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Chinese Students’ Attitude Towards the Giant Panda: A Study

People have been attracted by specific species (Goedeke, 2004). Regarding these specific species, Kellert (1996) analyzes that humans tend to be attracted to the species which has a large body and is able to walk, run, or fly. The giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca is one of the most famous among those attractive species (Lorimer 2007). The giant panda is a member of the Ursidae family and occurs in only three provinces in China (Reid and Gong 1999). The species is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List with the estimated population of no more than 1600 individuals (IUCN 2009).
In China, which is home to the giant panda, people express their willingness to pay (WTP) for the giant panda conservation, which is enough to conclude that this charismatic species is able to acquire their habitat (Kontoleon and Swanson 2003). In contrast to this economic point of view, Yang (2005) refers to the fact that little is known about Chinese people’s perception of the giant panda, although several studies have been made on the general attitudes towards wildlife. Therefore, she studies the attitude of the public in China towards the giant panda. She analyzes the relationship between the attitudes of Chinese people towards the giant panda and the image of the species in the media, and concludes that the general attitude in China is likely to be associated with the symbolic and domestic value rather than ecological-scientific value. This corresponds with general Chinese attitudes towards wildlife and the image of the giant panda constructed by the media (Yang 2005). However, since this conclusion is drawn based on the literature review, it may not reflect people’s actual attitudes. Thus, this attitude still needs to be studied.
This research aims to explore Chinese students’ attitude towards the giant panda by semi- structured. This report consists of three sections. First, the research methods are presented including participant, the development of interview, questions, procedures, and an analysis. In the second section, the results from an analysis of the students’ attitude are described. The final section of this paper discusses the insights of main finding and several limitations of this interview survey for further research.
Ten Chinese students at the University of Kent were interviewed for this study. The interview sample was composed of two male and eight female students, and of two undergraduate and eight postgraduate students. The students’ majors were classified as follows: Conservation and Tourism, International Commercial Law, Human Resource Management, Accounting and Financial Management, European Culture and Language, International Business Management, and English Literature.
The respondents were recruited through personal contact with one Taiwanese and three Chinese students. The interviewer informed about the purpose, topic, structure, and length of the interview in advance to confirm participation (Sarantakos 2005). After a student agrees those conditions, the time and place for the interview was arranged.
The development of idea for interview questions and procedures
In order to standardize interview guides, a pilot survey was conducted at an initial stage (Newing in press). This pilot survey on November 1st through the skype revealed that the interview was difficult to answer and analyze owing to specific questions, thus, a half of questions were changed to improve the interview. The actual interview survey, approximately 25 minutes for each interview, was conducted from November 3rd to 20th.
The first interview was conducted with a student who has knowledge about the giant pandas to test modified questions and to develop the background of questions; hence, an unstructured interview was carried out at this time. In the second interview, the interviewee who was not familiar with the topic was chosen to confirm whether all questions in the interview were not difficult to answer for all interviewees. Since the student seemed uncomfortable to talk about an unfamiliar topic, the place was rearranged. In addition, in an effort to reduce uncomfortable constraints on the student, the interview was not recorded. Therefore, further interviews were recorded by note-taking to conduct in the same way as this second interview. Based on these first two interviews, the further questions and procedures of the interview were standardized.
This interview consists of six questions (see Appendix). The first question aimed to be a relatively easy question to talk about (Robson 2002; Newing in press). The second question was related to the first question, so that it was able to lead the interviewees to main topic of the interview. This question was one of main questions of this interview as well as the third, fourth, and fifth question. These questions were set to understand Chinese students’ attitudes towards the giant panda. The final question was not directly related to the subject and it was supposed to be a simple question as a “cool-off” question. However, it was found at the development stage of this interview that this sixth question invited the further discussion about the relationship between the giant panda and Chinese people. Therefore, the question was kept in each interview.
This interview survey followed the procedure described by Robson (2002:277); “Introduction, warm-up, main body of interview, cool-off, and closure”. In the introduction stage, interviewers and the students were introduced each other, and talked about their own courses at University of Kent as “warm-up”. During the interview, it is weighted to elicit information to maximize the advantage of a semi-structured interview. Therefore, the depth of answer was varied between the questions and the answerers. It is also important to note that the interview was often stopped to clarify what the interviewee meant or answered. In some cases, it was confirmed at cool-off stage or after the interview by exchanging e-mail.
