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Does ritual exist? Defining and classifying ritual based on belief theory

The Journal of Chinese Sociology20185:5

Received: 20 March 2018

Accepted: 17 April 2018

Published: 12 May 2018


Either “rite of passage” or “ritual” facing deadly difficulties as analytic concept, we have no way to differentiate common behavior, rite of passage, and ritual in a strict sense until today. Depended on carefully reading, we find that Van Gennep’s original expressions of nearly all basic features of the rite of passage are vague; the only thing we can ensure is that ritual object will change through the rite of passage. Gluckman tried to save the rite of passage with social relations, but his effort failed because common behavior also changes social relations. By examining three cases, air journey, Ilongot headhunting, and Yiche ancestor worship, we find that formalization, standardization, or routinization is not the essential element of ritual. The core of problem is what people want to change by ritual. Applying the belief theory as a way forward, we use the change of relations between two categories of mental existence but social relations for the definition of ritual. Then, we equate rite of passage with ritual and restrict ritual within religious behavior. Furthermore, according to the kinds of mental existence what we want to change in ritual, we classify two kinds of ritual.


Rite of passageRitualReligionBelief anthropologyMental existence


Traveling away from home but not for the purpose of subsistence is a kind of human behavior which has been widespread in all societies since ancient times. However, it was until the late twentieth century that the tourism changed from the luxury of wealthy people into the general necessities of life. At the same time, the tourism promoted the development of related industries around the world. How to determine the coordinates of tourism in cultural anthropology and how to establish an analytic framework of tourism are hot spots among tourism anthropologists’ discussing. Graburn and Nash, two important researchers in the anthropology of tourism, have debated these basic questions. Graburn (1977, 1983) suggests that tourism is a “modern ritual” in contemporary society. When people are away from home, they are out of daily life and into the travel life which is different from the routine work and life. When the travel ends, people rebirth back to the previous daily life with experience of travel. Using Turner’s classic analysis of pilgrimage, Graburn has carried out the same structured treatment for the tourism. Corresponding to Turner’ ritual theory, the structure-anti-structure-structure, Graburn divides the life of the tourist into three stages: secular work-divine travel-secular work. Not for a long time after Graburn fully presented his opinion of tourism as rites of passage, Nash came up with the idea that the purpose of travel, the attitude towards travel, and the travelers’ behavior in the travel vary from person to person, not all kinds of the travel are similar with pilgrimage. Therefore, Graburn’s points of view “can be a profitable way to analyze some tourism, but that we should be wary about being trapped into any one conceptual scheme, particularly one that may be beginning to acquire a quality of truth in the minds of its proponents.” (Nash 1984)

Academic argument is normal, but what kind of behavior is a rite of passage is not. This kind of argument seems to be more likely to occur among undergraduates. But now, the fact is that two scholars immersing in the anthropology for many years have debated this “superficial” issue, which is really interesting. The matter reminds us that as one of the basic concepts in the research of ritual, the rite of passage does not have a clear definition. Therefore, we must return to rites of passage, observe, and study its meaning.

The meaning and difficulty of the rite of passage

In 1909, a French academic book named Les Rites de Passage was published. The author Van Gennep contributed an analytical framework for the ritual called as “rite of passage.” Van Gennep lived at the beginning period of anthropology-sociology and was dedicated to finding the general structure of the ritual. The discussion of rites of passage began with the difference and the separation between the profane and the sacred, which was the generally recognized proposition at that time. Van Gennep found that the individuals must go through an intermediate stage when they cross between the profane and the sacred. In general, when a member of a society changes, such as birth, adulthood, marriage, and death, people usually need to hold ritual for them, which indicates changes or transitions of an individual. Van Gennep called these rituals as rites of passage, all of which were “accompany a passage from one situation to another or from one cosmic or social world to another.” Furthermore, Van Gennep subdivided them into rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of incorporation (Van Gennep 1960:10–11). There are many examples given in the book; they are used not only as the argument for supporting the theory but also for establishing how to use this abstract theory on empirical cases. “Our interest list not in the particular rites but in their essential significance and they relative positions within ceremonial whole -- that is, their order. ...... The underlying arrangement is always the same. Beneath a multiplicity of forms, either consciously expressed or merely implied, a typical pattern always recurs: the pattern of the rites of passage.” (Van Gennep 1960:191).

Intentional or unintentionally, the rite of passage refers to the basic structure of the ritual. It is a pity; this advanced study did not attract the scholars’ eyes, not until the publication of the English translation in 1960 which made “rites of passage” a rebirth, sparking a widespread concern in academia. Meanwhile, some difficulties in “rites of passage” also rose to the surface.

