Rituals & Rites of Passage in Society

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  • 0:01 Making It Official
  • 0:50 Rituals
  • 1:57 Rites of Passage
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Anthropologists can learn a lot about a culture by understanding the rituals that are practiced by a community. We'll look at examples, such as a vision quest and a Las Vegas wedding, to consider this topic.

Making It Official

Mina and Jeremy just got engaged. At first, they didn't want to have an official marriage, but over time, they decided that they wanted their relationship to be legally recognized. They also wanted their friends and family to know that they planned to stay together for the long run. After announcing their engagement, Mina and Jeremy start the process of planning their wedding and the rituals that will take place as part of the ceremony.

A wedding is an example of a ritual. This lesson examines rituals and their function in society. We'll also consider how rites of passage, in particular, are structured and how these ritual events play a role in the experience of the larger community.


Rituals are typically formal social ceremonies that take place in a prescribed way, often in a sacred context. Rituals follow established customs, such as when those getting married say their vows to one another. These rituals convey information about the culture and about the participants of that culture. Those who attend recognize the ritual as having an important meaning. Participating in a ritual provides an opportunity for an individual to fulfill a social commitment to their community of people.

One day, during the process of planning the wedding, Mina says to Jeremy, 'I don't want to deal with these wedding details anymore. Let's elope!' They catch a plane to Las Vegas and 24 hours later, they're hitched. Mina and Jeremy have just participated in a modern-day secular ritual of getting married in Vegas. It may not have involved her community or even a sacred space in the traditional sense, but nonetheless, they have followed a different type of ritual with its own customs and meaning in society.

Rites of Passage

Some rituals, like marriages, may be considered a specific kind of ritual known as a rite of passage. A rite of passage is a tradition that marks a time when a person is moving from one state of being to another. We're not talking about moving states, like from California to Illinois; instead, rites of passage are about taking on a new status in a community.

Growing up as part of the Lakota Sioux tribe, Jeremy experienced a rite of passage, known as a vision quest, when he was a teenager. Though many in his community experience vision quests at various ages, the vision quest he experienced was to mark the transition from being a young adult to a man entering adulthood.

Vision quests, as practiced in his tribe's tradition, involve help from a medicine man to take on a journey that will involve visions and connection with spirits through self-sacrifice, such as abstaining from food and water for several days. Jeremy may experience this rite of passage to help him gain knowledge he would not be expected to obtain for himself.

There are generally three stages to rites of passage, such as vision quests: separation, liminality and incorporation. The first is separation. This is a time when Jeremy focused on withdrawal from the group and physically distanced himself from others in a secluded location. In some rites of passage, this distancing does not need to happen literally, as with Jeremy going off on his own for days. Instead, the separation stage can relate to the loss of a previous identity, such as dramatically changing one's hair.

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