Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 31-38


Mary A. Stanfield Tetreault, George Mason University
Robert E. Kleine III, Arizona State University

[The authors would like to thank Dr. Hunter S. Thompson for his perspicacious comments on an earlier draft of this paper.]


The ritual construct offers great potential for interpreting many aspects of consumption phenomena. Ritual's potential can be best realized by a multi-layered view of the construct. We refine and clarify Rook's interpretation to provide such a perspective. We draw clear distinctions between the analytical classes of ritual, ritualized behavior, and habit. Theoretical and methodological implications are discussed.


A number of consumer researchers have exhorted that the ritual construct affords great potential for conceptualizing and interpreting many aspects of consumption phenomena (Belk 1979; Kehret-Ward, Johnson, and Louie 1985; McCracken 1986, 1988; Rook and Levy 1983; Solomon and Anand 1985; Sherry 1983). Rook's (1984, 1985) contribution to our discipline's understanding of the ritual construct as a conceptual framework offers rich insights into the real, experiential lives of consumers and the types of symbolic meanings that they invest in the use of consumer products.

In this article, we attempt to build upon Rook's (1985) elaboration of the ritual construct by offering refinements, clarifications, and extensions of his work. As such, our undergirding objective is not to inculcate conceptual divisiveness or "hair splitting"; rather, we proffer a framework designed to incrementally sharpen our discipline's understanding of the ritual construct and its role in consumer behavior. Furthermore, we offer guidelines for the analytical exploration of consumption rituals and their constituent components.


We readily admit that Rook (1985) confronted a formidable analytical task in his effort to define the ritual construct in a manner most germane to the scope of consumption phenomena. Across the transdisciplinary morass of divergent interpretations of the term, Rook has abstracted a "mid-range" definition of ritual. It is not limited to the overly restrictive interpretation of ritual as "semicivilized" man's prescribed manner of comportment in religious contexts, the jingoistic Victorian-era definition predominately used until a generation ago (Kertzer 1988; Vizedom 1976). Neither does it subsume all forms of scripted human activity (e.g., facing forward in an elevator filled with strangers; snapping one's chewing gum). Instead, Rook's definition of the term ritual is constructed to encapsulate the shared "structural and content elements". . . of "both everyday, and extraordinary human experience:"

The term ritual refers to a type of expressive, symbolic activity constructed of multiple behaviors that occur in a fixed, episodic sequence, and that tend to be repeated over time. Ritual behavior is dramatically scripted and acted out and is performed with formality, seriousness, and inner intensity" (1985, p. 252-).

Rook raised ta question whether it is "reasonable to ask whether it is either possible or useful to derive a single definition of ritual" (1985, p. 252). We agree that it is extremely useful to attempt to capture a constructional domain which is appropriate for conceptualizing consumption ritual phenomena within our interdisciplinary framework. However, we believe that further refinements in a definition of ritual are necessary for crystallizing the construct's domain, and distinguishing that domain from those of the related constructs "habit" and "ritualized behavior". Although these constructs may indeed "represent overlapping sets" (Rook 1985, p. 252), greater discrimination between them may be "useful" or "appropriate" for analytical purposes. None of the constructs represent synthetic categories (Kant 1900 trans.; Bagozzi 1980); thus, there are no "right or wrong" definitions of them. Yet teasing out the distinctions between them may enhance our ability to develop a coherent framework for the different levels of symbolic meaning consumers may attach or associate with each form of behavior.

Before presenting our refined definition of ritual, we will discuss those characteristics which distinguish habit (or custom) from ritual and those which distinguish ritual from ritualized behavior (Erikson 1977, 1982).

Habit/Custom Versus Ritual

Habits or customs constitute routinized behavior (Howard 1979). Several characteristics best distinguish habits from rituals. First, the scripts for habitual acts may be either created by the individual consumer (e.g., the sequence of breakfast-making acts) or prescribed by society (rules for standing in line at the supermarket checkout counter). The second distinguishing characteristic is the level of conscious awareness, or cognitive processing, associated with the elicitation of the behavior sequence (Douglas and Isherwood 1979; La Fontaine 1985; Peter and Olson 1987; Turner 1985). Admittedly, this difference is a matter of degree rather than type, and is thus dependent upon individual and/or situational characteristics. For example, arranging a place setting according to the rules of decorum may be a completely routinized behavior on a mundane basis, with the "rules" followed in order to save time/cognitive processing. On the other hand, one may be more cognizant of prescribed norms for place setting when preparing for an important social occasion, but engage in the same behavioral sequence. Thus, one's level of involvement (e.g., Celsi and Olson 1988) distinguishes habit from ritual, rather than the intricacy of the behavioral script.

