Examining the Descriptive Value of &Quot;Ritual&Quot; in Consumer Behavior: a View From the Field

ABSTRACT - The term "ritual" is increasingly used to describe certain types of consumption activities. Ethnographic research examining one such activity -- baseball spectating -- is used to ground a discussion on the accuracy and usefulness of this application of ritual. I argue that three current conceptions of ritual in consumer behavior -- one which examines behavioral traits associated with ritual, one which considers ritual as sacred experience, and one which considers ritual as symbolic action -- do not usefully describe the experience of most baseball spectators. Rather, I speculate that baseball spectating is more aptly described as an experience where the consumer makes profane use of legitimated cultural meanings.


Douglas B. Holt (1992) ,"Examining the Descriptive Value of &Quot;Ritual&Quot; in Consumer Behavior: a View From the Field", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 213-218.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 213-218


Douglas B. Holt, Northwestern University

[I would like to acknowledge the constructive comments provided by Sid Levy, Dennis Rook, Helen Schwartzman, and John Sherry on an earlier draft of this paper.]


The term "ritual" is increasingly used to describe certain types of consumption activities. Ethnographic research examining one such activity -- baseball spectating -- is used to ground a discussion on the accuracy and usefulness of this application of ritual. I argue that three current conceptions of ritual in consumer behavior -- one which examines behavioral traits associated with ritual, one which considers ritual as sacred experience, and one which considers ritual as symbolic action -- do not usefully describe the experience of most baseball spectators. Rather, I speculate that baseball spectating is more aptly described as an experience where the consumer makes profane use of legitimated cultural meanings.

A small group of spectators gather in the bleachers an hour before the game to watch their favorite players take batting practice while they swig beer, eat peanuts, and bake in the sun. Many wear the colors and logo of the home team -- the Chicago Cubs -- on their clothing and some have brought signs to display in front of the TV camera. By 12:45 PM, the bleachers are nearly full while the spectators in the grandstand are just beginning to search for their reserved seats. At 1:05 PM, 15 minutes before game time, an employee of one of the Cubs' corporate sponsors takes the field to throw the ceremonial "first pitch." The Cubs catcher, Joe Girardi, catches or otherwise retrieves the ball, signs it, and returns it to the spectator. Several minutes later, the Deer Plains Community Choir leads the crowd, 35,000 strong, in the singing of the national anthem. As the announcer intones "Now taking the field, are your 1991 Chicago Cubs!" the Cubs warm up for several minutes and, at approximately 1:20 P.M., the game begins with the announcer dramatically ordering "Let's [pause] play ball!"

Each play begins more or less the same way: a batter stands beside home plate, the pitcher exchanges signals with the catcher, the ball is thrown, sometimes the batter swings at the ball, and some of these swings connect, leading to some type of play on the field if the ball hasn't gone foul. When the batter hits the ball in fair territory, or accumulates three strikes or four balls, another batter comes to the plate and engages in the same structured activity. When the team at bat accumulates three outs, the teams switch positions and the sequence of action is repeated. When the team that is losing has had an opportunity to bat nine times, the game is over (excluding tie games). This pattern is repeated during each of 81 games at Wrigley Field over the six-month baseball season, year after year.

In the early innings, most of the spectators pay attention to the game and often respond in unison to the events on the field: as an opposition batter strikes out, they applaud and cheer; when the Cubs' pitcher walks several batters in a row, most spectators boo and some yell comments like "Get him out of there!"; and when a Cubs batter hits a home run, the spectators behave hysterically, standing on their feet, yelling and applauding, pounding each other on the back, waving their hats, fists in the air, "high fives" everywhere. Occasionally, the spectators will begin a chant, such as "Right fields sucks!" When Andre Dawson makes a nice catch in right field, some spectators bow to him, bending at the waist (a "salome") to show their appreciation. In the middle innings, many spectators become less attentive and discussion moves to problems at work or the various attributes of a nearby member of the opposite sex. After 7 1/2 innings, the spectators rise to their feet and join Harry Caray in singing "Take me out to the Ball Game." Toward the end of the game, if the score is close, attention turns once again back to the game. In dramatic finishes, such as extra-inning or come-from-behind victories, the crowd buzzes with excitement, cheering uproariously when play on the field brings the Cubs closer to victory and grimacing and swearing when they make crucial mistakes. At the end of the game, when the Cubs win, the crowd is jubilant, revelry is in the air; a loss, especially in a close game, brings collective grief as the spectators shake their heads in dismay.

