Changing Society through Ritual: A Theory & A Method

for Prof. Ai Ra Kim

Ritual and the Self

by Sam Webster ©1993


Ritual is usually seen in its conservative function. Ritual in this sense serves to reproduce and transmit the values and structures of a society from one generation to the next and to maintain those values and structures over time. Durkheim in particular expresses this view and purpose. However, he was principally studying societies as if in stasis and not explicitly in process, wondering what function a ritual would have for that society. However, the very fact that ritual is used to cause change, whether it be the status change of the investiture of a political officer, the age-group change of adulthood rites, or the work of healing in such rites as the Ndembu Isoma, should clue us to the potential for innovation engendered by ritual.[Turner 1977] Since ritual certainly has the power to be used for conserving the values and structures of a society and thus is a tool for this end, it is fair to ask both how this works, and on this basis, explore how ritual may be used innovatively to instill new values and structures in a society.

To explore how rituals instill values, whether conservative or innovative, we will expand upon the standard theories about the essential unit of ritual. For Turner this unit is the ‘symbol’ and for Grimes this the ‘gesture’, but since the first only focuses on the encrypted values and meanings and the other on the only on the act of imbibing those values and meanings they do not cover the whole system of the ritual process, composed of the environment, the ritual actor, the action and the symbol enacted. Properly, this system is called ‘invocation’ and is discussed at length in my “Ritology Recapitulates Ontology”, and so will not be fully unpacked here. However, a brief synopsis is appropriate.

In an invocation a ritual actor, who is an enworlded, embodied being, feels through the process of some medium of communication (word, dance, image, etc.) a specific and thus determinant influence upon her being, incorporating it into her constitution. A simple example of this is the saying of the Our Father which brings the sayer of it into the presence of The Father. An invocation can be performed so that the principal locus of effect is upon some one other than the person performing the act. Baptism exemplifies this in that the infant baptized is the one effected. This theory is based upon the metaphysics of the philosophy of organism developed by Alfred North Whitehead.

In this terminology our theory of invocation would be described as an actual entity incorporating the determinant influence of some object that it prehends in the entity’s process of concrescence. ‘Concrescence’ is the entity’s self-generation or growing itself together and ‘prehension’ is the feeling of the determinant influence of what is felt. This notion of ‘feeling’ could be sensate or cognitive since in this system thoughts are ‘cognitive feelings’. What is prehended is characterized by an ‘eternal object’ which may be simple or complex and composed of many simple eternal objects. Eternal objects are similar to Platonic Ideas, but defined in a more modern fashion. In their complex form they consist of a plurality of simple eternal objects coordinated in graded relevance to each other. How the entity incorporates this object in its constitution is called the object’s subjective form and is the dimension of greatest, though conditioned, autonomy.

For our purpose in this paper we are principally interested in the effect of invocation upon ritual participants. We need to understand how determinant influences effect those upon whom they are imposed. To do this one more postulate must be developed, a corollary to the above theory of invocation. This is the fact that there is no such thing as a negative invocation. No determinant influence can be made to go away, only the relative importance of divers influences can be changed.

Where this will be most important to us is in clarifying the nature of Turner’s notion of communitas: “Communitas, or social antistructure [is] a relational quality full of unmediated communication, even communion, between definite and determinate identities, which arises spontaneously in all kinds of groups, situations, and circumstances. It is a liminal phenomenon which combines the qualities of lowliness, sacredness, homogeneity, and comradeship” in contrast to ordinarily prevalent social structures. [Turner 1978:250] In relative terms, the ‘anti-’ here is the banishing of “ordinary” social structures characterized by the hierarchy of roles. But when that society, or a subset of it, moves into a state of communitas and is viewed as part of an enworlded system the binary opposition of structure/antistructure becomes visible as structure and metastructure. This would be graphically represented in a Venn diagram as two concentric regions with structure comprising the inner and ‘metastructure’ the outer. This is in contrast to the previous expression as a binary opposition which would divide the sets without overlap. Our reinterpretation would be characterized as set (structure) and superset (metastructure).

