Rituals and Conflict Transformation: An Anthropological Analysis of the Ceremonial Dimensions of Dispute Processing

Mark Davidheiser

June 2006


The ritual aspect of conflict processing offers a fascinating field of analysis that is ideal for synthesizing conflict resolution expertise and social scientific knowledge. However, we do not have to restrict ourselves to arcane scholarly debates in order to analyze the ritual aspects of conflict transformation, as they can also be discussed from a practical and intuitive perspective. For this discussion we shall concentrate on two areas, post-conflict reconstruction and conflict mediation (loosely defined here as third-party interventions to mitigate a dispute between two or more persons or groups). In order to set the stage for an examination of ritual in peacebuilding and mediation, we will first briefly review influential studies of human social rituals.

Social scientific analyses of rituals have been conducted primarily by anthropologists. Van Gennep's The Rites of Passage [1] was a seminal work that influenced the work of structural-functionalists such as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Van Gennep adopted a process view of rituals, arguing that they should be considered as social institutions that enable marked transitions in social status. He identified three parts of the ritual process: separation, transition, and incorporation. The separation phase marks the beginning of ritual events. It signals the departure from the normal social world and its attendant values, norms, and habituated patterns of behavior. The transition represents what scholars term a "liminal state." A liminal state is a special social space in which the usual customs and conventions do not apply, creating an atmosphere of ambiguity. Turner describes the liminal state as "anti-structure," connoting the relaxation of the mores and rules of the everyday social structure. [2] Researchers investigating the sociological impacts of natural disasters have used the concept of liminality to describe the elastic social atmosphere that prevails after events such as earthquakes. [3]

The ambiguous and supple character of liminal states is linked to their association with events such as the rites of passage rituals that herald shifts in social status of certain persons, such as male adolescents entering manhood. The potential fluidity of liminality is central to understanding why rituals are often essential in enabling social groups to adapt to and institutionalize change. The term "anti-structure" is also suggestive of another aspect of liminality; liminal social arenas can be highly stylized, representing a parallel universe with its own norms and expectations that are often the inverse of the usual social structure. For example, Turner describes African ceremonies in which chiefs, who usually command respect, are ridiculed and even stoned. Such ritual events can have their own internal logic and rules. Finally, the incorporation stage consists of what Turner calls "reintegration," the activities that facilitate reentry into the everyday social milieu, albeit a somewhat changed one, since rituals are often associated with change, such as alterations in a person or groups' status, the merging of various social units, or the loss or addition of group members.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Manchester school of anthropologists applied elements of van Gennep's approach to conflict processes. In their studies of African societies, Max Gluckman and Victor Turner noted how, in addition to rites of passage, ritual events were also prominent in conflict management. [4] Turner, in particular, further developed van Gennep's model of ritual from a cross-cultural perspective. His book The Ritual Process [5] is essential reading for those interested in further exploring this topic.

In what was probably the first cross-cultural study of negotiation and mediation, Philip Gulliver drew from his research in Eastern Africa and North America to describe what he considered an underlying structure to the negotiation process [6]. Gulliver's eight-stage model began with setting the stage and ended with the ritualization of the agreement. The following section will undertake a closer examination of ritual activity in conflict processes with reference to Carolyn Nordstrom's study in A Different Kind of War Story of the Mozambican civil war and its aftermath [7].

Unmaking Violence: Rituals and Post-War Reconciliation in Mozambique


Rituals have a complex role in violence and peacemaking. For example, the process of becoming a soldier has ritualistic elements. During boot camp, prospective soldiers occupy a special social status as initiates, their appearances are changed-their heads are shaved, their previous dress is replaced by uniforms, etc.-to reflect their new identity and status, and so forth. The experience of soldiers exhibits many parallels with that of initiates in other social groups such as prospective priests, youths undergoing puberty rites, and so forth. Peacebuilding efforts also often involve symbols and rituals, and Western-led post-war demobilization and integration programs could benefit from having a ritual component.

A Different Kind of War Story is, in part, a chronicle of how a population resisted violence, often using ritual and symbols to do so. Nordstrom offers fascinating accounts of grassroots resistance to the efforts of both RENAMO and FRELIMO (or government) forces. For example, she relates how villagers kidnapped some forcibly conscripted soldiers and rebels and returned them to their families and communities. Religious figures played a key role in rural residents' resistance to war and violence. Spirit mediums (persons who communicate with spirits) and populist religious leaders such as Manuel Antonio were instrumental in mobilizing villagers. Based on his reputation of supernatural prowess and his practice of imbuing his recruits with magical protection against violent injury, Antonio formed an anti-war organization that secured entire regions, creating oases of calm in war-torn Mozambique.

