Home 603Seminar in the Anthropology of Power


Week 2 Vincent, Focault, Marx

Week 3 Vincent II

Week 4 Kertzer-Anderson

Week 4 Essay 1

Week 5 Kertzer

Week 6 Anderson

Week 7 Scott

Week 8 Vincent III

Week 9 Said

Week 10 Crehan

Week 10 Essay 2

Week 11 Vincent IV

Week 12 Vincent IVb

Week 14 Swartz

Week 14 Mohanty Analytic Summary

Resource Links

 Victoria Kline
Anthropology 583: Politics and Power
Instr: Dr. Ramona Pérez
September 22, 2005

Week 4: Ritual, Politics, and Power by David I. Kertzer: ix-101

Chapter 1: The Rites of Power

I like this book right away. The points that the author attempts to make are clear. There is a map of what is coming (and I love maps). The book, as explained in the Preface, is about the importance of ritual in politics, the symbolic nature of politics, the ritual significance of modern day politics, an anthropological view of the idea that politics is only as strong as the manipulation of symbolism in the rituals that are made into everyday affairs.
“Ritual” says Kertzer, “is a ubiquitous part of modern political life…through participation in the rights, the citizen of the modern state identifies with larger political forces that can only be seen in symbolic form” (1-2).         

Chapter 2: Flaming Crosses and Body Snatchers

The chapters of the book are set up in such a way as to have an opening that describes a visually stimulating scene, one full of symbols. This chapter begins with a spectacle from a KKK ritual. The setting is a remote mountain in Georgia, there are many participants, the white-sheeted participants, the eerie light, the way the initiates create a human chain, all leads to the connective power of the scene. Ritual is used to promote the solidarity of the group. Promoting group solidarity is not always in the interest of all of mankind, but many times for exclusionary purposes, to delimit.

The KKK is a political organization, and this chapter goes about showing how ritual is used to build political organization. The author alludes to the use of ritual by corporations (like General Motors) to build cohesive strength among members. General Motors becomes a community of participants that have the interest of the company foremost in their minds. Together the body of workers and managers of the corporation becomes a political unit, with rules of dress and rituals of behavior in common. Not following the specific set of rules will surely get you ousted from the organization.

Specific rites set organizations apart and render them as discrete entities of bodies of power. Kertzer talks about how this is done by organizations through the propagation of “myths regarding their origin and purpose, while members engage in symbolic practices that serve to mark them off from nonmembers” (18). The rituals define the boundaries of the organization.
Kertzer tells a story about a Monhegan (Native American) annual ritual, the powwow, where the participants have altered their identity to fit in with the general American perception of what an Indian is. The chief orders his head dress from Sears (20), even though this style of dress was not customary of the tribe. He says the public expects him to look a certain way and he resigns himself to create that expected image. The public is happy and comes to have an “other” experience to which they bring tourist dollars to exchange for “culture.”

This alteration in the rites works in this instance for the betterment of the economics of the tribe but did not work for Minnie Love, leader of the female sect of the KKK, when she tried to change the “uniform” of participants from the white sheet, to a Betsy Ross costume. The unified power of the anonymous sheet was lost.

Chapter 3: Legitimacy and Mystification

Kertzer shows how ritual is used to create political legitimacy. Two examples at the beginning of the chapter: the succession rites of royalty in the Bunyoro of Uganda, and in the annual reenacting a historic event to show superiority to the indigenes by the Afrikaners of South Africa.

“People everywhere tend to sacralize their socio-political environment”(Kertzer 1988: 37). In other words political ritual becomes sacred to the extent of becoming an act of worship. “In rendering their political system sacred through the use of ritual, people end up legitimizing the power held by political leaders” (Kertzer 1988: 37-38). Boy isn’t that the truth.
Another way of using ritual to create political legitimacy is by borrowing it. Kertzer points out that the use of old rituals gives the feeling of stability. To continue an old ritual in a new political environment is to allow some of the traditional legitimacy of the old to rub off on the new. And as is said within the volume, it does not matter what perception individuals within the group have of symbol in ritual. Common identification with a symbol gives it power.

Question: How powerful do you feel the symbol of the flag is? Or the bald eagle? Or red, white, and blue? I do not think of the flag itself as powerful. To me it is only a flag, a piece of cloth. But we do seem to unite under what it represents (us Americans that is), our unity. 

