How rituals shape our world

From graduations to wedding ceremonies, baby showers to retirement parties, our lives are ordered by a series of rituals. But how do these rituals develop over time and what do they tell us about culture and society at large?

Slices of toast thrown onto the track at Penn's football stadium.
 At Penn home football games, fans throw toast onto the field after the third quarter. (Image: Chase Sutton)

Undergraduate students in COMM 388: Ritual Communication—taught by Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Litty Paxton—are taking a deep dive into the unique language of ritual to explore some of the answers to these questions.

“The most fascinating thing is to take a step back and critically analyze so many of the things that we look at every day,” says Chase Sutton, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We’re taking things that I’ve personally experienced or been exposed to, breaking it down, and analyzing how rituals operate and how norms are reinforced over time.”

Each week, students embark on the task of defamiliarizing the familiar, as they investigate various commonplace rituals from an entirely new perspective. Rituals such as giving birth, rodeos, weddings, and funerals are all covered closely. Through classroom discussions, field trips, and presentations, the course encourages students to critically examine some of the underlying themes and symbols embedded in American rituals.

“I want students to recognize that post-industrial countries like the USA are steeped in ritual,” Paxton says, “because there is this problematic tendency to think that rituals are what other people do. This class safely puts that notion to bed.”

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.