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Talking Ritual with Robbie Davis-Floyd

Robbie Davis-Floyd is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University, and Fellow of the Society for Applied Anthropology. She is the author of many books including Ways of Knowing about Birth: Mothers, Midwives, Medicine, and Birth Activism (2018, Waveland) and Birth as an American Rite of Passage (1992,2003, 2022). Her new book, co-authored with Charles D. Laughlin, is Ritual: What It Is, How It Works, and Why.

Dr Davis-Floyd, thank you for joining us. To begin, would you tell us about the origins of your interest in ritual?

I first became interested in ritual when I was starting to study women’s childbirth experiences, first for my PhD dissertation and then for my book Birth as an American Rite of Passage. I soon realized that what are called “standard obstetric procedures”—most of which make no sense from a scientific perspective—are actually rituals that enact, transmit, and display the core values of the US technocracy, which I define as “a stratified, racialized, hierarchal, bureaucratic, and still-patriarchal society organized around the development, sale, and use of high technologies and the global flow of information via those technologies.”

In the US, the rituals of the technocracy are daily enacted everywhere by almost everyone.

How do you define a ritual? What are the core aspects that differentiate a ritual from, say, a mere routine?

Rituals are patterned, repetitive, and symbolic enactments of cultural or individual beliefs and values. Rituals exist on a spectrum, from simple routines like brushing your teeth every night (which enacts your individual value on caring for your teeth) to full-out ceremonies—which consist of many smaller rituals—such religious services (especially Catholic masses), parades and Presidential Inaugurations.

Can you give us some examples from the range of different rituals that you cover in the book?

Yes! Especially in the workplace, although many people are aware of their morning and night-time rituals and do think of them as such. For example, if you don’t perform your night-time rituals properly, you may not be able to go to sleep! That’s certainly true for me. For example, if I forget to floss my teeth (which enacts my individual value on good dental hygiene), I have to get up and do it before I can go to sleep.

Also, many people don’t think of dinner parties as rituals, yet they most certainly are. They enact the attendees’ values on good conversation and friendship, and their performances are usually done in ritualized ways—first conversation, appetizers, and drinks, then sitting down to eat, then more conversing and perhaps some singing, especially if someone has brought a guitar!

Rituals can be a source of great support or comfort – I’m thinking of a mass, for example – but tell us how their effects can work in a less positive way?

Rituals can be very dangerous. They can socialize people into belief systems that may not be healthy for them. Think of cults and totalitarian leaders—all heavily use rituals to draw their followers in and keep the boundaries tight. Also think of religious rituals, which may socialize people into beliefs they do not intellectually choose to hold. Belief follows emotion, and rituals general lots of emotions in the people who perform them.

The blurb for your book asks “what happens when rituals fail?” This is especially intriguing and we’d love to hear more about that.

When rituals fail, people are often left with a sense of incompletion, as they failed to get the sense of closure that successful rituals bring. For example, as we describe in the book, we held a wonderful Memorial Service for my daughter Peyton after she died in a car accident in 2000, which was a ritual that worked, as it left all 400+ attendees with a sense of peace and closure.

But then, a year later, I held a second Memorial Service for Peyton, as I was sinking down into a deep depression (Substage—see the chart below) and I hoped that this ritual would pull me out of it. But it failed as a ritual, because we hadn’t done a dress rehearsal, so it went on for far too long, and people I really cared about started leaving well before it was over. At the end, I had planned for us all to stand in a circle and sing some wonderful songs to music, but the sound system was way too loud, and we couldn’t hear each other singing, so people just sort of drifted away and I failed to get the sense of closure that I had so badly needed, and so I did spiral down into that deep depression.

I can’t believe that I didn’t just STOP the ritual and get the sound system fixed! And that’s an important point, because often if a ritual is failing, the people performing it should just stop it and get the problem fixed before continuing.