The third characteristic distinguishing habit from ritual concerns their communicative function (La Fontaine 1985; Turner 1985; Lewis 1980). Analogous to language, habit or custom has been suggested to transmit (through behavioral signals) a more circumscribed message (e.g., if one offers a hand upon introduction, one has no overtly hostile intentions). Ritual, with its more intense symbolic properties and components, communicates or expresses a more condensed, multivocal and ambiguous web of meaning (Kertzer 1988; Munn 1973; Turner 1967). Therefore, participation in habitual or routinized behaviors is not likely to stimulate the same level of affective response as does participation in ritual (Warner 1959).

Finally, intransigence or resistance to change may serve to discriminate between habit and ritual. Although rituals can undergo procedural changes that diverge from an "ideal type" or "stereotyped script" due to either short term contingencies, or, on a more permanent basis, due to changes in the distribution of resources in society (La Fontaine 1985; Kertzer 1988), habits in general are more amenable to modification or extinction when they no longer fulfill their instrumental and/or expressive functions.

Ritual Versus Ritualized Behavior

In his definition of ritual, Rook (1985, p. 252) explicitly aggregates the constructs "ritual" and "ritualized behavior." This approach is attributable to Rook's sociopsychological theoretical perspective, which is founded upon Erikson's (1951, 1977, 1982) theories of intrapsychic development. According to this theoretical perspective, "both everyday ritualized behavior and larger public rituals" (Rook 1985, p. 257) are "energized" by the nature of the conflicts between intrapsychic and social forces uniquely associated with each of Erikson's (1951) eight universal stages of human development. Diurnal ritualized activities are seen to serve as reinforcement (through repetition) for status changes which are publicly "announced" by means of symbolic public ritual activities (Rook 1985, p. 257).

Although we agree that ritualized behavior may serve to reinforce, through mundane repetition, the role/status transitions around which many rituals are focused, we suggest that "ritualized behaviors" and "ritual" are not subsets of the identical constructional domain. Upon the basis of the socioanthropological theoretical perspective to which we subscribe, we aver that these two constructs may be more appropriately viewed as distinct, albeit related in a nomological network. The major properties and characteristics which we believe discriminate between "ritualized behavior" and "ritual" are summarized in the Table. Our discussion will highlight those characteristics we believe are most critical for discriminating between the constructs.

Our major rationale for distinguishing between ritual and ritualized behavior concerns the notion that ritual 'instantaneously' accomplishes its purported objectives of status transition and social maintenance (Radcliffe-Brown 1952; Vizedom 1976; Turner 1985; La Fontaine 1985). This perspective is eloquently expressed by La Fontaine (1985, pp. 35-36):

Ritual is purposive; the participants believe that they are accomplishing their aim in what they do . . . this cannot be ignored . . . Day to day social life is perpetually changing; what is relatively constant in it is the part played by ideas and beliefs through which individuals both perceive events and evaluate their own and others' behavior -- what has been referred to has the moral order. To refer to it [moral order] as false, and the untidy process of living as real, is to make a judgement of value by comparing noncomparable entities, which cannot be helpful.

It may be tautological to state that ritual effects its purported objectives (i.e., the maintenance of, and/or. change of individuals' status within the social order) because that is what the ritual process is designed to do. However, grounded in our aforementioned theoretical perspective, we aver that we (as "scientists") must believe this, or take this "leap of faith," because the participants of rituals espouse that they do so. Here we stand in contrast to Rook (1985) and Erikson (1977), who imply that mundane ritualized behaviors are necessary to fulfill ritual's "unfinished business." But is this is not an imposed view on the part of the "enlightened scientist"? Whose statement or interpretation should be taken as veridical: that of the "detached, objective scientist", or that of the ritual participant (the "crazy native")? We (as "crazy scientists"?) side with he perspective of the participant. Thus, we conceive of ritual and ritualized behaviors as "apples" and "oranges"; they are both in the same "angiosperm," or construct class, but are non-comparable "species."