While Nordstrom is an anthropologist, A Different Kind of War Story represents a valuable read that is a relatively accessible work for a conflict resolution audience unfamiliar with the discipline of anthropology. After the conclusion of the civil war, Mozambique, like other countries in similar situations, faced the problem of how to effectively demobilize former combatants and persuade them to abandon their violent lifestyles. Armies socialize their soldiers so that they will adopt the proper perspective and be able to overcome inhibitions against violence. Soldiers are given a new identity that accompanies their training and psychological preparation to kill, a training that encompasses the dehumanization of the enemy and the overcoming of the normal social prohibitions against violence and killing. In civil wars, fighters on both sides often become accustomed to the casual use of violence and the easy availability of booty. This, combined with the social-psychological ramifications of violent conflict, often make post-conflict reintegration very difficult. Mozambican villagers were able to craft creative solutions, however. They engaged in rituals designed to heal the veterans and their support staff and reintegrate them into their community. As they put it, they had to "take the war out of these soldiers" [8].

Mozambicans' usage of ritual demonstrates the significance of both of the two major factors in social science - structure (socially defined pathways of action) and agency (the ability of individuals to make conscious choices). As Nordstrom underlines, villagers and spirit mediums relied on both their collective knowledge and their individual creativity to oppose violence. In other words, they used their intelligence and social knowledge to consciously craft their strategies of resistance. However, their practices also demonstrated the importance of structure, as they did not simply create new procedures out of thin air but built upon the legacy of existing values, norms, and patterns of behavior in their society. According to Nordstrom,"violence is not a fixed entity, a "'truth' to be dealt with, but instead it is a social, political, and cultural construction that noncombatants - the targets of most violence - can redefine to assert their own political will" [7].

Thus, unmaking violence involves reconstructing the social world or ethnoscape. Violence and war are, in many ways, the antithesis of the ideal of ordered, harmonious communal life. Violence and village life are thus oppositional to one another. Part of reintroducing former combatants into a functional and relatively pacific social existence thus involved reintegrating them into their communities and rebuilding their bonds with the community members; bonds which in Mozambique, as in most collectivist societies, acted to maintain social order, as the presence of others is vital to curtailing anti-social behavior and maintaining taboos.

Rituals have played a role in other post-conflict situations. The Navajo, for example, practice the Enemy Way ceremony, in which veterans returning from combat undergo a ritual cleansing process. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and the gacaca courts of Rwanda--which also feature public hearings and confessions-can also be considered ritual events since they involve the heavy use of symbolism and take place in a special social space.

Rituals in Peacemaking


The use of rituals in peacemaking is not confined to Mozambique or to post-war reconstruction efforts. The efficacy of much third party peacemaking or mediation is linked to the creation of a special social space in which the conventions and scripts of everyday life are loosened, enabling personal and social transformation. A survey of the ethnographic literature illuminates the significance of liminality in conflict mitigation. Ritualization is a common feature of peacemaking in numerous societies including the Semai [9], North Americans, Arusha, and Ndenduli [10], Native Hawaiians [11] and Lebanese [12].

The above discussion may lead some readers to think that the use of rituals in peacemaking is limited to exotic, non-Western societies; however, this is not true. In my cross-cultural study of the structuring of the mediation process, the only stages or activities that appeared to be universal were those that frame the procedure: the setting the stage that initiates mediation events and the ritualization that concludes them [13]. These activities are essential in the creation of liminal space, which, my research suggests, is a vital aspect of effective peacemaking.

The significance of cultural perspectives in human affairs is partly due to our desire for meaning and order and our fundamental need for a sense of stability and continuity. Rituals can help to facilitate change; they can help to moderate the human conservative impulse by integrating potential societal shifts into existing frames of reference. In other words, there is a human tendency to favor the familiar. One way of coping with novel phenomena is ritualization, using accepted social institutions to make social changes more comprehensible and palatable by incorporating them into shared cognitive frameworks [14]. Change is a fundamental feature of social conflict. Disputes occur because certain parties are dissatisfied with the status quo and wish to see changes. Conflict resolution outcomes - or at least those which involve some compromise - typically involve social change, whether that be alterations in the relationship between family members or spouses, a modification of public policies based on the concerns of certain interest groups, or a dramatic change in the lives of large numbers of people due to an armistice.

We can also refer to common procedures of court-annexed mediation in North America. The sessions begin with the setting the stage phase in which mediators are expected to establish the ground rules of the event and establish a particular type of atmosphere or environment conducive to respectful, productive discussions and conflict transformation. The ground rules signal the beginning of the ritual stage that van Gennep and Turner call separation, meaning the entry into a liminal state when the usual social rules and conventions do not apply. The ground rules of problem-solving mediation signify the creation of a special social space that transcends the normal social structure. Turner described the liminal space as "anti-structure," meaning a social environment in which the normal social rules are inverted. He focused a great deal on hierarchies and power, and we can apply that perspective here. In the ideal type problem-solving model, regardless of the disputants' relative social status in the everyday world outside of the mediation session, they are expected to abide by the ground rules. Thus, even if one disputant is the CEO of a major company and the other is a janitor, they should both follow the same rules and the CEO should listen quietly to the janitor and cannot interrupt him or her.

