Consommations et Societes
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  • Romans : les Femmes chinoises ont-elles besoins des hommes ?

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    LE CONSOMMATEUR MALIN – Tome 2 Le consommateur stratège

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  • Cynthia Fleury, Dominique Desjeux et Elie Cohen

    Soirée-débat "Truly different" by Pragmaty

    avec de gauche à droite Cynthia Fleury, Dominique Desjeux et Elie Cohen

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1998, D. Desjeux, Rituals as a means of Moving into action, field study in France about moving

Rituals as a means of Moving into action

Dominique Desjeux, Anthropologist, Professor at the Sorbonne


Objects, as analyzers and as means of action, in themselves do not suffice in explaining how the social actors move into action.  Doing so may mean emerging from a routine in order to make the transition to a voluntary practice in household action, deciding to leave the house to go to the place where food-shopping is done — supermarket or local shop — or deciding to move.  Moving into action in a way creates social “disorder.”  This is why this transition cannot function without codes, without institutions, without rituals that « authorize » this disorder, that indicates its beginning and that punctuate its end. 

What may vary is the social weight of these codes or these rituals, which range from the micro-rituals of daily life to the big social rituals of passages, from birth to death.  Rituals also vary according to their historic links with seasons and with old “pagan” rituals, as Philippe Besnard (1989) demonstrates in Mœurs et humeurs des Français au fil des saisons (The morals and moods of the French through the seasons).  According to the author, rituals punctuate eight critical moments of the year.  Their forms are renewed over the centuries: the solstices of winter (Christmas) and of summer (the feast of music), the equinoxes of spring (Easter, spring cleaning) and of fall (somewhat forsaken today, except for the beginning of the school year or the sessions of parliament), and the beginnings of the month of  February (chandeleurs and carnivals), of May (May Day and the exchange of lilies-of-the-valley), of August (massive vacation departures) and of November (All Saints’ Day and, since the mid-1990s in France, Hallowe’en1, an old Celtic feast reinstated via the United States; Besnard, 1989, p. 187ff.).  The importance of rituals varies from one historic period to another, such as the feast-day of Saint-Catherine, which had nearly disappeared from the Parisian clothing milieu but revived since the 1980s (Monjaret, 1997a).  And finally, they vary with the objects that are mobilized, such as gifts of gold jewelry, utilitarian objects, or money for the big occasions that punctuate the life cycle: birth — possibly associated with the baptism, first communion and solemn communion, the 18th birthday, the moment of forming a couple — whether accompanied by marriage or not, retirement, for some, the 25th wedding anniversary, and then death (Desjeux et al., 1989). 

In the same way that dire, c’est faire”  (saying is doing) or that writing conditions the move to action in our societies (Desjeux et al., 1995), rituals are also the social conditions required for moving into action, for the workings of social interaction, and more generally for all big or small decisions that make up the weave of daily life at home or at work.  Thus, in a study that we conducted on the place and the uses of paper in the household universe and in small companies with less than ten people (1995), we noted that paper — classified in general as « paperwork » and therefore considered by the actors as something that inhibited action — was actually one of the social requirements for action.  In the professional universe — when there is not a contract — or in the in universe of love — when there is not, for example, written proof that a relation has been ended, belief and trust are not enough to set people into action.  Without a written element, there will generally not be any delivery of merchandise or the initiation of strategies for either a hostile or an break-up.  Even the practices of evaluation within a ministry (Desjeux et al.,1997) can be similarly analyzed both as ways of assessing the efficiency of an action and as rituals that encourage change.  The symbolic dimension is embedded within the core of action in society. Its symbolic logic is linked to social rationality, even though it very often appears “irrational” in terms of  economic and technical rationality.  Rituals, and the meaning or the symbolism that are associated with them, are requirements for action.

However, action, in sociology, is more often postulated than observed.  Indeed, social interaction, in the case of conflict or agreement, at the micro-social scale, just like social movements at a more macro-social scale, make up only one part of the descriptive elements that compose an “action” in society.  Whether the decision applies to the problem of purchasing, using, or the consuming goods and services, whether it applies to the event that triggers a move or to the processes of innovation and change in organization, the researcher must deal with and observe the problem of moving into action. 

There again a comprehensive approach appears impossible, given the complexity of human phenomena that would need to be observed.  As Jean-Pierre Changeux writes in L’Homme neuronal (Neuronal man) (1983, pp. 154-155), in his chapter on action, “If one takes into account the fact that there are approximately 15 million neurons per cm2 of cortex surface, and that one figurine may occupy several cm2 in a human, the repertory of singularities (chapter II) becomes gigantic.”  He shows, in opposition to the “reduction” of behaviorism, that action (escape, thirst, orgasm, speech, or acts) is not explained solely by the outside stimuli but rather by “the internal mobilization of a topologically defined set of nerve cells,” which is linked to chemical reactions, which constitutes what he calls “neuronal man.”  The example illustrates the relevance of scales of observation, which help avoid becoming too comprehensive and generalizing outside the scale of observation — here, the “neuron” scale.  No researcher can simultaneously observe ties of causality between the neuron, individual choices, decision-making processes within organizations, and the habitus of social belonging.


