Special Session Summary Rituals Three Gifts and Why Consumer Researchers Should Care

Eric J. Arnould, University of Nebraska
[ to cite ]:
Eric J. Arnould (2001) ,"Special Session Summary Rituals Three Gifts and Why Consumer Researchers Should Care", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 384-386.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 384-386



Eric J. Arnould, University of Nebraska


"If we set out to catalog all the functions that rituals serve, taking into account every sort of culture and all variety of social circumstances, we should no doubt find that the tasks of ritual are numberless. I shall not, therefore, attempt a catalog of functions but instead propose that there are three major gifts that rituals bestow upon society.I shall call them order, community, and transformation" (Driver 1998, 132). Following Driver, the three presentations in this session set out to focus on the three gifts that ritual provides to society and to underscore why marketers should care about ritual. While the idea of consumer ritual was introduced into the consumer research paradigm over 15 years ago (Rook 1985), the topic has languished. Only limited and disconnected empirical studies have been reported (e.g., Escalas 1993; Holt 1992; Stamps and Arnould 1998; Wallendorf and Arnould 1991). It may be that this relative neglect is traceable to the failure of researchers to show the relevance of consumer ritual to marketers. This session will correct this problem.

As Driver and indeed other specialists in ritual studies have argued (Grimes 1996), ritual delivers three gifts to society, community, order and transformation. To achieve these effects, ritual always manipulates objects and symbols. The objects and symbols that people manipulate allow them to give form to ritual experience and to associate an emergent shared emotion (what anthropologists term "liminality"), with these experiences (Douglas 1971). Subsequently, his shared emotion develops motivational force that may shape purchase and consumption decisions and behaviors. In taking ritual action, people in Western consumer societies naturally have recourse to consumer goods, the ready-to-hand material of consumer culture. Rituals play a role germane to the one Douglas and Isherwood (1979) ascribed to goods in their ability to stabilize culture categories. However, goods, especially mass-marketed consumer goods do not provide a simple catalogue of cultural categories. Performances, especially ritual performances are required to activate object meanings pertinent to social life. Marketers typically use marketing communications to initiate this effect. Consumers develop their own rituals. But without ritual, the categories are at best merely potential, the objects inert.

Each paper presented in this session emphasizes one of the three ritual gifts to society detailing the creative interplay between consumer agency, culture, and market driven signs and objects.



Eric Arnould and Linda Price, University of Nebraska

In the service of the theme of the role of ritual in creating order, this presentation makes a few points about ritual in American families. In particular we draw attention to the longing for ritual, the behavioral latitude that ritual can absorb, and the characteristic bricolage through which people compose ritualized activity. Finally, we identify an emergent social structure for ritual action that is disparate from the usual groups examined in ritual studies.

Order is perhaps the most obvious of ritual’s functions, and for many persons the entire value of ritual activity is that it brings order and solace. Order is bestowed not only as a sense of organization, form or regularity, but also as an imperative or directive (Rappaport 1979). Order viewed as an imperative or directive is described in our discussion of ritual longings.

Individuals evince a longing for ritual that enables them to link their own lived experience to imagined communities past and future and which will anchor their behavior in cultural continuities. Participation in ritualized preparation of home-made foods, many of which are inherited traditions is one mechanism people use to do this. For others, ritualized activitiesCbehaviors and story-tellingC emerge around objects inherited from departed loved ones. For many persons the value of ritual activity is that by anchoring behavior in cultural continuity, it brings order and solace. Through ritual, order is bestowed as an imperative (Rappaport 1979).

We show that consumers’ ritual longings are not amorphous. They are translated into a modest number of motives and actions that enlist tradition while providing scope for personal agency. We present evidence that our informants’ strategies of ritualization serve them pretty well. These small rituals certainly persist. Small rituals are a means of preserving and producing decommodified material culture and meanings. Through inheritance rituals consumers create, reinforce, and negotiate order in household relationships, and assert the little traditions of the household and family. Ritualization enables people to solidify cultural categories for action and interpretation, and thereby create temporary orders of facticity.