During the data collection, the interviewer tried to record annotations, memos, coding (Newing in press). At an initial stage of an analysis, the coding procedure was conducted followed the instruction described by Newing (in press: 218). As top codes, several values from Kellert’s nine values (1996) (see Table 1) were employed as predefined codes. For sub-codes, the detailed information related to the defined top codes was identified. At next stage, the procedure suggested by Sarantakos (2005) was taken to develop from open-coding to the concept. However, the coding procedure for this interview description was not sufficient for axial, selective coding since top codes used at open-coding stage and core category were similar with each other.
All Chinese students showed their favourable attitudes towards the giant panda. It is likely that the species has a special meaning for Chinese students, and a good illustration of this is the answer that if the giant panda becomes extinct, it is going to be “chaos, I mean panic feeling”. As in Yang’s study (2005), the symbolic value seemed to play the important role in determining the attitudes towards giant pandas. However, unlike Yang’s study (2005), the other five values, utilitarian, ecologistic-scientific, humanistic, moralistic, and negativistic values, are also the important factors on individual attitudes. In contrast to above values, three of nine values, naturalistic, aesthetic, and domestic value, were difficult to detect during the interview. The reasons for this are (1) in order to obtain information for understanding of Chinese students’ naturalistic and aesthetic value, the follow up questions about students’ experiences and view of nature should have been asked during the interview. However, these questions would carry us far away from the purpose of this paper, (2) the domestic value of the giant panda was hardly discussed throughout the survey, although Yang (2005) suggests that this value is also one dominant value in Chinese people attitudes towards the giant panda. From these two reasons, the detailed findings about only utilitarian, ecologistic-scientific, symbolic, humanistic, moralistic, and negativistic values will be described in following subsection.
Utilitarian value
Students indicated two types of answers regarding this value; for ecotourism and for diplomatic relations. Concerning ecotourism, some students mentioned that they would like to have giant pandas in their towns to attract tourists. This concept can be seen in the answer “the giant panda bring the money to our town”. Moreover, a student illustrated the species as “money” when asked to choose one word for the giant panda. It was also mentioned that tourism for the giant panda is a benefit for the development of local villages by opening the road for the facilities, developing transportation service, and providing employment opportunities. The second type of answer was using the giant panda for diplomatic relations. Several words such as the “tool for diplomatic/international exchange”, “gift for foreign countries”, and “the advertisement for China” were used when interviewees explained the relationship between Chinese people and the giant panda.
Ecologistic-scientific value
All Chinese students showed their ecological knowledge about the giant panda, and their knowledge is supplied by environmental education, education in primary and middle school, media, and books. All respondents mentioned that the giant panda is endemic to China, thus, it is important to protect the species. One interviewee continued to say “we treat them as a treasure”. It was also mentioned that the species requires specific diet and habitat to survive. Not all but most of Chinese students imply the population of the giant panda in wild was not stable and mentioned captive breeding to conserve the species. Moreover, two students expressed their concern about over-attention to the giant panda status in China. For instance, one student insisted that the giant panda was “just a bear” with the knowledge about the classification of the species and the rate of extinction for other species in the world. Their knowledge comes from various sources from formal education to movies. However two students did not remember how they learned about the giant panda since it was “common sense” for them.
Symbolic value
It is noteworthy that all Chinese students in this research described that the giant panda represents China with remarkably similar words such as “symbol of China”, “stand for China”, “pride of China” and “image of China”. Three possible explanations for this answers were identified from interviewees’ answers; (1) the giant panda only occurs in China, (2) the species represents Chinese people, for instance, one student chose the word “modest” for the giant panda, and this student referred to that the national animal represents the own culture and personality. Other student answered “identity” to explain the relationship between Chinese people and the giant panda. (3) In the Chinese mythology, it is assumed that Chinese people are children of the giant panda, which is told by one interviewee. It seems reasonable to suppose that the giant panda has the high symbolic value as national animal on the grounds that all students defined the species as the symbol of China.