Moving — viewed as a process of change, as decision-making, and as motion from one place to another — is a social phenomenon that is particularly interesting when analyzing the place of rituals in one moment of mobility.  As David Lepoutre (1997, p.97) shows in his research on codes, rituals, and language in a Parisian suburb, moving is an analyzer of the disorder that it provokes in the workings of neighborhood sociability inside a housing development: “But in the beginning, I wasn’t happy to leave the Quatre-Mille.  All my friends were there.  I wasn’t at all happy, I was fed up, I grumbled.  I mean, you’re happy to leave, but when you live there!  Then, there’s nobody.  That became relou (a real drag).”  Moving, which is a process of social and emotional unbalance and a moment of uncertain transition, is thus taken here as a means of understanding the place of ritual in modern societies and more particularly during an ordinary decision-making process, choosing to move.  One of interests of ritual is that it crystallizes, visibly and simultaneously, a practice, a utility, a meaning, and a social imaginary: four elements that condition all social action. 


Code, meaning, and symbolic efficiency of rituals


Ritual has numerous other meanings that are not all linked to the change.  It can apply to perpetuating a memory as well as to managing others.  Similarly, not all action is a matter of ritual.  The question of the ritual is therefore complex.  Indeed, rites or rituals, according to Jean Maisonneuve’s (1988, p. 3) clear, descriptive summary, can be religious (such as mass or the Sabbath); secular (such as protocol or the oath of jurors); they can be collective (such as national or family holidays) or private (such as silent prayer or certain bodily rituals); others merely concern our daily life (such as saluting or politeness). 

The debate about rituals is particularly suitable to the question of scales of observation because rituals can be examined at all scales, including the micro-biological scale — that of neurobiology and animal ethology; the micro-individual scale — that of psychoanalysis or psychology, involving the obsessive mechanisms of individuals and their management of anxiety, which we will not discuss here; the micro-social scale — that of psycho-sociology, interactional micro-sociologies, and ethnology; and finally, the macro-social scale — that of sociology, and especially for rituals, the sociology of religions. 

One interest of an approach in terms of scale of observation, not intentional at the outset, is that it is possible to counter the socio-biological theories when they claim to be a causal system that fully explains human behavior in society whereas their observations are limited to the biological scale of the human body, and their proofs are limited to interrelationships presented as causalities (Herstein & Murray, 1996; Wilson, 1980)2.  Bruno Péquignot (1990, p. 84) shows from an epistemological point of view that it seems impossible since Kant “to create a continuity analysis from the life sciences to social sciences,” in spite of temptations to try to do so.  André Green, in La causalité psychique (Mental causality) (1995), has pointed out the semantic shifts used in biology and neurology that permit the assimilation of the cell to the brain and the brain to intelligence, and even to the capacity to symbolize, not to mention social interactions or social belonging, which are completely outside the field of observation of biology and neuro-sciences.  Generally, no discipline — be it sociological or psychological, economic or historic, or even biological — can claim to explain another, since each discipline is in fact positioned on a scale of observation that such that it cannot observe what the other one observes.

Nevertheless, the difference of scale does not prevent observers from making connections between ethology and social sciences concerning the form of rituals or of struggles for territory, without, however, permitting them to seek ties of causality that would be unobservable.  It is what researchers do implicitly, in the case of Gustave-Nicolas Fischer in his pioneering work on the Psychologie des espaces de travail (Psychology of work spaces) (1989) or David Lepoutre (1997) when he treats the agonistic behavior and practices of teenagers of the suburbs as a ludic treatment of violence.  Violence is not treated as “social deviance” or as the expression of an anomical  situation but, on the contrary, as the expression of a group, that of teenagers, that has its own social logic.  The author applies a strictly comprehensive method that neither justifies nor stigmatizes violence.  He shows with simplicity how difficult to tolerate the “violence” of teenagers may sometimes be for an adult who represents “school domination.”  In this sense, he “disillusions” the tendency to stigmatize the suburbs, that is, the pessimistic belief that “everything is going wrong” in suburbs, while using the descriptive models that can be found in ethology.

As seen through scales of observation, rituals are organized along three axes.  The first axis differentiates approaches that treat the ritual as mechanical codification linked to genetic heritage —bio-ethological approaches (Lorenz, 1969; Goldberg, 1992) — from those that approach rituals as social mechanisms that make sense and are endowed with a symbolic dimension, which is the approach of social sciences.

The second axis is organized within social sciences, in connection with the meaning and the weight to be attributed to the symbolic, among the different interactional approaches3 — for which the symbolic is near of the notion of meaning and of everyday micro-rituals, and it is not automatically linked to a “strong” institutionalization — and anthropology or the sociology of religions, for which the symbolic is “weightier,” to take the expression of Gérard Althabe quoted by Marc Augé (1994, Terrain n°8, April, 1987).  Indeed, for anthropology, rituals hark back to the myths that founded a society (Smith, 1991)4.  Similarly, in sociology and in anthropology of religions, there a strong tie between ritual, religion, and magic (Jeridi, 1996), or between ritual and symbolic efficiency, as discussed by François Isambert (1979).