Metastructure here is characterized by 1) the absence of the cultural norms of hierarchy and role, 2) the focus on common humanity and acceptance of individuality, while 3) maintaining the structures of containment and the ‘greater society’ of humanity in which all have a common part, such as shared language and its implied order. This is why we use the prefix ‘meta-’ since it is not true to say that all structure goes away, merely many of those that divide and differentiate individuals, holding them to roles and relative statuses. For example, in communitas age and sex differentiations may be removed. This eliminates the six categories imposed by male-female differentiation plus the differentiations between youth, adulthood and old age. However, the unitary and integral quality of the group is maintained, now all in one and the same category not six. Still, the stubborn facts of age and gender have not been removed. Rather, in our example, they have been made less relevant to the interactions of those involved such that they no longer divide them. This is a change in the relative values of the inhering structures. They have been graded to a lesser level of relevance. This is important since forms, being eternal and thus to which categories of time do not apply, can not be ‘erased’ from experience but only changed in their value within the prehending entity. This gives us the principle clue as to the nature of the change we would make in our project.

Since we can now see that in ritual there is no elimination of determinant order, and that there is at most a changing of classes of order, the core question in understanding the purpose and effect of a ritual is to ask what is the determinant order being imposed on the participants?

When we look at the rituals recorded and referred to in Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street and in Kendall’s The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman we can see distinct classes of determinant order being imposed upon the participants. In each case the status of the principal participants is being reaffirmed. The mothers in the rites of Madonna are reaffirmed in their central value to the domis and at the same time the bearers of great oppression. This is clearly seen in the penitential worship of the Virgin Mother. The Korean Shaman in her rites to heal her clientele must break beyond the bounds of the ordinary integral self into the mediumistic states whereby ancestors and deities may speak through her lips. In these states she has the power to wield that she is denied as an ordinary woman. The oppression of the circumstances is turned into the kind of spiritual crisis that she as a shaman can respond to. No longer is she powerless and instead is able to respond. But to do so requires that she temporarily give up her identity and take on the role of one of the powerful beings in her society. This very act reinforces the powerlessness of her ordinary role since she can not in and of herself cause the change (i.e. she as a woman is powerless), but must appeal to a ‘higher power’.

Although these rites give the Korean and the Italian-American women a outlet for their frustrations and thus they have an outlet for her rebellious power, instead of being able to challenge the dominant and oppressing powers she can even be used by those powers to support the society they rule. This is done by employing the shamans in the performance of the Kut system of rites to prevent war, famine, and plague and promote national wealth, power, and welfare. [Kim p. 64] For the women of Madonna their sacrifice and suffering is revalorized as religiously noble. And so the potential energy to oppose is consumed in the effort of supporting the oppressor and potential alliances against the oppressor are blocked by her economic attachment to the oppressor, in the case of the Korean Shaman, and through family dependence in the case of the woman of Madonna.

The exact nature and function of this determinant order is then essential to our exploration. Turner gives us an excellent view of it in his notion of a dominant symbol: “Dominant symbols appear in many different ritual contexts, sometimes presiding over the whole procedure, sometimes over particular phases. Their meaning is highly constant and consistent throughout the total symbolic system. (A good example is the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.) They possess considerable autonomy with regard to the aims of the ritual in which they appear. Precisely because of these properties dominant symbols are readily analyzable in a cultural frame of reference. They may be regarded are ‘eternal objects,’ objects not actually of infinite duration but to which the category of time is not applicable. They are the relatively fixed points in both the social and the cultural structure, and indeed constitute point of junction between these two kinds of structure. Each dominant symbol may be said to represent a crystallization of the flow pattern of the rituals over which it presides.” [Turner 1978:245-6]

When we combine this thesis with our theory of invocation we see that the dominant symbol is to be felt in ritual deeply, being embodied and incorporated as part of the constitution of the person invoking and as such ‘lived through’.[cf. Guenther 1984] In this way the dominant symbol has a determinant effect on the behavior and thought of the ritual participants. However, the oppressed, such as the women of Madonna and the Korean Shamans above, do not choose the determinant order imposed upon them. The symbols come charged with a graded series of values such that if the symbols are to be used the values must also be incorporated, unless somehow these values can be changed.