Classic accounts of American kinship are virtually silent on the subject of ritual actions related to inheritance. Our research identifies cherished possessions that carry meanings particular to individual family groups. Through inheritance rituals, our informants speak and act in a subjunctive mode, that is, in ways that privilege a future molded in tradition. Our data shows how rituals that collect around particular cherished possessions constitute meaningful, elective descent groups for particular families. Their behavior suggests that they believe that traditions, including those constructed today, can endure indefinitely. We suggest that marketers may find fruitful opportunities in provding goods and services that enable consumers to construct effective inheritance rituals.



Cara Okleshen, University of Georgia and Sanford Grossbart, University of Nebraska

This paper emphasizes a second social gift of ritualCcommunity. Rituals are bearers of communitas, which is a spirit of unity and mutual belonging. Rituals are informed both by a greater than usual sense of order and by a heightened sense of freedom and possibility that releases feelings of love and participation (Driver 1998, p. 164). The context for the second paper is the Winnebago-Itasca Travelers group, the nation’s largest marketer managed customer community. The authors show not only how ritual activity unites people emotionally but also the significance of community to strategic marketer outcomes. While the first paper draws on depth interviews across a number of studies, this paper uses quantitative and qualitative methodologies to link communitas, ritual activity and marketing outcomes.

The study creates a framework for understanding the character and effects of brand-focused customer communities in terms of participation at ritualized group events, the community sentiments such events evoke and the interconnectedness of community microstructure they help to create. Customer communities form around shared experiences and values including lifestyle related events and activities. This study focuses on the customer community associated with the Winnebago-Itasca Travelers group, the largest (over 17,000 members) marketer supported brand community in the US. Sharing of meals, stories, tours, and the repetition of participation in the brandfest (Schouten and McAlexander 1998), in this case the Winnebago-Itasca Travelers annual rally, builds a liminal community. Participation in this liminal community is characterized by a sense of interdependence, density, and "localness." The emergent WIT community is built from an interconnected structure of relationships & sentiments. One important emotion that emerges from customer participation in brandfests is communitas, a short-lived but transcendent emotional sense of oneness with others. The experience of communitas in the context of the brandfest also leads to more enduring affective relationships including a sense of belonging and shared identity, consciousness of kind, and group member attachment.

The authors emphasize the playful and imaginative interplay between communitas, social structure, and ritual activity (Turner 1969). And they emphasize that the effects of ritual may not be uniform across participants.

Participation in ritualized group events is also positively related to a relationship with the brand. And this relationship with the brand is positively linked to repurchase, positive word-of-mouth and willingness to pay more for the brand.



Robert V. Kozinets, Northwestern University

This presentation focuses on the transformational power of consumption rituals as discovered through a consumer ethnography of the Burning Man project in 1999 (and 2000). The Burning Man project is a utopian celebration and art festival held for one week every year in Nevada’s barren Black Rock Desert. The event attracted over twenty-three thousand people in 1999. For its one week, Burning Man becomes a place where consumption of incredible diversity and intensity is celebrated. Along with the most official "rules" that this anarchic organization can marshal, the performance of ritualized acts are key elements used by Burning Man participants to psychically distance consumption at the festival from the everyday and to re-enchant it into a transformational experience. This presentation will focus on three types of transformational consumption ritual used at Burning Ma Bgift-giving, burning, and body decorationB and will utilize an anthropological lens to examine each of them.

The first transformational consumption ritual is used to decouple everyday consumption from the capitalist economy in which (for the mainly American group of participants at the event) it is normatively situated. Capitalism is suspended as monetary exchange is forbidden by the "no vending" rule; the economy becomes based primarily on gifts (and to a lesser extent barter). At Burning Man 1999, a variety of gifts were ritually given away, including ice cream bars, water, admission to rave and other dance clubs, free food, sunscreen, massages and alcohol. Burning Man’s gifting society resembles one of continuous potlatch, an informed altruism (common in nomadic and desert societies) where each person gives to one another. Potlatch is a Chinook word meaning "a gift." The terms refer to a category of ceremonial events during which culture members enhance their rank through the provision of elaborate feasts and gifts. Some people would give away to such a great extent (their homes, spouse and land) that they were left utterly poor. Others would destroy goods (often through burning), in order to seek to outdo a rival. In Rosman and Rubel’s (1971) thorough examination of the potlatch phenomenon, they describe them as transformative occasions, as rites de passages (see Van Gennep [1909] 1960) in the life of individuals and, more importantly, in the progression of the social structure. Occurring at "critical junctures" of social structural succession, such as funerals, or change of rank or status (e.g., marriage), potlatches "serve to reaffirm the new arrangement of the [social] structure" (Rossman and Rubel, 1971, p. 203).