The question of estimating of the weight of the symbolic is a recurrent question.  We came up against it during an international comparative study that we conducted on an ordinary illness, diarrhea among children in four countries: Algeria, China, Egypt, and Thailand (Desjeux et al., 1993b).  We observed that on the level of everyday social relations, everything makes sense.  Every sign is interpreted explicitly or implicitly.  The question is to know whether every meaning has a symbolic realm, that is, if the meaning refers to an imaginary or a social symbolism, and if this symbolic aspect is mobilized in all compartments of social life.  The empiric answer is all the more difficult to provide considering that the terms meaning and symbol are difficult to define simply.  In the case of children’s diarrhea, and in a manner comparable to other illnesses such as cancer or AIDS, it seems that the emotional charge is weak — emotion being taken here as an indicator of symbolic strength — and that society does not mobilize any social search for meaning, unlike what we observed concerning “sorcery” in Congo or the rotation of the dead in Madagascar (Desjeux, 1987, 1984).  The weight of the symbolic depends therefore both on the scale of observation and the division made at one scale or another and also on the moment of the use of an object or the performance of the ritual during a cycle of life or the itinerary of utilization of the object.  Although everything makes sense more or less — and it would still be necessary to take into account the social or individual moments of loss of meaning — not all meaning refers back to a symbolic realm or to a strong social imaginary5.

The third axis involves the differentiation between the sacred and the religious, stemming from the question concerning the assimilation of the sacred to the religious since Émile Durkheim’s work.  This assimilation was first contested by François Isambert (1979), then, more recently, by Danièle Hervieu-Léger (1993).  She criticizes the assimilation made today between ritual and secular religiosity, opposing the theses defended by Claude Rivière and Albert Piette (1990) on the “driftings of sacredness” as well as that of Marc Augé among emotion, sport, and religion.  Danièle Hervieu-Léger (1993, p. 82ff.) thinks that if there is something that is a “communial sacred” in the sports spectacle, the presence of emotion and sacredness is not enough to allow one to say that the sports phenomenon includes a religious dimension.

The interpretative differences of the ritual depend on the descriptive basis that each observer uses to designate a rite or a ritual empirically.  These may be domestic rituals either of conjuration, such those related to the multiplication of doors, bolts, and keys as a means of protection against thieves, as shown by Jean-Claude Kaufmann (Rivière, 1996), or of purification inside the house, such as described by Jean-Paul Filiod (Rivière, 1996, pp.265-267), at the moment of installation after a move; or sports rituals, such as soccer in the case of Christian Bromberger, Alain Hayot, and Jean-Luc Mariottini (1987); idiosyncratic behaviors concerning sorting papers, as studied by Valérie Feschet (Rivière, 1996); rituals of transition such as plane journeys studied by Pitt-Rivers (1987); or the religious rituals such as the unction of the ill by François Isambert (1979, pp.115-157).  At first glance, rituals thus seem to involve a more or less repetitive codification, linked to a formal or informal social prescription, with a greater or lesser charge of emotion and symbolic efficiency, be it secular, sacred, or religious.


Rituals as management of “otherness”


As an element of action, the ritual fills several social functions.  Notably, rituals are oriented toward the regulation of “otherness” and the risk that it represents, whether in the case of “a person, an object or a divinity” (Isambert 1979, p.99).  The other is one who threatens a loss of face, who stigmatizes, according to Erving Goffman, or who must not be caused to lose face — or on the contrary who must be made to gain face — as for the Chinese (Zheng Lihua, 1995, to appear).  François Isambert shows that the contribution of Goffman is allowing ritual and magic to be dissociated, and therefore to show the level of the functioning of symbolic efficiency, that is, of social relations.  However, from his point of view, Goffman stays with the “preliminaries of social relations and does not try to discover whether there are rituals of  collaboration.” (1979, p. 195)  It is this existence is demonstrated by Dominique Picard (1995) concerning different examples of savoir vivre.  The other is also the one who threatens honor (David Lepoutre, 1997) or territory, as in human ethology — Edward T.  Hall’s “proxemics,” that is, the culturally acceptable distance between two individuals without provoking an implicit aggression, being a classic example.  The other it is also the one with whom it is possible to cooperate and to reach an agreement, such as for the school of conventions (François Eymard-Duvernay, Olivier Favereau) and the school of justification (Luc Boltanski, Laurent Thévenot). 

More generally, we note that the theme of “otherness” has changed status since the late 1980s, even though it has been present for a long time in France, notably in the question of anti-Semitic racism.  The book by Pierre Birnbaum, for example, Le Peuple et les gros (The People and the fat) (1979), shows how historically in France, the “fat,” “the two hundred families,” “foreigners” and “the international Jewry” are lumped together.  In anthropology, the debate is above all one that takes place in universities, rather specialized and related to the questions that anthropologists formulate about the place of the cultural, ethnic, or tribal dimension, in explaining “exotic societies.”6 

Since the 1990s, the intercultural question has become a “social debate.”  There is an increasing number of books discussing multiculturalism and the place that should be accorded to demands concerning identity, which is actually outside the field of anthropology7.  This debate is related to  the issue of immigration in France and the one of the frequent comparisons made with the United States.8  The importance of this issue also reveals the French cultural particularity, compared to Anglo-Saxon countries.  It can be described as a difficulty to reconcile, at the level of the speech, cultural differences and republican universal values, originating in the 18th century, which does not mean that these values are not actually manages in practice, far from it. 

