Old and New Rites of Passage in Contemporary Western Societies: A Focus on Marriage and Divorce Ceremonies

By Arosio, Laura | Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Old and New Rites of Passage in Contemporary Western Societies: A Focus on Marriage and Divorce Ceremonies


Arosio, Laura, Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology


Life courses and transition events

According to life course theory, the experience of individuals consists of a succession of different phases making up the life span of those individuals' biography. Since they are embedded in the social life of the community from cradle to grave, individuals' life trajectories are marked by various transition events which lead from one phase to the next. At each stage of their lives, individuals occupy a different position in the social space, from which derive different roles and expectations (Giele and Elder 1998). Life phases are, for example, childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. In the course of their lives, individuals move from one phase to the next; and corresponding to each passage is a change of role. The various phases are interrelated: in fact, early events in the various spheres of experience (e.g. school, family, work) tend to influence the subsequent development of the life course in both the same sphere and others. For example, early school leaving induces individuals to marry at a young age, and this entails a greater likelihood of marital instability (Arosio 2013).

The different phases of the life course may have different durations. Moreover, the number of phases in the life course and their order are neither predetermined nor the same for all individuals; nor do they depend solely on individuals' physical and biological development, although they may be partly influenced by the latter. The life course, in fact, reflects to a large extent the social and cultural context in which individuals live.

However, life courses exhibit recurrent patterns which tend to vary greatly across different temporal and spatial contexts. Life courses change according to the culture and the historical period. In particular, some phases of the life course tend to lengthen or shorten (for example, in contemporary Western societies youth has lengthened with the passage of time, and so too has old age). Some phases disappear and others emerge. For example, according to the historian Philippe Ariès (1960), the idea of childhood was born in Europe among the upper classes during the seventeenth century, but it became established only in the eighteenth century. It can therefore be stated that the life course is primarily a "social construct" (Berger and Luckmann 1966).

Corresponding to each life phase is a different position in the social space and the relational system of the family, the group, and the society in which individuals are embedded. The shift from one life course phase to another is a transitional event which marks the end of the previous phase and the beginning of the new one. Important transition events in the life course are birth, entry into adulthood, marriage, and death. A transition event is a moment of change, and it is associated with numerous alterations. Transitional events involve a change of status (e.g. from that of a youth to that of an adult; from the status of a worker to that of a pensioner). The transition event causes a change in what individuals can and cannot do as prescribed both formally and informally by social norms. It also changes what is required of individuals and what others expect of them. The transition also involves the social surroundings of the individual who undergoes it, so that it is not just a personal change but also a change within the network of social relations to which the individual belongs.

There are some transition events that may be normatively expected to the degree that they are considered "normal" in the person's social context. Others, however, may come unexpected, such as job loss, a sudden illness, winning a large sum of money. Both expected and unexpected events may give rise to either an improvement or a deterioration in the lives of individuals. They certainly cause a significant change, which in some cases can completely restructure the life course. For this reason, a transition event is a "crisis" in the sense that is a watershed between a "before" and an "after" (from the Greek word crisis meaning "separation") for both those undergoing the transition and the group to which they belong. …

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