Distinct from the traditional potlatch ceremony, Burning Man’s ritual gift-giving is a communal norm and not an act performed by wealthy individuals seeking social status or collective favor. While the competitive extremes are not as obvious, the practice of ritual destruction and the notion of change and rites of passage seem to accord well with the ethos of Burning Man. Seeking social change, rather than stability, the Burning Man event encourages its participants to adopt a new social attitude in which learning to gift-giving becomes the norm. In the new social order of Burning Man, old status standings are replaced by conspicuous acts of giving, and destruction (which are gifts to the community of a fiery spectacle).

Burning Man’s "No Spectators" rule seeks to foster a participative culture of grass roots entertainment and outlandish "theme camps" such as the quasi-parodic religious camps "Papal Indulgence," "The Temple of Atonement," "Transcendental Realm" and "the Sacred Disorder of the Enigmata." In line with the atonement themes of these religion quasi-parodies, there is a vast variety of burning rituals aimed at ritual purification. These rituals reach their culmination at the end of the weeklong event when the forty-five foot tall neon-and-wood effigy of "the Man," located at the center of the vast campground, is set ablaze to wild cheering, dancing and general celebration. Afterwards, many other works of art are also burned by festival participants. The burning of the Man is intended as a purgative cleansing ritual with strong Judeo-Christian overtones, in which people psychically heap influences that they wish to remove from their lives (for instance, encumbrances, habits, past relationships, sins, compulsions) onto the figure of the Man. This transference of negative forces is also performed in a variety of other rituals, such as ritual burnings, ecstatic dance, acting or exhibition and confession.

Finally, through costuming, exhibitionism and body decoration, many participants express the Burning Man rule "Give of Yourself." The intense freedom and live-and-let-live ethos of the event sponsor an environment in which nudity, body decoration, and costuming lend the event a carnivalesque, Mardi-Gras-in-the-desert feel. However, nudity and body decoration (body painting and covering with glitter were two popular forms of this at Burnin Man 1999) can also be seen as a form of gift-giving, in which knowledge of a normally very intimate possession (one’s naked body) is openly bestowed upon community members. This openness and gift-giving is further reinforced by the willingness of most participants to pose for pictures (some of these pictures end up as gifts to the entire world posted on public web-sites). A form of sexual transgression appears to be at play here, as the natural, sexual body is revealed for the enjoyment and admiration of self and others. Body decoration and costuming are transformational rituals that enact a distinct change in appearance, allowing participants to transcend their everyday appearance and identity. Animal appearances are "tried on," as people draw tiger, zebra and other types of stripes and spots on their bodies and genitals. Gender reversals are frequent, particularly among men who wear female garb and wrap feather boas around their necks. Another very common form of body decoration is "tribal" (pre-Western) in appearance, with the nude body being painted a dark color such as green, black or blue, or being caked in mud. Each of these consumption rituals uniquely combines the thing consumed with the self, combining thing/other and body into an extraordinary consumption experience. They also contribute strongly to the sense of extraordinary, magical place Ba sense of liminality in which boundaries can be breached and desired self-transformations can occur (Turner 1967).

In summary, participants employ consumption rituals of gift-giving, burning, and decoration in order to distance Burning Man-related consumption from everyday consumption. These actions sacralize Burning Man as a liminal location in which the magical, mystical spells of transformation can be successfully cast. Through consumption rituals, participants seek to open "primitive" doors in their own, and other’s psyches, allowing ancient and meaningful senses and feelings to emerge (see Torgovnick 1997). In a liminal space, they work and play with their identities. Hastened by the burning, cleansed by the fire, joined by the gift, ritually exposed, they consume community and consume themselves.


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