events or occasions associated with deep cultural meanings. For instance, the rite of passage is a ritual that many communities follow as they mark different and essential changes in people’s lives. In this regard, ceremonies, such as weddings, funerals, reaching adulthood or even birth are sacred and intimate in many societies, and people often gather to celebrate these milestones as a gesture of good faith and transition from one stage in life to another. Therefore, rituals will remain a central concept in anthropology as they reveal precious and invaluable information about the culture, beliefs and values of different communities both in the past and in the present.

Anthropological Approaches to Rituals

Rituals are sequences that involve words, gestures and items, which are performed by sacred and important people, and set in specific places. Anthropologists use various approaches when studying rituals. For instance, Wu (2018) argues that some anthropologists view routines as sacred, while others see them as a taboo. The former claim that rituals are religious-based, which means that they engage in godly activities, and the latter allude to human activities that are considered profane and not widely accepted by many people as the norm (Dafni 2007). Indeed, the sacred believers point out that rituals are part of people’s lives, while the taboo proponents state that these practices oppose daily life occurrences. Despite this diversity, anthropologists who view routines as sacred present compelling evidence as they believe that such practices correlate with people’s ways of life and act as a link between humans and other spheres, which are often set in secluded places, such as hills and mountains (Dafni 2007). Therefore, anthropologists have different approaches to rituals, which is why it is essential to examine examples of rituals to understand their cultural and social meaning.

Functions of Rituals

Although rituals have numerous effects on social group behaviours, many anthropologists and psychologists are yet to understand the more profound impacts of these practices. Watson-Jones and Legare (2016) argue that rituals serve both social and cultural functions in promoting shared beliefs. As such, an assessment of two ritual events from different cultures would help in better understanding the roles and importance of these activities among diverse communities. For instance, in India, various traditional rituals serve as codes of conduct that impact the social life of Indian citizens. For example, family rituals, such as Gaye Holud, are observed in the Bengal region. The ceremony is mainly about celebrating Bengali weddings, although it comprises of other events. The celebratory events act as a way of bringing people together, following traditions and marking the rite of passage to marriage. The brides are adorned with colourful henna and other accessories to make them more beautiful and appealing to their grooms. Both sides of the family exchange gifts, dine together and get to know each other better. In Malawi, the Chewa is the largest Bantu group in the country, and these people are commonly known for their secret societies and masks. According to Ross et al. (2000), the community comprises two significant clans, that is, Banda and Phiri. Despite their rich historical and origin background, the funeral rituals of the Chewa are worth examining due to their distinct practices and processes. Widely called Utaya Burial, this funeral ritual is the most practiced and followed ceremony that has three stages. The stages are the separation, transition and re-incorporation phases for the Nyau, and the life stages of humans are death, liminal and the arrival of the dead. Indeed, this community holds in high regard the death of both humans and animals, which shows their importance in the daily livelihoods of the people of Malawi. The rituals serve as the source of both death and renewal for the Chewa people, which is why the burial process is significant in their lives. Therefore, it is evident that the Bengali and Chewa communities have different cultural rituals that have distinct functionality in their lives.

Rites of Passage

Rites of passage are critical events that mark the transition of people’s lives from one stage to the next. Arnold van Gennep was the first person to define and describe the concept. According to Forth (2018, p. 2), “changes in social status typically comprise ritual acts distinguished as ‘rites of separation,’ ‘rites of transition,’ and ‘rites of incorporation.’” In most cases, the primary cycles in life include birth, coming of age, weddings and funerals. Notably, rites of passage are examples of rituals that many communities practice, and they are of several stages. The first stage is separation, which is the official ending of one’s status. The second stage is the transition phase, which is the balancing point between the separation and the next step. Re-incorporation is the third stage, where people are introduced to another status. For instance, many people move from singlehood to marriage, both of which have different behaviours and expectations. Therefore, rites of passage are vital rituals that mark the life cycles of many people to show maturity and growth.

Significance of Rituals

Rites of passage are sacred and significant events among many communities. The Bengali people celebrate the Gaye Holud, which is a religious wedding ceremony between brides and grooms. The event usually occurs about two days before the official Bengali wedding. Families can have either a joint celebration for the bride and groom or celebrate separately. The wedding event is essential to the Bengali people as it represents the rite of passage to marriage, which means that the newlyweds are expected to act maturely and raise children. Similarly, the ceremony brings two families together, where they interact, communicate and know each other better as a family. Another significant rite of passage is the Chewa funeral rituals, commonly called the Utaya burial rite. The event occurs when humans or nyau (animals) die. The Utaya takes place in three stages. The burial rite involves the separation, where nyau is perceived to gather corpses from women. Then, there is a transition phase, where the actual burial takes place. Later, there is the re-incorporation phase, where animals, such as antelopes, return meat to the community. The life stage involves the death, Utaya, and the arrival and reincarnation of the soul in the spirit realm. The Utaya is a common and significant rite of passage for the Malawi people as they believe that the dead never really disappear. To them, people go to the spirit world and join their ancestors, where they watch and protect the living. Therefore, wedding and funeral burial events are significant practices among the Bengali and Chewa people respectively.

Ritual and Beliefs

Although many people think that rituals and beliefs are different concepts, both share numerous similarities. Beliefs represent abstract ideas that often require faith, while rituals are the concrete expression or manifestation of beliefs. Without beliefs, there would be no rituals as people often express their perceived ideas through rituals. Thus, both elements are interconnected and intensely depend on one another. Luca (2018) argues that religious beliefs are transmitted through several channels, such as rituals. Similarly, Hobson et al. (2017) claim that beliefs and rituals offer social connections and many psychologists are studying the correlation between both concepts today. In this regard, different communities have various beliefs and rituals that are important to their lives. For instance, Chinese people have many beliefs and rituals. The longevity practices involve specific rituals, where the people believe that they will gain long lives and even immortality (Coe & Begley 2016). The practice is captured in the community’s “hygiene schools,” which teach people the numerous methods of achieving longevity. In other instances, religious rituals are offered to their gods for favours, such as long life. In the Islamic community, people believe that fasting is a religious necessity where they should not consume food at specific times (Alghafli et al. 2019). Being one of the pillars of their faith, Muslims believe that fasting brings them nearer to their god as an act of worship. Additionally, others believe that the practice helps them to be patient, gain control and break bad habits in their lives. Indeed, they pray to their god until the eating window approaches. Notably, the ritual occurs during the month of Ramadan, which is considered as a sacred time and a catalyst for people to establish and maintain a good relationship with Allah, their god, and other people. Therefore, rituals and beliefs are synonymous, and although different communities have various views and practices, both concepts cannot survive independently.


The study of rituals is a concern for cultural and social anthropology. The practices reveal vital information about communities, which allow anthropologists to understand their origins and beliefs to establish peaceful co-existence in society. When people learn and respect other people’s values, they live in harmony. Therefore, rituals and rites of passage provide crucial information concerning the culture and beliefs of different communities, which are concerns for cultural and social anthropologists.

Reference List

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