Van Genne’s discussion of “transition” begins with the sacred-profane dichotomy; according to Young’s research, it is regrettable that the universality of this classification was questioned by Malinowski in 1913 (Young 2004:ch.12). Today, in anthropological research, it is also rare used. If the sacred-profane dichotomy is not true, then we can naturally ask the question: what kind of individual attributes have changed before and after “rites of passage”? What is the meaning of “transition”?

Two years after the English translation of Les Rites de Passage, a book edited by Gluckman was published. In this anthology, Gluckman, Forts, Forde, and Turner, four leading anthropologists of British school at that time, each wrote a paper on rites of passage. The title “essays on the ritual of social relations” expresses the consensus of the four authors. Following the research path of Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown, Gluckman and others placed investigating the change of the social relations at the core position of studies of rites of passage, unequivocally maintaining the sociological explanation of ritual. In recognition of the extraordinary insight of Van Gennep, the anthology also emphasized the limitations of the era of Van Gennep. Van Gennep’s statement, “acts of a special kind, derived from a particular feeling and a particular frame of mind” (Van Gennep 1960:1), is identified as psychological explanations for rituals; at this point, Van Gennep was criticized and rejected. Gluckman’s article was placed in the first place of four papers, having an eye-catching French title “Les Rites de Passage”—the complete namesake of van Gennep’s book. It seems to suggest the article’s guiding position in the anthology, as well as the intense desire to challenge Van Gennep. In the beginning of the essay, Gluckman said he would “set out his (Van Gennep) main theory, which was about the sequence of rites used to alter people’s social relations...I argue that because he lacked an adequate theory about the nature of society he was unable to develop implications which he himself sensed in his major, very important, discovery.” (Gluckman, 1962:1) Forts echoed Gluckman in the thesis: after rites of incorporation, individual incorporates “into a new structure of social structure, or conjuncture of the social relations.” The reason why people hold a ritual probably is the ritual changes the individual’s status, role, or position (Fortes 1962:55–57). In all four papers, the sacred-profane dichotomy is not the core of the “rite of passage” but the transition of social relations is—the individual social relations change before and after the ritual.

Victor Turner, the most important developer of the Van Gennep’s transition model and also the student of Gluckman, continued to consider the investigation of the change of the social relations as a vital approach in the analysis of ritual. Turner inherited the three-stage analytical framework from Van Gennep, which was further abstracted into structure-anti-structure-structure processes. In Turner’s view, before the separation phase begins, social members are connected by a fixed social relationship web. The daily norms of behavior control the behavior of people, and the social structure is in a stable state. The separation phase separates the ritual object from the previous society and makes them into the marginal stage. At this phase, the ritual object frees from the structure of society; in a state of fuzzy edge of social position, the situation of people can do something in violation of the daily standard; and stable social structure is destroyed. Turner sees this phase is anti-structure, before it can be seen as the structure. Finally, in the incorporation phase, the ritual objects return to the society; they establish new social relations with other members of the society; the daily norms were reaffirmed; and the society returned to stable state. Turner argued that marginal phase is the most important and wonderful one in the three stages, which is usually the longest part in the rite of passage, because society needs to take advantage of this phase to break the original state of society and rebuild new social relationship and structure. This is a dynamic process, and signs and symbols representing different social relations emerge unceasingly, showing their own strength, becoming the arena of social relations, and the final winner bringing people back to a new static structure (Turner, 1977:82–84). Turner noted that the seemingly disruptive edge of society is ultimately a tool for society to strengthen its solidarity. For the people who participate in transitional ritual, such as pilgrimage, social differences between individuals and ranks will disappear in the edge phase and full equality between individuals will form a strong sense of mutual acceptance, making community without difference. The community will continue to exist after the stage of incorporate and social solidarity will be greatly strengthened (Turner, 1977:ch.3). We can see that, after Turner’s extension, the rite of passage has the function of strengthening social cohesion, which is consistent with the main point of religion in Durkheim’s Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (Durkheim, 1912). Ironically, though Van Gennep was regarded as the rival of Durkheim and pushed aside in his lifetime, through the efforts of Gluckman and Turner etc., his points have been integrated into the structure-functionalism (Turner 1974:ch.5).

