Dimensions of Ritual Economy: Volume 27


Table of contents

(15 chapters)

Ritual economy is a theoretical approach for understanding and explaining the ways in which worldview, economy, power, and human agency interlink in society and social change. Defined as the “process of provisioning and consuming that materializes and substantiates worldview for managing meaning and shaping interpretation,” this approach forefronts the study of human engagement with social, material, and cognitive realms of human experience. This chapter explores the theoretical roots of ritual economy and how they are expressed in this volume's contributions, which ground the discussion in actual case studies applied to both capitalistic and noncapitalistic settings across a number of different cultural contexts. By knitting together two realms of inquiry that often are sequestered into separate domains of knowledge, ritual economy exposes for analysis how the process of materializing worldview through ritual practice structures economic behavior without determining it.

This chapter uses the ritual economy approach to examine what can be called “liturgical” economic allocations, which are made by private individuals and can comprise a significant percentage of a society's total expenditures on public works. Such allocations are driven by tournaments of honor that emphasize highly visible acts and public evaluations of status, which turn on one's willingness to put at risk what is most highly valued in society. Unlike philanthropy, participation in these tournaments is necessary to achieve and maintain citizenship, but unlike taxation, where rates are imposed from above, what is given is determined by a complex social negotiation. The chapter argues that the relativity of honor gives such systems a particular dynamic, which is illustrated in several case studies.

The archaeological record of small-scale societies is replete with examples of people expending considerable labor to craft both places and objects for communal rituals. Archaeologists often infer these efforts to have been the product of aspiring elites. This chapter focuses instead on the larger community responsible for the construction of places and objects, through a ritual economy analysis of the social logic people use to organize the production of ritual places and paraphernalia. A review of ethnographic and archaeological data suggests that the production of communal ritual places often involves the creation of sociograms, while the production of objects for use within these places encompasses a web of complementary and competitive relations. Two examples of large-scale communal ritual spaces, the early British Neolithic causewayed enclosures and the Ohio Hopewell geometric earthworks, are explored in light of these ethnographic and archaeological patterns.

This chapter uses ideas from the ritual economy approach to discuss the political ecology of ritual feasting among Lisu highlanders and Shan lowlanders of northern Southeast Asia and medieval Icelanders. The audience for Lisu feasts is fellow villagers all of whom are engaged in limited competition for prestige to insure equality among households. These reciprocal feasts use a considerable portion of the annual value of each household's production. Among Shan the audience is non-reciprocating Buddhist monks and non-reciprocating fellow villagers to validate positions in the social-political hierarchy in terms of Buddhist merit. The feasts use a relatively small portion of any household's annual production. Among Icelandic chieftains, the audience was followers and potential followers to validate claims to chieftaincy and could initially use only a fraction of the annual production of a chiefly household, though as the source of revenue changed from household slaves to renters, and wage workers and competition for land developed, the ritual dimension of chieftaincy became exaggerated and used an increasing portion of revenues as there were fewer and fewer increasingly powerful and combative chieftains.

Nahua ritual specialists of northern Veracruz, Mexico, portray spirit entities by cutting their images from paper. Paper cutting is an ancient craft in Mesoamerica that traces back to the pre-Hispanic era. The impetus to materialize the spirits in this way is the result of the highly abstract and pantheistic nature of the Nahua religious system. In pantheistic thought, the cosmos itself is the deity and all apparent diversity can be seen as different aspects or manifestations of a seamless sacred unity. The Nahua ritual specialist places the paper figures on elaborate altars where he or she dedicates special offerings to them. The fundamentally economic nature of Nahua ritual exchange is revealed – with the aid of ritual economy – through examination of multiple factors: the symbolic meanings of sacred chanting and altar construction, the role of religion in constituting Nahua ethnic identity in the face of domination by mestizo elites, and the ecological context that renders life precarious for indigenous horticulturalists of this region of Mexico.

