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 29, 2005

Week 5: Ritual, Politics, and Power by David I. Kertzer: 102-184

Chapter 6: Rite Makes Might: Struggling for Power through Ritual

Kertzer talks about a series of rituals that are used for establishing power position within the political hierarchy. 1960s peace demonstrations and the burning of the American flag and draft cards are compared with 16th century burning of the papal bull. Students have a prominent position in both of these histories.

Question: Why is it so often students that become involved in political struggle? Universities are supposed to be places to develop and expand ideas. Are the students the oppressed ones? They are certainly the powerless ones, in quest of power through education.

“Ritual provides an important weapon in political struggle” (104), and is used by both those who seek to overthrow the existing power structure and those who seek to maintain it. Ritual placement during ritual (!) is one of the ways that status is maintained.

Ritual is used to communicate. “Diplomacy without ritual is inconceivable. Protocol is ever important, and the right symbols must be manipulated in just the right way” (104). The examples given are that of: Renaissance Venice, and how meticulous records were kept of the ceremonies performed for visiting emissaries and royalty, so as not to make some mistake in the treatment of an important guest. The point of this was to retain their (Venice’s) position of power through ritual.

Power is communicated through architecture: the grand tombs of emperors, promised before death in exchange for political loyalty.
Public support is fought over through political ceremony of speaking with the rite costume and symbol enmeshed. Truth does not seem to be as much of a concern as image. Political support is sought and won through carefully staged presentations at sites of natural or manmade disasters. Or at contrived meetings of heads of state who are fundamentally opposed in principle.  

Socially constructed hierarchies such as the caste system are maintained through ritual. According to Kertzer, the caste hierarchy in Southern India, and the kinship hierarchy in one Tunisian village, could only be successfully challenged at the ritual level.
Rites of passage such as birth, marriage, and death, are often under religious control. Kertzer gives the example of Soviet countries attempts to lure followers away from church control by offering civil ceremonies using similar or alternate symbolism. The power of the church is seen as a threat; the state wishes to embrace the loyalty of its citizens who have aligned themselves with the church.

Mass protest has significance in the power struggle. It is open and public; many are privy to what takes place on the emotional stage of mass protest. Kertzer considers a protest rally, or a mass demonstration to be a mass ritual so emotionally charged that many times peaceful demonstrators are physically attacked or arrested. The onlookers see this violence against the peaceful demonstrators as wrong. There are also those in attendance to protest the protestors.

Chapter 7: Conflict and Crisis

This chapter is about how ritual conflict serves to avoid real conflict, war, and loss of life. The first example is of the Yanamamo of South America (Venezuela and Brazil) of whom two separate groups may act out aggression on a ritual stage in a series of ritual displays in attempts to unite their groups against others in real warfare.

Kertzer is talking about the ritualization of conflict, and says that the basis for the claim that humans are like animals in the use of ritual behavior patterns because the same conditions apply to humans and animals in competition for resources, yet the need for avoidance of physical violence against members of one’s group. So animals will fake aggression to warn off rivals instead of actually physically harming each other (at least initially).

Question: The Yanomamo ritual display between groups involves the masking of the body (females anyway) with feathers. Kertzer ends up discounting the idea that ritual has biological animalistic roots. I think there is something to this, there may be a hormonal connection, or a biological connection, after all, some of these rituals, they would not be doing them if they were not gaining some kind of emotional release, or emotional charge out of it. I don’t think we can completely separate ourselves from the animals, we do a lot of the same things that animals do, our actions are just tempered by training (guilt, fear, or whatever).

The taking of political prisoners and political assassinations are part of Kertzer’s rituals of conflict and crisis. There are two examples Kertzer gives us to illustrate his points about the using the symbols of politics to sway opinion. The first example is about the Italian Red Brigade kidnapping of the head of the Christian Democratic Party in 1978 – Aldo Moro. The Christian Democratic Party had received the support of the Italian Communist Party in what seemed like a truce between opposing forces. This pissed off the members of the Red Brigade, who then used the symbols of the Communist Party to gain strength from the association. Every part of the episode was loaded with symbolism. As Kertzer puts it, the Red Brigades transformed “the kidnapping [of Moro] from a random, bloody, and pointless exercise into a meaningful political statement, thus establishing the organization as a regular actor on the Italian political scene” (136).

Kertzer ends this chapter with a discussion of the politics of the carnival. The carnival is not something I would have considered political, just entertainment, rowdy and crude. Going back to earlier times he takes example from Renaissance Venice, where the festivities involved rites of reversal (of class roles), and feasting, drinking, and performances. Taking care not to let the crowds become unruly, elites paid much to keep the commoners contented with entertainment, victuals, and grog. The carnival plays out through the ages as a time where confrontation between classes (poor against rich) is allowed, and serves as a “safety valve.” This reminds me of the Meso American fiesta or cargo system, where ancient native Meso American traditions are interwoven with those of the Catholic Church. 

Chapter 8: Rituals of Revolution: how ritual serves the revolution and revolutionary regimes.

The importance of ritual to fill organizational needs of the political system is used the same way be the revolutionaries. Kertzer’s examples: the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Nazis, and the Iranian Revolution. The chapter provides a discussion of the ways ritual can provide solidarity among the oppressed, or provide a means to promote the idea of being oppressed as in the American Revolution when there was great reverence for the king, and as long as he held such power over the 13 colonies in America, it would be difficult to rally support against him. This chapter is filled with historical examples of rituals of revolution.  

Chapter 9: The Rites of Power

Kertzer asks, how important ritual is in politics today? I predict that he will say, even if we do not think them important, they are ever present, yet imperceptible (like Enlightenment thought) and therefore all encompassing, with the power to move mountains. Ritual has the power to sway opinion, the power to organize and to define lives within our society, the power to decide who gets what, how much, and when. But, Kertzer says he does not want to “portray people as zombies imprisoned in a symbolically created universe they are powerless to change” (174). But we certainly do seem to get sucked into that universe of symbolic meaning through ritual without awareness of anything but being reality.

Question: Is this how power is won in our country, through the power of the symbols that are invoked? Do people give power to another person on the strength of the rituals he asks everyone to observe? What symbols and ritual do you associate with President Bush? How about the university? I think the university is a construct of the Enlightenment. Does the university always deliver on its promise? What is its promise?

To me rituals like birthdays and graduations never seemed like a rite of passage, one day is just the same as the next. Am I not relating to the symbolic world as I should?
Here is a symbol that I do “buy” into. Let’s talk about the symbolic value of money. It isn’t really valuable in itself, just a piece of paper. However, if you don’t have any, life can be harsh. You never have enough, yet it is the root of evil. How ambiguous is that?

Question: The idea that a carnival can be a ritual of persuasion is new to me. Are modern day carnivals a means of making a political statement, and if so, how? I can maybe see this in the Mardigras, where people are much looser and wilder than usual. Looking at it from the outside, it just seems like a way to get people to come into the city and spend a lot of money for a few days. Maybe it is my American bias, but when I hear about ritual or symbol, I always think about how much it will cost me.



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

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