Evaluating the Concept of Ritual in Work Contexts

Activity Description:


To grapple with the question, “How helpful is the classic anthropological literature on ritual to the cultural analysis of modern workplaces and work-family transitions?”


McLeod’s (1990) critique of the literature on corporate rituals might be usefully paired with Trice, 1985 or Trice & Beyer, 1985, perhaps supplemented by the introduction to the Moore & Meyerhoff volume Secular Ritua l(1977).

Similarly, Victor Turner’s (1967) classic essay on rites of passage might be paired with one of the essays it helped inspired, such as Rosen and Astley’s (1988) imaginative analysis of a Christmas party at an advertising firm.

Citing Turner’s (1967:95) dictum, “ritual is transformative, ceremony confirmatory,” McLeod finds ludicrous Martin and Siehl’s (1983) symbolic interactionist definition of ritual, largely inspired by Goffman (1959), as a repeated formalized or patterned sequence of events, such as the standard practice of a retinue of company subordinates meeting a CEO at the office. For McLeod, such activities, though repetitive and conventionalized, lack the deeply obligatory, transformative, and consciousness-altering qualities of ritual in the strictest sense.

Do students agree or disagree with this critique?

In class discussion or in essays, they might debate the precise points of difference and commonality between, for instance, Ndembu rituals of initiation and modern corporate ceremonies of hiring and firing.

Would it be helpful to speak a spectrum of ritualization in the workplace, from highly ritualized to less ritualized actions?

Students might consider why so many family-style rites and ceremonies, such as Halloween, Christmas and Birthday parties, have been incorporated into modern workplaces. Do these symbolic practices help to produce, and not simply express, “virtual families” at work?

More advanced students might ponder Terrence Turner’s reformulation of Van Gennep’s model of rites of passage in the Secular Ritual volume.

Can this revised model be usefully applied to the symbolic management of status transition in modern work contexts (as discussed in Trice,1985; Harris & Sutton, 1986, or Berg, 1985)? Are models of transitory ritual also relevant to the analysis of movement between work and family domains: is for example the morning or evening commute comparable to classic pilgrimage, as analyzed by Victor Turner?

Activity Source:

Suggestion submitted by Mark Auslander, Brandeis University.