Initiation and Rites of Passage Research Paper

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Societies use rites of passage to acknowledge the transitions individuals undergo throughout life—from childhood to puberty, for example, or the induction into a particular group. Such rites vary widely from culture to culture over time. In the context of world history the patterning of rites of passage is well-illustrated by the adolescent initiation rite, perhaps the best-studied instance of a rite associated with a life transition.

The term “rite of passage” refers to any ritual that marks a transition in the life of an individual from one state or status to another. All human beings experience a series of such transitions in the course of a lifetime. Transitions can reflect biological or maturational progressions. So, for instance, birth marks the maturational transition from existence within the womb to life in the outside world, puberty marks the maturational transition from sexual immaturity to sexual maturity, and death marks the maturational transition out of the realm of the living. Individuals may also experience transitions in educational, occupational, legal, or social status, in-group membership, and role assignment. Graduation from school, certification into a profession, marriage, the shift to a new social class, acceptance into a fraternity or sorority, and parenthood are all examples of such transitions. Human societies tend to mark such life transitions with rites of passage. Baptisms, naming ceremonies, hazings, bar mitzvahs, coming-out balls, graduation ceremonies, induction rituals, weddings, and funerals are examples of rites of passage. A ritual that has elements of a rite of passage may also simultaneously serve other purposes. So, for example, a marriage may mark the transition of the prospective spouses from the status of single to married and also promote fertility of the couple.

Structure of a Rite of Passage

Rites of passage are found in every known human society, past and present. Additionally, these rituals tend to share certain broad structural features in common. Thus, any rite of passage typically begins with a formal separation of the transitioning individual from the old state or status. The person then remains for some period of time in a marginal or transitional state divorced from both past and future statuses. Finally, in the incorporation phase of the rite, the transitioning individual enters into the new state or status. The substantive details of a specific kind of rite often symbolically mirror the nature of the specific transition that it is marking. For example, a birth ceremony, which celebrates the entrance of a person into the world, is likely to emphasize the incorporation phase of the rite, while in a funeral ceremony, which marks the departure of the individual from the world, the separation features of the ritual might be elaborated. Further, the content of a rite may be a symbolic reference to some aspect of the transition that it is marking. So, an opening door may mirror the idea that the individual is entering a new status. Similarly, the incorporation of a person into some new status may be reflected in the acts of eating and drinking, themselves a kind of incorporation of sustenance into the body. The similarity in the overall structure of rites of passage across cultures dramatizes the striking historical uniformity in the way in which human societies negotiate life transitions.

Universal Function of Rites of Passage

The fact that human beings across historical time and place mark life transitions in a similar way points to the likelihood that rites of passage may serve a similar purpose for the people who participate in them. The key to the historical and geographical uniformity characteristic of rites of passage may be found in the pan-universal nature of life transitions. In particular, transitions from one state or status to another have the potential to disrupt the smooth functioning of the community at large and the psychological functioning of the transitioning individual. For example, birth, marriage, and death can disturb the normal relationships among individuals in a family, community, and society. Rites of passage, then, are proposed to serve as the strategy devised by human societies to mediate whatever social upheaval and personal turmoil are associated with life transitions.

Variations in Presence of Rites of Passage

Differences are also apparent with respect to how life transitions are handled across cultures. Societies vary regarding which transitions are marked with rites of passage. Differences also occur from one time and place to the next with regard to the details of the rites and the degree to which they are elaborated. Rites may be more or less important, intense, or prolonged in one society as opposed to another. Such differences are in part accounted for by variations in certain identifiable features of a society. Salient among such features are population size and the degree to which cultural institutions are subject to change. Thus, rites of passage tend to be most elaborated in small-scale, more or less stable cultures. By contrast, in large societies characterized by technological innovation, rites are less prominent. Similarly, rites of passage take on more importance in cultures with a high degree of status differentiation, while rites are less important where status differences are underplayed. Rites are also more common in places where fine distinctions are made among people, for example, of different chronological ages, from various occupational groups, and so on.