Along the approach of social relations, we also want to know if there is a one-to-one correspondence: can we say that every ritual changing people’s social relations is the rite of passage? Conversely, the rituals which do not change social relations are not rites of passage? This is also to walk away from the confusion in Les rites de passage. Van Gennep simply described the rite of passage but did not define the boundaries of it. More difficult, Van Gennep’s text made more confusion to the following questions: is rite of passage a kind of the ritual, or a process model of ritual, or the use of modern word a ritual structure? In the beginning of discussion in Les rites de passage, the rite of passage was not included in the 16 categories (Van Gennep 1960:9). After that, it was looked as ritual process for many times, especially in the parts I have quoted before in this paper and in chapter 10 “conclusion”; so, the rite of passage is meant to be a ritual structure. But also in the opening and conclusion, Van Gennep made almost contradictory judgment, “I do not maintain that all rites of birth, initiation, etc., are rites of passage only” (Van Gennep 1960:192–193, the same meaning also in p.11). In some ethnic groups which see childbirth as a normal behavior, “the pattern will be transposed to the rites of childhood, or it may be included in the rites of betrothal and marriage.”(Van Gennep 1960:193) Such a statement cannot be said without doubt: if the rite of passage is a ritual structure, how can it be discussed with childhood, engagement, or wedding rite! It is clear that Van Gennep was talking about a mixture of ritual structure and ritual purposes, and the “process pattern” in his text is not just a kind of abstract structure which we call today. We should forgive Van Gennep, since in the beginning of anthropology, this type of defect was almost unavoidable. But the question is left to us, ritual, rite of passage, and social relation, what is the relationship between them?

Although Gluckman distinguished four kinds of ritual: magic action, religious action, substantive or constitutive ritual, and factitive ritual, pointing clearly that rite of passage is a typical constitutive ritual (Gluckman 1962:23), it is a pity that the standard of division is not the change of social relations; thus, we cannot judge the precise positions of the rite of passage and the social relation. Turner just conducted a deep study of the ritual which has the structure of rites of passage; then, it is more helpless to answer the question. So, should we transform ideas like Leach, see ritual as a communication level which all behavior have (Leach, 1970:xiv, 13)? This is actually a cancelation of the boundary between behavior, ritual, and rite of passage which is followed by the proposition—“in all human societies, the great majority of ceremonial occasions are ‘rites of transition’”(Leach 1976:35), but why most, not all of them? What is the remaining part of the ritual1? Leach did not give us an answer.

Van Gennep also was perplexed by the generating question, “neither their (rites') close relationship nor its cause has been perceived, and the reason for resemblances among them has not been understood. And, above all, no one has shown why such rites2 are performed in a specific order” (Van Gennep 1960:vii).

Whether Van Gennep’s original analysis, or a more elaborating frame after Turner’s development, they are all anatomy of ritual, both cannot answer such generating question, why the same type of rite of passage shows huge differences between the ethnic groups. The analysis of rite of passage in different ethnic groups reminds us of another fact: although the process structures of different ethnic group are the same, the specific behaviors are very different. The ethnography after Van Gennep continues to enrich this ritual diversity—one side of human cultural diversity. In the case of the initiation, the Nuer boy in East Africa has to cut six long marks in the forehead with a sharp knife (Evans-Pritchard 1940:249). In Yunnan, China, a New Year ritual for children over the age of 13 is to change the clothes of the children, the boy “wear trousers” and the girl “wear skirt” (Cai 2000:139–142). In my field survey, the parents would build a “little house” for their children to live near the main house—the sign of the child becoming an adult. There is no specific age requirement for children to sleep apart from their parents. Each family will determine the time according to their own economic and construction conditions, usually between the ages of 8 and 13 years. For the girls of Yiche, they begin to have the hairstyle of young girl and wear the hat of young girl’s style. In addition, there is no observed initiation in Yiche. In today’s Han village, the traditional initiation is almost dead. Differences of initiation in ethnic groups are a common sense in anthropology, I cite a few examples above, just intending to emphasize that although initiation usually is regarded as a typical example of rite of passage, its complexity, duration, and even it exists or not are difference according to ethnic group. There is a spectrum of initiation from zero to complex. The cause of the spectrum is complex and opaque (Winzeler 2012:ch.6). This means, and in strict, we do not know what initiation is. (1) Why do some people need physical surgery to mark the grown-up, such as circumcision, which will bring children great physical pain, especially in the society that anesthesia technology is not developed while some people even need not change the type of clothes. (2) Ritual will change in different times. People will create rituals but also eliminate rituals. What makes these changes? (3) Van Gennep tried to classify the rites and repeatedly stressed that the initiation should not only be considered as a rite of passage; can rite of passage be treated as a ritual type? If so, what other types of rituals are there? Or can we only use rite of passage as an analytical tool, and is there another ritual process pattern? (4) Finally, Van Gennep knows that the identifiable degree of three stages of the rite of passage is different in different ethnic groups of the same kind of ritual or different rituals in one ethnic group (Van Gennep 1960:139–141); what is the cause of these differences?

