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The Disappearance and Reappearance of Rituals


Why do we need rituals?


For a number of reasons, in many settings and situations people need rituals to give them a degree of comfort, and in other situations we have always done things so routinely and not doing certain things in specific order may create problems or bring the heavens down upon us and on how we manage our anxieties.

We all have rituals even when we choose to deny these. Is it because they give us some kind of defence? Or is it because they make us feel in control? Or is it because rituals make us feel comfortable? Is it simply superstition?

As the anthropologist Mailnowski noted in Papua New Guinea, fishermen going out to see had certain rituals. These rituals made fishermen feel better about their trip on the sea. Malinowski recorded a large number of rituals that fishermen followed, as the writer Karan Johnson reports in this piece on the power of rituals. These rituals gave people a degree of confidence about their survival but also comfort to those who had been left behind while fishermen were out to fish.


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Rituals certainly provide us with an order which allows us to continue dealing with what could be a potential source of stress and distress. Rituals are a predefined sequence carried out with a degree of formality and sequence. These behaviours also have a symbolic meaning to ward off superstition or pray to gods for protection. They are seen as having a degree of predictability which introduces a degree of comfort by virtue of the constancy of the ritual.

The scientists Gino and Norton point out that rituals do have certain functions. They suggest that the symbolic behaviours we may carry out at various points are ubiquitous. In certain settings, such as weddings and death, rituals can help us celebrate and acknowledge various facets of life. Rituals are seen as a confirmation of human beings as social species, as Teddy Prout, from Humanity UK, writes.


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Not surprisingly, the rituals can be community based or individual in religious settings, personal settings or socio-familial settings. Furthermore, rituals can have very many forms, but the function by and large is to reduce anxiety and improve confidence. Rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Rituals provide a degree of familiarity which in an extreme form can turn into obsessions or compulsive behaviours.


It is interesting to note that when rituals do not work or the person perceives that they do not or have not worked, individuals still carry on doing those. Interestingly it has been argued that certain ritualised behaviours may have emerged to avoid disasters whereas others may have become peculiar and purely social activities.


It is entirely possible that certain rituals prevent infections and others reduce anxiety. It has been noted that in the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing certain behaviours such as handshakes and wearing masks have become new rituals.


The anthropologist, Rebecca Lester, makes the interesting observation that rituals such as graduation events play a certain role in the life of students. These are not only to do with milestones in students’ lives but also, according to Lester, create time for rituals. It can thus lead to celebration, acknowledgement and ending.


One can argue that certain rituals have disappeared altogether, or reduced, and other rituals have taken their place. Social rituals demonstrate what people value. Rites of passage mark specific points in one’s, life be it personal or social. These rites of passage have not reduced in prevalence, rites associated with puberty, marriage, death, still continue.


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All of us carry cultural capital with us wherever we go. Work with refugees showed that not being able to do certain rituals, such as paying homage to and performing rites and rituals for ancestors, led to cultural bereavement. Similarly, it is likely that not being able to perform rituals can contribute to anxiety and depression. Rituals can help in grief but also in business by gaining a sense of control, and rituals have been proposed manage oneself through the pandemic.


It is apparent that new rituals have appeared, some of which are purely personal and others social, especially using the social media to post events and follow individuals. It is fascinating to see even when walking the number of people who have their phones in hand and are busy reading or answering texts, although it is likely that at least some of them would be looking at street maps.


Although Han (2020) argues that rituals have disappeared as a result of neo-liberal capitalism, and it may be that certain rituals in businesses may have gone down or changed shape, in cultures around the globe rituals are thriving, and it is likely that as we enter more uncertain phases due to conflict and climate change people will revert to rituals to reduce anxiety.


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