Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ritual & Routine

Anybody out there tried out Aardvark yet? You know, that Q&A site which Google paid $50M for. The way it works is you post a question, wait a few moments and receive many excellent and some pretty good answers.

I played with the App for so long that I ran out of questions to ask. I had asked questions ranging from, 'where is the best Lebanese restaurant in Brussels?' to, 'What is the definition of a theory in an academic setting?' Then it came to me. I would ask a question I already knew the answer to. Why? Because I could perhaps discover a new perspective on my rather tired understanding of that question. And the question I posted was, 'What is the difference between routine and ritual in every day life?'

As someone who watches people in preference to asking them questions, rituals and routines form the very back bone of most of my deconstructions, adding meanings and interpretations. Briefly, very briefly, rituals are ceremony. And as in all ceremonies, the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. A quick build: If I have a ritualised breakfast occasion, every element of that breakfast, ranging from the BBC World Service in the background to my cold toast so the butter doesn't melt into it, become critical. And if any element is removed, my ritual/occasion is badly disrupted. Yet, a routine occasion may look exactly the same. But remove any element and the occasion won't be disrupted one bit. So when clients view films of their consumers and listen to our commentary explaining the importance of ritual, they ask the same question: 'How can we ritualise the consumption of our brand?'

Now think Haagen Dazs and 'Friends' on Friday night with a whole bunch of girlfriends on a night in. Think of a 7 year old spending more time licking the lid of a yoghurt tub than time spent finishing off the tub itself with a spoon. Think of how I love to roast a whole chicken and then spend ages picking out the most succulent parts on its back.

What all these things have in common, in addition to being rituals, is they are discovered. No one told me how good the back of a chicken is, I found out for myself. And, now, I can't eat chicken without first starting on it's back.

Another way to explain ritual is to talk about ownership and decoding. I have decoded the chicken because I have found out the tastiest way of eating it. Actually I own this way of eating it too. And chicken wouldn't be the same for me if I couldn't eat it the way I want to. Ask the 7 year old to throw the lid straight into the bin and see what happens. Ask the girlfriends not to eat Haagen Dazs while watching an episode of Friends or Desperate Housewives and see what happens.

And now let me add another layer of complexity. Rituals people own have also to be discovered. Teaching/telling me the best part of a chicken to eat won't automatically ritualise it's consumption. Discovery and ownership is critical for a ritual to be created and then to stick. Which means that you, the brand owner, cannot 'suggest' interesting ways of eating, spreading or licking something. It must be discovered to be owned, to be ritualised and ultimately shared.

I can go on. I can write a book on the subject. Instead have a read of one interesting Aardvark member's reply to my question. Which gain was: What is the difference between ritual and routine in everday life.

Here is his answer:

"Since the term ritual came into common academic use in the 19th century, many people have asked your question, and there are many possible answers. As a composer who strives to create ritual performances with my works, I tend to think of the difference in terms of the extent and significance of the meanings created or reinforced through the act.

If a set of actions are recognized (either mentally or more sensually) by a group as signifying something greater than what is explicitly said, or even something that can't be said, then the event takes on ritual importance. The bigger the web of meaningful associations connected to the actions is, the deeper their influence to bring a group together, to make them feel connected to one another.

The same simple event might be ritualistic for one person and not for another. Imagine making coffee in the morning before going to work. For one person, imagine this is a largely unexamined action. Even though he does it five days a week in almost exactly the same way, he doesn't care that much about it and has no particular memories to associate with it. Nothing in his life hinges on the act. It is habit. Many people would call this a ritual; I would not.

Imagine another person who makes coffee every morning. She remembers her mother making coffee every morning, and this memory has some emotional significance—perhaps positive, perhaps negative. She makes the coffee not just for herself, but for her whole household. She takes pride in the making. She chooses fair trade beans at the store, aware that people in the tropics work hard to grow and pick this crop. She washes her prized coffee pot gently afterwards with a mind toward tomorrow morning. She has the unspoken sense that the act sets the tone for her day and for the day of everyone else in her household. I would call this a ritual.

Ritualization is an intentional, strategic way of acting. When one chooses to give actions significance, one performs a ritual. When you choose to be mindful of how a set of actions connect you to your family, to your neighborhood, to the rest of humankind, to all of nature, you ritualize otherwise mundane events.

If you want to read an academic text that looks at our history of using the term ritual and proposes ritualization as a lens for examining social activity, check out Catherine Bell's "Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice.""

And then I asked him f I could post his reply on our blog.

"I appreciate your asking, Siamack, and yes, you may. I would be honored by a mention on ethnosnacker, especially on a topic so central to my aesthetics and ethics. More information about me is available at"

And, interestingly, Zachary is NOT an anthropologist.

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