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Ritual Creativity Introduction

Created, Crafted and Made Meaningful: Steps to a paradigm shift in Ritual Studies

Katri Ratia, Fribourg University

"Ritual is as much an action as a category, as much a fact as a perspective, as much an expression as an experience." (Cardita 2016)

The very emergence of ritual studies as an independent field of study was an indication of a broad shift in the humanities. The move was away from textualism, and towards accepting multiple factors in the nature, functioning and formation of ritual. Contemporary ritual studies is a multidisciplinary field, but its history for much of the way is linked specifically with anthropology and religious studies – fields that have gone through significant reformations and re-centerings in the last decades. Many of the established perspectives into ritual are founded on increasingly crumbly foundations. In addition, ritual studies has gained insights from the research on ritual contributed by a wider range of disciplines, such as psychology, cognitive science, medical science and folkloristics.

The Western understanding of religion in general has shifted, pulling the main currents and paradigms of religious studies in its wake. Some changes in the academic view of religion have been ground-breaking, and they have a bearing on the understanding of religious practice and ritual. One of the more significant shifts concerns the growing awareness of how religious forms are contingent upon historical paradigms. This move has been attributed to a general re-evaluation of the cultural workings of the Reformation and the age of Enlightenment, and their influence on the concept of religion (Seligman et al. 2008, 179). Further consideration should be given also to the impacts of political and economic standards, such as the sovereignty of nation-states that has been hegemonic for centuries, or the universality of the market, which has been named the current predominant trend (Gauthier 2019).

The most often-heard explanation is that the Christian and specifically Protestant philosophy saw religion as mainly a matter of personal belief. Thus, religious traditions were seen essentially as systems of belief that could be compared on the basis of the content or coherence of those beliefs, and devotional practice and ritual was seen as the outward reflection or the beliefs. The Protestant influence, and the evolutionary currents in Western thinking amounted to a view of ritual as an ‘authoritarian, unquestionable, irrational set of constraints on the individual’ (Seligman et al. 2008, 180; Orsi 2013), contributing to the theoretical formulations of the functionalist approaches in the study of ritual. The following post-Protestant and post-Enlightenment developments did lessen the authoritarian views of ritual, but only to place the framework of belief even more firmly as the foundation, as with the Geertzian theories on ritual.

Ritual is a complex concept, its definition remains debated, and there are multiple theories on ritual. The timely question is, does the theoretical repertoire include firm approaches that are able to tackle all kinds of rituality, and analyse all kinds of ritual functions? Are we still dismissing certain forms of ritual as untypical, marginal, or simply not ritual at all? The late great Roy Rappaport still defined ritual in a way that shirks variance and innovation. Tellingly, he also persisted in using terms like ‘liturgy’ when discussing ritual. At the same time, Rappaport (building on the notions of Turner, who in turn was building on Van Gennep) was aware of ritual’s subjunctive quality (note 1) (Rappaport 1999, 217 & passim). The re-centering of ritual theory has been long in the making. (Rappaport 1979, 1999)

Ritual has been thought of as characteristically and primarily rule-bound, and much of ritual theory has started with this premise, viewing the various aspects of this prescriptiveness. But the fixity is just one side of the ritual coin. Rituals can incite change, and rituals themselves change. Is there any reason to assume that those aspects where the rules are flexible and movement happens wouldn’t be just as characteristic to ritual, or essential to its functioning? Thus, the question is: how to build and consolidate models for ritual studies that are able to view and analyse those features of ritual that are not picked up by traditional theories, such as their plasticity, their links to other cultural domains than religious belief, or the aspects of agency and interpretation that are not completely contingent upon tradition?

Ritual Creativity

In the 2014 special issue of the Journal of Ritual Studies (n.28 vol.2) focused on ritual creativity, anthropologist and religious studies scholar Sabina Magliocco wrote about the history of ritual creativity both as an element of Western ritual traditions and as an analytical category in ritual studies. She suggests that the Western world has seen ‘an explosion of ritual creativity’, as secularization has left people deprived of meaningful rituals, and neoliberal capitalism has commercialized the remaining traditional ritual occasions (2014, 1). The special issue in question included several articles on creative rituality among women and emphasized the themes of emotion and the female body, portraying examples of the empowering and defragmenting cultural work of these rituals. But creativity in ritual is not a novel feature as such.

