Humans as social beings undergo a series of transitions in their lifetime. These series of transitions are marked by progressions and entry into a different realm or stage of socialization and acceptance in different communities of people. Corollary, this entry into a new stage also signifies a departure from the last state. This may either be associated with biological or socio-cultural transitions, ranging from birth to death.
Rites of passage is a term that has been closely associated with, and is oftentimes referred to “any ritual marking a transition in the life of an individual from one state or status to another” (Berkshire Publishing, 2005). It is characterized by symbolisms and is often accomplished by means of ceremonies or rituals that may last for a short period of time to even months. These ceremonies or symbols mark the significant transitions in the lives of individuals by signifying the “death” of a person in relation to his last state, to his “birth” into another state.
In many cultures, rites of passage are used to mark the socially recognized transition to sexual maturity. It may also be associated with a change of status from single to married life, from a fetus’ birth to a child, from married to a state of being divorced, and other events considered milestones in a person’s life such as childbirth, puberty, coming of age and death. Most often, however, rite of passage has been used to identify with maturity, a shift from the state of childhood to that of adulthood. Thus, rites of passage often attaches to the concepts of maturity, growth and acceptance in society or groups.
Noting that “virtually all human societies use ceremonial rites to mark significant transitions in the social status of individuals,” the 20th century the Belgian anthropologist Charles-Arnold Van Gennep discovered that rites of passage often share similar features (Nave, n. p. ). According to him, these features relate to a period of segregation from everyday life, a liminal state of transition from one status to the next, and a process of reintroduction to the social order with a new standing. During segregation, initiates are stripped of their identities to separate them from their previous social statuses.
Thus, they may either be moved geographically, given modifications in their body structures such as tattoos, piercing or haircuts in rituals specifically for the purpose. Thereafter, the initiate undergoes a state of liminality. During this stage, the initiate is considered to be socially and structurally ambiguous because during this period, the initiate is considered to have left one state but have not yet fully entered the next. Finally, the initiate reemerges to “the normal social fabric with a newly defined identity and a changed social status” (Nave, n. p. , again, through formal ritual procedures.
Rites of passage are diversely celebrated in different cultures. Coming of age rites include adolescent circumcision, debutante ball, first haircut, scarification, and breeching. Others are religious such as baptism, confirmation, and the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah in Judaism (Wikipedia, 2007). In some organizations such as fraternities or even in the army, now socially unacceptable rituals are hazing, fagging and ragging. Although they have similar features, varying cultural meanings have rendered rites of passage dynamic and ever changing.
However, there seems to be decreasing popularity of rituals and ceremonies in relation to rites of passage owing to factors such as industrialization, separation and compartmentalization. Industrialization apparently distracts human focus on Nature and the human naturalness (Deer Tribe Metis Medicine Society, n. p. ). A few sees that many old rituals have been forgotten in the midst of the evolving society and culture. Because of this, social and religious rituals appear to have lesser meaning or impact. These are but some of the debatable issues related to rites of pasage.