In Gluckman’s essay “les rites de passage,” he puts forward two propositions, with the aid of Durkheim’s theory of social division of labor, trying to answer why tribal society, involving social status change and general social relations, has far higher ritualization degree than modern society.
  1. (a)

    The greater the secular differentiation of role, the less the ritual, and the greater the secular differentiation, the less mystical the ceremonial of etiquette.

  2. (b)

    The greater the multiplicity of undifferentiated and overlapping roles, the more the ritual to separate them (Gluckman 1962:34).


Two propositions have echo of that time of one line evolutionary theory and Weber’s rationalization theory. Gluckman’s real hope is through the degree of differentiation of social role to answer the generating question. According to this hypothesis, it is easy to arrange the Nuer, Na, Yiche, and Han into a sequence of the social differentiation degree from low to high; this order also represents their social development degree and rationalization degree. Unfortunately, the degree of social role differentiation is not accurate enough, hardly to make evaluation to the whole society. Even we can say Nuer is in a lower degree of social differentiation, it is so hard to prove Na, Yiche, and Han villager have obvious difference degree. For Yiche, we will easily find their social life filled with rituals. They have not only a large number of religious ritual experts but also ordinary people who bear the task of some certain rituals, such as sacrificial rituals within the family house. So can we include Yiche into a highly ritualization society? Why is it difficult to observe the existence of adult rituals in a society with highly complex funeral ritual? Why is there such a big gap between the same society’s treatment of different roles? From Gluckman’s proposition, we can easily deduce with modernization and the rationalization process society will abandon ritual, but this claim has already been falsified by experience materials, religion, and ritual which have not ended by the profane (Stark and Bainbridge 1985). To this day, is it not highly ritualized that English people still talk about the weather (Fox 2004)? Gluckman’s theory inherits the genetic defect of functionalism theory: it cannot provide a powerful explanation for the diversity and ritual changes in the various ethnic groups. Noticing the limitation of functionalism, Turner regained the psychological way criticized by Gluckman, risking excessive interpretation and extensive use of psychoanalysis, finally made a hodgepodge of functionalism, psychology, and structuralism (Turner 1967:ch.1).

Social relation and belief

We have seen many difficulties in the concept of rite of passage through analysis above. Gluckman believed that the change of social relations brought by the ritual is the core of the rite of passage, but he did not realized that the change of social relations originates from the identity change of members of society, which is clearly pointed by Van Gennep. Below, I will continue to explore the causes of identity change by using the belief theory.

When people hold a ritual, they always have an aim, some existence that are targeted at the ritual, and we call the ultimate target existence as the ritual object just for convenience. Before and after the rite of passage, the social identity of the ritual object will change, which is the most general purpose of the rite of passage. The social relationship between self and others is determined by the social identity of the self and the other. Once the social identity changed, the social relationships of him and other members of the community naturally shift. Further, social identity is a kind of social classification of individuals; the category of ritual objects can be changed by rites of passage. Humans are social animals that have to rely on classification to know the world. We try to put everything in the world into a certain category (Durkheim and Mauss 1969). The human classification system satisfies the formal logic in most cases, and the classification itself implies the jump and fracture when we engage in the classification activities. The position of classification of existence can give us a sense of security. Fuzzy classification position means not clear, someone, or object in this situation; social relations cannot be sure; and people’s behavior can appear chaos because of the lack of reliability. In many cases, the existence that has not been clearly classified can be considered unclean and dangerous (Douglas 1966). Rituals help to bring impurity into the clean. Rites of passage are rituals that change the classification of things (Bourdieu 1980:347–349).

