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The Degradation Ceremony in Sociology

Neffertia Tyner, Yolanda Williams
  • Author
    Neffertia Tyner

    Neffertia received her B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Diversity Studies from Michigan Technological University and her M.S. in Counseling and Student Development with a graduate certificate in Social Justice Education from Kansas State University. Neffertia has 5 years of experience tutoring middle school to college-aged students in reading and essay writing, working as a writing coach, and instructing student success courses.

  • Instructor
    Yolanda Williams

    Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Learn about a degradation ceremony and the degradation ceremony definition. Discover the components of a successful ceremony and key research on the subject. Updated: 01/24/2022

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What is a Degradation Ceremony?

A degradation ceremony, also known as a status degradation ceremony, is used to transform the identity or status of an individual to an identity or status lower in the hierarchy of a group or institution. Sociologist Harold Garfinkel introduced the term degradation ceremony in his 1956 article "Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies." The term highlights the impact of societal reaction to deviance in everyday life. Garfinkel studied the purposes and effects of a degradation ceremony and determined there were five components to a successful degradation ceremony. Degradation ceremonies can be formal and informal and are demonstrated in everyday life through universal societal practices.

Degradation

In everyday life, people define degradation as the act of treating someone poorly or with no respect. Unlike in a status degradation ceremony, this form of degradation is publicly or privately acted out by a single individual against another. An everyday example of degradation is a boss privately berating an employee for making a mistake. In a degradation ceremony, the event is a public affair led by a denouncer and accompanied by witnesses. Although in both cases, the individual being degraded experiences feelings of shame and humiliation, degradation in everyday life may not result in the transformation of the individual's status within the community.

Harold Garfinkel

Harold Garfinkel was a professor emeritus affiliated with the sociology department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). While at UCLA, Garfinkel focused on developing sociological theories that explained how members of society collaborated to shape and influence the social order, rules, and expectations. These theories became a subdiscipline in sociology called ethnomethodology. In 1956, Garfinkel wrote the article "Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies" that introduced the term degradation ceremony (or status degradation ceremony). He defined a degradation ceremony as communicative work between individuals to transform one's total identity into an identity lower than the group's scheme. Garfinkel's short story titled "Color Trouble" is said to demonstrate the status degradation ceremony of a young Black woman. Garfinkel wrote the short story to discuss the African American experience in society during his time. The story moves through the conditions of a successful degradation ceremony of a Black woman who was treated unfairly while on a bus in the state of Virginia.

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Purpose of Degradation Ceremony

The purpose of a degradation ceremony is to transform one's total identity to that of a lower status. This process is typically used to make an individual accept external control and reinforce social norms. The publicization of the degradation ceremony offers a platform for the denouncer to speak of the perpetrator's transgressions and the impact it has had on the community. It also allows the larger community to bear witness to (sometimes participate in) the accusations, criticisms, punishment, and ostracization of the perpetrator. "Perp walks," the parading of an arrested or accused person passed a large group, typically consisting of media personnel, is an example of a degradation ceremony. Perp walks serve the purpose of bringing attention to the perpetrator's alleged crime and stressing the consequences of not following societal expectations.

Degradation Ceremony Examples


Image of Alfred Dreyfus public degradation ceremony

degradation ceremony, degradation example


Garfinkel believed that degradation ceremonies exist in some form universally. Below are a few degradation examples to provide a deeper understanding of the purpose and how it is used.

