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Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice Paperback – 28 Jan 2010

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (28 Jan 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199733627
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199733620
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 13.5 x 20.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 436,061 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Carl Thebo on 25 Sep 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A good going through concerning rituals - a good point of departure when studying rituals further studies understanding made easier
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Amazon.com: 11 reviews
72 of 77 people found the following review helpful
Groundbreaking, but no sort of introduction 15 Feb 2004
By Christopher I. Lehrich - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
First of all, a little word of warning:
As seems to be generally agreed, Bell's writing style is more than a little dense, and while she in some sense introduces ritual theory, she really assumes you already know a great deal about it. Consequently, the book is simply not approachable unless you have already read most of the works to which she refers. If you've been assigned this for an undergrad class, or a beginning grad class, you have been cheated. Professors, please, don't assign this until people have already read Smith, Levi-Strauss, Durkheim, Frazer, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard, Geertz, Ortner, Bourdieu, de Certeau, Turner, Grimes, and probably Derrida for good measure. This is a wonderful book if you know all that stuff; it's truly painful if you don't.
I first read this when I started grad school, and I hated it. Couldn't see the point, frankly. Bell's criticisms of various theories seemed worthwhile, but as she doesn't really propose a new method in the end, what's the point? So I dropped it happily for a long time.
Then I came back to it, almost ten years later, because I found myself delving very deeply into ritual theory, its history, and its future. Suddenly I saw what Bell is up to, and realized that this thing stands as one of the single most important contributions to the field.
Now how can both be true? Well, here's the short, grossly-simplified version.
First, Bell argues that pretty much all current ritual theory tends to cleave along a fault-line: thought/action is the usual form. That is, people DO ritual, and THINK something else. She then turns to a deconstructive approach, and demonstrates that this is logically nonfunctional. She's right, by the way. Whatever you think of the rest of the book, this argument (about the first quarter of the book) leaves smoking rubble where the vast majority of ritual theory used to be.
Next, she picks up the notion of "practice," as formulated by Sherry Ortner, Michel de Certeau, and Pierre Bourdieu, and argues that ritual is a mode of practice, and thus continuous with other modes of behavior within everyday life.
BUT, you see, one of the oddities of ritual is precisely that it usually is understood by the people doing it as NOT continuous. This, she argues, is one of the defining factors of ritual as a specific mode of practice: the practice of "ritualization" largely depends on the construction of a division between ritual and other behaviors, within the culture in question.
Armed with that as a structure, she goes and proposes a new way of looking at ritualization, rather than ritual; that is, she wants to look at the way people ritualize rather than the product of their constructive process.
Personally, I suspect that this shift to ritualization drags us right back into action rather than thought, precisely the thing she wanted to get out of, but the way she does this is very, very slick.
Now here's the $64,000 question. Did you understand, or care about, almost any of what I just wrote? If yes to both, you're going to love this book (or hate it, but enjoy the process). If no to either or both, don't read this.
Once again, would people stop assigning this book to those not prepared to address it intelligently? It's simply not fair, and you should be using the time on something more useful and approachable.
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Valuable Contribution to Ritual Studies 13 May 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This book is an advanced study in the nature of ritual as both an expression of cultural forms and a mechanism for transmitting and altering these forms. It synthesizes recent post-modern theories and field observations to challenge many past academic ideas about the nature of ritual, even suggesting that "ritual" is not a thing, but "ritualizing" is a practice with certain social and religious aims. It is very technical, and following the author's argument requires a lot of familiarity with the field. Despite the tough going, specialists will find this book brilliant and insightful, and no future theory of ritual will be able to ignore it.
24 of 31 people found the following review helpful
I love this book! 12 May 2004
By William A. Brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Of the many books I've read in my (admittedly limited) anthropological career, none have had as profound an effect on my understanding of what ideology is or of its relevance to social structure. The book is ostensibly about ritual (or "ritualization," as Bell comes to call it), but I think its relevance extends to ideological discourse or semiosis in general. Most of what Bell has to say about how symbols and ideological themes are exploited by participants in the course of ritualized activities can be extended to semiosic commerce in general. Similarly, the subtle political negotiation which is said to be accomplished through the ritualized manipulation of symbols probably underlies virtually all ideological commerce.
What I love most about Bell's book is its explicit critique of the Gramscian Marxist concept of ideology's relationship to power. Bell offers the rather straight-forward argument, "if your juridical or military apparatus is powerful enough to coerce a subjected group without fear of subversion or recourse, what need have you to whitewash your hegemony with ideology?" Bell makes the Foucaldian argument that ideological discourse does not disguise what needs no disguise, but rather what does; we encounter ideological interaction not when one group's domination of another is impregnable, but rather in cases where neither group can clearly dominate the other without considerable cost or risk, giving way to negotiation and compromise between competing free agents. Ideological discourse shows up in such scenarios because it is through the manipulation of symbols that compromises are rendered tolerable by lending them an aura of cosmic rightness, thereby redeeming the participants' negotiated lots in life and society.
Bell's argument flies in the face of traditional structural-functionalism, which reads the individual and individual agency out of the sociological equation. For structural-functionalists, ideologies act upon individuals by instilling in them a homogeneous set of values and motivations; individuals are passive and plastic while ideology is active and firm. Bell's reckoning reverses this picture: individuals manipulate ideology in the discursive process, acting on behalf of their own self-interests; ideology becomes the effect of human activity rather than its cause (Umberto Eco and Marvin Harris have made similar arguments in their own works). Thus, social cohesion is achieved not because humans are fundamentally social creatures (as the social-functionalists contend), but either because one group coerces another by virtue of force, or else because approximately equally matched individuals realize that there is more to gain from cooperation (with minimal loss through compromise) than from resistant hostility (with excessive loss through costly open-ended conflict).
If I have any major criticism of Bell's book, it is this: she presents ritualization as an intuitive, instinctive enterprise, undertaken only in those scenarios when it is the strategically most effective option (in other words, when competing agents are too equally matched to effectively dominate one another). Yet, human decision-making is regularly inhibited by poor or incomplete information, the neurological limits of information-processing, hastiness, and faulty or dogmatic opportunity-cost associations. (Neoclassical economic thought has suffered similar criticisms over the past few decades.) So Bell's contention contra Geertz that there is no such thing as a failed ritual seems ill-conceived. On the contrary, an inequitably well-endowed agent may submit to compromise because he or she fails to appreciate the possibility of a one-sided dominion, while another may overestimate his or her means and thus attempt to engage in coercive hostilities to ill effect. Throughout her book, Bell frequently uses the term "strategy" to characterize ritualization, yet she neglects the long, unfortunate history of failed military and economic strategies (cf. Barbara Tuchman's "The March of Folly" and "The Guns of August" on the history of failed military strategy). Why, then, should the political strategy which Bell has labeled "ritualization" be immune from similar catastrophe? While I do not agree with Ronald Grimes at every point, I think he is more on the mark than is Bell for conceeding the possibility of "ritual infelicity."
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
dense but good 6 Feb 2004
By gringo perdido - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
It seems that people either love this book or hate it. I personally fall into the former category, but I understand the frustrations exhibited by some of the other "reviewers" here. She delves deeply into pre-existing theories on ritual, from early social scientists like Durkheim and Mauss as well as newer, trendier people like Bourdieu, Foucault, and Derrida. It appears that she, along with most academics in the social sciences, is in love with the French (but she does bring in some Goffman and Geertz).
I read most of the book a few years ago when I was in the field and was somewhat lost at times. Coming back to it a few years later with lots of theory under my belt, I was able to cut through her (sometimes exceedingly) obscure and obscuring writing style to get at the tasty nuggets inside.
She reviews earlier ideas of ritual then proposes her own ideas, which intentionally fall short of an overt methodology (God forbid a postmodern scholar actually prescribe a methodology!).
It's good stuff, but not for the faint-of-heart or those who haven't been previously exposed to postmodern philosophy and at least a bit of ethnography.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Ignore the Petty One-star Reviews 22 Jan 2014
By Thomas J. Breidenbach - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Some people lack the humility to recognize that just because they fail to understand a book does not mean that the book is not understandable. More's the pity that on these pages they can trash it with impunity. This pearl deserves a beaming five stars any day, rather than the one given to it by several of those it has, in the democratic market place, found itself cast before.