Each of the trends described above is consistent with the idea that rites serve to manage disruptions that life transitions can generate. Thus, such disruptions are most likely, and likely to be most intense, in small societies where individuals interact with a small number of cohorts. This is because the position and behavior of any single person is maximally likely to affect others in such groups. Further, where stability in institutions and behavior is valued, change has maximum potential to threaten the group. In large groups and in groups open to change, by contrast, the status or behavior of any specific individual or class of individuals has less potential to threaten or actually affect the circumstances of the remaining members of the group. Further, in a society typified by change, as is the case in technologically innovative cultures, rites of passage become difficult to execute. This is because the transition phase of a rite of passage includes quite specific content regarding the roles, rights, and responsibilities accorded to the individual entering into a new state or status. In a changing society, as the future is likely to be different from the past, the idea of incorporation into a new status with known roles and rules is compromised. Finally, where differences among groups are meticulously defined, membership in such groups may be more difficult to achieve, promoting the need for a rite of passage. Such a ritual would include tutoring of the individual in the detailed rights and responsibilities of the new state. It might also certify the person as a member in good standing of the new group, thus promoting acceptance of the initiate by already established members. In summary, the patterning of rites of passage from one place to the next, including differences in how rites are played out, is attributable to the nature of a society at a specific moment in history. As relevant features of a society change in historical time, so will the specific manner in which the society reacts to the inevitable life transitions of its members. As population grows larger, as it becomes characterized by innovation, and as it increasingly devalues status distinctions, rites are predicted to become less important to the culture.

Historical Trends

The societal features associated with the presence (or the absence) of rites of passage tend to follow an historical timeline within the culture in which they are found. So, any single society may progress from small to large, preindustrial to industrial, and stable to innovative. Societies have also been shown to progress from egalitarian to status-based and back to egalitarian. Thus, the lives of people living in simple societies, for instance those based upon a forging economy and people living in contemporary industrial societies, tend to be less constrained by issues of status than are the lives of people living in middle-level societies depending upon agriculture for their subsistence. This means that the presence and patterning of rites of passage will follow a predictable trajectory consistent with the historical timetable of a specific culture. But different societies will be at different points in the overall progression from simple to complex, small to large, preindustrial to industrial, and egalitarian to nonegalitarian at any given moment in history. This means that, at any point in historical time, different societies will employ and elaborate rites of passage differently.

Adolescent Initiation Rites

The connection between the patterning of rites of passage and historic context is well illustrated by the adolescent initiation rite, perhaps the best-studied instance of a rite associated with a life transition. The adolescent initiation rite is a ritual that mediates the shift of an individual from the socially recognized status of child to that of adult. Adolescent initiation rites, when they are adopted by a society, often take place at or around puberty. Although the adolescent rite is thus often linked to a physiological change, these rituals are understood to achieve their importance because they confer a new social status on the initiate.


According to Adolescence: An Anthropological Inquiry (Schlegel and Barry 1991), adolescent initiation rites of some sort are found in roughly half of the societies around the world for which information is available. In societies with an adolescent rite, all young people must participate in the ceremony. Sometimes, a society will hold an adolescent initiation rite for only one sex, in which case only members of that sex take part as initiates. Members of the opposite sex may still act as participants in the ceremony. If both sexes undergo an initiation rite, the male and female rituals are held separately. Adolescent initiation rites are somewhat more commonly held for girls than for boys, perhaps because menarche is such a clear and unambiguous mark of sexual maturity, making it easier to establish an appropriate time for the female’s transition to adult status. On the other hand, adolescent male initiation rites are usually more intense and dramatic than are those held for females, typically including as they do physical ordeals, events meant to induce fear in the initiates, and hazing.

Male adolescent initiation rites are most commonly found in Africa and the insular Pacific, while over half of the societies with female adolescent initiation ceremonies are found in Africa. African initiation rites often include circumcision for boys and, less frequently, cliteridectomy and tattooing for girls. The vision quest, a kind of adolescent initiation rite, was traditionally found among some North American Indian tribes and might be undertaken by either sex. During such a quest, a young person spent some days alone in the forest fasting and waiting for a vision in which the supernatural would reveal to the boy or girl some information pertaining to the young person’s future role in life.


