Is „meaning“ a useful analytical category for understanding the symbolism of rituals?

Essay, 2013

5 Pages, Grade: 65%


Is ‘meaning’ a useful analytical category for understanding the symbolism of rituals?

According to Turner (1970:19), ritual can be defined as "formal behaviour for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings of powers. The symbol is the smallest unit of ritual". Even if one does not – as Humphrey and Laidlaw (1994) – accept Turner’s definition of ritual focused on a religious context, we might still agree that rituals are build up of symbols. Symbols in this moment are ambiguous, supposedly meaningful ‘metaphors’ that – so the debatable thesis of for instance Geertz (1993, 2004) and Bloch – need to be interpreted. In this essay, I want to follow three strands in the underlying debate. First of all, scholars such as Geertz and Bloch have taken over the notion of meaning as device in order to understand rituals – but added contextual dimensions to its sphere. Others have secondly dismissed the notion of ‘ritual as a text’ in favour of ‘ritual as performance’ (Lewis), whereas a third school of thought warns of the danger of the concept of meaning and symbolism per se (Humphrey and Laidlaw). If we accept the claim that rituals are made up of symbols, an approach that searches for the meaning of those symbols might be helpful – if the meaning is not imposed by the analyst. Rituals that are intended as a performative act, do not ask for a textual analysis, however. They are better understood with categories such as effect and emotion. If we add those dimensions to our repertoire of meaning, many rituals or ritual facettes can be made ‘comprehensible’. Geertz, however, does not go that far in his traditional view on meaning as the following section depicts.

In ‘Religion as a Cultural System’, Geertz (2004:113) argues that in ritual a “symbolic fusion of ethos and world view” takes place. The core of his analysis is the search for meaning in such rituals. Thus, he ‘interprets’ in his article on the Balinese cockfight (Geertz, 1993b) what the Balinese actually ‘mean’ putting cocks into a ring and making them fight. This ritual is not about aggressive cocks, but much rather the Balinese themselves. They "ley one's public self, allusively and metaphorically, through the medium of one's cock, on the line" (ibid.:434). In the cockfight, themes such as death, masculinity, rage, pride, loss and chance are put forward that are not to be debated in ordinary life: “It puts a construction on them, makes them, to those historically positioned to appreciate the construction, meaningful ... its function is neither to assuage social passion nor to heighten them ... but in a medium of feathers, blood, crowds, and money to display them" (ibid.:443/4). Geertz literally explains the ‘meaning’ of the cockfight beyond what one is able to observe in the actual ring; he reads the ritual just like a text. In more general, rituals are integrated in a logico-meanigful way as part of the cultural realm, that consists of an "ordered system of meaning and of symbols" (Geertz, 1993a:145). According to Geertz, "one place to search for the meaning of this ritual is in the collection of myths, tales, and explicit beliefs which it supposedly enacts" (ibid.:117).

Meaning is in a similar way found in the actual practice, the ‘actual encounter’ of the performance. But beyond the depiction of a pattern of meaning, Geertz understand the ritual as a form of social interaction (ibid.:168). After the explanation of the symbol’s meaning in his proposed two-stage operation of an analysis of rituals, it is hence important to embed the ritual system into social-structural processes, into its context. This point was much earlier also developed by Malinowski and later taken up by Bloch (1974). They (ibid:73,77) claim, that meaning can only be visible in the full ritual circumstances of the ceremony: “there can be no explanation without an explanation of what the event of the context is”. An alternative reading of Turner (1974:153ff,165,190ff) supports this additional focus on contextual influences in order to produce a comprehensive analysis of a ritual’s meaning. His notion of structure and ‘communitas’ hint at the importance of taking into account the collateral environment in order to understand rituals. Such a reading of rituals in their context can be seen as the first ‘add-on’ for the analytical concept of meaning.

So far, the notion of meaning has been taken at face value. What do we mean, however, when we talk about meaning? As Humphrey and Laidlaw (1994:90) argue, the concept might not be unitary, however: "We need to distinguish different meanings of 'meaning'”. Geertz implicitly talks about what can be described as a ‘lexical’ or ‘locutionary meaning’ (ibid.). This kind of meaning is also what Bloch (1974:67) describes as the ‘propositional force of language’, “the ability of language to corner reality by adapting communication to past perception and connecting this with future perception". This ‘meaning’ is roughly speaking what everyday conversation intends to transfer and what Geertz interprets reading rituals as texts. Humphrey and Laidlaw (1994:90) on the other side, claim that normally, rituals – or symbols in rituals - "do not have a lexical meaning", i.e. they do not communicate an intrinsic, standardly agreed message. This does not say, however, that they don’t have meaning at all. Bloch (1974:67) differentiates what he calls illocutionary meaning from the lexical one. Symbols, events and actions might not ‘report facts’ but ‘influence people’ (ibid.). They have "little lexical value as communicators" (ibid.:77), are imprecise and ‘drift out of meaning’, but work “emotionally and socially” (Howe, 2000:63). In this second ‘facette’ of meaning, we have found the second add-on in order to render the analytical usage of the concept useful in analysing rituals and their symbolism.


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Is „meaning“ a useful analytical category for understanding the symbolism of rituals?
University of Cambridge
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Anthropolgy, ritual, meaning, text, performance
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Johannes Lenhard (Author), 2013, Is „meaning“ a useful analytical category for understanding the symbolism of rituals?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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