Rites of passage better than no-through roads

Tom Schuller

As another year has turned with its attendant rituals two episodes have set me thinking about the place rites of passage have in our lives.

First, I have been following the sad case of a woman in a persistent vegetative state. Her family have supported an application by the health trust for her life-support machine to be turned off after four years. As I write the outcome of the application is not known. If it is turned down, they will be in an emotional limbo while she is in a physical one.

Then I talked with a colleague who is about to officiate at a divorce ceremony. This will be attended by both partners, though I understand that the guests will be more from one side than the other. The aim is to signal the end of a relationship - or at least the married part of the relationship - with due acknowledgement for its positive qualities. There will, I am sure, be music, and probably poetry.

I suggested to the colleague that she should think about a ritual for the family in the former case, to help them mourn and move on - even if the relative is still lying wired-up in the hospital. Otherwise, they will be left in a kind of psychological cul-de-sac.

I'm no anthropologist, but I do see a clear role for ritual as something which gives structure to our lives. How are young people to escape from dependence? Not through a bit of music and the odd poem, that's for sure, but it would surely be preferable if there were some widely recognised way - beyond what their peer groups inflict on them and beyond Government training schemes - of letting them know that the rest of us think they should now be regarded as adults.

The same holds good for other passages from one stage of life to another. But how does this fit with the need for flexibility? Aren't these kinds of transitions associated with antiquated 20th-century customs of predictability and rigidity, on the shop floor, at home and in each person's psyche?

If people change jobs faster than they change cars (and apparently they now change spouses more often than they change their bank), there's less of a case for a whip-round for a commemorative present and a farewell party. However, the whirligig of change may not reduce, but rather increase the need for events which tell us that a further step has been taken.

In education the growth of mod-ularisation provides some interestingparallels. Where units are small their completion is less likely to be marked by celebration.

Credit accumulation systems do provide flexibility and give people attainable targets. In doing so they smooth out the troughs but also the peaks which come from the successful completion of well-integrated longer courses. They also remove the sense of cohort solidarity which can be a very powerful support and a source of mutual learning for its members.

Seeing access course graduates enjoy the annual awards ceremony is strong evidence of this. The event also tells them that it is time to move on - and they need to remember this when they turn up for their first lectures as undergraduates along with the others.

I remember wondering, as I listened to the inaugural lecture of a friend as professor of social anthropology, how far such academic rituals had been studied by their own practitioners.

Such a study would be a neat reversal of the usual since the anthropologists would have to add an observer role to their participant one, rather than the other way round, which is what they do in their stereotypically exotic fieldwork locations.

But there is a serious sense in which we are all participants in more or less adequate rituals of progression - and the absence of such rituals tells us quite a lot about gaps in our social fabric.

Professor Tom Schuller is director of the centre for continuing education at the University of Edinburgh.

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