The adolescent initiation rite follows the overall pattern of rites of passage more generally, whether it consists of a public ceremony, as is often the case in Africa, or an individual quest, as is found in indigenous North American groups. The boy or girl is initially separated from his or her former life. Symbolism may play a role in the separation so that, for example, the adolescent may be physically removed from the parent’s household. The transition phase is at least in part a preparation for the adult role. The adolescent may be taught important traditions of the society as well as the skills that will be needed in the new status of adult man or woman once the transition is complete. Or the young person may gain important information about the direction that his or her adult life will take, as is particularly the case in the vision quest. The rights and obligations of adulthood will also be communicated in detail. Importantly, it is the older generation that is in charge during an initiation rite. The initiate’s demeanor is of total subservience. This is the case whether the initiation rite is in the form of a public ceremony, as is often the case among African societies, or is an individual affair, as in the North American vision quest. During the final, incorporation phase of the rite, the initiate is reincorporated into the society as a whole. Usually, the initiate is also now recognized as a full-fledged adult by all other members of the group, although this is less universally the case at the end of a vision quest.

Variations in the Presence of Adolescent Initiation Rites

As is the case with rites of passage in general, adolescent initiation rites are more common in small-scale, preindustrial cultures. Societies with adolescent rites are typically homogeneous, with sparse or nomadic settlement patterns. Female initiation rites are found more often where people hunt, gather, or fish for a living, and where descent is traced either through females or through both sexes as opposed to males only, as established by V. R. Burbank (1997) in “Adolescent Socialization and Initiation Rites.” If husbandry is practiced, it is of pigs, sheep, and goats, and not larger animals. In general, female initiation rites are more frequent in what anthropologists term simple societies, that is, societies without class stratification, specialization of occupation, complex political hierarchy, private property, or individual inheritance rules. Male adolescent rites are found in societies where gardening is the main form of subsistence and where descent is traced through males.


A number of functional explanations of adolescent initiation rites have been proposed. All of these explanations link the presence of adolescent rites to some specific feature of society in its historical timeline. Thus, the adolescent initiation rite is viewed as a technique of socialization that allows the young persons’ knowledge and mental outlook to be made compatible with some feature of his or her culture. Potential collisions between the youth and the society are thus minimized as the adolescent makes the transition to adulthood.

In keeping with this interpretation of the function of adolescent initiation ceremonies, the general association between rites of passage and status distinctions has been extended to an explanation of certain patterns of male adolescent initiation rites in particular. The idea here is that, where societies emphasize distinctions between the sexes, male initiation rites, especially those including circumcision, will serve to underscore and maintain the distinction. Male adolescent initiation rites have also been interpreted as a strategy for creating solidarity among men in societies where close ties among males is important. The association between male adolescent initiation rites, horticulture, and moderate cultural complexity has been explained in this way, the assumption being that these societal features create the context for exclusive male organizations.

Rituals for adolescent females have similarly been linked to certain features of society, and especially to the place of women in a culture. Thus, the initiation rite for females has been explained as a way of dramatizing the transition from girlhood to womanhood when married couples traditionally live with or near the wife’s family (matrilocal residence) and when women make an important contribution to the subsistence economy.

Educational Function

Whatever particular social structural features may account for the presence of adolescent initiation rites in different societies, all such rituals seem to also have one purpose in common, and that is the function of educating the young person. Initiates are given detailed instructions about their roles, responsibilities, and privileges as adults in the culture in which they live. They are also instructed in the culture’s mythology and system of ethics. The manner in which the individual’s adulthood life will be played out, as a result, is largely determined by the older generation.