In the Base Communities of liberation theology fame this is being done. By studying the scriptures on their own and in the context of their oppression the members of the Communities reevaluate the meaning and mandate of the scriptures so that it will empower and motivate their actions. Another example is found in the contemporary Pagan community where the myths and practices of old are reappropriated and given meaning and value respecting today’s conditions in contrast to the values of the rest of the culture. In the first case the value and meaning of an established and heavily value laden symbol of the culture is being re-valorized to suit the needs of the Base Communities and in the second, symbols no longer valued by the larger culture, myths, rites and philosophies of old are being given new efficacy.

From this we can see that the meaning and values of dominant symbols can be changed. What we also must attend to is the subjective form of the symbol’s effect when invoked by the ritualist. Characterized by the complex eternal object that is the dominant symbol, the subjective form of that symbol is the principal motivator for the ritualist to invoke that symbol. In some manner, the subjective form of that symbol must be consonant with the purpose of the ritual. The result of the proper invocation of that symbol may then be termed the ‘feeling of success’ for that ritual. In the conservative mode of ritual this feeling of success (re)instills the society’s values and meanings in the participants. If this is oppressive, the oppression is reinforced, even if it is granted some manner of relief, as mentioned above. In a like manner, for a symbol to be invoked to engender a desired change in a society it must feel like the successful embodiment of that change.

In summary, we can see that if ritual is to function in an innovative mode it is then necessary to construct a live-throughable determinant order encrypted into invokable symbol(s) which has a subjective form that is the feeling of the successful, that is intended, revaluation.



As an empiricist, for me the only value in a descriptive theory is in its ability to be prescriptive. Thus, on the basis of the above modeling and further ritual theory, a method can be constructed to form a program for socio-cultural change. The overarching pattern will be Arnold Van Gennep’s Rite of Passage structure of separation, transition and reincorporation.

Robert Moore gives the context wherein we can begin the opening act of separation saying, “a transformative space… is elicited whenever an old psychological adaptation has outlived its usefulness and must be transcended”. [Moore 1989:158] However, while oppressed people know that the state they are in is not working, being distracted by their own suffering, they often do not feel the matter with sufficient focus as to cause change. We had an inkling of this in our discussion above of how ritual gave relief from oppression to the Korean Shaman and the women of Madonna. The Buddhists place great store on this notion as it comprises the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, that ‘all are suffering’. This necessitates getting out of denial on the part of those suffering and oppressed, forsaking all means of numbing the pain through addiction to substance (drugs) or process (neurosis or unsupportive religiosity). Thus the first task of the ritual is to separate people from the state of denial about their condition of suffering. To do this it is necessary to get the ritual participants to feel the pain and unsatisfactoriness of their current situation without mediation.

One objection to this may be that to reevoke the feelings of despair that arise about our suffering state is that it will simply make matters worse. ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ might be the motto of this attitude. However, an example I have experienced personally of this kind of activity working on the psychological level can be found in the workshops presented by John Bradshaw and documented in his book Homecoming: reclaiming and championing your inner child. One of the first steps in the process of coming to grips with the neurosis-producing and maladaptive behaviors engendered by codependence character disorders is to do what is called ‘original pain work’. This is the process of reclaiming the subjective memories of childhood abuse that stunted the developmental process. The continual finding is that as one comes to grips the memories of abuse and feels the suffering suppressed at the time in order to survive the abuse, one’s delayed development matures and one no longer suppresses present feelings about one’s actual needs and desires and thus is better able to negotiate adult life. In the workshop I attended Bradshaw remarked that these events perhaps constitute the rites of grieving so necessary for our future growth.