It is the question of Le Creuset français (The French melting-pot) (Noiriel, 1988) that is at the core of  question of rituals.  It deals with the processes of métissage (racial blending), with the appearance of new social codes, and thus with the management social and cultural “otherness” (Augé, 1994).  The question of the cultural blending shocks many spheres of French society, as it always has historically.  This mixing also affects food behaviors (Desjeux et al., 1993, 1990; Hassoun, 1997), objects (Desjeux et al., 1989), mental illnesses (cf. ethnopsychiatry and the works of Tobie Nathan), as well as the ritualized routes of protest movements, as shown by the demonstrations of “sans papiers” (illegal aliens) in August 19969.  Indeed, the route from the Place de la République to Stalingrad, via the Barbès subway station and the Saint Bernard church in the heart of the Goutte d’Or neighborhood, marks a break with the traditional French workers’ demonstration routes.  The latter generally start at the Place de la République, which links the two movements symbolically, but they to go to Bastille and Nation. Nation is the destination of parades that started at Denfert-Rochereau or Republique in November and December 1995.  By opposition, the Right has used the Champs-Elysées, as in the pro-de Gaulle demonstration on May 30, 1968.  Barbès symbolizes a new marking of social territory, demonstrations appearing as rituals of social integration with placards in French, but also, for the first time, it seems, in multiethnic demonstrations, in Chinese and in Turkish.  Danièle Hervieu-Léger (1993, p. 228ff.) also shows that racial/ethnic blending greatly affects the religious sphere in France with “the rise of ethno-religions” and the constitution of “reservoirs of signs and values” into which “creative” believers can dip.” (Dominique Schnaper mentioned by Danièle Hervieu-Léger, 1993, p. 231).  These religions compete with the traditional churches, those that possess “the authorized memory” (1993, p.  211). 

By comparison, the debate on rituals in the United States and in Great Britain took a turn that brings it closer today to that of multiculturalism in France.  In the 1970s, according to Elizabeth Evans (1996), this debate shifted from the question of the distinction between sacred and secular to an analysis of mechanisms of the construction of domination and counter-powers by rituals and to a discussion on the opposition between religious and political, with the risk of a dilution of the term ritual in the social context.  The notion of ritual today in the United States seems to emphasize the question of social efficiency in multicultural societies to determine whether rituals function as factors of integration, hegemony, or counter-power.  The debate about rituals is related to the question of the management of “otherness”.

These references to the processes of blending at work in France today are only made to indicate that French society is undergoing intercultural tensions.  These tensions provoke the underground changes that rituals of daily life are supposed to regulate.  However, the gestural, language, or dress codes of interaction — “good manners” — are challenged.  This questioning, because of the micro-destabilizations that it provokes, has produced a loss of reference points in everyday life.  We hypothesize that new micro-rituals are being created by a new generation to deal with school, food fashions, music, consumption, and services, and even moving, given that social ties that it requires to be mobilized between the ages of 20 and 30.


The three scales of the ritual: instinct, social interactions, and institution


Rituals as inherited patrimony


Konrad Lorenz, when he describes in Aggression, a natural history of evil (1969), the ceremonial of “instigation” among ducks, a set of sequences that expresses aggressiveness, fear, the need for aggression, then aggressiveness again (p. 63), he calls it ritualization, “without quotation marks” he adds, (p.  62), in accordance with “his master and friend Huxley.”  Ritualization is instinctive and is part of the hereditary patrimony at the animal, whereas in man, it is transmitted by tradition.  Ritualization for Konrad Lorenz is an “incorporated habit,” habit playing, in culture, the role that the hereditary patrimony plays in animals.  In the case of “instigation,” ritualization is what finally permits one to oppose aggression (p. 72).  Konrad Lorenz uses the term ritualization to name an automatic animal behavior.  It expresses a determination by the hereditary patrimony.  Here, ritual is repetitive and mechanical.  It makes life in a group possible.  It is not linked to any symbolic efficiency.


Rituals as interaction and code on the micro-social scale


Dominique Picard (1995), who continues the observations of Goffman Erving in a survey analyzing savoir-vivre (etiquette) manuals as a social grammar, wrote that “the essence of rituals is to propose codified forms, models of conduct to orient practices; they have the tendency notably to facilitate communications inside a group, to canalize and regulate impulses and emotions that could threaten interpersonal relationships (p. 14).  She continues by showing how social hierarchies — of genders and generations, places — private and public, and social times — within which interactions take place, are codified as symbolic signs and social obligations serving to construct social distinctions and to allow acceptable contacts10

She shows that the use of a ritual even more necessary when the situation confronted by the actor is important or risky.  Strategies of risk reduction by rituals are manifested in three types of rituals: rituals of access, rituals of confirmation, and rituals of passage (p. 93ff.).  Rituals of access have the functions of preventing and appeasing in the meeting between two actors, from the first contact until the end of the interaction11; rituals of confirmation, whose function is to fix the identity of each, limit losses of face; and rituals of passage, which the author associates with stages of life cycle12 from birth to death, accompany changes of status.  The ritual, according to Dominique Picard, involves both the anguish that is born of uncertainty and the way it is managed socially. 

