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The Society's Concept of The Rite of Passage

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Rites of passage were first described by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1960) as a way of accepting the many rituals and rites observed in conventional cultures, and their significance to the dynamics of both individual and group life within the culture. He identified sets of habitual behavior that accompanied changes of place, state, social position and age. This included common life events such as childbirth, puberty, marriage and death (Lundberg, 2016). A rite of passage can be further divided into three stages; these stages include the pre-liminal stage which is related to separation from an initiate’s previous life, the liminal stage where the initiates are separated from the society and have to undergo various rituals, before they reach the post-liminal stage which is related to their new status or state of life (Lundberg, 2016). This essay will focus on the aspect of social position in Van Gennep’s definition, as rites of passage are essential to transform an ‘outsider’ into an ‘insider’ (Raybeck, 1996); and analyzes rites of passage and studies examples of the rites of passage of the ethnographer, Douglas Raybeck, and of the women in Kelantanese culture.

In the pre-liminal phase, there are symbolic behaviors to indicate an individual’s detachment from their current social structure and their previous social status (Froggatt, 1997). This may include a change of dress, a change in geological area, or ritual cleansing. The liminal phase is a mediating transitional phase between the initial status and the new status achieved at the end of the ritual (Kunin, 2002, p. 208). It is a threshold or boundary as well as a ‘space’ in its own particular right, as the time and place where the people going through the rite are cut off from the broader structure of society, and placed in brief, negligible positions. It is often described as an ambiguous state as the individual is no longer in his/her previous state nor is he/she in the new state, and as Leach suggests: “it becomes temporarily an abnormal person existing in abnormal time” (1976, p. 77, as cited in Froggatt 1997). It is often a period in which the initiates are taught those things that will be needed to function in the new social position. Finally, it is during the post-liminal phase that the individual returns to his/her social settings, and attains new rights and commitments. The ritual concludes with the individual performing some ritualistic act that reflects his/her new status, thus showing the community that they are ready to embrace their new position and the responsibilities that come with it. A commonality in all phases is that transformation is a key element in shaping the individual as they go through these rites of passage.

A typical example to demonstrate the concept of a “rites of passage is a Jewish wedding. Firstly, in a Jewish wedding it is traditional for the bride and groom to remain separated for the week before their wedding. There are several rituals such as reading of the Torah and going through a ritualistic bath that should be done by the groom and bride during the week. Therefore, these would be the pre-liminal phase in the rites of passage. Additionally, the liminal phase occurs during the wedding ceremony when both groom and bride’s status changes from single to married. Finally, the post-liminal phase is when the groom and bride are incorporated into society with new identities as a married couple.

At the start of Raybeck’s fieldwork in Kelatan, although he did some minor preparation such as learning the language and culture in the hope of understanding the new culture prior to the actual fieldwork, they proved to be of little help as Raybeck and his wife, Karen still experienced multiple culture shock during their initial weeks (Raybeck, 1996, p. 21). After much deliberation, they decided to stay in the village of Wakaf Bahru where most of his fieldwork was conducted. As he was not part of the people, the villagers generally viewed Raybeck through hostile lenses and treated him as an outsider. This portrayed the pre-liminal phase where he left his initial society and dove in to a new culture.

The liminal phase started when Raybeck participated in the village guard duty, “jaga”, which allowed him to gradually integrate into the society. Through this new role, Rayback started to gather information and he thought he had accessed the inner workings of the village. However, he found that everyone was giving him the same information; a picture of village life as the villagers wanted him to see (Raybeck, 1996). Raybeck (1996) noted: “I realized that I was still not sufficiently trusted to be made privy to the sensitive and sometimes less-than-ideal social life of the village” (pp. 63-64). This situation where Raybeck changed the villagers’ views of him but still did not gain enough of their trust to talk about the internal affairs of the village, perfectly represented the process within the liminal phase; the individual is nether in his initial status nor his new status.

However, after being in the patrol team for some time, Raybeck developed close friendships with the other males, notably Mat and Yusof. Yusof conveyed friendliness by started holding hands with Raybeck. This act symbolized warmth and enhanced friendship between the two (Raybeck, 1996, p. 65). Raybeck was also brought to a bar by Yusof and Mat for a drink which was against their religion. The act implied that Mat and Yusof had faith in Raybeck as they had shared their misdoings (Raybeck, 1996, p. 67). Consequently, Raybeck was able to query about village issues which were initially kept from him and hence, he could use these insiders’ knowledge to get more information from other villagers. Knowing that Raybeck did not share or exploit the knowledge that was given to him, the villagers began to trust him and were more willing to share sensitive information with him. Additionally, he and Karen adopted Malay names and wore the Kelantanese Malay traditional costumes to assimilate better into the culture. He had also given up alcohol and pork consumption in the village as it was deemed as a sin in Islam. Through his efforts to learn proper societal behaviors and participating in village events, Raybeck had completed his post-liminal phase by transforming himself from a foreigner to a fellow villager; an outsider to an insider. This was a great change for Raybeck; Lundberg (2016) stated that all major periods of life change involve rituals. Therefore, it includes people from the Kelantanese culture.

The women in Kelantanese culture also underwent a rite of passage as they transformed from adolescents to adults. In the pre-liminal phase, which begins in their youth, Kelantanese women are removed from the world of man and are expected to stay home to assist with household activities and to learn skills needed to contribute to the society. Therefore, their involvement in village matters is rare as they were preoccupied with their household duties and preparation for married life (Raybeck, 1996, p. 181).

As the women age, get married and give birth, their participation in economic and social life increases is when the liminal phase begins as they begin to learn more norms and go through rituals such as child birth and the gathering of information through social interactions. For example, Kelantanese middle-aged mothers have control over family finances and intricate network of connections through their trips to the market, which holds extensive information of current affairs in the village (Raybeck, 1996, p. 181). The information further empowers the women to make important decisions and be more influential in village issues, thus becoming more independent and completing their transformation.

Finally, in the post-liminal phase, the Kelantanese women are able to gain higher social status and are eligible to participate in village affairs by going through the symbolic nature of marital status, age and childbirth. After which, they are seen as full members of the society and have an equal or in some cases more powerful voice than the males, as they had the knowledge of current affairs within the village and the understanding of the dynamics of village behaviour due to their preparation in the earlier stages.


The examples of Raybeck’s fieldwork in Kelantan and Kelantan women’s transition through life well illustrated the concept of rites of passage. Both examples consist of similar structures – the process of separation, transition and reincorporation. There are also different types of symbolic rituals involved in both examples, such as jaga, names, costumes, age, marriage and childbirth. In conclusion, rites of passage are an essential part of every culture and they have significance in how they help an individual to find their individuality and purpose within the society. Additionally, an intended rite of passage offers the space for the society to convey its core values and grant the role obligations appropriate to the initiate’s stage of life, thus assuring cultural endurance.

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