The initiation rite among the Ndumbra of New Guinea illustrates the educational aspect of the ritual. In his study about adolescent initiation rites, Burbank (1997) describes how, in this culture, boys undergo a three-day initiation ceremony in groups of perhaps five or six initiates. Mothers dress and decorate their young sons, and a group of men then comes to collect each boy and take him into the forest. The mothers pretend to protest. We thus see the separation of the boy from his old role as child dramatized in the ritual. The initiation proper consists of number of physical ordeals and humiliations and also intense instruction regarding the various taboos that must be observed by adult men in their culture as well as the consequences of nonobservance of the taboos. Upon completion of the rite, boys are viewed as true warriors and begin to live in a special house reserved for males. According to I. Hilger’s (1951) study of the Chippewa, the educational aspect of the initiation rite is similarly illustrated by the Chippewa initiation rite for adolescent girls. In this indigenous North American Indian society, an adolescent female, at her first menstruation, is secluded for a number of days in a wigwam built by the girl herself. The isolation of the girl is due to the belief that, as a menstruating woman, she is dangerous to the community, who must be protected from her. But also, during her seclusion the girl is tutored by her mother on her future role as an adult woman.

Disappearance of Adolescent Initiation Rites

Wherever the adolescent initiation rite is found and whatever specific function it performs, it is the older generation that is in control of the ritual. The payoff for the young person is that, at the completion of the ceremony, the initiate is accorded full status as an adult. This is possible because adolescent initiation rituals tend to be found in small, stable, homogeneous societies. It is in societies of this sort that the adults have knowledge of moral dictates, community traditions, rituals, practical knowledge, and so on. Where a society is large, complex, heterogeneous, and rapidly changing, the knowledge residing in the older generation is less likely to be relevant to the younger person. Indeed, in such societies, adolescents may be left on their own to construct their own adulthoods, including what they will be, what they will believe, how they will behave, where and with whom they will live, what moral standards they will follow, and so on. This is the case, for instance, in industrialized societies, where initiation rites, if they exist at all, no longer serve the function of educating the young person in his or her future role as an adult or of conferring adult status. The result of this is that young people may be unsure as to what the adult role entails when they have in fact achieved the status of adult. On the other hand, adolescents living in large, heterogeneous, changing societies also have a kind of freedom to pursue their own interests and develop their own talents that a young person living in a small, homogeneous, stable society does not enjoy. Sometimes, when the culture at large no longer provides a rite of passage to smooth over some life transition, individuals themselves may evolve their own rites of passage. The psychologist George Goethals (1967) has explained the male adolescent gang as an example of an attempt on the part of youth to map out their own roles and rules when the society no longer provides them guidelines.


The presence, importance, and elaboration of both rites of passage in general and adolescent initiation rites in particular are contingent upon certain features of a society, which have been described in this article. Thus, rites of passage in general, and certain kinds of these rites, are more likely to be found in some kinds of societies and less likely to be found in others. When a society changes, either by virtue of internal processes or as a result of external influence, rites of passage may become more or less prevalent. It is the place of a particular society in its own historical trajectory that seems to most influence how that society will negotiate the life transitions of their members.


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  2. Burbank, V. R. (1997). Adolescent socialization and initiation rites. In C. R. Ember & M. Ember (Eds.), Cross-cultural research for social science (pp. 83–106). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Chapple, E. D., & Coon, C. S. (1942). Principles of anthropology. New York: Holt & Company.
  4. Goethals, G. (1967, April). Adolescence: Variations on a theme. Paper presented at invited presentation to the Psychology Department at Boston University.
  5. Harrington, C. (1968). Sexual differentiation in socialization and some male genital mutilations. American Anthropologist, 70, 951–956.
  6. Hilger, I. (1951). Chippewa child life and its cultural background. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  7. Schlegel, A., & Barry, H., III. (1991). Adolescence: An anthropological inquiry. New York: Free Press.
  8. Textor, R. B. (1967). A cross-cultural summary. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press.
  9. Turner, V. (1987). Betwixt and between: The liminal period in rites of passage. In L. C. Mahdi, S. Foster, & M. Little (Eds.), Betwixt and between: Patterns of masculine and feminine initiation (pp. 3–22). La Salle, IL: Open Court.
  10. Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  11. Young, F. W. (1965). Initiation ceremonies: A cross-cultural study of status dramatization. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs- Merrill.

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