In research, ritual was traditionally seen as something conservative. Structuralist views cast ritual as a reflection of the society and its values, and symbolist views see ritual as signs referring to the underlying culture as a coherent language. Concepts related to creativity came up gradually, and one of the first was Victor Turner in his book The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. Turner's handling of ritual combined established ritual theories with his own field data, and in addition to structural aspects, discussed the transformative potential of ritual through the now-famous concepts of liminality and communitas. Turner's book was critical of the prevailing ritual theory and talked about the ‘anti-structural’ elements in ritual, and ritual as an arena of social change. (Turner 1969)

Decades later Catherine Bell, in her book Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (1992), revolutionized the understanding of ritual by presenting ritual as essentially both conservative and transformative, identifying the dichotomies that are at work: continuity and change, individual experience and social forms, beliefs and behaviours, as well as thought and action (Bell 1992, 25). Bell also asked new kinds of questions about ritual – about the role of the body in ritual, as well as power and authority – and she defined ritual as a way of acting instead of a set of specific acts, underlining the meaning of ritualization as a process. Finally, Ronald Grimes’ books on ritual brought the concept of ritual innovation fully into the discussion. (Bell 1989, 1992; Grimes 2000, 2006)

Catherine Bell explains ritualization as drawing a ‘privileged contrast’ between the ritual acts and the similar, conventional acts they refer to, evoking the idea of ritual’s special relationship with reality (Bell 1989, 302). Bell refers to J. Z. Smith’s 1987 book on ritual, To Take Place, where Smith discusses ritual’s relational nature:

"Ritual is a relationship between “nows” - the now of everyday life and the now of ritual place; the simultaneity but not the coexistence of “here” and “there”." (Smith 1987, 110)

Smith was aware of the subjunctive nature of this relationship:

"[r]itual is a means of performing the way things ought to be in conscious tension to the ways things are." (ibid., 109)

In her 1990 article Bell recalls other scholars who have discussed ritual’s characteristic relationship to reality:

"This aspect of ritual (or social) practice has been variously described by a number of scholars, as seen, for example, in Gregory Bateson’s notion of “schismogenesis”, Terence Turner’s study of dual opposition, and Jonathan Z. Smith’s observation that “ritual is, above all, an assertion of difference.”" (Bell 1990, 303; Bateson 1958, Turner 1984, Smith 1987, 109)

This specific relation or a difference has been the cornerstone of certain ritual theories that are able to perceive ritual as something more than the proverbial paper weight on a stack of scripted reflections of belief.

Frames, Relationality and the Ritual Subjunctive

Gregory Bateson wrote about the human mind and expression, noting the fact that not all human communication is completely straightforward. Sometimes humans pretend. Bateson explained that the more complex modes and functions of human expression (exaggeration, deception, play, etc.) are based on the meanings created by the difference between the actual expression and what it refers to. The ‘playful nip’ is the classic example. Bateson created the concept of framing and prompted its use in analysing forms of human life such as play and ritual. The Batesonian legacy in ritual studies has been advanced by anthropologist and sociologist Don Handelman, who developed the concept of ritual frames into an elaborate tool for analysing ritual (Handelman 2006, 2012, Strathern & Stewart 2012).

There is another aspect of ritual’s relationality that has been developed into a theoretical configuration: the portrayed and implied relationships between ritual actors or between ritual actors and nonhuman entities. Religious studies scholar Michael Houseman examines the relationality between ritual actors, stating that seen this way, ritual is a unique way of enacting relationships: “Specifically, ritual is one of what must surely be several basic organisational poles or attractors governing the perception and patterning of embodied social action” (Houseman 2006, 427). In this perspective, ritual is also essentially about the difference and reference between what is and what could be. (cf. Berthomé & Houseman 2010)

Already Victor Turner discussed ritual’s subjunctive nature, using the term in his 1977 article (p. 71-72). His insight has been developed and expounded by the scholars Adam Seligman, Robert Weller, Michael Puett and Bennett Simon in their 2008 book Ritual and its Consequences. The subjunctive perspective into ritual focuses on the way ritual creates its own version of reality, a possible alternative, where things refer to but are different from the non-ritual world (Seligman et al. 2008, 17). Seligman et al. also point out that this perspective can be found in writings on ritual dating back thousands of years, in texts belonging to traditions such as Confucianism and Judaism.

