Unit Two – History, Memory, Myth, and Ritual

Unit Two

What to Do for Unit Two 

1) Choose One  American Indian Group.

Do some research on their history, society, and culture.

Choose one of their rituals.

Do research on your chosen ritual and its history during contact with Europeans. 

Share the results of your research and your bibliography.

You can do this assignment in groups, if you want to.

Make sure you use reliable or academic sources for your assignment.

My suggestion is to use our library’s “chat with a librarian 24/7” service available via our library’s site:


2) Read about critical thinking skills and their application in the social sciences (particularly anthropology).

Below are some links (from Unite Five)


Start reading about critical thinking skills and how you are going to apply your critical thinking skills in this class, particularly doing your research project. Later you will asked to expand your notes and post in on your Research Project Blog.

3) Ethnographic Notes – Write your visual ethnographic notes for your audience on the Thanksgiving ritual in the US by representing it in its historical, gender, socio-economic class, generation, family, religious, ethnic, national, socialization/enculturation and global aspects.

Minimum of three pieces of visual data per group member.

Make sure that you perspective is holistic and non-essentialist. Minimum of


You can also search on the internet for images of Thanksgiving to use.

4) Choose a Topic for your Research Proposal.

You can do this in small groups.



What is Myth?

M. Magoulick



American Myths

G. Smith



History and Memory
Bridging World History 





The following notes are partly based on the chapter 7 of

Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition, Seventh Edition, by Emily A. Schultz and Robert H. Lavenda (Oxford University Press, 2008).




Openness is an important aspect of human culture and language.

Openness refers to the ability to think and talk about the same thing in different ways and different things in the same way.

Play refers to thinking about, talking about, and doing the same thing in different ways and different things in the same way.

Play involves “a framing, or (re)orienting of context, that is
(1) consciously adopted by the players,
(2) somehow pleasurable, and
(3) systemically related to what is non-play, by alluding to the non-lay world, and by transforming the objects, roles, actions, and relations of ends and means characteristic of the no-play world.” (Schultz and Lavenda 2005:143).

Play as a rehearsal of the real world. Play’s role in socialization and enculturation– as a way of learning the appropriate gender and generation roles and values associated with them.

Make-believe Play as a venue for creativity, innovation and agency – since play let overcome limitations of age, etc.

Anthropologist Elizabeth Chin, has studied African American girls play with their dolls in a working class and poor neighborhood of Connecticut. The “ethnically correct” dolls are available, but they cost too much. The children studied had white dolls, but transformed their look by giving them hairstyles like their own.

“In some sense, by doing this, the girls bring their dolls into their own worlds, and whiteness here is not absolutely defined by skin and hair, but by style and way of life.” (Chin 1999:315, quoted in Schultz and Lavenda 2005: 147). Their play does not make the realities of poverty, and racial discrimination disappear, but, “in making their while dolls live in black worlds, they …reconfigure the boundaries of race and …challenge the social construction not only of their own blackness, but of race itself as well” (Chin 1999:318, quoted in Schultz and Lavenda 2005: 147).


Sport is a ritual-like practice.  It include a various degrees of play, work, and leisure or entertainment.

Play is one aspect, element or component of sport. Sport is play, but it is also embedded in the dominant social order and cultural configuration.

Sports represent and reconstruct the main values of the cultural setting in which they are practiced.

Institutionalized sports, the way we know them today, are modern phenomena. They are also closely related to the formation and working of nation-states.



Myths are narratives whose truth are presented as self-evident. They do this by integrating personal experiences with a wider set of assumptions about the way society and the world in general, should operate.

In complex and multi-cultural societies, like the U.S., various cultural groups with their own mythic “traditions” co-exist. But does this mean the U.S. is without it own unique cultural myths?

The U.S. Declaration of Independence assertion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is presented as self evident and has mythic dimension.

Myths are socially and culturally central because they tell people about the past, about where they have come from, and about the future, about where they are heading to, and, consequently, how they should live in the present and views the present.

Myths are studied by anthropologists as charters or justifications for social action and social arrangements, and conceptual tools to tell about the world as it is and as it might be.

