The Scale of Ritual

When you think of rituals, what first comes to mind?

More likely than not, you’ve imagined an ostentatious ceremony of some kind, but large transitions are not all that ritual has to offer. Rituals take place on many scales. They can be conspicuous or they can pass by without notice. Rituals can be small or large, common or rare, deeply conscious or nearly automatic.

Any theory of ritual that cannot describe both a royal coronation ceremony and a morning cup of coffee is incomplete. Although the most elaborate rituals gain the most attention, rituals are most often so simple and brief that we fail to notice that they have taken place at all.

ritual coffee

For those of us who seek to take meaningful action in the complex commercial culture of our own time, attending to ritual of all scales is especially helpful. There are big ideas to be found in even the smallest of rituals, if we care to look for them.

The defining characteristic of macroritual is obvious: Macrorituals are big. In macrorituals, the gestures are grand, the symbolism is dramatic, the sacrifices and rewards are unmistakable, and the transitions accomplished are obviously life-altering.

Macrorituals are what anthropologists typically refer to when they speak about rites of passage. They also include most of the things that come most easily to mind if we are asked to list the rituals that remain in modern life: Naming ceremonies for babies, student graduations, weddings, and funerals.

Though they are not as grand in the scale of their drama, microrituals qualify as rites of passage just as much as as macrorituals do. However, the passages taken through microritual are much shorter, and more frequently traveled, than the passages of macroritual. Instead of a passage from childhood to adulthood, a person undergoing a microritual might experience a passage from day into night, or from work to home.

Examples of microrituals include the brushing of teeth, a commute to work, and a mid-morning coffee break. Our everyday rituals make us all kings and queens, if only of small domains.

Many people overlook the importance of such microrituals because of their small scale. For marketers, however, the frequency of microritual activity should excite great interest. Businesses that learn to work with microrituals can integrate their brands into the daily rhythms of intimate meaning in their customers’ lives.