This composite description exemplifies the collective, formalized, repetitive, bracketed (in terms of time and space), dramatic, and emotional qualities that characterize the spectator's experience of attending a professional baseball game, and likely numerous other consumption activities (e.g., other spectator sports, participatory sports, music concerts, theatre, movies, festivals, parades). These attributes are remarkably similar to those associated with the religious or sacred rituals of primitive societies (e.g., Durkheim 1915; Turner 1967). Thus, the term "ritual" has often been used by social scientists, both within consumer behavior (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989; Rook 1985) and in other disciplines (Birrell 1981; Cheska 1978; Fiske 1972; Stein 1977; Voigt 1980) to describe such events. In fact, a recently-published essay by the past commissioner of baseball (and ex-president of Yale) is devoted to demonstrating the relation between baseball and the sacred (Giamatti 1989).

The purpose of this essay is to examine critically the application of the term "ritual" to describe these consumption activities. Three distinct uses of ritual found in the consumer behavior literature are evaluated in terms of their ability to describe one example of this form -- baseball spectating. None of the three captures the experience of baseball spectators as I have encountered them in my fieldwork. Rather, I speculate that the exigencies of modern/post-modern society lead to a distinct form of group consumption that is profane in character. Ethnographic fieldwork is used to guide these speculations.


While the study of ritual originated in the anthropological study of behaviors referencing magico-religious beliefs, within consumer behavior (and elsewhere), the domain of ritual has been extended well past this original conception to include many symbolic actions carried out by individuals, groups, and societies (e.g., attendance at museums, music concerts, and sporting events, making a house a home through decorating, grooming activities, national holidays, collecting). Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf (1989) generally adopt the traditional view, restricting the domain of these rituals to that which is sacred. Rook (1985), and Tetrault and Kleine (1990) in their modification of Rook's approach, reject this type of limitation on ritual in favor of a definition based on commonly-observed trait characteristics (referred to as the RTK definition). McCracken (1988) adopts a generic definition of ritual as "symbolic action." I will examine the RTK definition first.

Ritual as the Intersection of Behavioral Traits

Definition. RTK define ritual (with slight differences between the two papers) as an analytical class of symbolic-expressive behavior demonstrating certain qualities such as standardization, purposiveness, formality, repetitiveness, drama, bracketing (in time and space), scripted sequences, and group enactment. Through this combination of traits, ritual is differentiated from related types of behavior such as habits, customs, and conventions.

This list of traits provides a useful foundation for understanding ritual but is incomplete. Constructs such as "ritual" are given meaning when they are embedded in a nomological network that describes their antecedents and consequences (Cronbach and Meehl 1955). Except for a brief reference in Tetrault and Kleine (1990, p.33) to the role of ritual in social and/or moral ordering, neither paper attempts to make such nomological connections, leading to a definition that becomes increasingly fuzzy under scrutiny. First, consider that research in both anthropology (Rosaldo 1968) and sociology (Goffman 1967; Wuthnow 1987) has demonstrated that ritual can effectively reinforce social and cultural structures with few if any of these attributes. Studies on the ritual dimension of the televised Watergate hearings (Alexander 1988) and the television mini-series Holocaust (Wuthnow 1987), for example, suggest that ritual need not be repetitive, formal, or enacted in groups. And Goffman's (1968) studies of interaction rituals show how non-dramatic, non-bracketed, mundane behavior acts to maintain the individual's moral order. The trait characteristics aptly noted by RTK serve to enhance the communicative value of ritual (Wuthnow 1987; McCracken 1988), but ritual regularly occurs outside of this domain.

