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April 2, 2015

Books, Journals & More A closer look: Pamela Stewart/Andrew Strathern

Think rituals are the sole property of religion, or a thing of the past?

Ritual-Rituals are all around us, and just as meaningful in this increasingly secular Western world, say Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, anthropology faculty members and authors of “Ritual: Key Concepts in Religion.”

“You probably have some rituals you do that you care about,” says Strathern. “Do you give presents? The functions are similar. This stuff gets into our hearts and in our lives in ways we don’t think about.”

He sent a graduate student to the recent inauguration of Patrick Gallagher as the 18th Pitt chancellor, just to take notes on the ceremony.

“That was a huge ritual,” he says: “A major expression of values, in a definite framework, led by a person central, who gains position through regalia,” all watched over by the village and “the elders of the tribe,” from students in the audience to trustees and top administrators on stage.

Sure, a small committee really chose the new chancellor, not the entire Pitt community, but now, thanks to the ritual, “we are supposed to get emotionally involved.”

If rituals have lost meaning, as some would posit, “why do we have all that?

“There’s an explosion of interest in ritual studies,” he adds. “A lot of undergraduates are very interested in this. They want to do something that could possibly make a difference. There are careers in it.”

Even current issues, such as the fight for gays and lesbians to legally marry, are not just about LGBT people gaining tax breaks and the chance to make decisions for loved ones in the hospital, which might be gained through legislation. They are about the right to a public ritual. “Otherwise, why would they be fighting?” he asks.



A large part of Stewart and Strathern’s work involves studying how people use ritual to cope with natural disasters. Last year the husband-and-wife team spent three months in Japan, looking at how the people there are commemorating the March 11, 2001, tsunami. Stewart saw that many people still were living in temporary housing, stuck next to other people chosen randomly by lottery, not their former neighbors and friends. The rituals the country has devised to signal some return to normality “is how they cope, and how they hope … how they look forward.” On March 11, 2015, an international news station broadcast the latest ceremony, which Stewart and Strathern watched. The ceremony involved everyone from Japan’s prime minister to a young girl who had lost her mother. “They crystallized it in a single day,” Stewart says.

Such healing rituals let people feel stronger and more secure after a crisis in which something huge and often inexplicable has occurred to them and to their entire community, city or country.

“What we call ritual is like a bridge that allows people to move forward from one situation to another,” says Strathern.

Rituals are particularly important for disasters such as the typhoon-generated landslide that buried a village of indigenous Taiwanese people. When the pair of professors visited to observe the commemorative ritual, “they didn’t have the bodies,” Strathern recalls. “All they had was little cement markers,” one per family, and a pile of memorial stones — a cairn — to memorialize the missing. But the ritual was effective, and necessary, to mark the past and make the future palatable, he says.


“Rituals are doing stuff; they are making stuff,” emphasizes Strathern. They are not simply symbolic acts.

The couple are leading a study-abroad trip this spring, taking students to New Zealand, Samoa and the Cook Islands to study many aspects of the culture, including ritual practices and the role of the local churches and charities in leading the recovery, thanks to the blessing and work of native peoples.

War of course also is a disaster for which communities need to devise ways to recover. Past fighting among peoples in the central highlands of New Guinea killed relatively few people compared to Western battles. “But they always understood, if you killed folk, and you ever wanted to come together again, you had to pay for it,” says Strathern.

So the people there began by exchanging presents to repair their rifts, which has evolved into gift-giving as a substitute for war, or even as a kind of war — a competition using pigs and money to see who can give away the most. This knits together the entire community, Strathern notes, since the women raise and care for the pigs and the men stand up and explain what the ritual gift exchange means. Such a ritual “has to go into language,” he says. “That’s when it becomes politics and it sticks in people’s minds.”

Rituals make certain that “the spectators are also performers in a sense,” Stewart adds. Medical healing ceremonies, for instance, which are meant to address a personal or societal ill that allegedly caused a malady, address the more general social question: “How can we improve our community?” The fact that creating community improves health is today recognized by science and health care organizations as having more than symbolic importance — even they recommend that having close friends and family relieves emotional stress and improves health.

Stewart and Strathern edit the Journal of Ritual Studies, which examines how rituals are a part of so many aspects of living. The pair recently gave a talk titled, “Is ritual everything?”

“No, it isn’t,” Strathern says. “But there’s more of this stuff than you might think. A lot more hard scientific studies are turning their attention to this,” as cognitive scientists examine which parts of our brains are activated by ritual. “Ritual is really important for many people. Whether it is important for us or not, we need to understand it in order to understand best how to create communities.”

—Marty Levine