Myths and agency – Manipulating the way myths are told or interpreted in order to make an effect, to make or prove a point, or to reinforce a particular perspective. Making and structuring meaning by retelling of myths could be done by ordinary people as well as the elite of the society.

So, myths are charters for the dominant social arrangements and cultural ideas, as well as vehicles for contesting the dominant arrangements and ideas.



Ritual is usually a repetitive social practice—but there are also once-acted ritual-like practices, such as once-acted rebellions.

Rituals is composed of a sequence of symbolic activities (gestures, speech, song, dance, manipulation of certain objects, …)

Rituals are differentiated from the routine of everyday life. They are extra-ordinary practices as opposed to ordinary daily activities.

Rituals adhere to a culturally and socially specifically defined ritual schema.

Ritual practices are closely associated with specific cultural ideas that are usually encoded in myths.

Rituals are practice in set time/spaces (e.g., Sunday/church).

Rituals are hyper-communicative – a variety of means and media o communication are relied upon to communicate during the ritual events (in contrast to routine interactions).

Rituals are hyper-performative – Performance could be said to be a characteristic of all social interaction, rituals are particularly performative.

Rituals represent the structure of the society, but they could also reconstruct and transform the dominant structures of the society (e.g., rituals of the American civil rights movement).

Rituals are vital to the creation and renewal of cultural meanings and rules for social interaction.

In the American society, many rituals are rooted in “tradition” yet are rapidly changing in a hyper-modern, globalized and commodified society (e.g., Christmas).

In the modern societies we have the participatory rituals (e.g., Thanksgiving) as well as the  mass-media rituals (e.g., the Oscars).

Examples of American annual rituals – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July, Memorial Day.

Rites of passage are rituals that mark the movement and transformation of an individual or a group of individuals from one social position to another. Examples of rites of passage are weddings and graduation ceremonies.


Chin, Elizabeth. 1999. Ethnically Correct Dolls: Toying with the race industry. American Anthropologist 101(2):305-21.

Schultz, Emily  and Robert Lavenda. 2008. Cultural Anthropology. Oxford University Press.


Ritual and Ritualization

 Catherine Bell

Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice.

Oxford University Press, 1992

Ritualization is associated with the work of the religious studies scholar Catherine Bell. Bell, drawing on the Practice Theory of Pierre Bourdieu, has taken a less functional view of ritual with her elaboration of ritualization.

In recent years the notion of ritual has emerged as an important focus for new forms of cultural analysis.

Arguing that the concept of ritual is overdue for critical rethinking, Bell here offers a close theoretical analysis of the recent developments in ritual studies, concentrating on anthropology, sociology, and history of religions.

She begins by showing how discourse on ritual has served to generate and legitimate a limited and ultimately closed form of cultural analysis.

She then proposes that so-called ritual activities be removed from their isolated position as special, paradigmatic acts and restored to the context of “social activity” in general.

Using the term “ritualization” to describe ritual thus contextualized, she defines it as a culturally strategic way of acting. She goes on to show how this definition can serve to illuminate such classic issues in traditional ritual studies as belief, ideology, legitimation, and power.

With the advancement of ritual studies, defining the actual concept of ritual has, in recent years, proved somewhat problematic.4 In her important summary to classify the term ritual, Catherine Bell opts for the expression ritualization in preference to ritual. Bell offers the following useful definition:

Ritualization is a way of acting that is designed and orchestrated to distinguish and privilege what is being done in comparison to other, usually more quotidian, activities. As such, ritualization is a matter of various culturally specific strategies for setting some activities off from others, for creating and privileging a qualitative distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane,” and for ascribing such distinctions to realities thought to transcend the powers of human actors.5


The first theoretical perspective is concerned with the origins and essential nature of ritual and religion; the second is more concerned with the role of ritual in the social organization and dynamics of human societies; the third perspective focuses on ritual as a form of cultural communication that transmits the cognitive categories and dispositions that provide people with important aspects of their sense of reality.


The Great American Football Ritual:

Reproducing Race, Class, and Gender Inequality


History and Memory


Exploring  U.S. History


Religion, Race, and Gender in Revolutionary America


American Cultural History




American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Collection

UW Digital Collections



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