Perhaps, to many people ritual sounds religious practice or some sorts of solemn rites of spiritual significance. Catherine M. Bell contends that human beings “have been involved in ritual activities of some sort since the earliest hunting bands and tribal communities about which we have information” (p. 1). However, in the late nineteenth century the term ritual came to be identified with data which, according to Bell “to test theories concerning the origin of religion and civilization” (p. 1).
Bell noted some theorist interpretation of ritual, particularly Robinson Smith, who said that ritual is the “primary component of religion, and it fundamentally serves the basic social function of creating and maintaining community” (p. p4). Catherine Bell emphasized that studies of ritual “have addressed a number of the more features of this ritual context, such as issues of density and styles” (p. 171). In traditional societies Bell noted that ritual tends to be regarded as a robust dimension of shared communal life. She said, “Older distinctions between church and sect have also been used to explain aspects of ritual density” (p. 71).
What Bell pointed out here was actually the change of the ritual context, which means the transformation of the traditional perspective of the people about ritual. She explained that ritual never exists alone as it is usually one “ceremony among many in larger ritual life of a community (p 171). Bell further adds that for each and every ritual, there is a thick context of social customs, historical practices, and day to day routines that, in addition to the unique factors at work in any given moment in time and space, influence whether and how ritual action is performed” (p. 71).
David Kertzer pointed out that political ritual is “a ubiquitous part of modern political life” (p. 1). He said that “through ritual aspiring political leaders struggle to assert their right to rule, incumbent power holders seek to bolster their authority, and revolutionaries try to carve out a new basis of political allegiance” (p. 1). For him, rituals are important in all political systems; even kings and emperors in the past employed rituals, that is why, as he tried to explain, it is a legacy of the modern bureaucratic nations today.
It construct, display, and promote the power of political institutions… or the political interests of distinct constituencies and subgroups” (p. 128). In his book, he explained that common political rituals being practiced by countries are election, presidential inaugurals, the judicial administration of the death penalty, and the symbolism of the courtroom, committee hearing, fact-finding trips, and many other political rituals that constitute and display power and principles. Dale Hoak noted that rituals serve to legitimize authority, to dramatize power or to amplify aspects of power-holding (p. 144).
Rituals Related to American Power Structures The most important political ritual in American power structure is the practice of democracy. This is clearly expressed in the American national anthem entitled ‘The Star-Spangled Banner. ’ The last two lines of every stanza say, “O says, does that Star – Spangled Banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? ” Democracy indeed is the central motivation of all their political power – to see American country a free and undefeated nation. America being a democratic country practically employs variety of civil and political rights including election.
Federalism, which is a system of government in America, allows each state to enjoy political power to govern themselves as a single unit. The bicameral system grants each state a representative to the central government to constitute senate and House of Representatives. Hence, political rituals of practices in American coincide to the central objective, which is the observance of democracy or liberty. Rituals’ Functions in the Society Ritual as a symbol has power; as Kertzer stated, “it provides a shield against terror” (p. 7). It performs some benefits to the community of people.
Kertzer noted, “it gives meaning to the world around us [because] they allow us to interpret what we see, and, indeed, what we are” (p. 8). He also added that rituals through symbolism, “we confront the experiential chaos that envelops us and create order” (p. 8), for Kertzer therefore, rituals in politics are meant to create not only spontaneity but also understanding of the world. Edward Muir pointed out that political ritual or ritualized politics tends to “camouflage tensions, especially by representing harmony than may actually exist” (p. 253).
He cited that the principle of harmony is necessary for any state, which transforms differences into singularity (p. 253). It means that rituals or political rituals are employed by the state in order to demonstrate government authority. Muir noted that rituals set apart the rulers of the state from others and defined the relationships among its constituent subjects or citizens. The function therefore of the ritual is to personify the state so the people could see it and love it and the rituals symbolize the state in order for the people to imagine and conceived it.
Kertzer point out that the essential characteristic of political rituals is that they promote schematic thinking. Kertzer explained that ritual performances produce abstract formulas which, according to Muir, it organize the perceptions of the persons who have repeatedly witnessed them (p. 254) In Kertzers model, rituals present an absolute truth, which encourage a course of action. It stimulates the senses in multiple ways through musical performances, artistic splendor, and sumptuous pomp. The splendor display of the ritual not only caught more attention but it remains in the memories of those witnesses.
Kertzer noted, “It is the combination of instruction in simplified ideas and an appeal to the emotions that gives rituals their power to influence” (p. 175). Kertzer further pointed out that “our symbol system … is not a cage which locks us into a single view of the political world, but a melange of symbolic understanding by which we struggle, through a continuous series of negotiations, to assign meaning to events” (p. 175) Thus, Muir point out, “political ritual becomes part of the struggle of governing and of living under a government” (p. 254)
On the question whether ritual is used in competition, Kertzer’s model seemed not to suggest this, however, Edward Muir noted, “despite the representation of harmony in political rituals, they always take place within the context of disharmony” (p. 253). Muir pointed out that people cannot get along among themselves without the states as the states are formed around the “hegemonic power of some group or person who attempts to manage conflict through force of the law” (p. 253) In other words, there is a social conflict, which those given power by the states are to manage or solve.
It means that the state exercised power through the persons endowed with it, but it was argued that this exercised of power is to allow itself to be ritually contested in order to consolidate itself more effectively. In other words rituals were not actually used to compete for power but to contest the exercised of power. William Outhwaite stated that rituals “differ from mere habit and custom in being symbolic and often dramatic, expressing and communicating ideas but also often powerful feelings” (p. 95) Outwaite noted that ritual brings divers ideas together through symbolic scenes, and acts, and words as symbol can stand for many ideas and the “interpretation of ritual symbolism is often ambiguous” (p. 495). Outwaite pointed out that political ritual occur before the public, when they express and communicate typical concerns or help to shape central interests of those who participate in them and those who observed them.
He noted that political rituals may be distinct celebrations, or parades or non-ritual activities such as election, or any ordinary political activities. What ever the argument is, it is quite clear that the understanding of ritual have now been transformed into a political understanding, that rituals are no longer the solemn rites conducted by both religious and pagan cults though they might have still been doing it, but it is more of the government camouflaged to promote its authority and to enhance its strength.
It is also an effective way of drawing people’s attention towards a certain objective and to unify different ideas as ritual can also be a symbol for a community. Ritual therefore is an effective tool of the government to communicate with its constituents in such a way that people voluntarily supports and participates and it benefits both the state or the government and the society.