Claude Rivière (1996) in the introduction special issue of Ethnologie française (French ethnology) dedicated to “the ritualization of daily life” opposes the classic distinction of Durkheim between the layman and the sacred.  “The mistake in many of our conceptual dichotomies is to exclude the third lived,” he writes in a beautiful formula (p.  230).  His central thesis is that the study of daily live should not be limited to institutions, nor to rituals of passage, nor to the banal or the ordinary, to habits or routines, but it should apply to relational activities such as “working, resting, eating, having fun, doing sports, making love, praying…  (p.  230); rituals are observed through life, and today rituals are probably more and more evolutionary due to “the erosion of meaning by routinization,” their explosion, and the fact that they are expressed in bits and pieces (p.  234).  Rituals express above all a social relation to which it gives a meaning, albeit precarious.  Rituals for Claude Rivière have an extension of meaning to most social interactions.

For David Lepoutre, rituals have a socialization function particular to “street culture.”  Jokes are reserved for the peer group, and the ritual fights have a ludic function where humor and an audience play a key role (p.138ff.).  They are like jousting, as shown by Victor W. Turner in his book on Le Phénomène rituel (The ritual phenomenon) (1969, 1990 for the French edition) in the relationship between Ndembu men and women where “joking insults” symbolize the “fertile struggle” of the sexes (p. 80ff.).  These rituals affirm both the difference and the possible cooperation between sexes.  David Lepoutre demonstrates how the “insult,” greatly used between peers who “insult each other a great deal, that is to say, frequently and copiously” (p. 166), is used also outside the group, not to resolve a conflict, but “to reverse the domination by adults by imposing a logic of violence in which teenagers have a better chance of coming out ahead.”  (p. 166).  At the end of his work, the author explains that this “street culture” is a strong generational dividing line. Around 16 or 17, teenagers undergo two rituals of passage, the brevet and the entrance into seconde.  If they succeed, teenagers integrate new social constraints and abandon the values of honor and verbal practices more characteristic of adolescence. 

The period of “the extension of youth” in France, between ages 18-20 and 30, which follows the period of adolescence, between ages 12 and 16-18, seem close to the “communitas” described by Victor W. Turner13.  The communitas is formed during in-between periods, of preliminaries. Preliminaries are moments that involve thresholds before a passage into another social or domestic status, or another generational or age position. Turner  finds that this period of preliminaries is characterize by homogeneity and friendship.  During this period, the group expresses social hierarchies of the whole society way in a reverse manner.  It is the period of the communitas, “a non-structured or rudimentarily and relatively undifferentiatedly structured community, or even a communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of their ritual elders.” (p. 97).  The point that appears important is that the communitas is one type of temporary social relation, limited to periods preceding transition.  The problem is that these threshold periods are tending to lengthen and become less clear today in France.  This is why rituals are good indicators of these threshold periods in adolescence and youth as markers of generational difference, as identitaire sign of belonging and as regulating conflicts and social tensions that are born of the situation in between.

But society does not function permanently on this “fusional” mode of adolescence or the communitas, unlike what is suggested by the works of Michel Maffesoli and his interpretation of the “tribe” concept as a general explanatory model of “post-modern” society.  On the other hand, his idea of an “emotional community” seems to aptly describe certain periods of adolescence or youth as well as “adult” fringe groups that function in the night and in “transgression,” whether they take part in raves or rallys.  What is evoked through an aesthetic mode is the preliminary characteristic of European youth.

More generally, Colin Campbell (Miller, 1995) criticizes post-modern thought as applied to consumption,  which promises a world of infinite choice and without constraints, where social actors as individuals would be free to construct their own identities: “all marketing researchers know full well that age, professional status, and position in the life cycle are factors that determine the use of income and the constitution of spending power…  The majority of consumers are not really in position to adopt a new life style or a new identity by merely changing their model of consumption.”  (1995, p. 113-114).  Most often, post-modern thinkers do not do fieldwork, and when they do, it is about youth.  However “youth, and especially adolescence, adds Colin Campbell, is a stage of the life cycle that is especially involved by identity experimentation.” (p.  114).  Post-modern thought is based on a field group, adolescents and youth, that reinforces his theory about the instability of identity, of the search for enjoyment or “the orgy” and the warmth of the small group or the “tribe.”


The ritual as institution and as memory between the micro-social and macro-social scales


Basing his observations on the works of Michèle de la Pradelle on the truffle market in Carpentras, Marc Augé (1994) introduces a distinction between the ritual as a “restriction device,” whose function is primarily to maintain and to continue current reproduction, as is the case of the market, and the ritual as “extended device,” which is designed to change the state of social forces,” that is, opinion (p. 100).  The ritual, in this division of social reality, is a device that allows for the  symbolization of foundations of social life that relate to “otherness”, to power, to cohesion, to exchange, and to representations.  His thought concords with the works of Georges Balandier in Le Pouvoir sur scène (Power on stage) (1980).  For Marc Augé, the ritual is closer to institutions than to micro-social interaction of the daily.  It is part of the management that has been instituted to deal with the four big cleavages of classes, sexes, generations, and cultures.  It is akin to a macro-social scale.  Everything happens as if by changing scales, by becoming macro-more social, the ritual gained symbolic weight and became more solidly institutionalized.  Sociology of religion attempts to determine how to analyze this symbolic weight, how to describe the symbolic efficiency of a ritual — that is, how a ritual is an act, how it “does” something and, in short, how to distinguish a social ritual from a religious ritual. 