Second, in order to maintain definitional boundaries, RTK attempt to exclude certain behaviors that demonstrate some or all of the listed traits -- habits, customs, conventions -- as non-rituals. Many habits, for example, are formalized, repetitive, dramatic, bracketed and so on. As Wuthnow (1987) argues, attempts at differentiating these actions because of their lack of drama or formality are not convincing, for many supposed "non-rituals" are highly dramatic (consider changing a flat tire on a busy highway) and highly formal (consider the behavior sequences found in riding elevators).

If, following this line of argument, one rejects attempts to limit the domain of ritual through trait characteristics, then a non-religious approach to ritual as pursued by RTK necessarily expands to include all symbolic-expressive action (Leach 1976; Wuthnow 1987). Ritual, in this conception, is not a type of activity that can be isolated, but rather a dimension of all social activity.

Ritual as Symbolic-Expressive Behavior

Definition. As symbolic-expressive behavior, ritual is defined as that dimension of behavior which assists in the communication of socio-cultural meaning. For example, ritual can maintain, transmit, or manipulate meaning (Cheal 1988; McCracken 1988; Wuthnow 1987). McCracken (1988, p.84), following Victor Turner, views ritual as "an opportunity to affirm, evoke, assign, or revise the conventional symbols and meanings of the cultural order." Ritual, then, describes those aspects of symbolic consumer behavior involving action, as distinguished from a focus on the symbolic content of objects.

Baseball Spectating as Symbolic-Expressive Behavior. Baseball spectating certainly qualifies as a ritual according to this definition. Through their actions, spectators develop, maintain, and manipulate many different types of cultural meanings concerning the players, the home team, the baseball park, other spectators, and the game itself.

But while baseball spectating is no-doubt a form of symbolic-expressive behavior, this attribution does not provide much assistance in discriminating this activity from infinite other consumption activities that serve similar communicative functions. If all forms of eating, driving, listening, talking, dancing, wearing, reading, and so on can be considered as rituals based on their symbolic content, the term is of little use in describing any unique qualities of these practices. This definition, then, is too inclusive to usefully describe baseball spectating relative to other consumption activities.

Ritual As Behavior Referencing The Sacred

Definition. "Ritual" initially emerged as a descriptive term in cultural anthropology to name certain expressive forms of behavior that referenced the cosmological and magical (Malinowski 1954), mystical (Turner 1967), superhuman (Rappaport 1971) and/or sacred (Durkheim 1915). While Rook (1985, p.252) and Tetrault and Kleine (1990, p.31) have criticized the religious version of ritual, viewing it as "myopic" and "jingoistic," these authors seem to aim their criticism toward the traditional definition involving supernatural, mystical entities, rather than toward the broader Durkheimian understanding of religious ritual as behavior that references the sacred. Individuals do not have to invoke cosmological beliefs to engage in sacred ritual, although such beliefs are certainly pervasive. Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989) use a Durkheimian conception of ritual in their development of the sacred dimension of consumption. They define ritual as those activities that evince sacred properties such as communitas, kratophany, contamination, ecstasy, and flow. Their definition, too, becomes better specified if expanded to include antecedents and consequences. Here I suggest that the areas of experience that consistently evoke the sacred, treated briefly in the conclusion of Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry's paper, be appended to their formal definition. (One might also include Turner's concept of liminality or anti-structure in ritual as a creative, generative source of culture and structure (Turner 1969). Space limitations, however, prevent a satisfactory exposition of both of these approaches.)