Humanistic value
Interviewee tended to see giant pandas from an anthropomorphic view. Chinese students showed the feeling of love and strong attachment for this species. All students described the panda as “cute” at least once in the interview. Students illustrated this species by the words “lovely”, “warm-hearted”, “animal of love”, “friendly”, “funny”, “honest” and “modest”. In addition, their strong attachments for the giant panda can be seen the phrases such as “everyone cannot help falling love with Panda”, “all Chinese like panda”, “all people like panda”, “he brings a lot of happiness”, “I know them from my childhood, [so I will feel pity if they become extinct]”, and “the panda has special meaning for us”.
Moralistic value
Interviewees showed their concern about the giant panda. Of those who refused to have the species in their towns, all stated that they do not let the giant panda put in the difficult situation for survival because of unfavourable habitat. Furthermore, a specific question about the extinction of the giant panda was asked to explore students’ attitudes towards the moralistic value. To this question, all interviewees indicated their concerns about the dying out of the giant panda. Two students stated that the giant panda should not become extinct owing to its intrinsic value as one species, as can be seen in the answer “they belong to the earth”. Although these two students expressed their moralistic concern, the major reason for the other students might not be moralistic. The major reason why eight students opposed the extinction of the giant panda was the fact that the giant panda is an endemic species and the national animal.
Negativistic value
The ecological feature of the giant panda was the key to understand the negativistic value towards the species. Nine of ten Chinese students did not show their fear of the giant pandas. Some of them chose the word for or the image of the species such as “friendship”, “friendly”, “warm”, “close to people”, and “community”. When they were asked the reason for using those words, they explained that the giant panda “eat only bamboo”, “never attack people”, “stay at mountains”, and “do not compete with people for food resource”. Based on these characteristic of the giant panda, nine students seemed not to express their fear. On the other hand, one student mentioned that giant pandas attack people “when they get furious”.
Discussion and conclusion
This study set out to explore Chinese student’s attitudes towards the giant panda and its result showed that generally students have strong favourable attitudes. It was also shown that the major values contributing to their attitudes were utilitarian, naturalistic, ecologistic-scientific, symbolic, humanistic, and moralistic. The most significant value among ten Chinese students at University of Kent was the symbolic value of the giant panda, which correspond with the Yang’s study (2005).
There may be two reasons behind this answer; the anthropomorphic view towards the giant panda throughout history and the fact that the species is endemic to China. Regarding the anthropomorphic view, some students answer that the species represents Chinese personality. The other explanation is that the species is an ancestor of Chinese people in the mythology. These two explanations demonstrate that the anthropomorphic attitudes to the giant panda may lead to consider the species as the symbol of China. This anthropomorphism for the giant panda can be also seen in the humanistic value. In addition to an anthropomorphic view, the fact that the giant panda is endemic species in China can be the main factor of being the symbol of China. Students showed their understanding of the uniqueness of the giant panda such as habitat preference or specialist diet with their ecological knowledge, as described in the ecologistic-scientific value. Therefore, it could be assumed that the ecological features of the giant panda can be also one of major factors for identifying the symbol of China.
These two reasons provide more depth of the Chinese attitudes towards the giant panda than literature review conducted by Yang (2005). As she suggests, this study also found that the symbolic value plays the key role in determining the attitudes towards the giant panda, and that few students indicated the influence of the media. However, the behind of this attitudes, there are several factors, which related to the anthropomorphic view in their culture including the mythology, and the ecological knowledge from school education about giant pandas, according to this interview survey.
Moreover, it should be also noted that students revealed contradiction statements towards the giant panda. While interviewees showed their emotional attachment for the species, they also mentioned the use of the species as an attraction of tourist and the “tool” for the diplomatic relation. In this research, it is difficult to discuss this inconsistent stance of the students because of the lack of information.
