Rite of passage

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Anthropology of religion
Initiation ritual of boys in Malawi.jpg
Initiation ritual of boys in Malawi. The ritual marks the passage from child to adult male, each subgroup having its customs and expectations.
Social and cultural anthropology

Rite of passage is a celebration of the passage which occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another. It involves a significant change of status in society. In cultural anthropology the term is the Anglicisation of rite de passage, a French term innovated by the ethnographer, Arnold van Gennep, in his work Les rites de passage, "Rites of Passage."[1] Immediately popular, the term passed into anthropology in general as well as into the literature and popular cultures of many modern languages.

In English, Van Gennep's first sentence of his first chapter begins:[2]

Each larger society contains within it several distinctly separate groupings. ... In addition, all these groups break down into still smaller societies in subgroups.

The population of a society belongs to multiple groups, some more important to the individual than others. Van Gennep uses the metaphor, "as a kind of house divided into rooms and corridors."[3] A passage occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another; in the metaphor, he changes rooms.

Van Gennep further distinguishes between "the secular" and "the sacred sphere." Theorizing that civilizations are arranged on a scale, implying that the lower levels represent "the simplest level of development," he hypothesizes that "social groups in such a society likewise have magico-religious foundations." Many groups in modern industrial society practice customs that can be traced to an earlier sacred phase. Passage between these groups requires a ceremony, or ritual hence rite of passage.

The rest of Van Gennep's book presents a description of rites of passage and an organization into types, although in the end he despairs of ever capturing them all:[4] "It is but a rough sketch of an immense picture ...." He is able to find some universals, mainly two: "the sexual separation between men and women, and the magico-religious separation between the profane and the sacred." (Earlier the translators used secular for profane.) He refuses credit for being the first to recognize type of rites. In the work he concentrates on groups and rites individuals might normally encounter progressively: pregnancy, childbirth, initiation, betrothal, marriage, funerals and the like. He mentions some others, such as the territorial passage, a crossing of borders into a culturally different region, such as one where a different religion prevails.


Rites of passage have three phases: separation, liminality, and incorporation, as van Gennep described. "I propose to call the rites of separation from a previous world, preliminal rites, those executed during the transitional stage liminal (or threshold) rites, and the ceremonies of incorporation into the new world postliminal rites."[5]

In the first phase, people withdraw from their current status and prepare to move from one place or status to another. "The first phase (of separation) comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group ... from an earlier fixed point in the social structure."[6] There is often a detachment or "cutting away" from the former self in this phase, which is signified in symbolic actions and rituals. For example, the cutting of the hair for a person who has just joined the army. He or she is "cutting away" the former self: the civilian.

The transition (liminal) phase is the period between states, during which one has left one place or state but has not yet entered or joined the next. "The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae ("threshold people") are necessarily ambiguous."[7]

In the third phase (reaggregation or incorporation) the passage is consummated [by] the ritual subject."[8] Having completed the rite and assumed their "new" identity, one re-enters society with one's new status. Re-incorporation is characterized by elaborate rituals and ceremonies, like debutant balls and college graduation, and by outward symbols of new ties: thus "in rites of incorporation there is widespread use of the 'sacred bond', the 'sacred cord', the knot, and of analogous forms such as the belt, the ring, the bracelet and the crown."[9]

Psychological effects[edit]

Laboratory experiments have shown that severe initiations produce cognitive dissonance.[10] It is theorized that such dissonance heightens group attraction among initiates after the experience, arising from internal justification of the effort used.[11] Rewards during initiations have important consequences in that initiates who feel more rewarded express stronger group identity.[12] As well as group attraction, initiations can also produce conformity among new members.[13] Psychology experiments have also shown that initiations increase feelings of affiliation.[14]


Initiation rites are seen as fundamental to human growth and development as well as socialization in many African communities. These rites function by ritually marking the transition of someone to full group membership.[15] It also links individuals to the community and the community to the broader and more potent spiritual world. Initiation rites are "a natural and necessary part of a community, just as arms and legs are natural and necessary extension of the human body". These rites are linked to individual and community development. Dr. Manu Ampim identifies five stages; rite to birth, rite to adulthood, rite to marriage, rite to eldership and rite to ancestorship.[16] In Zulu culture entering womanhood is celebrated by the Umhlanga (ceremony).

Types and examples[edit]

Rites of passage are diverse, and are found throughout many cultures around the world. Many western societal rituals may look like rites of passage but miss some of the important structural and functional components. However, in many Native and African-American communities, traditional Rites of Passage programs are conducted by community-based organizations such as Man Up Global. Typically the missing piece is the societal recognition and reincorporation phase. Adventure Education programs, such as Outward Bound, have often been described as potential rites of passage. Pamela Cushing researched the rites of passage impact upon adolescent youth at the Canadian Outward Bound School and found the rite of passage impact was lessened by the missing reincorporation phase.[17] Bell (2003) presented more evidence of this lacking third stage and described the "Contemporary Adventure Model of a Rites of Passage" as a modern and weaker version of the rites of passage typically used by outdoor adventure programs. For non-religious people, Rites of Passage are important as well. They mark important changes in their lives and they help to guide them.