Classification is a judging process about the existence. Once completed, people will give the existence a classification position—in the form of propositions, such as “standing in front of me was allies, not enemies,” “this fungus is poisonous, can’t be eaten”, and “that one is nontoxic and can be eaten.” “It (intelligent being) has to put objects into categories so that it may apply its hard-won knowledge about similar objects, encountered in the past, to the object in the hand.” (Pinker 1998:12). In the theory of belief, the belief in proposition (I only use the concept of belief in this sense) dominates people’s activities (Cai 2008:132). Once we made a judgment, it guides our way. Specific to the classification process, the way we treat an object depends on which category we believe it belongs to but it actually belongs to. When we believe the person before us is child, we communicate with him in the way to the child whether his/her real age; when we believe that the fungus we harvest is non-toxic, we eat it. Now, we re-examine the rites of passage and find that what happens before and after the ritual is nothing but our belief. In Nuer and Ndembu, before the initiation of the boy, people believed that the ritual object was children, regardless of their biological age; after the rite, people believed that they were adults, no matter their biological age. The rite of passage has changed our belief of the ritual object in the adult or not, that is, the rite of passage has changed the way we judge the ritual object. The Samo in Burkina Faso, with an asymmetrical bilateral kinship system, has a big range of social consanguinity banned to marriage (Cai 2008:53). Some couples unfortunately have been found out that they are in the prohibition range after marriage. A remedial ritual can be held to cut off the cultural sanguine relationship between couples and legalize the marriage (Héritier 1999:155). We see that before the ritual, Samo believes that two people are social consanguinity; the marriage between them will do harm to the society; and upon the completion of the ritual, people will no longer believe that two people are connected by cultural sanguine relationship; that is why, the marriage becomes harmless.

The rite of passage inevitably involves the change of people’s belief of the ritual object. The society holds that the change of belief requires a ritual, and the ritual will be performed when needed; on the other hand, if they believe that the change of a certain property of existence does not require ritual, then we will not observe such ritual in the community. The presence or absence of a rite of passage and its degree of complexity was decided by beliefs—whether it is necessary or possible to change it through a ritual—and the difficult degree of the change. For example, for current Han villager, it is believed that the transition from children to adults is a biological process and no ritual is required. If the society cannot accept a sudden change from A to B, there may be a ritual to complete this transition; if there was no such ritual, the transition would not happen. For example, in the Han society, there is no ritual to cut social consanguinity; the only solution of the marriage between them is divorce. The belief in ritual action determines whether a ritual is held, and rituals change our belief of the ritual object.

Now, I argue that the rite of passage is the activities aiming to change people’s beliefs. So are the activities, which intend to change the people’s belief, the rites of passage? If the answer is yes, we can draw an equal sign between the actions that are intended to change people’s beliefs and the rite of passage; if no, we need to find out which of those intending to change people’s beliefs does not belong to the rite of passage.

Action, belief, and ritual

Beliefs are the causes of people’s actions. Before we act, we will make a judgment on the possible effects of this action and begin to act only when we believe that the action will at least reach a certain valuable aim. We must act because we believe in the judgment that we have already made and believe that our actions can change the state of the object of action. On the surface, there is another type of behavior that is intended to keep the object steady rather than change it. But by careful analysis, we find that keeping state depends on certain aspects of changing object against possible changes, such as anti-aging to keep fit, pleasing ancestors to keep the family well-being. So all the actions are intended to make some kind of change. Specific to the ritual, we believe that the classification of ritual objects before and after our actions will change. Even if the daily ritual of ancestor worship is based on the judgment of the ancestors’ satisfaction, we believe that ancestor worship can change the state of our ancestors—from possible dissatisfaction to satisfaction. If we believe that after an action, nobody and/or none of the states of things will change, and our beliefs of the action object will not change, then why should we go to carry out this action? People take a particular action because they believe in the function of the action; when people do not think the action will play a proper role, there are three options: abolishing the action, changing the action, or introducing new actions. It can be seen that action must be intended to change our belief of the object of our actions. Of course, on occasions, the action objects will change their own beliefs about themselves because of the actions.

The rite of passage belongs to the ritual, and the ritual belongs to the action. The proposition for general action is also true for ritual. So, like rites of passage, rituals are meant to change beliefs too. Is there a difference between the rite of passage and the ritual?

Grimes has intended to distinguish different types of changes. “Ritual practices such as daily meditation and weekly worship are responses to recurring needs. These rites move but do not transform. By contrast, when effective rites of passage are enacted, they carry us from here to there in such a way that we unable to return to square one. To enact any kind of rites is to perform, but to enact a rite of passage is also to transform.” (Grimes 2000:7) Grimes seems to try to distinguish between movement and transformation according to the change of social roles, but can we say that there is no difference of social role between a daily prayer and a person rarely praying? A change that never comes back cannot be defined as a transformation, marriage can be divorced, and death can be followed by reincarnation. So now we see: rite of passage is the ritual to change the belief, action, and ritual which must be to enact for changing beliefs, so rite of passage, ritual, and action are equal. According to our daily uses, this conclusion seems extremely absurd, and what exactly the problem happens?