François Isambert, in 1979, attempted to deconstruct the linkage, which is implicitly Catholic, of ritual efficiency among rituals, magic and religion, and introduce a more general macro-sociological approach, in terms of symbolic efficiency.  Starting with the works of John L. Austin and John R. Searle on “language acts”14, he shows that a language utterance is not solely “informative,” it is also “performative,”15 and that this performance, this action, has an effect on reality16.  There are two types of effects, depending on whether the act is “illocutory,” that is, that the action is in the act of language (the “I do” of a wedding has an effect: I am married), or according to whether the act is “perlocutory,” when the action is the consequence of the language act, for example, the fact of frightening someone (pp. 93-94).  The most interesting language act for our research is the “illocutory” act, which associates saying and doing.

However, the ritual can be considered as having a symbolic performance, like language.  The “mystery” lies in the origin of this effect, of this performance.  The symbolic efficiency does not, according to François Isambert, come from a mysterious “magic” strength; it insists on the fact that it is embedded in a social consensus, which depends on values of the culture to which it belongs, of the legitimacy that underlies them.  The strength of a symbolic action relies thus on the fact of being “instituted” in the general meaning of legal norms, social norms, of language, and of customs (p. 172).  It is in this sense that it can produce “social magic,” to use the expression of Zakaria Jeridi (1996, p. 161).  For Jeridi, it is legitimate to separate ritual from religion.  However, it is not enough that there be periodicity and symbolic in order to have a ritual; there must be an element of “believing,” which is not limited to religion.  “There is also a social believing, as powerful and as mobilizing as believing in religion.”

What is important is to show both that there is an efficiency inherent in the symbolic, that the symbolic represents one form of moving into action in which the ritual represents one of the possible practices, and that the symbolic efficiency is embedded in the social domain.  In this sense, it functions like a collective belief.  What remains to find out whether all belief and all symbolic efficiency are related to religion and whether all that is religious is sacred.

For Danièle Hervieu-Léger (1993), the notion of sacred, just like that of emotion used for sporting events or for large musical gatherings intended to express “religious fervor,” are analogies of the religious phenomenon.  The sacred and emotions, as signs of the religious in secular life, are categories constructed implicitly from the model of the Christian religion that they were supposed to remove in the study of secular rituals: “The concept of sacred cannot be kept only on the condition of renouncing asking it to characterize all religious reality.” (Isambert, quoted by D.  Hervieu-Léger, p. 76).  In contrast with theses that show how the sacred, connected to religion, seems to invade the secular world — like Franco Ferraroti, for example, in his book Le Retour du sacré ; une foi sans dogme (The return of the sacred; faith without dogma) (1993) — through the multiplication of emotional rituals (“rock concerts, political demonstrations, or telethons,” p. 151), she thinks that our societies are witnessing a “progressive disjunction of the sacred and the religious.” (p. 157).  Her central thesis is that religion is only one of the possible social forms of  belief.  As religion is differentiated from emotional social practices that are often transient and fusional, not as a production of meaning — they both produce meaning — but especially because religion is a memory, a lineage of belief, and therefore the opposite of instantaneity. 

The purpose of a religion is not solely to produce meaning, belief, or emotion; its specific function is to organize memory, the lineage of meaning, to reinvent tradition. Hervieu-Léger recalls that “traditional” societies are organized around a memory, that of the myth of origin, and that like all collective memories, religious or otherwise, it is kept alive “through operations of selective forgetting, of sorting, and even of retrospective invention of that which once was.” (p. 179).  A religion must above all affirm “the continuity of the lineage of the believers;” “this continuity transcends history.  It is attested and demonstrated in the essentially religious act, which consists of making memories (anamnesia) of the past that gives meaning to the present and contains the future.  This practice of anamnesia is exerted most of the time in the form of rituals.” (p. 180).  It is the inscription over time of the “founding events” of the “lineage of believers,” by means of a repetitive and regular act, that founds the specificity of the religious ritual.  The ritual of anamnesia is not reserved to the historic religions.  It is a social mechanism with various forms that can be found just as easily in “a Church, a sect, or a mystical network.”  The power of religion, whatever its form, is founded on its legitimate capacity to relate “the true memory.” (p. 181).  For the ritual to be religious to the strict sense, in addition to the constituent elements of most secular rituals — meaning, emotion, belief, and memory, ther must also be the act of  anamnesia, which by its duration, repetition, and regularity, recalls the “true memory.” 

Again, as in the distinction made by Marc Augé (1994, p. 189 note 2) between rituals linked to a social convention and rituals as “particular forms of social activity,” the border between religious and profane or secular is not always easy to indicate empirically.  However, the significance of  Hervieu-Léger’s research is that it is based on numerous investigations conducted over the past 25 years, first on neorurals, and later on religious communities (Hervieu, Hervieu-Léger, 1979, 1983).  This field experience allows her to construct her distinction between secular and religious around two key dimensions, memory and length.