More information on following points would help to establish a greater degree of accuracy on this matter; (1) the relevance of nine basic values towards the giant pandas to test whether the symbolic value is the most significant determinant, (2) the influential agencies, such as the media or school, to construct people’s attitudes towards this species, or (3) further investigation of the contradictory attitudes towards the giant panda. However, for further research, it should be considered following difficulties this research faced. Firstly, at the design stage, sampling method and questions should be changed. This research did not used random sampling, thus, it might cause sampling bias. Concerning questions, although the main six questions were designed to be neutral and to avoid using simple and direct questions (Newing in press), follow-up questions which was improvisational question could cause error, bias or leading the answer. Thus, it is essential to conduct more pilot interviews until the interviewer become able to create proper follow-up questions during the interview. Secondly, at the interview stage, interviewer’s skill was not ideal. Several errors might be included to some extent in this interview, such as recording error, instruction error, or leniency effect (Sarantakos 2005) which might cause student’s inconsistent statement. Finally, at the analysis stage, to understand more depth of Chinese students’ attitudes, an analysis of the detailed information and a coding of the data should be more sufficient at the interview stage (Newing in press; Pole and Lampard 2002). In this research, an analysis of the interview during data collection with annotations, memo, and coding was not sufficient for the in-depth analysis. In addition, the top codes used for the data sorting should be well-defined in the context of the answer. Even though the previous study used the same codes for an analysis of attitude survey, the coding followed previous survey might be subjective rather than objective.
In conclusion, returning to the aim posed at the beginning of this paper, it is now possible to state that ten Chinese students at University of Kent generally have favourable attitudes towards the giant panda. Although the symbolic value as the symbol of China plays the key role in the students’ attitudes, it should be noted that the factors behind their answers are more various and complicated than the previous study described.
Literature Cited
Goedeke, T.L. 2004. In the eye of the beholder: Changing social perceptions of the Florida manatee. Society

Van Gennep’s Stages of a Rite of Passage

Van Gennep’s stages and understanding a rite of passage in relationship to one or more rituals
Wittgenstein (1987, p.14, Chapter I. Introduction) set a large challenge for anthropology that has yet to be taken up. After reading the Golden Bough, he argues that Fraser made a crucial mistake by trying to deduce what things mean. He accused Fraser of not understanding that practices signify nothing but themselves, and that the extent of anthropology could be to delimit and work out the practical structure of such tasks. For the past fifty years or so, anthropology has largely ignored Wittgenstein’s remarks and has built an anthropology that privileges the observer. It privileges the observer because it is only the observer who can read into phenomenon their underlying socio-cultural meaning. It is precisely this sort of reifying reductionism that we find in Van Gennep’s (1909) theory of the rite of passage.
Rites of passage present an irresistible and difficult focus for the ethnographer: they are constellations of compacted meanings removed from the process of everyday life. In the author’s own experience, they are also some of the most frustrating things to analyse. Presented with so many unusual phenomenon, the ethnographer asks, what does this mask mean only for your informant to respond with a shrug. This difficulty of compacted meaning may partly explain why ethnographers are so quick to ignore the phenomenon involved in a rite of passage in favour of reading it as a structural process. This difficulty may also explain why, fully one hundred years after it was published, Van Gennep’s Rites of Passage theory remains unchallenged in the anthropological world.
That said, Van Gennep’s overall structures has remained remarkably adept at matching up to all the rituals people apply to it. However, there should not be taken as a mark of its success. It one is to recall that the ‘success’ of Evans-Pritchards structural-functionalism (Kuper: 1988, pp. 190-210, Chapter 10 Descent Theory: A Phoenix from the Ashes), was more based on the tastes and cultural paradigms of anthropologists than it was on its correspondence to any ethnographic reality. This essay will argue that Van Gennep’s stages of rites of passage do indeed cohere to many rituals, however, like Turner’s schemes (1995), these stages do little to explain to us the significance of ritual. In order to do so, this essay will argue, it is necessary to turn to how the phenomenologically experienced reality of ritual constitutes the social reality of a ritual. To make this argument this essay will focus on three rites of passage: French marriage ritual in Auvergne (Reed-Dahany: 1996), Yaka healing rituals in Zaire (Devisch: 1998, 1996) and refugee experience in Tanzania (Malikki: 1995). The last example proves the most difficult for Van Gennep’s theory: because though it corresponds to his stages, nothing about the experience of refugees would correspond to the socially rigid categories Van Gennep claims are central to rites of passage. From this example, this essay will argue to understand rites of passage we need to consider more fully the relationship of time-out-of-time in culture. For until we confront the question of what allows a certain unit of time to be taken out of the experience of the everyday, we will be no closer to understanding how rites of passage deal with other senses of time-out-of-time.
