Power, Hierarchy, and Ritual Inversion

The human world is full of hierarchy. As I touched on last week, hierarchy is anthropologically necessary for groups over the size of a band (approximately 150, not four or five).

Culturally, some people have more status than others, and it leads to different levels of access to resources, from food and shelter, to knowledge and education, to political decision-making. In less complex societies, such status is usually achieved. That means that people who have status earned it themselves. This is contrasted in with ascribed status, which is inherited. Usually, ascribed status is the hallmark of social classes, as it allows people’s children to inherit their wealth and power.

Hierarchy and Hegemony

Hierarchy does not always work as advertized. Sometimes we are called on to believe things that are not true or are not in our immediate best interest. Sometimes we are called on to “sacrifice for the greater good” when that “good” is simply support of the status quo. Hegemony occurs when people of higher social status and power manipulate the beliefs of those beneath them so that their power is protected. That doesn’t mean that those on the bottom are without recourse.

Cultures have a way of allowing people to blow off some of that steam without resorting to overwhelming violence (riots and civil war) and massive disruption. Everything from employees griping about bosses behind their backs (a venerable tradition everywhere) to the Occupy Wall Street movement count as ways to express resistance to these power imbalances.

Power and Inversion

When the people on the downside of a power imbalance take part in resistance to it in a formal way that is by a culture, this can be done in a form called “ritual inversion.” In ritual inversion, the rules of society are reversed or ignored. This can be anything from late-night comedians commenting on politicians as the voice of the “common man,” to a day at your job where the bosses serve the employees lunch with their own hands, to a protest march, where those without the social power to make political decisions express themselves and judge their country’s leaders.

Ritual inversions are different from open rebellion. These expressions of social power happen within specific contexts, and follow their own rules. While these rules can invert certain social power structures, at the same time they have their own sets of rules.

On a political march in America, for example, members may say and do things that rebel against cultural hegemony, but at the same time they are likely to avoid open violence, and lawbreaking happens in a ritual context. When protesters sit down in a road, blocking it, knowing that they will be arrested for their actions, it is an example of ritualized rebellion. People of less social status are standing up to those in power, showing their lack of fear and using their own social power to publicly call that power structure into question. At the same time, they are not rioters, using indiscriminate violence to try to tear down the larger system. Protesters are not going to war; they are engaging in ritualized action.

What is Ritual?

Ritual doesn’t only refer to what happens in a church, but any set of actions that are prescribed. Rituals allow for the limited rewriting of the rules of culture within a certain context. Sure, ritual can mean those formalized, stiff ways of talking and acting in certain social situations. It can be the activity of high mass at Christmas, but it can also be a high school graduation, or even something as simple as the “ritual” of meeting someone new, introducing yourself, and shaking hands.

Rituals are activities that change the social world. The religious rituals that we are most familiar with are only a subset of these, often changing the social world by incorporating deities and such into “social” relationships.

Rituals are specific contexts where the rules of culture are changed for a limited time…and they can also, through their completion, reinforce cultural rules, either old ones (status quo) or new ones. A high school graduation changes the social status of the graduates, and is also one of the ways that students can enter adulthood. There’s no coincidence that the end of high school roughly coincides with the transition of children to adults at age eighteen. High school graduation is a rite of passage in Western culture.

Ritual Inversion

When we take the rules of culture and turn them on their heads, but only in specific circumstances, we are usually working with “ritual inversions.” A protest movement, like Occupy Wall Street, that follows social rules even while breaking the written laws, is a perfect example of this process. So, while we can talk about the necessity of hierarchy among humans living in groups higher than about 150, it can be important to recognize that human cultures have methods for both changing and critiquing power structures in ways that prevent total collapse, widespread violence, and civil war.


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