On a similar level but directed at the interpersonal and environmentally oriented dimensions of experience is Joanna Macy’s work Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age and the workshops built around it. Here the potential energy suppressed by denying the despair and anger about the endangerment of life on this planet by nuclear proliferation and environmental damage is explicitly evoked by focusing on the rage so that workshop attendees leave to enact political and social change. In both of these examples we see the liberation of energy resources through attention to the sources of suffering. In ritual terms this is the act of separation from the previous complacent state.

However powerful the grief and separation may be we know from the Rite of Passage structure that this alone is not enough to complete the process of change. Yet it is the very act of invoking our deep-felt but previously denyed suffering that will enable the change to occur. In a way, our job is to ‘get above’ the conditions of our suffering, or to ‘make room around’ it, in Steven Levine’s sense. This is where the antistructure of communitas plays its role. The suffering experienced is part of and affectively associated with the structures of our society. By moving into communitas these structures fall away. We have the opportunity, if we can get to communitas, to feel what it is like to not have the oppressive structures grinding us down. This provides both immediate relief, and, as we shall see, it provides the ground for reconstructing the society.

What produces communitas is the experience of the feeling by those present of the same forms of order within each other. “Communitas is an essential and generic human bond.” [Turner 1978:250] Its characteristics are those of homogeneity, equality, absence of rank, etc. [ibid. 252] As can be found during any natural crisis such as a flood, fire or earthquake, when people suffer together often they are bound together in that commonality Turner calls communitas. This ‘sameness of feeling’ comes from the fact that all are feeling the same thing. In terms of process metaphysics this produces a nexus among those sharing the feelings, which is to say that they all have the same forms present in their constitutions. This is the same form of unity that produces the integrity of the objects of common perceptions, such as the proverbial chair and as such is extremely powerful.

Obviously it does not matter if the source of suffering is immediate as in an earthquake or fire or made immediate and present by the invocation of the memory of suffering. The only difference is in the source of the forms felt, not in the effect of those forms. Thus the result of the separation process outlined above is nascent in the evocation of personal suffering and simply needs to be nurtured into full bloom. We can see a similar process and some of its effects in a Pentecostal prayer circle. In some cases there may be early on in the process a period of confessional and a focus of attention on personal unworthiness and sinfulness. This is the separation phase. Eventually this moves into the main body of the process, which is praise. By the entire group praising their deity with fervor and concentration, all present will embody the same forms, that of praise to the deity. Very rapidly they build up the feeling of community and commonality that is the hall mark of communitas. With the Korean Shamans suffering is the motivation behind their rites and the mark of one called to be a shaman. Communitas emerges through the sharing of the suffering, and the music and dance through the night. With the woman of Madonna, the same pattern emerges in their penitential worship and adoration of the Virgin Mother.

The task then in our ritual is to unite the participants after they have evoked the immediate experience of their own suffering. Potential resources here are spoken acts of witnessing such as occurred in the consciousness raising circles in the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Others might be processional or group dance or if appropriate symbols are found, group praise.

This stage is clearly the transition, quite appropriate to communitas, and a suitable critique of the shed structures. Yet, “this is necessarily a transient condition if society is to continue to operate in an orderly fashion. {Communitas} is the fons et origo of all structures and… structures are created by activity which has not structure but suffers its results as structures.” [Turner 1978:250] Therefore, to reincorporate, the final stage of the Rite of Passage, we must introduce or produce structure.

This phase demands the most creativity and delicacy. Whatever we use for the act of reincorporation must feel like the successful adaptation to the desired state of being that is the purpose of the entire ritual. As such it will be the dominant symbol of the rite. For example, for a Christian the embodiment of the paradigmatic successful Christian life is Jesus. Thus Christian rituals such as the Roman Mass employ the eucharist to, by contagion, enable the worshiper to embody Christ, the dominant symbol, by eating of His body.