In Mesoamerica, the processes of making and using hand-woven cloth are well known ritual and mundane practices often regarded as markers of primordial identity and clear indications of deep historical continuities with the pre-Columbian past. This chapter analyzes a set of commemorative wall hangings from Tecpán, Guatemala from the perspective of ritual economy to argue that ritual weaving persists in contemporary Mesoamerica within global economic contexts. The Tecpán textiles contain multiple significations that, in addition to indicating cultural continuities and community identity, symbolically link hamlets to the municipality, represent development projects completed, and symbolize the connections these hamlets have to the broader global economy. This analysis of weaving and cloth is contextualized within the cultural and economic conditions of Tecpán in order to discuss the interrelationship between the ritual and the mundane, as well as what hand-woven cloth means to contemporary Maya weavers.

In the first millennium AD when international trade brought silver coins to Madagascar, they were melted down for jewelry or cut into pieces to meet the needs of small-scale local trade. The Merina culture of the highland interior saw in the original uncut silver coin an image of completeness and perfection. Such coins became obligatory ritual offerings acknowledging the sanctity of the sovereign. “Ritual economy” is brought into fine grain relief when pieces of “all-purpose money” are used in ritual prestation and when markets become a symbol of morality indexing political legitimacy. Today traditions of the highlands have co-opted the royal offering of “uncut coins” for local ritual purposes and local ritual specialists engage in symbolic assaults on “all-purpose money.” This chapter draws upon Merina royal oral traditions, ethnohistoric accounts, and contemporary ethnographic work with Betsileo ritual specialists to argue that the poetic and the syncretic necessarily enter into discussions of the economic.

This chapter examines the historical relationship between Honduran Lenca worldview and how ecological resources are managed through ritual practice. The way in which the Lenca conceive of the biophysical environment is an active process of meaning-making that takes place through their interaction with the environment. The Lenca codify this relationship in the compostura, a complex set of ceremonial performances linked to economic practices that mediate human needs and desires with those of the ancestors who animate the landscapes surrounding households and communities. Through an examination of contemporary, historical, and archeological cases in western Honduras, this chapter explores how ritual economy shapes, and is shaped by, environmental worldview.

The most powerful and effective forces of hierarchizing are those that naturalize difference so that it is beyond dispute and something to be tacitly accepted. In the Classic Maya world, this “social speciation” was materialized and naturalized through a complex web of ritual practice, deity emulation, enhancement of body aesthetics, and the fabrication and possession of hypertrophic goods. The architecture of Classic Maya royal courts broke with an older Maya residential pattern of accretional construction filled with ancestral burials in order to materialize more effectively social difference, to provide space for exclusive ritual performance, and to showcase the highly valued and gendered labor of textile production. Such instruments of authority are “weapons of exclusion” that can be wielded to fend off assaults on hierarchy. From this perspective, informed by the ritual economy approach, the profound transformations of the 9th century in the Maya lowlands are considered an assault that was not defendable.

This chapter explores the “moral meanings” that intersect with economic realities in the context of a Cincinnati community school located in a diverse working-class neighborhood. The focus is on informal support systems for kids that require adults to expend considerable resources on community children. These practices grow out of a ritualized community ethos of “doing whatever it takes.” Work, gifts, food, and housing are all tied to an informal economy embedded in a grassroots social movement that is based on a strong commitment to taking care of community children. Beyond job descriptions, and, in many instances, in spite of them, community people go the extra mile. There is a sense of commitment and morality, tied with notions of doing what is right, and with taking care of community children, broadly conceived as working-class youth. The goal of this agenda is to bring kids up to speed in the face of poor public education and class and race discrimination. From a ritual economy perspective, the community school materializes the values and beliefs of the community and, at the same time, shapes the community's worldview.

This chapter summarizes and discusses the volume's contributions toward developing a theory of ritual economy. To move ahead, an appropriate analytical vocabulary must be developed and tested. Useful concepts explored in this volume's chapters include “materialization,” “provisioning,” “consumption,” and “transaction,” as well as more specialized terms, such as “ritual mode of production,” “meta-power,” and “liturgical economic allocations.” Future work should consider breaking down analyses into those that deal with ritual economy as it reinforces existing socio-political structures versus those that deal with the transformative qualities of ritual economy. Additionally, future work should examine the “ritualization of materiality,” by drawing sharper distinctions between political economy and ritual economy, and by linking the ritual economy approach to material engagement theories.

Publication date
Book series
Research in Economic Anthropology
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
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