In general, we use ritual to “refer to any fixed or stereotyped practice, behavioral pattern, or embellishment that has no evident instrumental purpose beyond communication or symbolization” (Winzeler 2012:ch.6). Let us look at two famous anthropological “definitions” of ritual firstly. Ritual “denotes to any activities with a high degree of formality and a nonutilitarian purpose” (Buckser 1997). Ritual is “prescribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technical routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings and powers” (Turner 1967:19). Both of them cannot be used as definition of ritual; they point out the surface phenomena that apply to certain rituals, without pointing out the entity of ritual, to make matters worse and also introduce the wrong and misleading words. Is it highly formalized that we go to work every day at the same time? “Nonutilitarian purpose” should be judged from the perspective of contemporary natural science, but can we say that there is no practical purpose for the rain praying? In the latter statement, “technical routine,” “mystical,” “prescribed,” and “formal” are increasingly difficult to be clarified.

Here are three examples.

The first case is ordinary flight process not long ago. When we want to travel by air, we must first buy air tickets at the booking point, or by telephone or Internet. After that, at least, we should arrive at the airport at least half an hour before departure, in exchange for boarding passes, checked luggage, and boarding the plane through security. When the plane arrives at its destination, we get off the plane and go out of the airport with luggage. Anyone with a travel experience is familiar with this, and no one will ever see it as a ritual. But with a simple analysis, we find that this process is in line with rite of passage. The process of buying our tickets is similar to getting engaged, its separation ritual, and we start building relationships with airline. From the departure of the boarding pass, we entered the liminal phase. At this point, we have constructed social relations with airline. If we are late for boarding after that, the airport will use radio reminder us hurry; the plane is maybe therefore postponed. But the airport will not remind the passenger with air ticket but no boarding passes. After boarding, all passengers on the same cabin form an anonymous passenger community until the flight is over. After we leave the plane, we regroup into the social fabric. This process is clearly a prescribed formal behavior, highly formalized, and no use of technology application, and even the faith of mystical power, a card with some printed symbol which makes us on the relationship between the airline and airport.

Now, the second case is the headhunter of the Ilongot in Philippines. The male looters at the headhunting are lurking, waiting for the best time to show up, hit victim, cut his head, get it before falling on the ground, and at last run away quickly. The headhunting success is believed to make the “older men discard the weight of age and recover the energy of their youth, whereas youths advance from novice status and adorn themselves with red hornbill earrings. To wear such earrings, they say, is to gain the admiration of young women” (Rosaldo 1980:140). For boys without a successful headhunt, this is a case of unquestionable rite of passage; but for someone who is already a veteran hunter, it is more likely the need to meet their constant distress. Obviously, for no one is waiting for you to hunt his head, the headhunting process is highly technical and flexible. There is no formal regulation or formal behavior in it.

The third case is ancestor worship. In my survey, each family of Yiche needs to enact ancestor worship activities at various festivals. In most families, these ancestral activities are performed independently by the hostess. Yiche is patrilineal and patrilocal. Before a married woman becomes a hostess, she must learn how to worship not only from her husband’s mother but also from her own mother. There are some differences in these activities from one patrilineage to another. Ancestor worship activities are formal and highly formalized and are closely related to the mystical thing, the spirits of ancestors. The way of ancestor worship is only inherited along the patrilineal line; there is no standard for whole ethnic group. The same phenomenon has also been observed in other area. In the same or similar ethnic groups, the same ritual with the same name has a different pattern of behavior (Rappaport 1984:118).

Through the analysis above, we see that some daily routine, which is usually not considered to be a ritual, is in many ways consistent with the core characteristics of the ritual. The Ilongot’s headhunting is more likely to be referred to as a ritual rather than an ordinary behavior, but with few characters of ritual. Yiche’s ancestor worship is very obvious ritual, but there are differences between any two patrilineages, no prescribed standard of the whole society, more like a daily activity. Both theoretical analysis and case study have shown how difficult it is to draw a line between rite of passage, ritual, and everyday behavior.

