Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions

Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions

Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions

Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions

Synopsis

From handshakes and toasts to chant and genuflection, ritual pervades our social interactions and religious practices. Still, few of us could identify all of our daily and festal ritual behaviors, much less explain them to an outsider. Similarly, because of the variety of activities that qualify as ritual and their many contradictory yet, in many ways, equally legitimate interpretations, ritual seems to elude any systematic historical and comparative scrutiny. In this book, Catherine Bell offers a practical introduction to ritual practice and its study; she surveys the most influential theories of religion and ritual, the major categories of ritual activity, and the key debates that have shaped our understanding of ritualism. Bell refuses to nail down ritual with any one definition or understanding. Instead, her purpose is to reveal how definitions emerge and evolve and to help us become more familiar with the interplay of tradition, exigency, and self- expression that goes into constructing this complex social medium.

Excerpt

While the activities we think of as "ritual" can be found in many periods and places, the formal study of ritual is a relatively recent and localized phenomenon. When made the subject of systematic historical and comparative cultural analysis, ritual has offered new insights into the dynamics of religion, culture, and personhood. At the same time, it has proven to be a particularly complicated phenomenon for scholars to probe -- because of the variety of activities that one may consider ritual, the multiplicity of perspectives one may legitimately take in interpreting them, and the way in which defining and interpreting ritual enter into the very construction of scholarship itself.

In contrast to an earlier work, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, which addressed specific theoretical issues concerning the dichotomy of thought and action in ritual theory, this book is meant to be a more holistic and pragmatic orientation to multiple dimensions of the phenomenon of ritual. It provides a fairly comprehensive depiction of the history of theories about ritual and religion (part I), the spectrum of both ritual and ritual-like activities (part II), and the fabric of social and cultural life that forms the context in which people turn to ritual practices -- and even to ritual theories (part III). In continuity with the earlier book, however, this study brings a particular perspective to these discussions, namely, the position that "ritual" is not an intrinsic, universal category or feature of human behavior -- not yet, anyway. It is a cultural and historical construction that has been heavily used to help differentiate various styles and degrees of religiosity, rationality, and cultural determinism. While ostensibly an attempt to identify a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon, our current concept of ritual is also, and inevitably, a rather particular way of looking at and organizing the world. The import of this particularity is one of the concerns of this book. While sections of part III extend some of the theoretical arguments raised in Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, for the most part, this study is also a broad application of the methodological suggestions raised there.

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