The ritual subjunctive focuses on the human capacity of imagination and creativity, mirroring recent theories that have been examining the nature and role of play in religious traditions (Hamayon 2016, Droogers 2012, 2014). Play and ritual have clear parallels in that play is also dependent of the creation of a subjunctive universe set in a specific, meaningful contrast with reality. The concept of framing has been utilized in the analysis of play in various branches of research, as it has in the study of ritual. The ritual subjunctive has been explored by scholars of ritual, and we will present two relevant ideas regarding ritual and subjunctivity.

Two Subjunctive Models

Seligman et al. present an idea of a division between ‘ritual’ and ‘sincerity’, what they call ‘two “ideal typical” forms of framing experience, action and understanding that exist in all societies, in tension with one another’ (Seligman et al. 2008, 7). With ‘sincerity’, they refer to the view that ‘sees the “essential” or constitutive arena of action (often read as intention) as something within the social actor or actors, with the external, formal ritual seen as but the marker of these internal processes’ (Seligman et al. 2008, 4). The problem with this view of ritual is that it largely leaves the social and cognitive aspects of ritual out of the picture (as well as the somatic, etc.). The other pole of the model represents rituality that is contingent on the outside: following tradition and social conventions. Regarding ritual, ‘sincerity’ prompts questions about ritual’s meaning, whereas the mode of ‘ritual’ asks what ritual does.

Somewhat similarly, Roberte Hamayon has observed how ritual can be more or less rule-bound, and suggested two ritual modes, and a scale ranging from what she calls ‘worship-type’ ritual to ‘play-type’ ritual. In Hamayon’s model, the 'worship-type' signifies rituals that are performed according to a specific, prescribed form, and are thought to be efficacious when they adhere to it as well as possible. ‘Worship-type’ rites thus minimize aspects of uncertainty and indeterminacy, and imply a vertical relationship to the transcendent other(s) that involves little room for creativity or variation. (Hamayon 2016, 292-293)

On the other end of this scale are ‘play-type’ rituals that involve a more complex interaction between humans and their transcendent counterparts in ritual. In play-type rituals, ritual actors and the transcendent counterparts are perceived in a horizontal relationship, either combative or complementary. Hamayon sees shamanistic rituals as typical play-type rites, where the ritual actor might be negotiating, competing or trading with the transcendent as equal players of the same game, and the efficacy of the rite is assessed according to ideas involving the specific rituals actions, and the perceived intentions and results of the rite. (Hamayon 2016)

Hamayon focuses on play and its heightened capacity for subjunctivity. She names two main elements of subjunctivity: margin and metaphor. Margin refers to the difference between the versions of reality and the leeway or space that allows for the subjunctive forms. Metaphor refers to the representational relationship between reality and the ritual forms (Hamayon 2016, 280-282, ch. 17). We suggest that the same applies to the subjunctivity of ritual. We need to pay attention to the leeway, (fr. ‘marge de jeu’), to locate the creativity in ritual, and to the representational relationships between ritual forms and reality to perceive the dynamics of creativity.

Ritual creativity is not absent in ‘worship-type’ rites or those guided by ‘sincerity’, but it seems that there are significant differences when compared to the opposite modes. Seligman et al. state that the ‘ritual’ mode is the more subjunctive one, creating a shared “as if” version of humans in the world, whereas the ‘sincere’ modes concentrate more on unambiguous and absolute visions of the world “as is” (Seligman et al. 2008, 8-9). But, as an example, we see a characteristic mix of sincerity and rituality in forms of contemporary 'spiritualities’. The tropes of sincerity are exemplified with fundamentalisms and Protestantism, but a deep concern for ‘authenticity’, understood as the harmony of individual’s subjective views and outer activity are present also in the contemporary alternative-holistic spiritual traditions, a field where ritual creativity is not only abundant but a benchmark characteristic.

