Observe Rituals

Enhance your ethnographic interpretation by identifying and observing customs and rituals that members of the community routinely perform.

Unlike artifacts, rituals and customs are not physical objects that can be held in one’s hands and described according to their shape and function. Rituals are activities that people perform according to a predetermined pattern. Even though rituals frequently involve the use of artifacts, the ritual itself is an activity. Because rituals and customs are behaviors, they are sometimes more difficult to describe and analyze than artifacts. However, like artifacts, rituals are very useful for understanding and interpreting a culture.

Which Rituals or Customs Should Be Studied?

Rituals are often considered a defining characteristic by both people inside as well as outside of the culture. Some of the more obvious rituals are associated with a culture’s religion. Ceremonies involving worship or celebration are easy to identify and to describe because they are usually public and are repeated with continuity and regularity. Domestic or social rituals, such as cockfighting, watching football, dining, or courtship may be harder to identify, but are also very important for understanding a group.

Ask yourself the following questions to help you select which rituals or customs to study:

  1. What activities do most of the members of the group participate in together?
  2. What behaviors seem to be common to the members of the community?
  3. What activities have a specific format that is repeated frequently?
  4. What activities involve special kinds of dress or costumes?
  5. What customs does the culture exhibit that are different from your own?
  6. What folktales, lore, or superstitions belong to the culture?
  7. What rituals or customs are part of the routine of daily life such as working, eating, entertainment, dating, or resting?
  8. What rituals or customs have been are part of the culture for a number of years? Which ones are relatively new?

Explain Why a Ritual Is Important to a Culture

As with artifacts, simply describing a ritual in detail is not enough; you must somehow tell your reader why it is important to an interpretation of the culture. Again, avoid the mistake of claiming that one particular behavior completely represents or explains an entire culture. As you already know, Geertz studied the Balinese ritual of cockfighting in great detail, recreating a vivid image of the sights and sounds of a culture obsessed by a particular form of entertainment. As you read the next excerpt, concentrate on the way cockfighting helps understand Balinese culture as a whole:

Cockfights are held in a ring about fifty-five feet square. Usually they begin toward late afternoon and run three or four hours until sunset. About nine or ten separate matches comprise a program. Each match is precisely like the others in general pattern: there is no main match, no connection between individual matches, no variation in their format, and each is arranged on a completely ad hoc basis. After a fight has ended and the emotional debris cleared away—the bets paid, the curses cursed, the carcasses possessed—seven, eight, perhaps even a dozen men slip negligently into the ring with a cock and seek to find there a logical opponent for it. This process, which rarely takes less than ten minutes, and often a good deal longer, is conducted in a very subdued, oblique, even dissembling manner. Those not immediately involved give it at best but disguised, sidelong attention; those who, embarrassingly are, attempt to pretend somehow that the whole thing is not really happening.

A match made, the other hopefuls retire with the same deliberate indifference and the selected cocks have their spurs affixed—razor sharp, pointed steel swords, four our five inches long. This is a delicate job which only a small portion of men, a half-dozen or so in most villages, know how to do properly. The man who attaches the spurs also provides them, and if the rooster he assists wins its owner awards him the spur-leg of the victim. The spurs are affixed by winding a long length of string around the foot of the spur and the leg of the cock [. . .]an obsessively deliberate affair. The lore about spurs is extensive—they are sharpened only at eclipses and the dark of the moon, should be kept out of the sight of women, and so forth. And they are handled, both in use and out, with the same curious combination of fussiness and sensuality the Balinese direct toward ritual objects generally.

The spurs affixed, the two cocks are placed by their handlers (who may or may not be the owners) facing one another in the center of the ring. A coconut pierced with a small hole is placed in a pail of water, in which it takes about twenty-one seconds to sink, a period known as a tjeng and marked at beginning and end by the beating of a slit gong. During these twenty-one seconds the handlers are not permitted to touch their roosters. If, as sometimes happens, the animals have not fought during this time, they are picked up, fluffed, pulled, prodded, and otherwise insulted, and put back in the center of the ring and the process begins again. Sometimes they refuse to fight at all, or one keeps running away, in which case they get imprisoned together under a wicker cage, which usually gets them engaged.