Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 1990


University of Pittsburgh


This essay will attempt to address the distinctive qualities of ritual power so as to explore both ritual and power. To do so, I will bypass the frameworks of rationalism, functionalism, and expressive symbolism (or "symbolic communicationism") in order to focus on the construction and deployment of the "ritual body." The "body" has recently emerged as a major focus of analysis in a number of disciplines, reflecting the development and convergence of several lines of thought. First, a tradition of ethnographic and theoretical exploration of body symbolism stretching from Marcel Mauss to Mary Douglas has explored how social categories, particularly as highlighted in ritual, shape the perception, disposition, and decoration of the body. Second, a shift in the dominant models employed by the humanities and social sciences has led to the gradual abandonment of the dualities of mind/body, individual/society, and even message/medium. Instead there are attempts to deal with the "embodied" mind, the "sociallyembedded" person, and the media-massaged message. Finally, the recognition of gender as a fundamental condition of experience and category of analysis has promoted attention to the cultural constructions involved in the socialization of one's most basic physical sense of biological identity. It is noteworthy that even philosophy, a relative stronghold of the detached mental self, has recently contributed two studies of the body, George Lakoffs Women, Fire and Other Dangerous Things (1987) and Mark Johnson's The Body in the Mind (1987). Likewise, the work of historians such as Peter Brown (1988) looks beyond the social construction of institutions to the construction of the "social bodies" that mandate such institutions. No longer the mere physical instrument of the mind, it appears that the image of the body is being reappropriated to denote a more complex and irreducible phenomenon, namely, the social person.


Copyright © 2005 Department of Anthropology,
University of Pittsburgh. Reprinted with permission.

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