The subjunctive approach manages to combine various views on ritual. Instead of disputing whether the gist of ritual is in the symbolic expression, the social order, human emotion or somewhere else, it allows for any or all of these aspects to be examined as parts of rituality. Ritual is not monolithic (even it might happen around one à la Space Odyssey), and the differences in ritual settings across the world and throughout the history need to be accepted in any general theory on ritual. Seligman et al. point out the problem with Durkheimian (note 2) and Geertzian traditions in relation to the subjunctive approach:

"Moreover, the meaning produced through ritual action always exists in problematic tension with the nonritual world. This is why seeking to analyze ritual in terms of larger vision of unity – whether found in the functioning of society or a meaningful system of signs – is so problematic, and so often misconstrues the actual workings of ritual." (Seligman et al. 2008, 26)

Visions of unity and harmony are part of conceptual thinking - perhaps as much in the study of ritual (or religion, culture, etc.) as they are in the life-worlds of the ritual subjects. Building a theory is a task involving abstractions and modelling. At the same time, it is essential to remember that also here, the model is not the thing it refers to. The map is not the territory, and the menu is not the meal. Reality remains more complex than our models of it. Theoretical models involve clean-cut discernment, clarity, simplification and generalization, in order to help us in the task of analysing specific aspects of complex realities.

Human rites

The overarching view used to be that ‘traditional’ societies are governed by ritual, but ‘modern’ societies are individualistic, granting the ‘modern subject’ her autonomy, although conditioned by the existence of an inner belief system. Studies on ritual efficacy have shown, however, that also the modern subject is susceptible to various psychological / physiological impacts of ritual, ranging from the placebo or context effect to the social transformations that ritual can produce. The idea of the modern subject, especially in relation to religion, should be seen more as a wishful projection, continuing the evolutionist ideas of radical development and a veritable leap between the premodern and modern humans, reflecting perhaps the biased nature of unchecked human thought more than any significant or permanent change in human rationality or autonomy. (Sax, Quack & Weinhold 2010, Vasquez 2013)

One of the rising trends in ritual studies is looking outside of the world of institutionalized forms of religion, under the labels of ‘lived’, ‘everyday’ and ‘popular’ religion. There is a landmass of vernacular traditions where rituality seems to operate on different sets of dynamics than institutional forms do. We should also take a critical look at the possible other biases in the research traditions of religious science and anthropology that might weigh in ritual studies, such as the influences of other typical imbalances of focus: favouring socially dominant forms of culture over minority views, congregational forms over other styles of religious community, and Western, institutionalized ideas of religion over others. (Bender et al. 2013)

The rising trends on materiality and lived religion have, for their part, brought the understanding of ritual away from assumptions of wholeness and harmony. Ritual involves various levels of apparent coherence and consistence – but many rituals show a messier whole underlying the organization of the surface. There are various levels of nonverbal components, multiple and contradictory meanings, less-than-fully defined symbolism, contributing to all kinds of ambivalence. Ritual and creativity in the ritual frame often deal with partial, fragmented, and contradictory aspects of reality, and simultaneous crosscurrents. Symbolism involves conscious meaning-making and expression, but there is also the nondiscursive: the subconscious, sensuous, intuitive, emotional, and somatic. There are shared cultural meanings, but also the meaning produced by the ritual action itself. There is the level of social order and dynamics, but also the subjective and local spheres. Ritual is a central part of religious practice, so much so that some scholars are still reluctant to view ritual separate from religious behaviour. But, there are also the various functions and uses of ritual outside of explicitly religious settings: ritual in healing and therapy, performance and art, cultural creation, social processes, rituality in learning, or in training a skill or a trait, and much more – also things like economy, politics and even marketing.

Ritual theory can – and should – be able to take the ambivalence or polyvalence of symbolic meaning into consideration. Regarding meaning in ritual, Michael Houseman talks about ‘under-determination’, seeing it as a necessary component:

"(…) the distinctive evocative qualities of ritual acts (including ritual speech) and their inherent conceptual uncertainty are two sides of the same coin. Ritual participants are thus engaged in concrete, prescribed performances whose exact meaning, in terms of everyday intentionalities and patterns of intercourse, remains nonetheless unclear." (Houseman 2006)

We have called the polysemy in ritual ‘relatively indeterminate symbolism’ (Ratia forthcoming, see also Gauthier 2014, 2018). Don Handelman has described a ‘fuzziness’ of ritual frames that is apparent in e.g. forms of Neopagan ritual (Handelman 2006, 575; Lindquist 1997), and discussed the paradoxical qualities of ritual frames (Handelman 2006, 581).


