How Families Work Love, Labor and Mediated Oppositions in American Domestic Ritual

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Department or Administrative Unit

Anthropology and Museum Studies

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This paper offers an anthropological perspective on a range of middle- class American family rituals, with attention to the functions of ritual practice in mediating core cultural imperatives towards love and work.
Although Americans formally tend to dismiss ceremonials as "mere ritual," high stakes are associated with the proper performance of domestic rites; failed or incomplete performances can have profound negative consequences for the family's functioning and trajectory. Building comparatively on an African ethnographic example, I argue that kinship-oriented rituals "work" by first staging a nested series of overlapping and ambiguous frames, in which a set of underlying social and cultural contradictions are dramatized. These tensions are then resolved, at least within the ritual arena, through higher-order symbolic integration. These dynamics are at play both in U.S. life passage rites, such as weddings or funerals, and calendrical rites, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. These multilayered ritual dramas powerfully evoke for their participants not only idealized scenarios of family unity but also the underlying structures and forces that threaten to undo the bonds of kinship. Family rites, paradoxically, thus afford glimpses into normally unarticulated zones of anxiety, loss, and ambiguity at the heart of the American kinship system.


This article originally appeared in the Journal of Family Life, 2010.


Journal of Family Life

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