Ritual's 'instantaneous' transitions are most evident in public events marking or celebrating either a change in an individual's or group's status (e.g., baptism, sorority initiation, marriage,

communion, naturalization, Bastille day, Independence Day) or a transition through natural and/or "supernatural" or aesthetic cycles (e.g., the "primitive" vestiges and extant religious versions of Christmas, Easter, May Day, the Wagner "Ring" Cycle). Ritualized behaviors may be more closely associated with conditions in which roles or



interaction patterns are gradually assimilated, such as divorce and other relationship disengagements (Baxter 1984; Lee 1984), landing the first post-MBA job (Solomon and Anand 1985), or 'fitting-in' as a new assistant professor on the faculty. Clearly, ritual is most closely linked to the maintenance of and/or change within systems of society, knowledge, and nature (Vizedom 1976; Van Gennep 1960 trans.; Radcliffe-Brown 1952; Durkheim 1974 trans.; Aron 1970); ritualized behaviors are more likely to be associated with the maintenance and/or change in one's self-perception (e.g., Solomon 1983; Mead 1956; Goffman 1959).

The public enactment of ritual requires the participation of at least two actors in a socially prescribed, standardized sequence of events (Durkheim 1974 trans.; La Fontaine 1985; Turner 1985; Kertzer 1988). The transformative, symbolic effects of ritual occur in social time (Warner 1959) which is bracketed from mundane life (Turner 1985; Wolff 1978). Turner (1985) and Vizedom (1976) view the bracketness of ritual as an essential prerequisite for affective and cognitive changes to 'instantaneously' occur; these changes permit the transition (of an individual) to a new status (within the social system).

Ritualized behavior, on the other hand, requires only a private enactment of a script whose elements are intrapsychically orchestrated. The sequence of events and artifacts employed may thus be guided by idiosyncratic tradition (a question raised by Rook 1985, p. 262) as well as social norms. The mundane repetition of ritualized behavior occurs in self time (Warner 1959).

Definition of Ritual and Its Components

Our preceding summary of the qualities or characteristics of ritual vis a vis its related analytic constructs, habit and ritualized behavior, provides us with a foundation for abstracting a refined, interdisciplinary interpretation of the ritual construct

Ritual is defined as an analytical class of purposive, socially standardized activity sequences. Ritual is designed to maintain and transmit both social and 'moral' order: to reaffirm social interdependency, by evoking and communicating a network of condensed, multivocal and ambiguous affective and cognitive meanings to which members of the collectivity may jointly subscribe. Ritual's meanings are conveyed through the use of symbolic or metaphorical artifacts (objects, language, actors, and behaviors) that are orchestrated into a structured, dramatic complex (episode or script) often repeated over time. Ritual is enacted in bracketed social time and/or place, wherein time and/or place themselves have meaning.

A cursory reading of our interpretation of ritual and its components may indicate that it varies from Rook's (1985) definition only along a few dimensions. However, these dimensions are substantial (i.e., they have important theoretical and methodological implications), and serve to recast ritual as a distinct analytical category. We highlight critical points below:

* Ritual is an analytic category.

* Ritual is purposive behavior; it accomplishes its objectives of transition and maintenance of both social and moral order (e.g., La Fontaine 1985; Radcliffe-Brown 1948; Gluckman 1965).

* Ritual is socially standardized. Its enactment requires the organized cooperation of individuals to fulfill all necessary roles (La Fontaine 1985). Ritual is also socially standardized in that the script prescribes roles and associated rules of conduct for actor comportment (Durkheim 1974 trans.).

* Ritual evokes and communicates more than one specific meaning (e.g., Kertzer 1988; Munn 1973; Turner 1967); it evokes a network of both cognitive and affective meanings. Thus, it does not evoke immediate, identical behavioral responses from all actors (Rook 1985, p. 253). However, consistency would be expected across actors fulfilling similar roles.

* Ritual occurs in bracketed social time and/or place (Warner 1959; Turner 1985). This does not necessarily imply that ritual encompasses only "extraordinary" human experience (Rook 1985, p. 252); it encompasses human experience that celebrates significant social or natural transition events.

* The socially standardized rules for ritual performance consist of both explicit and implicit conventional requirements. Implicit rules, as part of "hidden culture" (Garfinkel 1963; Hall 1977) exert an extremely powerful influence on behavior. Deviation from these rules can elicit scorn, alienation, or outright hostility, as illustrated by the following apocryphal passage:

"It was just about then that somebody noticed my 'press' tag was attached to my shirt by a blue and white McGovern button. I'd been wearing it for three days, provoking occasionally rude comments from hotheads on the convention floor and in various hotel lobbies -- but this was the first time I'd felt called on to explain myself. It was, after all, the only visible McGovern button in Miami Beach that week -- and now I was tying to join a spontaneous Nixon Youth demonstration that was about to spill out onto the floor of the very convention that had just nominated Richard Nixon for reelection, against McGovern . . .

