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Studying rituals

Updated Monday 5th February 2018

There are a number of ways you can study ritual practices with the Open University. Professor of Religious Studies, Graham Harvey, lists some of the academic courses available.

Image of candles lit in a church Creative commons image Icon Alain Abou-Atmeh under CC0 licence under Creative-Commons license

Study at the Open University 

Rituals are a key theme in the study of religions at the Open University. Within our efforts to promote religious literacy, we explore a variety of religions in order to understand both everyday practices and the sometimes dramatic gatherings which punctuate or structure religious lives. We are not only interested in rituals performed by devoted members of specific religions but also seek to understand how religious events, venues, personnel and ideas inform and affect other aspects of life. Signs of religious influence might include foods listed on or absent from restaurant menus, costume choices, some street names, public and private seasonal celebrations, and news stories.

We seek to understand how rituals affect people’s lives – whether in antiquity or now. We ask questions such as: what is the relationship between ritual and belief? Are rituals meaningful in changing contexts? Are rituals more powerful when people understand their origins or intentions? What happens when people do rituals badly? How do rituals relate to theatrical performances and/or material cultures? Why do some religions involve more rituals than others?

The BBC’s “Ritual” series provides us with unrivalled close-up access to the ritual activities of people in many places. It includes both intensely personal perspectives and the colourful spectacle of large gatherings. It honours the humanity and life experiences which we share with those presented to us. Even when the rituals and cultures shown in the series are new to us, we see people like us. They wear watches and t-shirts. They laugh, cry, worry, hope, suffer, cook, celebrate, build communities, challenge other groups, give birth, mourn death... Like us (or, at least, like the BBC film crews), they also record their experiences on film and in stories. All of this encourages us to reflect further on our own lives, knowledge, commitments and activities. What could have been a voyeuristic and distancing experience becomes an enrichment of our shared humanity.

Religious Studies courses at the OU

The OU’s Religious Studies department aims to increase understanding of and conversation about the things people do. Our course “A227 Exploring Religion” focuses on religious activities in both thoroughly personal and dramatically communal events. It explores the diversity of places, practices, texts and experiences which shape people’s engagements with religions. It also examines the diversity of ways in which such places, practices, texts and experiences are celebrated, contested and/or changed as people encounter them. The course enables students to engage with the sensual nature of religious lives and practices. For instance, we ask them to consider “what does religion taste like?” We invite them to think, talk and write about what the dietary traditions of different communities achieve and how they might make every meal a ritual which affirms, strengthens or challenges people’s commitments.

People having food at open wedding breakfast in Swayambhunath temple garden. Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Dreamstime People having food at open wedding breakfast in Swayambhunath temple garden.

Our students can continue to build up skills of observing, gathering, analysing and debating data relevant to religious activities in another course: “A332 Why is Religion Controversial?”. Here we focus on controversial people, practices, ideas and futures to develop thinking and discussion. Some examples of controversies in which rituals play a part include differing assessments of the role and legacy of religious leaders, of multiculturalism and intercultural encounters, and of the relationship between cognitive and performative approaches to religion. Rituals are also implicated in discussions of relationships between religious activities and capitalism, between material cultures and spirituality, between yoga in India and elsewhere, and between evangelical Christian anticipations of the “end of time” and other hopes for the future.

Research examples at the OU

Much of our research (under the tagline “Contemporary Religion in Historical Context”) also concerns rituals and other ways of doing religion. Some examples we have blogged about include projects about the changing uses of cathedrals and churches in England, the rituals of democracy activists in Hong Kong and the UK, indigenous rituals as a resource for shaping performances at contemporary cultural festivals, Pentecostalist Christian healing and worship in Africa and North America, controversies over Muslim women wearing headscarves in Germany, and approaches to health and wellbeing. Our current and recent PhD researchers are also interested in topics that involve rituals, such as yoga, drone metal music, clerical family life, Rastafarians in Italy, BDSM, Jewish liturgical changes, oracles in ancient Greece and many other issues.

In summary, a focus on ritual at the OU’s Religious Studies department arises from our interest in religions as activities by individuals and groups in many places. We want to understand how rituals change and how they change lives. We employ different approaches to rituals within and beyond specific religious groups. We also employ data about rituals to test the value of different theories about and interpretations of religion(s). Inspired by ritual studies scholars (especially those suggested below for further study), we suggest that studying is like doing rituals. Both activities are endlessly changing but disciplined explorations in which people seek to discover, pay attention to, and test possibilities which they deem significant.

For further study:

Grimes, Ronald. (2006) Rite Out of Place: Ritual, Media, and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Grimes, Ronald. (2014) The Craft of Ritual Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kreinath, Jens, Jan Snoek and Michael Stausberg (eds). (2008) Theorizing Rituals: Issues, Topics, Approaches, Concepts. Leiden: Brill.
Seligman, Adam B. (2004) Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stewart, Pamela, and Andrew Strathern. (2014) Ritual: Key Concepts in Religion. London: Bloomsbury.

Among their many excellent resources for the social-scientific study of religion, the Religious Studies Project has tagged the following podcasts as relating to 'ritual':

Ronald Grimes’ website provides further resources (including videos) for studying ritual:





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