If ritual can be seen as an instrument of both transformation and conservation, the impacts of creativity, variation and intentional, even conscious ritual design need to be fully examined. At the same time that ritual theory needs to perceive the relevant, it should not over-simplify. There are unanswered questions concerning ritual and the level of the individual, as well as social dynamics and broader cultural creation. Instead of asking if a certain ritual is religious, we should ask what the religious dimensions of that ritual are. And similarly – what are the political, economic, psychological, or social dimensions? Subjunctivity is able to provide one segue between religion and another form of world-creation – politics:

"In short, the subjunctive describes the world, not as it is, but as it might be. This “might be” is the root of both movements of political resistance which seek to model life differently than the status quo and of religious world-construction through theology, myth and ritual." (Miller 2019, 6)

As an example of recent work regarding ritual and political organization, the recent research project REDO (Reassembling Democracy: Ritual as Cultural Resource) at the University of Oslo examined the impact of ritual creativity in societal change, and specifically in democratic development.

Human sciences involve a general dichotomy between the ideas of individualistic and social / historical determination of human action, discussed and debated since its formation. We hold that the solution lies in moving beyond the divide, and certain recent works in sociology of religion provide an example of a synthesis of internally and externally determined social action, such as Alain Caillé’s work on the gift, and André Droogers’ and Roberte Hamayon’s respective studies regarding play and religion (Caillé 2008a, b&c; Caillé 2013, Droogers 2012, 2014; Hamayon 2016). The question of creativity in ritual is not as simple as a turn from external to internal determinants, but perceiving what we believe to be the full(er) picture - the dynamic and interplay of two opposing but interdependent poles of human thought and action: obligation and liberty (tradition / innovation, rules / variation, prescription / creativity etc.). The uncharted waters of ritual lie more on the side of liberty and creativity, and specifically with the interaction of the two poles.

Talking about ritual creativity also doesn't mean ignoring the fact that rituals are clearly rule-bound. Catherine Bell listed ritual characteristics in her 1997 book Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, and four out of the six characteristics she mentions have to do with rules of one kind or another: formalism, traditionalism, invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism and performance (ibid., 138-169). Thinking about ritual creativity means asking new questions also about these rules. How are they formed? How strict are they? How do they influence the ritual process, or its outcomes?

Here are some more questions regarding the various paths in ritual studies:

What can we learn about the range, nature, and varieties of interplay between obligation / liberty within the ritual process? What does ritual creativity mean for ritual efficacy? How does it relate to religious plurality and multireligious or ‘underdefined’ religious expressions? What are the differences in rituality between weakly institutionalized forms of religion (‘spirituality’) and the instituted forms? What about rituality outside of explicitly religious contexts? How does the scope of creativity differ between different ritual modes (worship/play, sincerity/ritual), and what about its functions, or questions about authority or the ways of legitimation? What can we learn about tradition and its formation in general? What are the factors involved in ritual creativity and change among institutional religious forms? (The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed also institutional ritual forms through rapid changes, for an example.) What is the significance of ritual’s context? What are the limits of ritual creativity?

Ritual is work, said the J. Z., and surely, rituals work. Ritual is a potent instrument for both transformation and conservation. Ritual is ancient, and primal – it’s older than language, and older than our species. On the other hand, humans really have the knack of relational thinking that is at the core of creativity. How do we harness ritual creativity as a theoretical focal point that can inform us the best on the full functioning of ritual, the original human technique of working with ourselves and the world?


1) The term subjunctive is derived from linguistics, where the subjunctive mood is used to indicate a hypothetical situation: a potential or a possibility such as a wish, a suggestion or a doubt.

2) Regarding the ‘Durkheimian tradition’ - the established understanding of Durkheim in the anglophone realm of sociology is criticized of deriving much of its meanings from a poor translation over-emphasizing the ideas of society over the individual, which one does not find in the original french. On the contrary, Durkheim’s theory is probably one of the best interactional theory available, much less reductionist to society than Goffman and much less reductionist to the individual than Becker. (At least that’s what François says.)


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