The concluding activities of court-annexed mediations also exhibit ritualistic features. Such sessions generally end with the signing of a legal contract that formalizes the agreements crafted during the session. Many societies conclude their peacemaking with stylized apologies or pleas for forgiveness, the sharing of food or drink, or other symbolically significant activities. In the legal-rational bureaucratic institutional environment

of North American court-annexed mediation, signing a contract is a ceremonial occasion that serves to formalize agreements, performing the same function as the apologies or sharing of food mentioned above. The signing of the contract also serves to mark the end of the liminal phase and the reintegration into the normal social milieu, albeit one that is somewhat transformed, since the disputants have agreed to adjust their behaviors and relationships.



Peacebuilders would do well to explicitly focus on how rituals can enhance peacebuilding. Over the past decade, the field of conflict resolution has witnessed a spike in interest in transcending some of the more rationalistic, utilitarian problem-solving approaches. There are now debates on whether apologies and forgiveness can be integrated into processes such as conflict mediation. That is a promising development, and we could further develop our understanding of such questions by viewing them through the lens of ritual. We could also explore other creative ideas that could enhance our abilities to mediate. In another article [15], I propose a variety of ideas that could, when appropriate, be incorporated into mediation efforts such as prayer, sharing food, and drawing on shared identities linked to sports or other social arenas. The transformative impact of ritual has been well documented. The field of conflict resolution could gain a great deal from a more focused engagement with liminality, symbolism, and social identities.

The literature in the emergent field of conflict analysis and resolution has paid scant attention to the ritual dimensions of conflict processing. Fortunately, there have been some recent discussions of the topic. Ken Cloke [16] has alluded to the need for a deeper examination of this area, and the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base includes a salient article on joking kinship by Davidheiser. To date, the most extensive analysis can be found in Lisa Schirch's Ritual and Symbol in Peacemaking [17].

Her volume is an excellent resource for persons interested in this topic. It has not yet attracted the attention it deserves, but hopefully Schirch's book will galvanize more investigation of this most promising area of study and practice. Further exploration of the ritualistic and ceremonial dimensions of conflict and peacemaking would greatly aid in the development of conflict analysis and resolution.


[1] Van Gennep, Arnold. (1960). The Rites of Passage. Republished English language edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Turner, Victor. (1967). The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

[3] See, for example, Oliver-Smith, Anthony. (1992). The Martyred City: Death and Rebirth in the Andes. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. 2nd edition.

[4] Gluckman, Max. (1971). Politics, Law, and Ritual in Tribal Society. Oxford University Press.

[5] Turner, Victor. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine.

[6] Gulliver, Philip H. (1979). Disputes and Negotiations: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Academic Press.

[7] Nordstrom, Carolyn. (1997). A Different Kind of War Story. University of Pennsylvania Press.

[8] Lan, David L. (1985). Guns and Rain: Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[9] Robarchek, Clayton A. (1997). "A Community of Interests: Semai Conflict Resolution." In D. P. Fry & K. Bjorkqvist (eds.). Cultural Variation in Conflict Resolution: Alternatives to Violence (pp. 51-58). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[10] Gulliver.

[11] Shook, Victoria E. (1985). Ho'oponopono: Contemporary Uses of a Hawaiian Problem-Solving Process. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

[12] Witty, Cathie J. (1980). Mediation and Society: Conflict Management in Lebanon. New York: Academic Press.

[13] Davidheiser, M. (2005a). "Culture and Mediation: A Contemporary Processual Analysis from Southwestern Gambia." International Journal of Intercultural Relations. 29:6.

[14] Davidheiser, M. (2006). "Joking for Peace: Social Organization, Tradition, and Change in Conflict Prevention and Resolution." Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines. XLVI:3-4, No. 183-184.

[15] Davidheiser, M (2005b). "Joking Relations and Conflict Resolution: Gambian Perspectives on Mediation." Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base, Retrieved April 15, 2006, from http://www.beyondintractability.org/m/joking-kinship.jsp

[16] Cloke, K. (2001). Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[17] Schirch, Lisa. (2004). Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian.


Use the following to cite this article:
Davidheiser, Mark. "Rituals and Conflict Transformation: An Anthropological Analysis of the Ceremonial Dimensions of Dispute Processing." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2006 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/rituals-and-ceremonials>.

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