Or, like the Ik, who now live in the mountains of north-eastern Uganda, when their rituals failed because they were moved by the government out of the forest where they had lived for millennia and had developed a belief system and a strong set of rituals that enacted their beliefs about their forest environment, and put in a settlement where they were supposed to do agriculture, their culture completely fell apart for years, as they had no belief system around agriculture and therefore their former rituals made no sense anymore. Ritual stands as a barrier between cognition and chaos, and keeps people from cognitively regressing into Substage. (They have since regrouped and have developed a new belief system and a new set of rituals that enact it.)

This has happened to many small-scale traditional societies like the Ik, especially when missionaries have come to convert them to some form of Christianity.

When the rituals of hospital birth fail, as they often do because again, they are not evidence-based, that often leads to the ultimate obstetric ritual—cesarean section.

Who do you see as the book’s ideal readership?

Of course, academics who are interested in ritual, but also the general public, for, as you say above, people often perform rituals without realizing that they are performing them, and one must be conscious about the use of ritual, because, as I said above, rituals can fail, or can socialize people into unhealthy belief systems.

Charlie and I have provided an Appendix that details how to perform a successful Stage 4 ritual. I do hope that I will be asked about the “4 Stages of Cognition and Substage,” for, again, ritual stands as a barrier between cognition and chaos. Here they are:

Table 1.1. The Stages of Cognition and Their Anthropological Equivalents:

Stages of CognitionAnthropological Equivalents
Stage 4: Fluid, open thinking         Global humanism: All individuals have rights that should be honored, not violated.
Stage 3: Relative, open thinking     Cultural relativism: All ways have value; individual behavior should be understood within its sociocultural context.
Stage 2: Self- and culture-centered semi-closed thinking                      Ethnocentrism: “Other ways may be OK for others, but our way is best.”
Stage 1: Rigid/concrete closed thinking, intolerance of other ways of thinking.Naïve realism: “Our way is the only way that matters”; Fundamentalism: “Our is way is the only right way”; Fanaticism: “Our way is so right that all others should be assimilated or eliminated.”  
Substage: Non-thinking; inability to process information; lack or loss of compassion for others.                Cognitive regression: Intense egocentrism, irritability, inability to cope, burnout, breakdown, hysteria, panic, “losing it,” abusing or mistreating others.

[RD-F notes: Cultural relativism sounds ideal but has severe limitations, as it cannot look for higher, better ways that honor everyone’s human rights—hence global humanism.]

What’s next for you? Will you continue your work on ritual?

Not really, because I’ve said pretty much all I have to say about it in this book! But of course, I will talk a lot more about rituals in my future academic writings about the rituals of hospital birth, although my magnus opus, Birth as an American Rite of Passage, 3rd edition, published in May 2022, is all about the rituals of hospital birth.

What’s next for me is editing the proofs for a 3-volume collection that I lead-edited, with perinatologist and medical anthropologist Ashish Premkumar as my co-editor. The series is called The Anthropology of Obstetrics and Obstetricians: The Practice, Maintenance, and Reproduction of a Biomedical Profession. The three edited volumes in it are:

Volume I. Obstetricians Speak: On Training, Practice, Fear, and Transformation

Volume II. Cognition, Risk, and Responsibility In Obstetrics: Anthropological Analyses and Critiques of Obstetricians’ Practices

Volume III. Obstetric Violence and Systemic Disparities: Can Obstetrics Be Humanized and De-Colonized?

After that, I will be working on co-editing a book called Traditional Midwives: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, and on co-authoring a textbook called Exploring Reproduction: Anthropological Perspectives.

Publisher’s note: And as if all that were not enough, Dr Davis-Floyd has yet another book coming! It’s called Robbie’s Reader: Vignettes of My Magical Life, which she calls it her first “personal book”.

Ritual: What It Is, How It Works, and Why, by Robbie Davis-Floyd & Charles D. Laughlin

Published in paperback, hardcover and ebook.

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