They seemed to feel I was mocking their efforts in some way . . and at that point the argument become so complex and disjointed that I can't possibly run it all down here. It is enough, for now, to say that I was finally compromised: If I refused to leave without violence, then I was damn well going to have to carry a sign in the spontaneous demonstration -and also wear a plastic red, white, and blue Nixon hat. They-never came right out and said it, but I could see that they were uncomfortable at the prospect of all three network TV cameras looking down on their spontaneous Nixon Youth demonstration and zeroing in -- for their own perverse reasons -- on a weird looking, 35 year old speed freak with half his hair burned off from overindulgence, wearing a big blue McGovern button on his chest, carrying a tall cup of 'Old Milwaukee' and shaking his fist at John Chancellor up in the NBC booth -- screaming: 'You dirty bastard!' . . . I politely dismissed all suggestions that I remove my McGovern button, but I agreed to carry a sign and wear a plastic hat like everyone else. 'Don't worry', I assured them, you'll be proud of me' . . . (Thompson 1973, pp. 355-356).

To further explore this analytical category, ritual, we next explicate threads of the interdisciplinary fabric which inculcates ritual with so much power.


The power of ritual as an analytical category for consumer research is two-fold. First, it describes a system of which consummatory behavior is an important component. As such, ritual provides an analytically tractable microcosm within which the consumption systems of the larger culture are condensed and brought into relief -- thus facilitating their identification and analysis. Second, ritual emphasizes the integrated nature of psychological and social structural phenomena. As Kertzer (1988, p. 10) observes:

"The power of ritual stems not just from its social matrix, but also its psychological underpinnings. Indeed these two dimensions are inextricably linked. Participation in ritual involves physiological stimuli, the arousal of emotions; ritual works through the senses to structure our sense of reality and our understanding of the world around us".



This "inexorable linking" of phenomena -generally investigated by researchers from disparate research traditions -- led us to reconceptualize Levy's (1978) typology of ritual behavior into our Figure depicting the cyclical power of ritual. This reconceptualization is in the spirit of Van Gennep's (1960 trans.; cf. Vizedom 1976) insistence that analytical power is focused, rather that diminished, by emphasizing the similarity among ritual's elements .

We reconceptualized Levy's (1978) five ritual types -- human biology, individual aims and emotions, group learning, cultural values, and cosmological beliefs -- into their corresponding research traditions: sociobiology, psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology. The nonrecursive feedback loop linking these elements emphasizes that each contributes to ritual. A researcher could begin study of ritual from any of these perspectives; however, s/he should strive to capture the Gestalt (La Fontaine 1985). The study of ritualized behavior (Rook 1985) can be represented as investigation of the "slice" of the ritual cycle surrounding psychology.

For expository purposes, and to elucidate some of the myriad activities enacted within ritual, we now tour the ritual cycle one "slice" at a time. However, to analyze ritual in such a manner (i.e. investigate only one or two of the "slices") would strip much of the phenomenon's vitality. Sociobiology, as Barash illustrates, provides the foundation from which all ritual springs:

"Sociobiology will probably have little to tell us about why we select a blue necktie or a red one, but a great deal about why we choose to adorn our bodies in the first place; very little about why we vote Democratic or Republican, but a great deal about why we choose to have leaders in the first place; very little about the details of our lives, which are largely determined by learning, by chance, or by the whims of custom, but a great deal about why, underneath it all, we act like human beings" (Barash 1979, p. 14).

Sociobiology thus concerns the most fundamental, evolutionarily refined human tendencies which predispose humans toward not only ritual, but also certain types of ritual.

Ritual phenomena pertinent to psychological analysis include individuals' (idiosyncratic) meanings ascribed to ritual artifacts, ego development, and belief system changes which may include changes of the individual's perception of his/her environment (social or natural) and of self. Also pertinent phenomena are the content and elaboration of individuals' ritual scripts.

Sociological inquiry of ritual emphasizes not individuals, but the roles designated by a ritual's script, and the social structure within which those roles are embedded. The effects of ritual on group cohesion and status (i.e., role) transitions of ritual actors are also salient. Emphasis is placed on the role ritual serves to reaffirm the extant social order and build solidarity through the joint action of ritual participants (Durkheim as interpreted by Kertzer 1988, p. 76).

The complex texture of ritual artifacts' symbolism is of vital interest in anthropological analysis of ritual (Turner 1985; Vizedom 1975). Also emphasized are the use of ritual artifacts' symbolic properties to bracket the ritual both in time and space and to indicate social inclusiveness/exclusiveness among ritual actors.