For "neo-Durkheimians" (e.g., Berger 1967; Douglas 1966, 1970; Geertz 1973; Wuthnow 1987: "neo" in that these theorists focus on order at the cultural rather than the social level), ritual is considered to be a means for managing ontological disorder. Ritual seeks to resolve the tensions that emanate from areas of human life that are difficult to comprehend and incorporate into one's moral order -- that is, one's understanding of "the way things are" and "the way things should be." While most experiences are easily integrated and thus are taken for granted, there are perplexing and troublesome questions that universally arise, arational areas that resist organization through logic or science (e.g., those involving death, nature, goodness, suffering, and social/political order). These areas of ontological disorder -- referred to variously as "chaos" (Berger 1967; Geertz 1973), "dirt" (Douglas 1966), and "social uncertainty" (Wuthnow 1987) -- occur as a universal human condition and are typically managed through culturally-constituted meanings. Humans collectively develop systems of meaning (the "nomos," Berger 1967) that manage the incomprehensible. The nomos joins an individual's values (or ethos) with his or her understanding of existential order (or world-view). This "sacred" system is made up of two components -- a belief system and a system of symbolic action (or ritual) -- that are mutually reinforcing (Geertz 1973). Since the belief system is culturally created and thus potentially ephemeral, humans must actively validate and empower these sacred concepts. Rituals, then, serve to make concrete and credible the cultural principles and categories that organize the inherently chaotic elements of human life. In addition, sacred rituals are not only a means of comprehending, but also a way of experiencing. Along this line, Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989) elegantly synthesize the accounts of sacred experience that appear in many of the social science literatures (e.g., Durkheim's "collective effervescence" and Turner's "communitas").

This conception of sacred ritual, in addition to providing a linkage between the variety of metaphysical beliefs found in different societies, also encompasses many of those rituals that often are categorized separately as "secular ritual." For example, rituals reinforce or make concrete ontological organizations regarding the genealogy of animals (food taboos), the social status of the individual in a society (rites of passage), fate or chance (rites of affliction, magic rituals), the boundary between personhood and society (positive rites, national holidays, political coronations), and the structure of interaction in an impersonalized society (conversation openings and closings).

Baseball Spectating as Sacred Ritual. Clues to the sacredness of a symbolic action can be gleaned by looking for indicators of both characteristics of sacred ritual discussed above. As a tool for making sense of ontological disorder, sacred ritual is indicated by the intensity of effort applied to maintain a particular reality in the face of profane threats (Durkheim 1915). And as a way of experiencing the world, sacred ritual is indicated by the achievement of transcendent experience (Turner 1969). In my fieldwork to date, involving interaction with some 300 spectators, I have witnessed only a handful of spectators that may have demonstrated these qualities. (The actual number is somewhat arbitrary since these qualities exist as a continuum, not as a duality, and my demarcation is necessarily subjective.)

One spectator whom I frequently encounter -- Tim -- exemplifies the first indicator in that he demonstrates a profound respect for the set of guidelines that define the proper comportment for a spectator at a game. The rules of baseball, both formal and informal, are treated with the utmost respect. Tim becomes visibly upset when other spectators fail to live up to these rules, often reprimanding them. Tim, and the few others like him, have internalized these rules to the point where they are unquestionable; they are "the way things are," so that any threats to these rules become threats to the self.

While many spectators are just as competent as Tim in their ability to understand and act on these informal rules, very few treat them as Tim does. They do not "live" these rules, but enact them to enhance their consumption experience. Often the rules conflict with other interests and are unhesitantly broken: spectators often stop paying attention by the middle of the game and chat with their friends; they leave in the eighth inning to beat the rush to their car; they refuse to show deference to the Cubs' star players. Perhaps even more telling, most competent spectators completely accept the inability or unwillingness of other spectators to follow the rules and conventions of baseball. It is my opinion, then, that the vast majority of spectators understand these rules as more-or-less arbitrary conventions that make the game interesting rather than rules that directly connect to their nomos. The meanings intrinsic to the game are important only in respect to their ability to enhance the consumption experience; they have little intrinsic value except to the few spectators who, like Tim, use them as concrete reminders/examples of their understanding of the world.

The second indicator -- transcendent experience -- is rare indeed. I have observed several spectators, including Tim above, who appear to lose themselves in the game, who treat the game, its players, and its play with awe, and who evince an intense joyfulness emanating from their interaction with the game. But the vast majority of spectators I have encountered rarely exhibit signs that spectating allows them to achieve transcendence.

There is one potential exception to this statement -- specific situations arise in some games that lead to spectator responses closely matching descriptions of transcendent experience. In fact, it is the presence of these situational emotional responses, in addition to the formality and repetitiveness of the game, that leads many observers to categorize sports spectating as sacred ritual. But these situations are counterintuitive to theories of ritual, and are susceptible to an alternative interpretation. Two types of situations repeatedly evoke sacred-like emotions: dramatic situations and outstanding performances.