Today in France, proceeding from the observation of the collapse of “French Catholic imaginary of continuity” linked to the upheaval in the family and mutations in the farming world, Hervieu-Léger shows the emergence of new processes of production of the religious memory in France (p. 198).  What is new is the pluralism of religions.  Building on Shepherd and Luckmann (quoted p. 239), she shows the existence of a competitive market of symbolic signs among the traditional Christian religions, liberal Protestants and Catholics, the “historic” religions, and the new forms of belief.  Peter Berger (1988, p. 11) even proposes to approach culture in general and Confucianism in particular in terms of “comparative advantage,” as in a market of services, to explain the development model of Southeast Asia.  This means that a religion may be the source of success at a one given time or in one given context and the source of failure in another.  Pursuing the thought of Peter Berger, it can be said that rituals thus become part of the system of symbolic provision of households, but not of every household, as Hervieu-Léger shows: One knows, furthermore, that the new religious movements that develop within, in the margins of, or completely outside the Catholic sphere — from the charismatic movements to “new age” currents — recruit their members in the social strata with an average or substantial cultural capital: technicians, programmers, engineers, teachers; medical and paramedical personnel are represented there strongly, whose familiarity with scientific culture and technique is certainly not to be doubted.” (p. 190). 

As we will see for services and the debate on the embedding of the economic sphere in the social domain, the notion of market does not imply adopting a theory of individual rational choice in the religious market, as R. Fink and R. Stark (cited by Hervieu-Léger (1993) p.  239, note 3) maintain, but it does not eliminate the question of the consumption of religion as a symbolic service. Hervieu-Léger explains that the “market of religions” is part of a more general phenomenon, that of the regulation of the productive system, and of the corresponding relation to work, through consumption (p. 200). 

Like many researchers of consumption, we think that it plays a key role today in the game of social competition, and notably through the establishment of codes and rituals (Menell, 1987; Bocock, 1993; Miller (ed.) 1995; Corrigan, 1997).  Signs and rituals, from those of the historic religions through those of “ethno-religions” but also the secular rituals described by Rivière, Augé, and Picard, are placed at the disposal of individuals in the competitive market of possessions and services.  Like Sunday handymen, religious do-it-yourselfers will search for codes or rituals that will be able to structure their symbolic life.  This is why thinking about rituals is part of a more general reflection on consumption, no longer reduced to purchasing behaviors as in classical marketing, but as a key mechanism for understanding social bonds.


Moving: an analyzer of micro-rituals of daily life that facilitate action


Thought about rituals makes it apparent that rituals may be analyzed either on the basis of their symbolic and institutional weight in the everyday or holiday social game, or according to their function in initiating action.  The study of moving teaches us more about the performative aspect of micro-rituals of daily life than on their institutional dimension.

 Indeed, as a result of the debate of the sociology of religions, it is clear that rituals are no longer automatically connected to religion, and that the secular rituals have their own relative autonomy.  In this sense, it would be possible to describe moving as a secular ritual of transformation, notably for young persons aged 20 to 30, by examining the work of Arnold Sieve Gennep.  Similarly, it may be said that the transition from electric heating to gas heating represents, for some, a ritual of passage between the beginning and the middle of the adult life (Desjeux et al., 1996b, p. 97).  Indeed, as Nicole Belmont (1981) explains, according to Gennep, rituals of passage are rituals that accompany changes of place, of state, of work, of social situation, and of age.  They mark the rhythm of the progress of human life “from cradle to tomb.”  They always include three successive stages of “separation, margin, and aggregation.”  She specifies that “Gennep insists greatly on the similarity of rituals of passage and the material transitions…  (1981, 23-24).  This point is important in understanding moving.  Indeed, if moving is a “material transition” from one place to another, can it be defined as such as a ritual of passage?

The structure of the itinerary of the move allows us to observe three phases that are inherent to geographical displacement from one point to another and that can accompany ritualization of actions.  However, the event lacks a ceremonial character that would cover the whole transition.  This would require performing acts and mobilizing objects that embody a great symbolic efficiency.  In their absence, it seems difficult to consider the move an institutional symbolic device, for the same reason as for a ritual of passage containing well-defined rituals of separation, margin, and aggregation and designed to make sense.

Nevertheless, a move is not free of micro-rituals.  These are performative rituals that allow the material actions, such as handing in the keys when leaving one place or making repairs or alterations to the new dwelling, to proceed smoothly.  They are also rituals “of appropriation” with a strong symbolic or social charge, such as the ritual of purification of the new home with bleach or powerful household cleansers, based on a belief in the danger of traces left by others, or the housewarming, the ritual of installation that means socially the end of mobility and the beginning of settling down.  As Gennep writes, “washing” and “commensalities” allow the taboo to be lifted from the new house (1981, p. 31). 

Moving allows one to specify the distinction between rituals of interactions — those that give meaning to practices and everyday relations — and institutional rituals, those that require  formalized symbolic devices, be they religious or secular.  The practices of moving are related to rituals of interaction in their performative dimension of moving into action.  Rituals are therefore seen to be markers or “punctuation marks” of stages of the action.  The function of the micro-rituals involved in moving is to mark the before and the after, whether spatially, between the old and the new homes, or on the social plan, bring in the elder and the new professional statute or générationnel. 

