Examining Rights of Passage

Activity Description:


To encourage students to reflect on the connections between rites of passage and family transitions


  1. Ask students to read Victor Turner’s now classic essay, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage”(in The Forest of Symbols). This is a helpful point of departure for discussing rituals of life transition in comparative perspective.
  2. Students might be asked in class to reflect on a rite of passage with which they are very familiar, such as a graduation ceremony, and then consider if the ritual exhibits the tripartite structure described by Van Gennep and Turner. Particular attention might be given the fascinating ‘liminal period’ when initiates are neither one thing nor another (neither student nor graduate, neither fianc√© nor married person what precisely signals the beginning and end of this anomalous, interstitial stage. (For instance, Naval Academy graduates are dramatically reintegrated into ordinary life when they cast their caps into the air.)
  3. It might be helpful to diagram out the standard wedding rite or funeral rite on a chalkboard, and have students discuss precisely where each stage commences and concludes, as well as which symbols are “polyvocal” and where and why they are deployed. Which components of the traditional rite can be deleted or altered with little impact, and which ones seem to be fairly fixed or invariant. Why should this be the case? Huntington and Metcalfe’s excellent “American Deathways”, the final chapter of their Celebrations of Death, reviews the symbolism of the modern American funeral process. Many students avidly discuss the practical and symbolic implications of embalming, open caskets, and cremation.
  4. John Gillis’ rich and engaging historical study of American family rituals helps to ‘denaturalize’ these seemingly timeless ceremonies, demonstrating that their emergence was historically embedded in broader shifts in gender, kinship, sexuality and class relations. Although the book as a whole is a marvelous read, if time is short any one of the later chapters could be assigned on its own, so that the class can concentrate on one symbolic complex, such as weddings, death, motherhood, or the home. If the death and funerals are being extensively discussed, a field trip to an old cemetery might be in order, so students can track for themselves changing styles in memorialization and family groupings. Gillis does not directly discuss Schneider’s symbolic analysis of American kinship, but Schneider and Gillis might be profitably taught together: to what extent do the various rites historically explored by Gillis manifest the categorical contrast between blood and law discussed by Schneider?
  5. Alternately, Gillis might be paired with Turner’s classic “Planes of Classification” essay in The Ritual Process. Turner demonstrates that Ndembu healing rituals dramatize and mediate the contradictory social principles of matrilineal descent and virilocal residence; students might consider if the American domestic rites discussed by Gillis comparably mediate contradictory principles in American family structure.

Activity Source:

Content contributed by Mark Auslander as a Suggested Work and Family Class Activity