The way out

In his 1961 paper, Goody (1961) tried to define the ritual by means of the relationship between means and end. In 1977, Goody (1977) proposed a radical view that, given the inability to separate rituals from common practice, the use of rituals should be abandoned as an analytical concept. In this paper, Goody got the conclusion not by carefully analyzing Van Gennep’s rites of passage, Gluckman’s social relationship. He did not discuss his own 1961’s definition neither. This route did not elicit much reaction from the ritual, and other researchers continued to use the ritual as an analysis object. With slightly revised, the 1961’s paper was reprinted in an anthology named “Myth and Ritual and the Oral” (Goody 2010) in 2010. There is no 1977’s paper in this book, and never mentioned, it seems to suggest that Goody has given up the route 1977 and returns the 1961’s definition. Goody argued in ritual “the relationship between the means and the end is not ‘intrinsic’”, but what is intrinsic had no answer.

Facing Goody’s negative argument, lots of scholars have abandoned the attempt to precisely define ritual. In the 1990s, Bell (2009a) questioned the way treating ritual as entity (1992). Later, she emphasizes there is cultural differences on whether a set of behaviors belong to the ritual. Bell (2009b) suggested using a behavior spectrum from rite behavior to the class (ritual-like), replacing the definition of ritual (1997: part II).

Many scholars expressed supporting or similar views on Bell’s approach. Humphrey and Laidlaw argued that the ritualization was the real core of the theory of ritual (Humphrey and Laidlaw 1994). After examining the numerous definitions of rituals between 1909 and 1991, Platvoet (1995) thought that the ceremony had a broad range. Snoek (2006) gave a very broad definition of rituals from the perspective of behavior. Stewart and Strathern (2014) agree with Bell completely in their recent book (2014).

According to epistemology, it is equivalent to enlarge extension of concept and to cancel it. In physics, from γ ray to far infrared are electromagnetic waves; they satisfy the basic equations of electromagnetic waves; and they do not become independent analytical concepts. According to Bell, from the ritual to daily behavior is a behavior, so we can say some everyday behavior is a ritual-like behavior and also can say some ritual is a kind of daily behavior; there is no difference to cancel ritual.

The belief theory can reveal more clearly and concisely the significant difficulties hidden behind the existing ritual concepts and make our analysis a step forward. When Leach asserted that most of the rituals are rites of passage, he did not tell us the other types of rituals, but he must be aware of the rite of passage model can explain most of the ritual. If we combine ritual, rite of passage, and action, it is natural to say that all of these actions are rites of passage and that they can be naturally analyzed in three steps. When we generalize the transition ritual pattern to the analysis of all behaviors, we announce the end of the ritual analysis. So, if we cannot find revolutionary ways, rituals and rites of passage must be abandoned.

We have already concluded that all actions, including rituals, are intended to change. Then, if the ritual exists, it is natural to conclude that the changes seeking by the ritual are different from those of the non-ritual. In other words, if we succeed in finding a certain type of purpose, ritual with and non-ritual without, then we can continue the usage of ritual to analysis; if we fail, we must abandon the usage of ritual.

In traditional use, rituals are usually associated with the supernatural, mysterious, and other words, and one of the reasons why previous efforts failed is that these words cannot be used as concepts. In addition, the cause of confusion is that we do not know exactly what kind of entities have changed and what kind of relationship has changed. Ritual is based on the belief, as Durkheim has said: “only after having defined the belief can we define the rite” (Durkheim 1995:34). We also often use rituals as common practices in religion, so if religion can be separated from non-religious areas, there is a hope for the definition of ritual. Defining religious ritual will come to first step to define ritual.

Fortunately, attempts to define religion have recently been evolved. Cai, in his study, divided mental existence into two types: mental existence without material support (ME1) and with physic support (ME2). There are two kinds of ME1, including spirit and demon. There are two kinds of ME2, human and medium. After distinguishing between the mental existence, Cai (2013) defines religion as an association between two types of mental existence.

In Gluckman’s view, the ritual changes the social relations between people, which leads to the “boarding ritual” above. For ritual, in my opinion, change of relationship is very important, but what the ritual intended to change is not social relations between people, but the ME1 and ME2, for which I will define the ritual in religion as follows:
  • Rituals are ACTS aimed to change the relationship between the ME1 and ME2.

In this definition, I put the subjective judgment of the actor but not the ritual object in the first place, the actor including ritual demander and performer. As long as there is an action in order to change the relationship between ME1 and ME2, the action is ritual. So, whether a behavior is a ritual is determined by demander and/or performer’s belief, rather than ritual objects or the other members of the society. So there are individual rituals which only admitted by actor himself but not other social members.

Such as the analysis of change of social relations before, the change of relationship happens because the one end of relation changes or two ends change: ME1 changes, ME2 changes, or ME1 and ME2 all change. In the real society, people change ME1 for the purpose of changing ME2; there is no pure word that refers to ME1, so the ritual also has two categories:
  • Ritual 1 (R1): the actor intends to change ME1.