Van Gennep (1909, Chapter I The Classification of Rites) attempts to demonstrate a there is a universal structure underlying all rites of passage. While there might be physiological, factors involved (e.g. coming to puberty) the mechanisms that determined the rites of passage are always social, and these social constructions display a cross-cultural similarity. Rituals and ceremonies in Van Gennep’s scheme serve the function of guaranteeing one’s path through liminal transitory categories as one passes through the stages of separation, transition and reincorporation that he claims are present in all stages of rites of passage. What we can note about this model already is that the ritual serves the purpose of a unit of causation in a socially determinist model of society: there is a societal need that ritual fulfils. Because of this functional model, we are none the wiser as to how a society determines the exact elements of a ritual, or how people experience the ritual.
Van Gennep’s approach is based on a socially functional model: though he is far more inclined to admit the power of the individual in the social form sui generis than is Durkheim (Zumwalt: 1982:304). That said, he still claims (Van Gennep, 1909, p. 72, Chapter Six Initiation Rites) that in mutilation: the mutilated individual is removed from the mass of common humanity by a rite of separation which automatically incorporates him into the defined group. His emphasis here is on the social end process: as if it could somehow be separated from the phenomenological experience of the pain. Thus, the process of scarification that marks many initiation rituals is merely placed as part of the logic of social cohesion: following such a pattern, it is hard to explain the beating and terror that often accompanies initiation rituals. Indeed, it ignores the central challenge Merleau-Ponty (1962, p.115, Part I The Body, Chapter III The Spatiality of One’s own Body and Motility) posed when he asked: How can we understand someone else without sacrificing him to our logic or it to him?
The domain of phenomenology is closely linked to that of ritual. Jackson (1996, p.3, Chapter I Introduction) characterises phenomenology as a project designed to understand being-in-the-world. This attempt to understand how inter-subjective experience is constituted is a possible answer to the question Merleau-Ponty poses above how does one understand the other. Characteristically, phenomenology attempts to answer this project by not privileging one domain of experience or knowledge, as none of them can encompass the totality of the lived experience. Instead, it is an investigation into (Ricoeur, 1979, p.127, Chapter IV The Structure of Experience) the structures of experience which proceed connected expression in language. This is what Merleau-Ponty would call the preobjective.
This understanding of the importance of structures that escape linguistic formalisation has also been part of the emphasis of the study of ritual in anthropology. In Levi-Strauss’ (1965, pp.167-186, Chapter Nine The Sorcerer and His Magic) classic examination of north American healing sorcerers he emphasises how the experience of the healing takes place between the triad of patient, sorcerer, and social body. He also emphasises the importance in this relationship of the sensory experience of the sorcerer. However, despite this emphasis, he is undertaking his analysis from a recorded text, and his emphasis is on the structural coherency sorcery provides rather than its embodied experience. He writes (ibid: 181): In a universe which it [the social body] strives to understand but whose dynamics it cannot fully control, normal thought continually seeks the meaning of things which refuse to reveal their significance. So-called pathological thought, on the other hand, overflows with emotional interpretations and overtones, in order to supplement an otherwise deficient reality. The sensory experience of the ritual as understood by Levi-Strauss is constituted as a means-end relationship to get to the desired goal, the assertion of the cosmological unity of the social body. Here we can see the same pattern of assumptions about bodily meaning we noted earlier in Van Gennep.
This emphasis, a legacy of Durkheim, characteristically means that repetition, often the element of ritual that constitutes its definition, is overlooked as window-dressing to the mythical ‘meat’ of the ceremony which is that which can be vocalised (and thus objectified). This legacy can also be found in the two anthropologists whose writing about myth has defined the field, Van Gennep and Turner (1986, 1995). In Van Gennep, central to his notion of ritual as a rite of passage is a sacred-profane dualism, which is also kept in Turner’s scheme, though he also includes the notion of the marginal or liminal. In this distinction we can see that both theorists only deal with the relationship between the sacred and profane in terms of social structure and fail to deal with these elements interpenetrate in everyday lived reality.