Coming of age[edit]

In various tribal societies, entry into an age grade—generally gender-separated—(unlike an age set) is marked by an initiation rite, which may be the crowning of a long and complex preparation, sometimes in retreat.


Jesus underwent Jewish circumcision, here depicted in a Catholic cathedral; a liturgical feast commemorates this on New Year's Day



Some academic circles such as dorms, fraternities, teams and other clubs practice hazing, ragging and fagging. Szecskáztatás, a mild form of hazing (usually without physical and sexual abuse) practiced in some Hungarian secondary schools. First-year junior students are publicly humiliated through embarrassing clothing and senior students branding their faces with marker pens; it is sometimes also a contest, with the winners usually earning the right to organize the next event.




See also[edit]


  1. ^ Van Gennep 1909, Lay Summary
  2. ^ Van Gennep, Vizedom & Caffee 2010, I. The Classification of Rites
  3. ^ Journet, Nicolas (1 January 2001). "Les rites de passage". Sciences Humaines (112). chaque société générale peut être considérée comme une sorte de maison divisée en chambres et couloirs 
  4. ^ Van Gennep, Vizedom & Caffee 2010, X. Conclusions
  5. ^ van Gennep 1977: 21
  6. ^ Turner 1969: 80.
  7. ^ Turner 1969: 95
  8. ^ Turner 1969: 80
  9. ^ van Gennep 1977: 166
  10. ^ Aronson & Mills 1959.
  11. ^ Festinger 1961.
  12. ^ Kamau 2012.
  13. ^ Keating et al. 2005.
  14. ^ Lodewijkx et al. 2005.
  15. ^ "African Culture Complex". Retrieved 2011-10-04. 
  16. ^ http://www.manuampim.com/AfricanInitiationRites.htm The Five Major African Initiation Rites Prof. Manu Ampim
  17. ^ Cushing 1998.
  18. ^ Morgenstern 1966.
  19. ^ "Rites of Passage". Oxford Islamic Studies Online. 2013. Retrieved 27 May 2013. 
  20. ^ "Traditional Muslim Male Circumcision: Performed by Arabs, Turkish, Malaysian and Others of this faith.". CIRCLIST. 1992–2013. Retrieved 27 May 2013. 
  21. ^ Hamid, Ismail (2005). "Islamic Rites of Passage". The Encyclopedia of Malaysia Volume 10: Religions and Beliefs. Retrieved 27 May 2013. 
  22. ^ Thomas Riggs (2006). "Christianity: Coptic Christianity". Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Religions and denominations. Thomson Gale. ISBN 978-0-7876-6612-5. 
  23. ^ "Circumcision". Columbia Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press. 2011. 


  • Aronson, E. & Mills, J. (1959) "The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group." Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 59(2): 177–181.
  • Bell, B.J. (2003). "The rites of passage and outdoor education: Critical concerns for effective programming." The Journal of Experiential Education, 26, 1, pp. 41–50.
  • Cushing, P.J. (1998). "Competing the cycle of transformation: Lessons from the rites of passage model." Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Experiential Education, 9, 5, 7–12.
  • Festinger, L. (1961). The psychological effects of insufficient rewards. American Psychologist, 16(1), 1–11.
  • Garces-Foley, Kathleen (2006). Death and religion in a changing world. ME Sharpe. 
  • Kamau, C. (2012). What does being initiated severely into a group do? The role of rewards.International Journal of Psychology, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00207594.2012.663957
  • Keating, C. F., Pomerantz, J., Pommer, S. D., Ritt, S. J. H., Miller, L. M., & McCormick, J. (2005). Going to college and unpacking hazing: A functional approach to decrypting initiation practices among undergraduates. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 9(2), 104–126.
  • Lodewijkx, H. F. M., van Zomeren, M.,&Syroit, J. E. M. M. (2005). The anticipation of a severe initiation: Gender differences in effects on affiliation tendency and group attraction. Small Group Research, 36(2), 237–262.
  • Morgenstern, Julian (1966). Rites of Birth, Marriage, Death, and Kindred Occasions among the Semites. Cincinnati. 
  • Turner, Victor (1967). "Betwixt and between: the liminal period in rites de passage". Forest of symbols: aspects of the Ndembu ritual. Ithaca: Cornell UP. pp. 23–59. 
  • Turner, Victor W. (1969). The Ritual Process. Penguin. 
  • Van Gennep, Arnold (1909). Les rites de passage (in French). Paris: Émile Nourry. Lay summaryReview by Frederick Starr, The American Journal of Sociology, V. 15, No. 5, pp 707-709 (March 1910). 
    • ——; Vizedom, Monika B (Translator); Caffee, Gabrielle L (Translator) (1977) [1960]. The Rites of Passage. Routledge Library Editions Anthropology and Ethnography (Paperback Reprint ed.). Hove, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press. ISBN 0-7100-8744-6. 
    • ——; ——; —— (2010) [1960]. The Rites of Passage (Reprint ed.). Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-61156-5. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]