Dramatic situations usually occur toward the end of the game when the outcome hangs in the balance. The drama is magnified if the game outcome also has implications for season outcomes. There are certain dramatic structures that tend to evoke transcendent reactions: for instance, come-from-behind victories, games where the lead changes hands frequently, and extra-innings games. For instance, when the Cubs win an extra-inning game on a two-out hit, spectators stand and cheer for several minutes, high-fiving, yelling, shaking their fists, viscerally experiencing the intense feelings of victory channeled through their association with the team.

Spectators also demonstrate these qualities in reaction to exceptional displays of athletic prowess -- for example, when an individual Cubs player makes an unusual play such as a grand-slam home run or has an extended hitting streak. Last season, Ryne Sandberg, who has never been a league-leading home run hitter, challenged for the home run hitting title and finished the year with the highest total. As this side-race progressed and it became clear that Sandberg's home-run hitting performance was truly exceptional, his home runs became events in themselves, and spectators responded to them with an intensity of feeling that they did not express for other players. These emotions were also witnessed when the team accomplished an unusual feat, such as scoring ten runs in one inning without making an out. The spectators understand that they have witnessed a remarkable performance, and the experience of being close to it, being involved with its happening, gives them a great emotional rush.

While an interesting phenomenon in its own right, the causes of these "sacred" feelings are the opposite of what one would expect if professional baseball spectating were a sacred ritual. As Wuthnow (1987) argues, spectators are most likely to experience a communion with the sacred when the ritual is performed correctly, with all of the participants following the ritual norms. But baseball spectators contradict this expectation in such situations: when action is the most scripted, the spectators are the least involved, but when action is truly unexpected, the spectators may exhibit an emotional reaction that is comparable to sacred experience. Thus, while seemingly comparable to sacred experience, these highly-emotional spectator experiences appear to be of a different type.

Following this argument, baseball spectating may serve as a sacred ritual for a small fraction of those in attendance. But for the rest of the spectators, the concept of sacred ritual as developed above is not an accurate reflection of their experience. Two questions naturally arise from this discussion: If the sacred-like experiences noted above are not sacred, then how can they be described? And, why do so few spectators experience baseball spectating as sacred? The remainder of this essay provides some grounded speculation on these topics.


Rather than sacred experience, the highly emotional situations cited above more closely parallel aesthetic experience (Holbrook and Zirlin 1985). The reason that these situations yield an intense emotional response is that they are so unusual. Spectators have normative expectations for what they think will happen in terms of the ballpark aesthetics, spectator behavior, the level of drama, the performance of the team, and the individual accomplishments of the players. When these expectations are far exceeded, they have experienced something truly out-of-the-ordinary. The spectator is confronted by action that does not conform to conventional expectations, and the spectator's engagement and integration of this action provokes an intense reaction. While it is true that the felt qualities of aesthetic experience are similar to "flow" and thus to sacred experience (Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson 1990; Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989), I would argue that the two are distinct forms: the aesthetic experience is an encounter within a socially-constructed world of meaning (an "arbitrary code"), while the sacred is an encounter with the chaotic elements of human experience (though this encounter is culturally channeled). Geertz' (1973) distinction between the aesthetic perspective and the religious perspective is relevant here. The aesthetic perspective relies on ignoring everyday experience (the common-sensical perspective) in favor of dwelling upon surfaces, appearances, the contemplation of sensory qualities without their usual meanings. The religious perspective, on the other hand, moves beyond everyday realities to create a fundamental ordering of the world that "accounts for, and even celebrates, the perceived ambiguities, puzzles, and paradoxes in human experience" (p.108). The next section further develops this distinction.


Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989) observe that the sacred has become increasingly difficult to experience in formal religion and thus is often located in previously profane activity such as consumption. Given the apparent benefits to the individual from participating in these modern forms of sacred experience (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989, p.31), it is curious that only a handful of baseball spectators appear to achieve this state. Some speculation is in order. I make use of the distinction between the sacred as developed above (i.e., the individual's moral order or nomos) and Berger and Luckmann's conception of "sub-worlds" (Berger and Luckmann 1967, p.138), and borrow from theories of the modern and post-modern to construct a conceptual framework that addresses this query.