In a sense, their distinction is similar to that made by Mauss (1993, p. 12, Chapter I The Exchange of Gifts and the Obligation to Reciprocate) when understanding the gift. Mauss claims that the person for whom the sacrifice is performed enters the domain of the sacred and then rejoins the profane world, which is separate from the sacred, though conditioned by it. For Turner’s early work, and for Van Gennep, ritual is the heightened activity in which the sacred-profane worlds are mediated between. What is advantageous about these approaches is that they identify ritual as the situation or drama par excellence, as an organisation of practice constructed and defined by participants and it is a practice in which the participants confront the existential conditions of their existence.
However, there are problems with Turner and Van Gennep’s approaches which parallel that of Levi-Strauss’. In both cases, the emphasis is on the formal unity of the social world. Kapferer (1997, pp.55-61, Chapter II: Gods of Protection, Demons of Destruction: Sorcery and Modernity. The Transmutation of Suniyama: Difference and Repetition) illustrates some of these problems when analysing the Sri Lankan suniyama, or exorcisms. While he agrees with Turner that the suniyama constitute their own space-time, he also makes clear the extent to which they borrow from everyday life. Rather than seeing resolution and unity in the suniyama, he notes that the reactualisation of the ordinary world amid the virtuality of the rite is a moment of intense anxiety. In the events of the chedana vidiya, the tension, he argues, is not just about the destructive forces of the demon but also about the re-emergence of the victim in the ordered world. One can see in the suniyama that the lived world is not reducible to categories, despite the attempts at structuration. It is an excellent example of what Jackson (1989, p.5, Chapter I Paths Towards a Clearing) calls mans’ rage for order, and simultaneously usurpation of that order coupled with an awareness that the order is always exceeded by the lived world. Kapferer refuses to push dualistic or triadic models onto the Sri Lankan suniyama, and argue for it being a continuous process orientated at the restitution of social action. One of the ways this uncertainty the rage for order and its ambiguity or infirmity is manifested is in sensory experience. It is here that the Durkheimean project is unable to provide a satisfactory analytical framework and where phenomenology can provide some edifying lines of inquiry.
None of these lines of inquiry are pursued by Reed-Dahany (1996), who illustrates the extent to which Van Gennep can be utilized, and also the extent to which Van Gennep’s scheme founders in its constructionist model, in her analysis of marriage practice in Auvergne. She notes that (ibid: 750) in the early morning after a wedding, a group of unmarried youths burst into the room to which the bride and groom have retired for the night and present them with a chamber pot containing champagne and chocolate. The youth and the newly wed couple then consume the chocolate and champagne together. The participants describe is as something which appears disgusting, and yet actually tastes really good. Reed-Dahany utilises Bourdieu’s work on taste to show how this reversal of the established bourgeois order simultaneously parodies marriage and bourgeois taste. Like the examples we see in Turner’s work, the sacred ritual of marriage here is associated with the inversion of established meanings only for these meanings to be ever more forcefully reinserted after the period of liminal disaggregation.
We can see how such a ritual fits Van Gennep’s scheme very well: the couple are segregated from society (both from each other before marriage, and then from society the honeymoon afterwards) before being reaggregated. Thus, Reed-Dahany has no problem in understanding the ritual of la rôtie as a ritual of reincorporation in the sense Turner had meant it. Through the partaking of food with the unwed they are allowed to re-enter society, the wet-substance consumed standing in for fecundity. Indeed, as Reed-Dahany notes (ibid: 752) Van Gennep himself had commented on these rituals in his work on folk customs in rural France and had pursued much the same conclusion. Yet what Reed-Dahany notes is that the focus for the people involved in the ritual are the scatological reference implicit in the ritual: these elements of parody of bourgeois society that take place at the level of bodily praxis are left unexplained by Van Gennep’s scheme, in which any set of symbols is replaceable with another as long as they have the same social purpose.