Analytically, we can distinguish ritual phenomena characteristic of sociobiological, psychological, sociological, and anthropological modes of inquiry. However, the power of ritual resides not in the fact that this diversity of phenomena occur within the boundaries of ritual. The power of ritual emerges from the fact that traditional disciplinary boundaries dissolve. The result is the seamless interplay of individuals' emotional, cognitive and affective responses to their idiosyncratic interpretations of the enactment of socially defined roles which are demarcated one from another by cultural artifacts that become condensed symbols to facilitate ritual enactment. Consequently, ritual provides a vehicle through which consumption behavior, with all its multisensory, hedonic, affective, cognitive, social, and cultural qualities are fully recognized. However, the power of ritual comes not without challenges to consumer researchers. The most notable challenge is methodological, to which we now shift our attention.


How does the researcher approach the challenge of understanding and capturing the meaning, power, and outcome of consumption ritual? As consumption ritual represents a complex Gestalt, embodying a multivocal latticework of manifest and implicit meanings derived from ritual actors' participation and interaction among themselves and with the ritual's symbolic set of artifacts, ritual presents the researcher with a formidable, but enticingly variegated "multivariate" analytical task.

The corpus of ritual literature is replete with expositions that disaggregate and taxonomize the outcomes and components of ritual -- e.g., Grimes' programmatic bibliography (1985); Moore and Myerhoff (1977). As we recapitulate that these phenomenal components are inexorably linked, we maintain that the exploration of consumption ritual should ideally be approached using methods of inquiry subsumed within the holistic, interpretive, hermeneutic paradigm(s) of ethnography (e.g., Denzin 1989; Geertz 1973; Goodenough 1971; Hirschman 1986; Hudson and Ozanne 1988; O'Shaughnessy and Holbrook 1988). Approaches which proffer a continual interplay between individual actors' scripts or meaning systems (D'Andrade 1986) for particular ritual "texts" and the 0 systemic ritual complex "text" (itself embedded 9 within a sociocultural totality) -- a hermeneutic i circle -- would provide a strong foundation of interpretive understanding of consumption ritual phenomena from the perspectives of the participants (the "crazy natives").

The consummation of interpretive modes of inquiry, although devoutly to be wished, may be difficult for many consumer scholars to achieve in the short run. The production of "thick description" (Geertz 1973) requires not only the implementation of an orchestrated set of ethnographic tools; it requires an "artistic sensibility" which our discipline's predominant patterns of "scientific" socialization neither promulgate nor invariably reward (e.g., Calder and Tybout 1987; Tetreault 1987). Furthermore, the exegistical conjoining of individual and systemic units of analysis contradicts our discipline's bias/affinity toward a reductionist, atomistic perspective.

Yet short run straits should not be bewailed. Exemplars of the use of interpretive paradigms in consumer research exist (e.g., Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989; Holbrook and Grayson 1986; Sherry and McGrath 1989), and may inspire scholars interested in consumption ritual to "take arms against a sea of troubles" (Shakespeare 1603) and rigorously journey beyond "thin description" (Ryle 1968).

Moreover, incremental insight into the 'meaning" of particular consumption rituals may be gleaned through the application of extant research approaches/ techniques concerned with eliciting informants' meaning or belief systems (e.g., Fiske and Taylor 1984; Olson and Reynolds 1983; Reynolds 1983; Smith and Houston 1985). The use of field observation techniques in tandem or conjunction with the elicitation and analysis of protocol data will afford a broadened understanding of the meanings that consumers attach to rituals of consumption.

Finally, the use of sociocognitive network analysis for examining consumption rituals offers great promise for capturing both individual actors' "operating culture" and the collective "public culture" (Goodenough 1971) associated with consumption ritual events. As this set of analytical techniques addresses both individual and sociostructural units of analysis in the formation and transmission of belief systems, it is well-suited for elucidating the social interdependencies which shared networks of meanings ascribed to symbolic artifacts reaffirm and reinforce. If applied within the naturalistic context of ongoing ritual consumption activity, results from this approach may well mirror the holistic insights provided by hermeneutical paradigms of ethnography.


Rook's (1985) sociopsychological approach for conceptualizing the ritual dimension of consumption provides a strong foundation for exploring the symbolic meanings individual consumers invest in their everyday behaviors. By refining the ritual construct and recasting it into a multi-disciplinary perspective, we have illustrated that the construct weaves a multihued, complex fabric of meaning. We hope that our discussion both challenges and inspires consumer researchers to approach the examination of rituals' meaning(s) with a broader interpretation of appropriate research methodologies. We hope also that our reconceptualization of ritual focuses researcher's attention on the joint and interactive nature of consumption phenomena.


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