Ritual might be described as the "rocket science" of the humanities, and anyone who has seriously looked into the subject knows that Catherine Bell's studies on it are not only brilliant, but indispensable. This is no less so because she has not attempted to dumb-down a demanding subject that has brought many brilliant minds to theoretical loggerheads.

No, this book is not for the person who wants to walk away with an easy thumbnail definition of ritual. (So if you want a primer on the subject that simplifies it for you, or if you are looking for a "how to" book on ritual, this book isn't for you.)

Yes, this book is a highly serious and learned theoretical contemplation on the subject of ritual in all its complexity. No one has thought more about ritual, or about what other people have thought about ritual, than Bell. The serious student of the subject is deeply in her debt, as major figures in the field of ritual studies readily acknowledge. If you want the clear-headed and nuanced opinion of a brilliant woman who read most everything there is to read on the subject (from the perspective of social theory, that is), then you'll cherish this book as much as I do.

Especially if you have read her other major work on the subject (Ritual), this book is a knockout. In the prior work, which is more of a survey of current thinking on the subject, Bell describes the history of, and major figures in, the field of ritual studies. In this book she presents her own position on why ritual has proven so difficult to analyze and agree upon. In short, she argues (effectively) that ritual cannot be understood without appreciating its peculiar resonance within the broader social/cultural spheres wherein it is performed. She suggests that the term "ritualization" is better than "ritual" at indicating the complex and dynamic efficacy of ritual practice. Whereas "ritual" seems to suggest that a rite can be readily lifted out of its social context and examined, "ritualization" invites a simultaneous examination of the culture wherein the rite is performed. It also invites a consideration of the varied effects of ritual within ritual cultures. Bell notes that rather than achieving a simple social unity or harmony (as is naively assumed), ritual produces a complex and seemingly contradictory variety of responses to itself, responses which nevertheless serve to structure ritual societies, if in a far more multifarious manner than has usually been recognized. Ritual does not so much produce consensus, then, as compliance. This distinction becomes particularly illuminating when we think of ritual's fundamental relationship (historically and anthropologically) to power. Ritual works not so much by getting people to agree about its nature, meaning, or function; rather, it works by getting them to disagree with one another in strategically complimentary ways, and by privileging certain forms of disagreement over others. This implies a great deal about the nature and subtlety of ritual's (as well as power's) effectiveness, and about how the ritual process may be most potent among those who are inclined, for instance, to doubt its very existence.

In the contemplation of ritual, then, it is as though we happen across a certain border of human perceptivity, behind which lies something singularly profound (however unsuspected) about ourselves. Bell is entirely too insightful and tenacious a thinker to slight that momentous intimation, especially as it edges most nearly into view only under the sustained critical attention which she has afforded her subject.

Read with patience, Bell's works on ritual are (appropriately enough, considering the subject matter) a revelation. Whatever the efforts of some to belittle them, they comprise an unsurpassed academic meditation on a most austere issue.
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