Ritual, Politics, and Power
Library Journal, March 15th, 1988
by David Steiniche Missouri Western State Coll., St. Joseph
Kertzer credibly argues that political symbols manifested through rites explain much of the political life of modern nations, contrary to the usual rational, utilitarian, and interest-group explanations. He argues that rituals are not merely meaningful to the poorly educated, elites use rituals to support the existing order and revolutionaries use them to replace it. He provides numerous examples from primitive and modern societies (including the United States). The book will appeal to many political scientists and general readers. Although well documented, it avoids much of the vocabulary of academe.
Choice, November 1st, 1988
by T. M. Wilson, United Nations International School
This ambitious analysis of comparative political rituals and myths is both insightful and comprehensive. Kertzer ably achieves his primary goal of showing the importance of political symbols and rituals for our understanding of all political systems. An interesting and clear narrative guides readers through the examination of cases from small-scale nonliterate societies (in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas) to the complex nations (of Europe and North America). Kertzer uses seemingly disparate examples of symbolic forms and political action—a KKK rally, a Yanomamo feast, JFKs funeral, and the celebration of the new order in Revolutionary France—to explain the importance of political ritual for building political organizations, for creating political legitimacy and solidarity, and for limiting or escalating conflict. His conclusions about the symbolic expressions of power are both persuasive and stimulating, proving that anthropology has much more than the exotic to offer the other social sciences. Truly a major work in comparative political culture, this book should be mandatory reading for all undergraduate and graduate students of politics.
"An important work that makes a valuable contribution to the study of politics and of culture. Fascinating, amusing, and topical, it will be of interest to the general public as well as to scholars."
—Myron J. Aronoff, Rutgers University
"An important and compelling book, one that illuminates the role of ritual in human life, as well as the nature of politics. Written in a lucid and graceful style, it should appeal to the general reader as well as to anthropologists and political scientists."
—Charles E. Silberman, author of A Certain People and Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice
"Kertzer offers a cogent account of the influence of ritual in politics and impressive range of examples."
—Murray Edelman, University of Wisconsin, Madison
"Ritual moves and shakes public life as varied, shrewd, ubiquitous, indispensable today as ever in the tragedy of man. Apparently, it is too obvious to be seen--until a piercing eye and a robust global experience gather to us a theme."
—Earl W. Count, Key Reporter
"Engagingly written . . . this book seeks to correct what the author regards as the widespread tendency among social theorists to see political institutions as 'simply the outcome of different interest groups competing for material resources'. . . . A wide-ranging and thoughtful work. The author delights the reader with numerous excursions into the political rites of the Aztecs, the contemporary Soviet Union, the French revolution, colonial Africa, the Italian Communist Party, and a host of others, all richly and amusingly analyzed. His discussion of just how ritual can enhance solidarity even without creating shared meanings or beliefs is an insightful corrective to more conventional interpretive views. While not intended as a comprehensive theory of communication and power, this is nonetheless political anthropology as it should be, directed at an interdisciplinary audience, and demonstrating to nonanthropologists the vital relevance of ethnographic comparison for political theory."
—Robert W. Hefner, American Anthropologist
"Kertzer illustrates his discussions with an impressively wideranging collection of cross-cultural examples."
—Ronald L. Grimes, Journal of Religion
"Kertzer's discussion of the links between rituals, politics, and power is challenging, thought provoking, and tightly reasoned."
—Ray C. Rist, Executive Educator
"Kertzer presents a rich array of materials ranging from rituals in certain archaic societies of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and South America, to more modern cases from Italy, India, France, the United States, Germany, Soviet Russia and South Africa."
—Willard Mullins, Canadian Journal of Political Science
"[A] richly documented study. . . . David Kertzer is to be congratulated for opening up an area of study that has such significance as an explanation of the political world around us."
—Geoffrey R. Debnam, Annals of the American Academy of
Political and Social Science
"The book is well written, and the examples are instructive. . . . They hold a reader's interest."