While individuals develop a single (though imperfect) nomos that organizes and guides their experience, they actually live their lives in many different "worlds." That is, individuals engage in many different interwoven, institutionally-defined experiences. Each of these worlds contains its own internally-coherent system of meaning that, building on the extant nomos, helps to organize the reality within the particular institutional framework. For example, a "single" becomes a meaningful event for baseball spectators only through the application of the system of meaning that is the sub-world of baseball. A critical difference between sub-worlds and the nomos is that much less subjective inevitability is usually bestowed on the contents of the former (Berger and Luckmann 1967). This is because the individual realizes that participation in sub-worlds is primarily agentic. That is, he or she has (consciously or subconsciously) been socialized and/or chosen to engage in this particular activity as one of many viable alternatives. Participation in this world does not substantiate an objective, external reality, but rather, makes concrete one possible subjective structuring. Based on this difference, one is able to distinguish between objectified reality at the level of nomos and the more fragile, constructed reality at the level of the sub-world by observing how the individual reacts to a situation where each type of reality is threatened. In the case of sub-worlds, the individual may lose emotionally satisfying ties, but retains his or her ability to "make sense" of experience. For example, if the game of baseball were banned, most baseball spectators, while perhaps deeply saddened, would still find experience comprehensible and would eventually move on to other activities that would replace baseball. By contrast, the loss of the nomos results in the loss of orientation to all experience. Garfinkel's (1967) breaching experiments provide a poignant example of the anxiety and even terror that occurs when the ontological foundation for social activity is no longer secure. It is this difference between nomos and sub-worlds that, I believe, separates that which is sacred from that which is merely desirable, enjoyable, or pleasing. I do not wish, here, to imply that participation in an activity such as baseball spectating cannot become sacred to some individuals, but rather, that such individuals are outliers in that their participation in the game has come to embody their nomos when most others understand it to be one of many sub-worlds that are possible within a given nomos.

The ability to partake in sacred ritual has declined in the modern era due to a decrease in the potency of the nomos and the concurrent proliferation of sub-worlds. A primary characteristic of small, homogeneous, non-market societies is that sub-worlds are virtually non-existent. Knowledge and action are little-specialized so all members view experience through a similar lens. In a "unified life world" such as this, the same integrative symbols permeate all sectors of one's everyday life (Berger, Berger, and Kellner 1974, p.64). Interventions (from other cultures, for instance) that suggest alternative ontologies are incorporated into the current ontological structure (e.g., the cargo cults) or rejected in order to maintain a corporate perspective. Ritual in these societies is necessarily of the sacred form since it serves to directly reinforce the nomos.

Alternatively, through the media technologies, mode of education, and cultural mobility associated with post-industrial society, many individuals now learn that their particular moral ordering is one of many that exist in the world. This knowledge leads to a destabilizing relativism where the grounds for believing that "this is the way that things are" become less secure. In addition, the degree of specialization found in modern society -- in activities associated with work, leisure, family, and religion -- has led to a tremendous explosion of ever-finer levels of sub-worlds. The sub-worlds that do exist in small homogeneous societies are easily integrated into the culturally-shared nomos as defined by formal religion. Examples of this high level of integration abound in ethnographic work in anthropology. On the other hand, in contemporary Western society, the level at which an institutionally-defined reality is engaged is likely to be many levels below the nomos (e.g., nomos ¦ leisure ¦ sports ¦ spectator sports ¦ baseball spectating) and is likely one of many alternative sub-worlds that are possible at this level (e.g., football, soccer, hockey, cricket, etc.). Making this array of sub-worlds even more difficult to ontologically manage is the decentering, cluttering, and overlapping of cultural meanings endemic to contemporary Western societies (the "symbolic anarchy" noted in much post-modern thought) that challenges the coherence created within a given sub-world. Thus, at the same time that the modern individual's nomos is weakened through relativization, the sub-worlds in which consumption experiences take place have become multitudinous, ever-distant in their connection to the individual's moral order, and less coherent in their own right.