  • Court Trails: When an individual is tried for a crime, a judge will publicly reprimand the individual and change their non-criminal status to criminal status. Due to societal views of criminal status, assigning an individual this status lowers their identity in society. This example also shows how a degradation ceremony is used to reinforce societal expectations by demonstrating the repercussions of deviating from said expectations.
  • Prison Inductions: During this process, individuals who have been convicted of a crime may be strip-searched, will receive a uniform and an identification number, and listen to the rules and expectations of the prison. As one is stripped of their individuality, this degradation ceremony can be used to demonstrate the power of external control. The individual will be expected to follow the rules of the prison and will not be seen as an individual.
  • Cashiering in the Military: Cashiering is defined as the dismissal from the armed forces for a serious misdemeanor. A famous example is Alfred Dreyfus's degradation ceremony in 1895. Dreyfus was accused of being a traitor and had a public degradation ceremony. During his ceremony, his sword was broken into two pieces and was stripped of his military decorations. The affair became the front cover of the French newspaper "Le Petit Journal." Like court trails, cashiering in the military can be used as a degradation ceremony to reinforce expectations and norms.

Components of a Degradation Ceremony

A degradation ceremony will involve a denouncer, witnesses, perpetrator, and an event. Ceremonies are normally publicized to denounce the actions of a perpetrator and bring shame and guilt to the individual. Garfinkel identified five important components of a successful degradation ceremony.

  • Public announcement of the transgression
  • Authority figure must proclaim the transgression
  • Group must believe the authority speaks for them
  • Perpetrator must be publicly punished
  • Perpetrator must be ejected from the group

Public Announcement of Transgression

The first component of a successful degradation ceremony is the public announcement of a transgression. The denouncer must categorize the perpetrator's actions as "out of the ordinary" and a violation of the social norms of the community. An example of a public announcement of a transgression is a court hearing. The act of transporting the perpetrator to the courtroom for a hearing serves as a public announcement that the perpetrator is suspected of committing a crime that goes against societal norms. Depending on the case, some court hearings are publicized in the media, like the O. J. Simpson trial and the impeachment trial of a president.


Former President Andrew Jackson impeachment trial

degradation example


Authority Figure Proclaims the Transgression

The second component of a successful degradation ceremony is an authority figure must proclaim the transgression. At a hearing, the perpetrator's transgression, or crime, is publicly announced to the jury and witnesses in the audience. In an opening statement to the court, the persecutor, or denouncer, will provide details of the transgression, explain the impact, and discuss why the transgression goes against societal expectations. In the specific instance of a court hearing, authority figures who can proclaim a transgression are judges, lawyers (persecutors), and police officers. Outside of a courtroom, other appropriate authority figures can include anyone with a high status in an organization, such as schoolteachers or principals, supervisors, and high-ranking military officers.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How does the degradation ceremony work?

To be successful, a degradation ceremony must meet five conditions. First, the perpetrator's transgressions must be made public. Second, an authority figure must proclaim the transgression. Third, the audience, or witnesses, must believe the authority figure is a representative of the group. Fourth, the perpetrator must be publicly criticized and punished. Finally, the perpetrator must be ejected from the community.

Which theory is the degradation ceremony associated with?

The degradation is associated with the theory of bullying. The theory of bullying states that an individual may be ridiculed and abused for violating the unwritten social norms of the group. Like a degradation ceremony, bullying can yield the same results of humiliating the individual, lowering their status within the group, and ejecting an individual from the community.

What does the term "degradation ceremony" mean?

The term "degradation ceremony" refers to the process of transforming one's total identity to an identity that is lower in status and ejecting the individual from the group. Coined by sociologist Harold Garfinkel, degradation ceremonies are said to be a universal practice.

What is the ultimate status degradation ceremony?

The ultimate and most detrimental status of the degradation ceremony is a perp walk. A perp walk is a public arrest or accusation performed in front of an audience (media). Perp walks have been under public scrutiny as the alleged parties have been exonerated or found to be guilty. Due to the awareness the case received after the initial walk, lasting effects of a perp walk can include defamation of character, lack of privacy, public distrust, and the development of mental health struggles caused by the negative attention.

What are examples of a degradation ceremony?

A couple of examples of a degradation ceremony are court trials and cashiering in the military. Both ceremonies meet the conditions of a successful degradation ceremony by publicly announcing the transgression, having an authority figure proclaim the transgression, making the witness believe the authority figure represents the group, publicly criticizing the perpetrator, and eventually ejecting the perpetrator from the group.

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