Chapter 4: The Virtues of Ambiguity

This chapter has to do with national rituals that help to foster a feeling of connectedness between groups that would normally be opposed in political viewpoint. Kertzer starts out with the story of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, an historic event that I lived through. At 12, I did not feel much connection with government, but that incident caused a panic in my junior high school. There was a feeling that all would fall apart. Reading in this chapter how Johnson ritualized his coming in to office and all that was done to calm the national temperament, he did a good thing, even if it seemed like a move to aggrandize himself, it calmed the fears of the masses. There is power in capturing and assuaging the emotions of the people. And even if there is animosity between leaders, they are still required to show respect to the dead. This was a good example of opposing forces uniting in a moment of loss of a leader, no matter how opposed those sides are.

Durkheim’s theory of social cohesion (discussed on p 61) explains how ritual plays a vital role in maintaining solidarity. Durkheim thought that people could not defend themselves without the intervention of the institution (I am supposing that would be law or government regulation of behavior). People need comforting and consoling on a continual basis and this is where ritual steps in, creating a feeling of community instead of feeling isolated. The rites of social communion as Kertzer calls it, “build and renew” social solidarity (Kertzer 1988: 62). 
Radcliff-Brown was a major proponent of Durkheim’s theory of social cohesion through ritual. Fortes and Evans-Pritchard shared in Radcliff-Brown’s view that “orderly social life can exist only if certain sentiments, those that regulate people’s interaction, are shared by all members of a society” (Kertzer 1988: 62).

Question: The view that “orderly social life can exist only if certain sentiments, those that regulate people’s interaction, are shared by all members of a society” (Kertzer 1988: 62), cannot be applied to the United States, there are too many groups for something to be applied to the whole of our society. How does the United States fit in to this viewpoint? Does each subgroup act as a society? Or are there some greater rituals that we all share that fall under the social cohesion theory?

There is heavy reliance on Durkheim in this chapter for evidence to prove that society uses ritual to maintain social solidarity. “According to Durkheim, people have an inevitable tendency to worship their society through rites devoted to its symbolic representation” (Kertzer 1988: 65).

Question: What symbols are worshipped through ritual here in the US? The flag? Can we say that the flag is universally worshipped throughout the US? Some people I know do not want to pledge to the flag. People who have been or are in the military do not have this problem. Why would that be so?

Later on in the chapter, Kertzer shows that there are limits to how this can work in a large multi-religious (or multi-ethnic, or multi-cultural) society.

Chapter 5: The Ritual Construction of Political Reality

“How ritual molds people’s understandings of the political universe”(Kertzer 1988: 14). This chapter begins with Ronald Reagan and how he was out of place at a graveside ritual in Germany because of the symbols that were evident in the graveyard that were in opposition to the Reagan way of thinking (77). Reagan was required to attend this ritual, but by his body language, those watching the event could see he was not comfortable with the memories evoked by the symbols from the foreign graveyard of the old enemy.

Next example is from November 5, 1529 Bologna: procession, plumes, cannons, knights, chariots, imperial standard, imperial sword, golden eagle, scepter, gold cloth and jewels, pages and cardinals. All of these items have ceremonial meaning, some sort of ritual involved. This is what we always see in movies that depict those times when rulers wore their power. Nowadays, we would laugh at someone wearing a bejeweled purple cloak.

A main organizational point of this chapter is how we think in terms of schemas, a term from psychology meaning the ability (or limitation) of the human mind to slot incoming information in terms of categories. These categories are learned and altered through personal experience. Kertzer says that we cannot process all incoming data and must filter or select what information we focus on. This is something that happens automatically at the subconscious level but learned and altered through experience. That means that schemas can change. We also operate with filtering methods through a variety of schemas at any one time. More than one of our schemas can apply to one situation and then there is choice. This chapter suits my schemas and I choose to enjoy this idea more than some of Kertzer’s others.

Unique or emotional experiences are better remembered than general, concrete and discrete more memorable than generalizations. Kertzer uses the example of a political rally being more effective than a political speech.

In the set of adornments of power at the beginning of this chapter, people do seem to overwhelmingly respond to symbols of power such as goods of fine quality, or rare super shiny metals and jewels, and powerful animals under human control. 

Question: Is there power in what people wear? Don’t you think of clothing as gilding rather that what the real thing is? Like a cover-up, and therefore deceitful?
Does the power of the horse transfer to the person riding it (symbolically anyway)? Is a Porsche or other expensive fast car a symbolic extension of a man’s sexuality or economic prowess (or is it just a fun toy to drive)? A woman’s?

As I got into the book, I realized my first impression of clarity was not altogether correct. Or maybe Kertzer is clear, just repetitive. Ritual is repetitive however, and so is learning by rote. The text does jump around a lot, and it seems that the same points are made over and over again using different stories, histories, and observations. He breaks out of this in Chapter 5 talking about the way the human brain is laid out and its possible limitations in how the selective mechanism works. 



Kertzer, David I.
1988    Ritual, Politics, and Power. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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last updated on October 9, 2010