The Problem of Ritual Efficacy

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William Sax, Johannes Quack, Jan Weinhold
Oxford University Press, Jan 15, 2010 - Religion - 208 pages
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How do rituals work? Although this is one of the first questions that people everywhere ask about rituals, little has been written explicitly on the topic. In The Problem of Ritual Efficacy, nine scholars address this issue, ranging across the fields of history, anthropology, medicine, and biblical studies. For "modern" people, the very notion of ritual efficacy is suspicious because rituals are widely thought of as merely symbolic or expressive, so that - by definition - they cannot be efficacious. Nevertheless people in many cultures assume that rituals do indeed "work," and when we take a closer look at who makes claims for ritual efficacy (and who disputes such claims), we learn a great deal about the social and historical contexts of such debates. Moving from the pre-modern era-in which the notion of ritual efficacy was not particularly controversial-into the skeptical present, the authors address a set of debates between positivists, natural scientists, and religious skeptics on the one side, and interpretive social scientists, phenomenologists, and religious believers on the other. Some contributors advance a particular theory of ritual efficacy while others ask whether the question makes any sense at all. This path-breaking interdisciplinary collection will be of interest to readers in anthropology, history, religious studies, humanities and the social sciences broadly defined, and makes an important contribution to the larger conversation about what ritual does and why it matters to think about such things.

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Maybe I just didn't read far enough. But I got halfway through the book and never got to the point. Not once did it demonstrate the efficacy of any ritual. Rather, it just gave examples of legendary rituals. Actually, it focused more on legendary people than any rituals. I was hoping to read about the efficacy of marriage and similar common rituals. Instead, I got tales of Jesus healing people. It would have been interesting to see if the ritual of marriage led to people staying together longer than non-ritual pairs.
A very plodding read with no payoff. If it does get to the point at the end I guess it will take a more dedicated reader than I to get to it.


1 Ritual and the Problem of Efficacy
2 Ritual Healing and the Investiture of the Babylonian King
Symbolic Healing in Early Christianity
4 Healing Rituals in the Mediaeval West
A MetaRitual and the Many Faces of Its Efficacy
Women and Spirit Possession in Northern Sudan
Or Why Ecuadorian IVF Practitioners Pray
8 Ritual Medicine and the Placebo Response
9 Bell Bourdieu and Wittgenstein on Ritual Sense

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