—Bertil L. Hanson, Perspective
"His rich examples drawn from a wide range of settings extend the insights of American political scientists such as Edelman, Bennett, and Elder and Cobb in a comparative direction. He addresses important issues concerning how ritual works in building organization, in creating political legitimacy and solidarity, in understanding the political universe. Also covered is the central role of ritual in political conflict, and ways in which ritual is central in movements for change."
—Marc Howard Ross, Journal of Politics
"This is a useful book. . . . Part of the usefulness of Kertzer's book is in telling us in numerous ways that ritual is virtually ignored in the study of modern states and their political processes, especially in the works of political scientists and sociologists. . . . Kertzer's scope is comparative, using numerous apt illustrations from nonstate and state societies to explicate his points."
—Don Handelman, American Ethnologist
"In a comprehensive study of political ritual, the author argues that it has always been and will continue to be an essential part of political life, used to symbolize, simplify, and enhance political messages. Weaving together examples from around the world and throughout history, the author shows the many ways in which ritual is employed in politics."
— Presidential Studies Quarterly
"[A] valuable survey."
—Michael S. Kimmel, American Journal of Sociology
"Kertzer writes entertainingly on political rites widely separated by space and time. . . . He is mainly interested in how our own rites and symbols, which seem so natural and inevitable as to hide their symbolic nature, hold us in thrall. He shows how ritual is used to fire or suppress political conflict, build political movements, establish political legitimacy, and obscure the absence of political consensus."
—John Gabree, New York Newsday
"A wide-ranging introductory analysis of political rituals. . . . This is a very broad-ranging book. The author has clearly had great fun writing it; his references and reading list are impressive in their breadth and catholicity."
—Evelyn S. Rawski, Journal of Social History
"David Kertzer is to be congratulated for opening up an area of study that has such significance as an explanation of the political world around us."
—Geoffrey R. Debnam, Annals of the American Academy of
Political and Social Sciences
"[Kertzer] makes significant contributions by focusing attention on the subject, presenting numerous vivid historical and cross-cultural examples, applying diverse but compatible theoretical perspectives, compiling the best available bibliography, examining different conditions and purposes of ritual use, and offering provocative ideas that should stimulate discussion and research. . . . It will make an excellent addition for graduate and undergraduate classes. It should be on our personal library shelves."
—Peter M. Hall, Contemporary Sociology
"Kertzer's book on the relationships among ritual, politics and power could not have come at a better time to enliven social-scientific debate on the fascinating theme of legitimacy. . . . Kertzer argues convincingly that the political action and power of all societies are enveloped in ritual, and he maintains that it would be difficult to imagine any society functioning otherwise. Using various examples selected from different parts of the world or points in history, he shows how political systems have employed and continued to employ ritual to create or reinforce their symbolically constructed versions of reality. . . . [A] topical and pioneering volume, which will be of interest to students as a textbook, to politicians as a mirror, and to academics as an exciting contribution to their never-ending debates in the marketplace of ideas."
—Francis B. Nyamnjoh, Political Psychology
"An easy-to-read work of 184 pages scans the cross-cultural field of politics from Father Hidalgo's Mexico, through the Bunyoro of Uganda and the Yanomamo of Venezuela, to the Ku Klux Klan and President Reagan's wreath laying at Bitberg, to discover universal themes in political ritual. . . . It will be useful for professionals, students, and educated laymen."
—Wilfred J. Bisson, History: Reviews of New Books
"Based on wide reading in anthropology, political science, and, sometimes, history, David I. Kertzer's study suggests how ritual is employed, deliberately or unconsciously, to affirm or reinforce power, legitimacy, group solidarity or national cohesion, in societies at all times, all over the world. . . . The encyclopedic coverage of the theme and the wealth of examples Kertzer provides make for interesting reading."
—Eugen Weber, American Historical Review
"Ritual, Politics, and Power is a significant contribution to our understanding the power rituals play in politics, religion, and social like and culture of society in general, both past and present. . . . We need more studies of this nature. . . . I highly recommend the book for political science and political sociology courses, and for all those who are interested in the irrational and mythological in social and political life in general."
—George A. Kourvetaris, Journal of Political and Military Sociology