A Very Short Introduction

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Barry Stephenson
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     144 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series is in its third decade of producing first-rate surveys of diverse topics and thinkers. Barry Stephenson’s succinct presentation of key issues and problems in the field of ritual studies continues this winning streak. The book is a careful and witty reflection on ritual’s role in the development of human culture, and a forward-looking meditation of the role ritual could or should play in the present. Across the seven chapters, Stephenson lays out in a clear, accessible style how people ritually transform children into adults, individuals into collectives, outsiders into insiders (and vice versa), and mundane worlds into something less so. 

In the opening chapters, Stephenson takes a big-history perspective, at least in human terms, and fruitfully explains the function that ritual may have played in forming human societies in prehistoric times and even its hypothetical role in the evolution of homo sapiens.He also discusses how the concept of ritual has been used in the field of ethology as an analogue to describe the behavior of animals. Since we too are animals, Stephenson thoughtfully reflects on the role ritual plays in bridging our biological and cultural selves. 

Stephenson’s analysis cautiously examines central debates in the field and manages to walk a judicious line between polarized views. For example, as a shared set of ideas and practices, ritual has been seen as a mechanism for controlling individuals for authoritarian goals, on the one hand, or as a liberating performance that promotes individual freedom, on the other hand. Rituals can thus empower individuals to accept or challenge social institutions and expectations while allowing them to become something else, even that which they should already be. Yet rituals can also strip people of personal agency and make them into something unrecognizable to themselves or others—a conclusion that applies to all kinds of rites (conservative or liberal, controlling or liberating). Stephenson nicely connects such considerations with the complex lived ways that people enact and participate in rituals to negotiate personal and communal identities, especially through rites of passage, festivals, and commemorative ceremonies. 

As with all introductory works, much has to be left out and any topic or issue can only be given cursory attention. As someone who regularly teaches a course entitled “Ritual Studies,” and who has worked with ritual theory for two decades, I learned a great deal from the opening chapters on ethology and prehistoric humans. While I am skeptical of universal claims about the role of ritual in producing human culture (or even human beings), Stephenson does an excellent job of navigating the problems while leaving some of the more contentious issues open for thought. In the chapter on definitions, types, and domains, he could have addressed the concept of relationality in more depth, which is an important methodological principle in the field. The concept forces us to consider the specific contextual network of empowered and empowering relationships, ideas, and institutional values in which ritual practices are embedded and out of which such practices are deemed to be the right thing to do. In this sense, ritual acts do not have intrinsic value but represent a subset of embodied choices that human beings enact in relation to the welter of possible social interactions with which they are ceaselessly presented. From the doer’s perspective, such ritualized acts are usually judged as more appropriate in any given relational context.

In this vein, I would have liked a more sophisticated presentation of Catherine Bell’s complex theory of ritualization from her tour de force Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 1992). For Bell, ritualization refers to complex situational practices, in constant need of repetition, through which humans strategically distinguish their ways of acting as more important and prestigious, over and against other related ways of acting. Bell’s model gives us a fluid way to account for the complex motives of individuals who persistently negotiate competing ritualized expectations within specific contexts and across various social arenas. Stephenson aptly presents Bell’s ideas on embodiment and agency (94), but to my mind commits an oversight in not unpacking her definition of ritualization—a definition that enriches and problematizes the field of ritual studies. This is a minor issue in an otherwise fantastic survey by an author deeply invested in the study and theorizing of rituals. 

In terms of audience, the book is accessible to non-academics and could be used productively in all manner of university courses from undergraduate to graduate levels. Undergraduates could use it over many weeks in concert with specific readings, while graduates could be assigned it as a quick digest to give them a competent overview of the field. This is also true for anyone wanting a pithy, enlightening introduction to the field of ritual studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jarrod Whitaker is Associate Professor of South Asian Religions at Wake Forest University.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Barry Stephenson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland, and coeditor of the Oxford Ritual Studies Series. He is the author of Performing the Reformation: Public Ritual in the City of Luther and Veneration and Revolt: Hermann Hesse and Swabian Pietism.


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