This is why Van Gennep has great problems explaining rites of passage that are not formal. Yet, it is not the case that rites of passage and other temporal markers must be institutionalised. As Malikki (1995, p. 241, Chapter Six Cosmological Order of Nations) notes: historical consciousness is lodged within precarious accidental processes that are situated and implicated in the lived events and local processes of the everyday. In her work, Malikki looks at the creation of a mythico-history among Hutu refugees who fled the mass killing of 1972 in Burundi for Tanzania fifteen years ago. She contrasts two groups; the first, living in an urban environment, deploy their ethnicity and history only rarely, situationally and relationally, and attempt not to stick out. In contrast, at the refugee camp, the inhabitants were continually engaged in recreating their homeland. Malikki (ibid: p.3, Introduction An Ethnography of Displacement in the National order of Things) notes: The camp refugees saw themselves as a nation in exile, and defined exile, in turn, as a moral trajectory of trials and tribulations that would ultimately empower them to reclaim, or recreate anew, the homeland in Burundi.
One of the noticeable elements in this construction of a mythico-history is the way in which it internalised exterior categories, and then subverted them. For instance, Malikki draws attention to the way in the powerful discourse of inter-nationalism, refugees are in an ambiguous space, particularly polluting, between national boundaries. Malikki uses the work of Van Gennep and Turner to understand how the Hutu refugees in the camp had turned this liminal space into a trial of separation, which would empower them to return. The narratives that people told Malikki were incredibly standardised, they functioned, as Malikki notes, as moral lessons, that represented (ibid: p. 54, Chapter Two The Mythico History) a subversive recasting and reinterpretation of [events] it in fundamentally moral ways. In Malikki’s work, we can see that rites of passage can be lodged in accidental processes and contingent historical events. Even here, they seem to fit the categories of Van Gennep’s classification. However, one notes that nothing about these classifications explains the way these patterns were then sedimented into a rite of passage that structured and organised practice.
She notes that one of the key moments in this history is when the refugees arrive across the border in Tanzania, and are able to meet other refugees from Burundi (there appeared to be little widespread national connections before then ibid: p.103, Chapter Two The Mythico History). Thus, collective effervescence of consciousness, which, as the narrative describes, allowed people to understand the final secret of the Tutsi’s, was not just experienced verbally. The supplanting of the social order with chaos (though an ordered chaos) was accompanied by very physical processes. The fear of pursuit, the bodily feeling of cramp and hunger, the sight of corpses on the road: all these were processes that the refugees took great pains to describe to Malikki. The refugees referred to this moment as one of revelation, and this memory, which must have in part formed the social bond that allowed for the creation of the mythico-history, was a silent history of bodily feeling and gesture as much as it was one verbalised.
If we develop Malikki’s understanding of the similarity between rites of passage and the refugee experience slightly, there is a parallel between the symbolic death and rebirth in the liminal stage of separation in a rite of passage, normally accompanied by ritual action that provides the unity of a shared painful experience, and the collective pain of that crossing into Tanzania in 1972. These phenomenological bodily experienced realities are not marginal to a group feeling of cohesion: rather than social aspects of the rite of passage stem from these silent memories of bodily experience. We will now turn to an analysis of the rites of passage in the Yaka healing cults of Zaire. In contrast to the social world of the Yaka, which is patrilineal, femaleness, uterine filiation and mediatory roles are cyclical and occupy a concentric life-cycle (Devisch: 1996, p.96, The Cosmology of Life Transmission). It is within this contrast that the healing rituals takes place. The healing rituals are not a collection or commiseration, rather, they are bodily and sensuous, they (ibid: 95) aim at emancipating the initiates destiny clearing and enhancing the lines of force in the wider weave of family. It is not just in the matrilineage that healing occurs however, for (Devisch: 1998, p.127, Chapter Six Treating the affect by remodelling the body in a Yaka Healing Cult) it is in the interplay of physical links and individualising relationships a person weaves through his mothers lineage with the uterine sources of life and the primary and fusional object that the Yaka cultures in Kinshasa and south-west Congo localise the origin of serious illness, infirmity and madness.