  • Ritual 2 (R2): the actor intends to only change ME2, but it will change the relationships between the two MEs.

It is a R1 that actor consciously induces a change of ME1, including pleasing, soothing, intimidating, and overcoming. There are some actions which ultimate goal is not ME1, such as rain praying, but as long as the necessary condition of the ultimate goal includes ME1’s change, and actor has clear consciousness about ME1’s change and takes action; this action is R1. There are other behaviors, such as conversion, that there is no change of ME1 on the surface, but in order to change ME1’s attitude to ME2.

R2 only change ME2, in actor view; R1 does not change ME1 but will affect the senses between ME1 and ME2. For example, people take certain actions to make ME2 unperceivable to ME1 or to make ME1 perceivable to ME2. If the behavior is only considered to change the ME2, and has nothing to do with ME1, then it is not R2.

The actor does not consider ME1 at the beginning of the act, which was not a ritual; once he/she takes into account that the actions will lead to a change of ME1, the act is transformed into a ritual. After the action, the actor realizes that his behavior would cause a change of ME1; the action is still not the ritual. The actor does not acknowledge the reality of ME1 and uses some action of “desecration” to against those who acknowledge ME1; these actions are not ritual.

Rituals must be religious actions, but vice versa are not. At least two types are not in it. The first type only changes ME2 but does not think that it will affect the ME1. Such a religious believer tries to improve the level of their religious knowledge by studying religious classic (but as long as believer thinks that the study process will affect ME1, the study process becomes ritual). The second type is the actors do not believe that there is ME1 when they act, but other members of society believe that this behavior causes a change of ME1.


With so much effort, we are fortunate to continue to use the ritual as an analytical tool. If this definition succeeds, it will greatly simplify our research work, and it will also clearly define the objectives for our ritual study.

First, my definition is given for the ritual in religion. In my opinion, there is no secular ritual, so the definition is for all rituals. In future, if we could find some actions wanting to change a certain category of existence different to general behavior, it will not be late to enlarge the limitation of ritual.

Second, determining whether or not a behavior is a ritual depends on whether people believe that the behavior will make a change or influence in ME1. The ritual degenerates into a common behavior when people begin to suspect that a ritual can change or affect the ME1 until they ultimately do not believe in the effectiveness of the act. In many societies, one of the very common phenomena is that although people no longer believe in some sort of ritual can change ME1, they also act according to the process of the ritual behavior for some reason, what people do now is no longer the ritual, just a set of behavior has the same process of the ritual. “Sacrificing to the spirits, you should comport yourself as if the spirits were present” (Confucius 2003: Book3.12) is not a ritual. Sometimes, people use certain characteristics of traditional rituals to create new behaviors. These behaviors are ubiquitous in non-religious life, such as secular wedding, graduation ceremony, and inauguration. Because of these seemingly ritual processes, we have a chaotic understanding of rituals, now maybe we can call them ceremony.

Third, the concept of rite of passage will be abandoned. People believe that a behavior process is needed to change the ritual object, which does not necessarily have a particular structure.

Fourth, the key to the ritual is that people believe that certain behaviors can affect the ME1, so it does not matter whether such behaviors are performed according to the fixed procedures. Just like the ancestor worship of Yiche, there are differences between the patrilineages. Our focus will be on how the ritual will lead to a change in ME1 and/or ME2, and the corresponding technique, no longer the vague meanings which even local people cannot know exactly (Bloch 2004).

Finally, we leave the generating questions of the ritual to cognitive psychology and other disciplines, maybe they can solve these puzzles in the future (Boyer 2001; Stausberg 2009).


Leach did not make different usage between ritual and ceremony.


In general, anthropologist uses rite as the same meaning of ritual.




Mental existence


Mental existence without material support


Mental existence with physic support


Ritual 1, the ritual in which the actor intends to change ME1


Ritual 2, the ritual in which the actor only intends to change ME2, but the ritual will change the relationships between the two MEs



This study is funded by the Scientific Research Foundation for Returned Scholars of Ministry of Education, Humanity and Social Science Fund Youth Project of Ministry of Education (11yjc730003).

Author’s contributions

The author read and approved the final manuscript.

Author’s information

Qing Lan is a lecturer in the School of Social Administration, Kunming University.

Competing interests

The author declares that she has no competing interests.

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Authors’ Affiliations

School of Social Administration, Kunming University, Kunming, China


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