June 04, 2010

Ritual Season

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Rituals surround us at this time of year: awards ceremonies, commencement, marriages, and anniversaries. Add in some birthdays or baby showers and you have a lot of social events to attend!

Rituals are public behaviors that have tremendous meaning for us as individuals and for our society as a whole. These events announce changes in our lives, achievements, and milestones. Yet they do so much more.

Commencement is my favorite school activity (much more fun than committee meetings). We faculty dress in our gowns, each distinctive for the degree we have and the school where we earned it. The faculty and soon-to-be graduates march into the stadium, take their seats, listen to the speakers, text their family and friends, and savor the experience of sharing these moments. Once students start walking the line to get their diploma cover, shake the dignitaries hands, and wave at their loved ones in the stands, we faculty wave if they see us and remember their first day of class. Especially considering that many of our students do not make it to this point, this is a moment to appreciate the tenacity and perseverance of those who do.

Scholarship and awards ceremonies have the same flavor, as they are joyful events where people celebrate their acknowledgements from foundations and clip_image002grantors to support their education. At our college, the awards are also where we celebrate those students who are transferring to a four-year college or university. (Those students are not the same students who graduate with an A.A. degree.) As they are acknowledged by name, we hear which universities have accepted them and which one they will attend. That gives many in the audience a chance to yell out in support of their favored institution. (It’s obvious who are the UCLA and USC fans in the room.)

Among my family and friends thus summer, we will be celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary, a 30th birthday, a 40th birthday, and a baby shower. These are personal events yet we are compelled to celebrate them publicly. Why?

clip_image004The anniversary is mine. My spouse and I weren’t sure whether to have a party at all and haven’t yet decided on how big this party will be, but our family let us know that we need to have one. The birthdays are milestone birthdays although they are a little scary to those experiencing them. The baby shower is to welcome a new person into the world and to shower the new parents with supplies and support in their coming adventure.

What would happen if we didn’t have these events? Graduations without a commencement celebration; awards without public acknowledgement; milestone anniversaries and birthdays passing without notice, and babies changing their parents’ lives without support of family and friends? It sounds like a lot less fun!

These rituals provide a way for individuals to commemorate and appreciate their achievements and milestones. They give us motivation to do more and they help us appreciate what we have accomplished. Without them, life continues on a mundane or profane level, without any sense of how special or sacred those markers are. Achieving a degree or award, staying married, living longer, and creating life are all important behaviors for the individuals involved but also for society.

These rituals affirm that our behaviors are socially acceptable and worth striving for, and they connect to important social norms. Because rituals are shared and public, they reinforce those social norms for the participants and the observers.

Society’s stability is based on social norms and close social networks (among other things). Social rituals provide the social solidarity or social glue to keep us bonded to each other. These rituals reinforce awareness of what our society deems important, and provides some motivation to achieve those things.


Commencement and awards ceremonies reinforce the norms of educational achievement, without which society would not have skilled labor and those who will work in the professions. Social bonds are also reinforced as the graduates are seen as a cohort and the alumni associations approach them about membership. Anniversaries, birthdays, and baby showers all reinforce social bonds among family systems and friendship networks. They also reinforce norms of family: clip_image008marriage and parenting.

One might look more closely at Erving Goffman's "Interaction Ritual" concept to see how we conform to expectations within these events. One could also analyze the many wedding-related rituals (e.g., showers, bachelor’s parties, rehearsals) to see how social norms, networks, and solidarity are involved in the creation of a new family.

In what social event have you recently taken part in? How are these or other sociological concepts and issues related to your event?


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Rituals are a huge part of each persons life. They mark special occasions, and have the chance to bring people from each walks of life together. They are a lot of times the mark of a new era in ones life. I really like this blog right now, because like you said, it is ritual season! Students are graduating and moving on with their lives, and lets not forget, it is wedding season. These different events show how the more unfamiliar people can come together and get past differences. It is a way to see how people can interact socially throughout each other. It is also a way to bring people of different ages together, and acknoweldge the things they do have in common, along with the differences.

As a student who will be graduating soon I understand how the importance of rituals affect the lives of people everyday. Rituals can be very public once in a while types of things or they can be private everyday things. Big or small rituals are important to everyone and as an American I know that without them people would never know when they are doing above and beyond. We need these rituals so that we encourage people to be better and strive for bigger and better things.

Rituals are huge part of everyone’s life. They have a symbolic value to the person and can be simple as a celebrating a birthday occasion. Rituals can also have a symbolic value and can be practiced and used in religion or traditions in person’s community. They can be performed by one person or as a group. Rituals can include traditions we do on the Christmas day and how we celebrate it with our family.

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