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Book Chapter

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University of Chicago Press


Scholars use many terms to talk about religious activity, most basically, liturgy, worship, ritual, and recently performance. Although these terms reflect different perspectives and assumptions, they share the supposition that ceremonial actions characterized by a self-conscious formality and traditionalism are a primary aspect of religion and an important focus in any project to understand religion. Nonetheless, most theories of religion since the Enlightenment have tended to emphasize the more cognitive aspects of religion no matter how rooted these were thought to be in emotional, doctrinal, or communal experience. In the last several decades, however, religious studies has become (as have other fields such as anthropology, history, and psychology) increasingly concerned to give more attention to the actual "doing" of religion. In this venture, the term "ritual," which pioneered the attempt to get beyond confessional perspectives by suggesting a nearly universal stmcture to religious activities, has attracted some criticism. Major critiques note its long-standing complicity in bifurcating thought and action, its unilateral imposition of symbolic intentionality, and the "globalization" by which nearly everything becomes some sort of ritual (Bell 1992; Asad 1993; Goody 1977).

The term "performance" attempts to minimize these problems and explore religious activity more fully in terms of the qualities of human action. Interest in the language of performance has been multifaceted, explicitly experimental, and occasionally quite idiosyncratic. While there are some islands of consensus, there is little systematic direction or assessment. Indeed, an exclusive emphasis on performance has receded in favor of a broader set of terms used alongside performance, notably "ritualization" and "ritual practice." Yet by virtue of a shared concern to deal with action as action, all of these theoretical orientations can be loosely grouped as "performance approaches" to the study of religion. Moreover, despite their heterogeneity, they have been sufficiently coherent and dynamic to influence fundamental orientations in the study of religion today.

Chapter of

Critical Terms for Religious Studies


Mark C. Taylor


Copyright © 1998 University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.

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Religion Commons



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