Since the dominant symbol as an eternal object is, because eternal, always present, the only difference here is how relevant it is made in the life of those who experience it and the relationships it has with all other ideas and values. In fact it may be some symbol already present in the psyche of the ritual participants. The key factor here is that the values it embodies must be those that will enable the successful adaptation to be felt and thus known to exist. It must be felt with such intensity that it reorders the values and priorities of the participants so that they have the courage to embody the new values in changed action in their lives.In Christian terms this may be renewal or repentance. In Pagan terms, this would be the process called initiation and the encryption of the values would find verbal expression in the Vow of Initiation.

For many years processes analogous to the above method have been used to cause change in people’s lives. Macy’s and Bradshaw’s workshops are clear secular examples while Pentecostal Tent Revivals give a religious example. However, it is known among the producers of these events that backsliding is endemic. It is often very hard if not impossible for a newly changed life to maintain itself when it returns to its original environment without support. The old influences force their values upon the individual until the new ones are relegated to triviality.

To counter act this tendency ritual cults (in the positive and technical sense of the word) need to be formed. The participants in a ritual formulated as above have had a life and values changing experience, which to use the Pagan terminology would be called an initiation and they would be called initiates. This rite may be extremely elaborate so as to have the maximum impact upon their psyches but this may make it too unwieldy for regular use. Yet, due to the multivalence, polysemy and condensative qualities of the dominant symbol, it is possible to embody all the feelings associated with the initiatory rite and their inherent values in a smaller ritual. [Turner 1978:246] This will permit both individuals and small groups to gather and strengthen their commitment to the values they have chosen to live by. A cult whose symbols are valorized by the initiatory ritual would serve this function. Regular large regatherings of the whole community of initiates would on global, national or regional basis would give those values power in the community at large.



In this paper we have seen that there is a way to use the power of ritual in an innovative manner to cause change in individual’s lives. Since society is composed of individuals we can be assured that as individual’s values are changed so will society’s. Using the current and classical theories of ritual informed by the process based theory of invocation a method is available by which rituals can be constructed to enable individuals to commit themselves to values that are proadaptive to today’s challenges.

For this method to be employed a body of skilled ritual practitioners must be created to create, embody and steward the process of ritual change. However, since our theory of ritual is but nascent, they must be willing to challenge and test every notion of ritual theory and practice. For instance, communitas has been suspected of developing individuality by dropping the social constraints restricting that development. Could it be that since the West has so overdeveloped individuality that communitas would have a different effect or character? Would communitas now for an industrial, highly individualized society be the rediscovery of our tribal commonalities, our common humanity and the compassion that emerges there from? Questions to be examined on another day.

For this or any other method to be successful these ritual practitioners must demand of themselves the highest ethics since they will have their hands upon the tools that shape society for good or ill. And since they are us, we must never forget the power of the Nazi use of ritual, nor ignore the opportunity to learn from their terrible mistake. Rather we must commit ourselves to ideals of highest compassion and seek through our process of ritual transformation to end the suffering of all beings pervading space.


Selected Bibliography

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Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

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Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation, tr. W.R.Trask, New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

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Grimes, Ronald L. Beginnings in Ritual Studies, Washington D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.

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Moore, Robert L. The Liminal and the Liminoid in Ritual Process and Analytical Practice, diploma paper presented to the C.G.Jung Institute of Chicago, April, 1987.

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Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theater, New York: Performing Arts Journal Pub., 1982.

Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage, tr. M.B.Vizedom & G.L.Caffee, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1960.

Webster, Sam. “The Rite Process: a study of Hermetic ritual in terms of the philosophy of organism.” class paper, March 18, 1991.

Webster, Sam. “Concrescent Ritual” class paper, May 1992.

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Whitehead, Alfred N. Process and Reality, ed. D.R.Griffin & D.W.Sherburne, corr. ed., New York: Free Press, 1987.

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