Micro-rituals appear to be social crystallizations, embodied by the actors.  They are made of previous social agreements that existed prior to the intentions of the actors.  They are part of the codified aspect and routine of social life.  These more or less formal codifications allow for the creation of points of reference or signs that help during the process of change and structure uncertainty.  They also help in managing the anxiety, tensions or conflicts that are often associated with moving, without entirely eliminating them.  This is why the rituals of appropriation in moving, and those of purification and housewarming, when they exist, are part of these mini points of reference without which action in society would not be possible.  Finally, the rituals of moving are both signs of mobility and action and also a means to symbolically and materially accomplish the transition.  They are a requirement for action in society, through their functions of managing change, of creating new codes, and of organizing routinization.



1 Cf.  Jean-Michel Normand, 1997, “La célébration de Hallowe’en se répand dans l’hexagone (The celebration of Hallowe’en spills in the hexagon), Le Monde of October 27.  It also became implanted in Guangzhou in China!

2 Also see the criticism by Zakaria Jéridi, 1994, of O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology.

3 Cf. Erving Goffman, 1974, 1973, for micro-sociology; Claude Rivière and Albert Piette, eds., 1990, and Claude Rivière, 1995, 1996, for anthropology; Dominique Picard, 1995, for psycho-sociology.

4 Also see François Gresle, Michel Perrin, Michel Panoff, and Pierre Tripier in their Dictionnaire des sciences humaines (Social science dictionary), 1990.

5 Symbolic and imaginary have the same meaning here, contrary to Lacanian tradition that it is located on the micro-individual scale.  Our scale of observation and our divisions do not allow us to distinguish the two.

6 Cf.  Jean-Loup Amselle, Elikia M’bokolo (eds.), 1985 and Jean-Loup Amselles, 1990, 1996, for a thorough criticism of the essentialiste use of the concept of ethnie; Marc Augé, 1994, on the “otherness” by a specialist in its meaning from his pioneering works on the Atcho prophet in Ivory Coast and the meaning of evil applied to illness; Denys Cuche, 1996, one of the most recent syntheses on the history and uses of the notion of culture; Marc Poncelet, 1994, a brilliant and scathing critique of the reinterpretation of the cultural dimension by Christian militants and environmentalists; Philippe Poutignat, Jocelyne Streiff-Fenard, 1995, a well-ordered synthesis on the notion of ethnie, published by Georges Balandier; Juan-Carlos Sanchez-Arnau, Dominique Desjeux, eds., 1983, Dominique Desjeux, with the involvement of Sophie Taponier, 1991b, an approach that shows how culture is a set of social dynamics and a strategic resource, and D.  Desjeux, 1980, that shows how ethnies can be reinterpreted as pressure groups or networks in competition for the control of the state; Tzvetan Todorov, 1989, a reexamination of the French intellectual tradition concerning its view of the foreigner.

7 Cfs.  Dominique Schnaper, 1991; Patrick Weil, 1991; Michel Wieviorka, ed., 1996, 1991; Bernard-Henri Lévy, 1994; Emmanuel Todd, 1994; Jean-François Bayard, 1996; Alain Touraine, 1997; Anne Catherine Wagner, to be published. 

8 Cf.  the fundamental book by Denis Lacorne, 1997, on the historic tension in the United States since the creation of the American Republic between “nativist” and “differentialist,” and the place of the double principle of belonging, national, as citizen, and “ethnic,” as belonging to a “community.”  This book is especially illuminating for the French debate and in the fact that only citizenship is recognized in France.

9 Cf. on social movements Pierre Favre, 1990, which represents an autonomous current of Tourainiens, and more lately, Jan Willem Duyvendak, 1994, on the originality of the social movement in France as compared to other European countries, because of the “weight of politics.”   See also Erik Nephew, 1996, or Olivier Filleule, 1993, even though they oonly touch upon the “ethnic” question.

10 In another context, that of organizations, Claude Giraud uses the notion of “code of beliefs” as defining element and  key to reading situations, 1993, note 94; 1994.

11 Monique Pinçon-Charlot and Michel Pinçon, in their book Voyage en grande bourgeoisie Travels in upper middle class, 1997, pp. 44-45, show how for a sociologist the choice of apparel for a meeting with someone from the upper middle class is like a ritual of appeasement vis-a-vis his interlocutor.

12 Arnold Sieve Gennep, 1909, first defined the concept of a rite of passage.  For an application to French society with motorcyclists, ferryboats, rallies, and hazings, see Michèle Cros and Daniel Dory, eds., 1996, and Denys Cuche, 1988, on the “Gadz’arts.”

13 Cf.  the special issue of the review Project on 18- to 30-year-olds (Bertrand Cassaigne, ed., 1997).

14 Cf.  John R. Austin, 1970 (1962 in English), Quand dire c’est faire (When saying is doing), Seuil; and John R. Searle, disciple of Austin, 1972 (1969 in English), Acts of language, Herman, cited by F. Isambert, p. 88, note 1.

 15  From the English to perform that means to execute, to accomplish, to make or to do.

16 Pierre Bourdieu, 1980, also insists on the perfomative dimension of the ritual in Le Sens pratique (Practical Sense) (p. 154ff.).


Translated by Ray Horn, Paris Descartes University, SHS Sorbonne.