The relationship between ritual and tradition has been the subject of a longstanding debate among academics. For centuries, whenever scholars thought of ritual, their minds went first to the ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church. Whether they regarded themselves as representatives of papal authority or rebels against the Catholic perspective, everyone seemed to agree that the rituals of Catholicism existed in order to preserve the church’s traditions and authority. Because Catholicism was the defining example of ritual systems, it was presumed that ritual in general would be like Catholic ritual, a social tool organized and executed by authority figures in order to maintain a stable social order. The individual people initiated into that order would change over time, but the order itself would remain the same.
In the 1960s, however, a new interpretation of ritual began to emerge. Inspired by the attention of anthropologist Victor Turner to the fluidity inherent in ritual experience, anthropologists began to see a subversive aspect of ritual activities. This new perspective was provoked by the growth of a conspicuous counterculture in America and Europe, but informed by coming of age rituals from cultures all over the planet. As young people defied the enculturation efforts of their elders in protest movements of unprecedented size, anthropologists considered how ritual activity could play a role in processes of cultural change over time. Traditional, authoritarian assumptions about ritual were turned on their heads, as ritual was reinterpreted as a mechanism for defiance of cultural norms.
Neither the authoritarian view nor the subversive model offers a full representation of the scope of ritual meaning.
As political theorist David Kertzer has noted, “Ritual may be vital to reaction, but it is also the life blood of revolution.” Some rituals seem to work mostly to promote the stability of authority, while others make a more obvious contribution to efforts to challenge the status quo. However, even the most extremely authoritarian rituals contain within them a hint of rebellion. Likewise, even those rituals that seem designed primarily as opportunities for resistance against the demands of authority contain some aspects that cooperate with, and even lend support to, the status quo.
In a changing world, stable structures require dynamic mechanisms to keep them in place. Victor Turner noted that, “Initiation is to rouse initiative at least as much as to produce conformity to custom.” Social systems that have no effective mechanisms for internal reform become stiff and prone to sudden fracture. As communications theorist James Carey noted, “Reality must be repaired for it constantly breaks down.”
The simultaneously conservative and transgressive nature of ritual has been observed in the organizations that manage our commercial-industrial culture. Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy, who specialized in studying the cultural structures that shape corporate life, observed that the most effective corporations “have rituals that mediate differences before conflict takes place.” In their examination of anthropological themes in the advertising industry, Timothy de Waal Malefyt and Robert Morais explained that, “rituals are enacted and transform social and natural reality so that a group can move forward as well as look back and affirm itself.” Malefyt and Morais suggest that the ability of ritual to support overall continuity while enabling for adaptive change can provide a competitive advantage for consumer brands, which, though they are supposed to represent lasting ideals, must also remain relevant to changing cultural expectations.
For marketing organizations, for the brands that they represent, and for the people who consume those brands, rituals work to create a powerful form of experience that can be harnessed to create lasting transformation, or to maintain stability in the way things are. In either case, the elements of ritual work together to break open the structure of the present identity. The difference between rituals that renew the stability of the present identity, and rituals that transform the present identity into something new, comes from the manner in which the power of ritual is employed.
Rituals of transformation enable individuals and organizations to make a clean break from their present identities, leaving them free to embrace new possibilities. Rituals of renewal, on the other hand, give breaks – in the sense of restful pauses – from the demands of the present identity, allowing for the expression and release of tensions that would threaten the integrity of the identity if they remained completely suppressed. Sometimes, these breaks take on the form of moments of separation from the demands of the present identity. In other circumstances, the breaks enabled by rituals of renewal facilitate small shifts between different aspects of the present identity, in order to keep the overall condition of the identity limber and fresh.