The ritual allows for the rebirth of the individual, and occurs at the margins (physical and cultural) of the society. This re-sourcing of the body is very fundamentally sensory. For instance, in the period of seclusion a young Mbwoolu become body doubles, and become an inscribed body envelope that serves as his interface with the social body. It is important to note there that the Yaka identity is structured as an envelope and knot. Harmful things like thievery of sorcery are associated with this knot being tied too tightly or loosely, inversion of normal bodily functions, such as flatulence or ejaculation outside of coitus can be understood as the knot being tied too tightly or gently. The person in this sense is constructed inter-subjectively, spreading outwards in a myriad of exchanges and well formed knots. The transference to the Mbwoolu involves an enacted cosmology where the objects and the initiate are covered with a red paste. Devisch notes that the notion of the person in these ceremonies is to be found to be located at the skin level, through a myriad of exchanges. At an early stage in the ritual, the initiates and the Mbwoolu figurines are floated in water, and this is the beginning of a process that continues throughout the ritual, as the initiate’s skin is turned inside out. In this process, the illness is displaced onto the Mbwoolu, and his insides become a receptacle for the power of the healing ritual. The figurines become a social skin to be idealised, socialised and protected.
The importance of sensory experience in the ritual is also in the moment where the master shaman bites off the head of a chicken and sprays the initiates with its blood. Devisch (ibid: 146) also talks about the importance of the fusional absorption in the rhythm and music, then (ibid) [the] tactile olfactory and auditory contacts envelop, and are finally interwoven into an increasingly elaborate utterance, by the mirrored gaze. By this Devisch is alluding to the process by which the initiate converts the primary fusional object into phenomena of identification by incorporation. In this process of incorporating the figurine into themselves, all the senses are in use. What is noteworthy and excellent in Devisch’s work is that while he does occasionally lapse into statements about ‘trance-inducing music’, she is clear to emphasise that sensual phenomenon are not part of a means-end relationship to induce the required result, nor are they somehow secondary to the ‘meaning’ of the ritual. Rather, he emphasises that the sensory experience is in many respects, the ritual that the experience of being covered in red clay and submerged in water and having your skin reversed cannot be separated from the transference of your illness to the statues. What Mauss (1993, p.2, Chapter I The Exchange of Gifts and the Obligation to Reciprocate) was right to emphasise when he claimed sacrifice was a total social fact was that questions of sacrifice are questions of Being first and foremost. They occupy a place were the social world is made and remade.
In Devisch, what is understood to constitute the central aspects of the Yaka healing cult are sensory experience. This is very different to the understanding laid out by Van Gennep and Turner. For while Devisch makes clear that in the Yaka healing cult one is separated from society pending one’s reincorporation, he does not allow the socially functional explanation to obscure what the ceremony might mean. One can see the difference if we contrast Turner’s work to Devisch’s. For Turner, the performative and sensory aspects of healing function at its normative pole, the pole at which ritual healing is a resolution of social and emotional conflict. The power of dominant symbols, for Turner, derived from their capacity to condense structural or moral norms the eidetic pole and fuse them with physiological and sensory phenomena and processes – the oretic pole. In Turner, the oretic pole, where emotional and bodily praxis is centred, is a given. For Devisch, this given in Turner’s work is a critical problem, for it prevents his understanding that the basis of creativity in ritual (1993, p.37, 1.6 Body and Weave: A Semantic-Praxilogical Approach) is to be sought not in liminality but in the body seen as a surface upon which the group and the life-world is inscribed.
We have seen in three rituals how Van Gennep’s classification superficially fits the pattern of behaviour. However, like in the work of Victor Turner, we have seen that Van Gennep cannot explain the detail of rites of passage using his system of classification. In his system, the details of a ceremony become marginal, whereas for the practioners they are central. To explain such details we need to pursue a phenomenologically informed anthropology such as that which Devisch practices. For if a rites of passage is a primarily embodied experience, then the body cannot simply be a receptacle for social value rather, one would argue, it can also be a generative movement, both of meaning and of experience
Devisch, R. 1998: Treating the affect by remodelling the body in a Yaka healing cult. In Strathern