While numerous sub-worlds are presented to the individual as sacred entities via advertising and elites, it is becoming more and more problematic for the individual to make use of these meanings to form a moral foundation from which to organize experience. One is made aware of their imputed sacred value, but it is increasingly difficult to actually make the leap of faith (i.e., to accept that this is the order of things) required to personally experience these realities as sacred. Instead, the individual often ignores this ontological claim, neither believing it nor challenging it, and, instead, makes practical use of its structuring power. This contemporary "strategy" for managing disorder parallels what theorists of the post-modern have referred to as the "aestheticization" of everyday life (Baudrillard 1983; Featherstone 1991). In such a situation, while individuals may treat these sub-worlds as if they were sacred, the structure that results is not moral but arbitrary. That is, the structure itself holds little intrinsic meaning for the participant; its value is shaped by its aesthetic and instrumental values (e.g., the pursuit of cultural capital).

Erving Goffman (1959, 1967) provides a complementary line of argument in his recasting of modern secular experiences with the sacred as idolatry (Creelan 1987). He argues that the individualism of modern society leads to a profanation of the sacred where the enactment of a purportedly self-transcending ritual may not be authentic at all. Rather, the ritual serves as cover for self-interested motives (Creelan 1987). The individual performs the sacred rather than engages it:

...individuals are concerned not with the moral issue of realizing these [sacred] standards, but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that these standards are being realized. Our activity, then, is largely concerned with moral matters, but as performers we do not have a moral concern with them. As performers we are merchants of morality (Goffman 1959, p.251).

Goffman argues that individuals often act as if they are referencing the sacred, but infrequently is this an authentic experience. Rather, the individual manipulates characteristics of the sacred to achieve alternative symbolic-expressive purposes as in a "black mass" (Creelan 1987; Goffman 1967).

An alternative to Goffman's bleak view of the human psyche is to frame the issue in terms of the socio-cultural challenges posed by modernity as outlined above. The existential quest for firm ontological footing has been dealt a severe setback by the pluralism of differentiated, mass-mediated, post-industrial society. The leap of faith required to achieve the sacred requires bounding across an ever-widening chasm. Often, this leap is not possible and one is left "homeless" (Berger et al. 1974).

Examples of this idolatry and/or homelessness are available in the consumer behavior literature. Contemporary theorists of the sacred have noted that tourist sites, museums, and spectator sporting events are treated as sacred entities (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989). However, there is considerable empirical evidence demonstrating that a significant component of the consumption of these vessels of the sacred is not in achieving sacred experience, but, rather, in manipulating these qualities for profane reasons (e.g., status, self-concept). Kelly (1987) observes that a significant category of museum-goers is more interested in documenting their museum attendance through purchases in the museum gift shop than in actually viewing the art that the gifts represent; documentation of tourist experiences (Stewart 1984; Gordon 1986) is so important that sometimes the documentation facilities (photo opportunities, souvenir shops) of a touristed site become more popular than the site itself. And in my own research on baseball spectators, the consumption experience often involves the profane manipulation of the symbolic aspects of a game, a team, a player, or the ballpark. Spectators attend the game to increase their ability to incorporate these qualities into the self (McCracken 1988; Belk 1988), and use documentary techniques (e.g., photos, appearing on television, autographs, stealing vines from the outfield fence) in order to substantiate these claims. I would argue that these modes of possession are typically of the profane form discussed by Belk (1988), rather than of the sacred form as discussed in Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989).

This essay was motivated by the question: Is it useful to describe baseball spectating as a ritual? I argue that three current conceptions of ritual do not adequately describe the experience of most of the spectators I have encountered. Rather, depending upon one's perspective concerning human nature, these spectators might be viewed in Goffman's terms as engaging in narcissistic and manipulative idolatry, or, alternatively, one could look to Berger's metaphor of "homelessness" to describe their unsuccessful attempts at achieving the sacred in an environment where the sacred is often fragmented and commoditized.


(References have been omitted due to page-length constraints, but are available from the author upon request.)



Douglas B. Holt, Northwestern University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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