Ritualism is a concept developed by American sociologist Robert K. Merton as a part of his structural strain theory. It refers to the common practice of going through the motions of daily life even though one does not accept the goals or values that align with those practices.
Ritualism as a Response to Structural Strain
Merton, an important figure in early American sociology, created what is considered to be one of the most important theories of deviance within the discipline. Merton's structural strain theory states that people experience tension when a society does not provide adequate and approved means for achieving culturally valued goals. In Merton's view, people either accept these conditions and go along with them, or they challenge them in some way, which means they think or act in ways that appear deviant from cultural norms.
Structural strain theory accounts for five responses to such strain, of which ritualism is one. Other responses include conformity, which involves continual acceptance of the goals of the society and continued participation in the approved means through which one is supposed to achieve them. Innovation involves accepting the goals but rejecting the means and creating new means. Retreatism refers to rejection of both the goals and the means, and rebellion occurs when individuals reject both and then create new goals and means to pursue.
According to Merton's theory, ritualism occurs when a person rejects the normative goals of their society but nonetheless continues to participate in the means of attaining them. This response involves deviance in the form of rejecting the normative goals of society but is not deviant in practice because the person continues to act in a way that is in line with pursuing those goals.
One common example of ritualism is when people do not embrace the goal of getting ahead in society by doing well in one's career and earning as much money as possible. Many have often thought of this as the American Dream, as did Merton when he created his theory of structural strain. In contemporary American society, many have become aware that stark economic inequality is the norm, that most people do not actually experience social mobility in their lives, and that most money is made and controlled by a very tiny minority of wealthy individuals.
Those who see and understand this economic aspect of reality, and those who simply do not value economic success but frame success in other ways, will reject the goal of climbing the economic ladder. Yet, most will still engage in the behaviors that are meant to achieve this goal. Most will spend most of their time at work, away from their families and friends, and may even still attempt to gain status and increased salary within their professions, despite the fact that they reject the end goal. They "go through the motions" of what is expected perhaps because they know that it is normal and expected, because they do not know what else to do with themselves, or because they have no hope or expectation of change within society.
Ultimately, though ritualism stems from discontent with the values and goals of society, it works to maintain the status quo by keeping normal, everyday practices and behaviors in place. If you think about it for a moment, there are probably at least a few ways in which you engage in ritualism in your life.
Other Forms of Ritualism
The form of ritualism that Merton described in his structural strain theory describes behavior among individuals, but sociologists have identified other forms of ritualism too. For example, sociologists also recognize political ritualism, which occurs when people participate in a political system by voting despite the fact that they believe that the system is broken and cannot actually achieve its goals.
Ritualism is common within bureaucracies, wherein rigid rules and practices are observed by members of the organization, even though doing so is often counter to their goals. Sociologists call this "bureaucratic ritualism."