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14 June 2002

Heidelberg's New Long-Term Collaborative Research Project "Dynamics of Ritual"

Project is scheduled to run for 12 years and assembles 15 largely cultural studies-oriented disciplines participating in 17 sub-projects — Rector Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff profoundly gratified: first-ever long-term collaborative research project in the humanities at the University

The German Research Council has approved a new long-term collaborative research project to be conducted at the University of Heidelberg. It will be investigating the dynamics of ritual. The project is to run for 12 years and assembles 15 disciplines, most of them culture studies-oriented, collaborating on a total of 17 sub-projects. An initial endowment of 3.5 million euros for the first three years creates 20 academic posts for upcoming scholars. In a phone call, Rector Prof. Hommelhoff informed the designated spokesman of the project, Indologist Prof. Axel Michaels, that the University's first-ever long-term collaborative research project in the humanities was fully in line with the aims the University had set itself for the future, among them the research focus on "Religion, Ritual and Normativity" and a fillip for the so-called "smaller departments".

The University's research group working on the dynamics of ritual has so far concentrated on questions concerned with the origins and demise of rituals and the reasons why they change their form. The approach is inter- and cross-disciplinary and the focus on changes, structures and functions of rituals.

One central focus is on the actors, inventors or authors of rituals. To this end, studies range from the revival of traditions amongst the original inhabitants of Taiwan in the 1990s to the invention of courtly ceremonies, from power-claiming rites at meetings of rulers in ancient Rome, in the Middle Ages or present-day Rajasthan to the emergence of communal breaking-of-bread rituals at church conventions, new Internet rituals or juvenile rituals bound up with the use of psychoactive substances in sub-cultures.

Another major interest is the migration of rituals from one culture or religion to another. Examples are the reciprocal impact of life-cycle rituals in Hindu and Buddhist contexts in Nepal, the transformation of private rituals into public power-play rituals in Assyria, changes in rituals connected with migration movements in Islam, the adoption of male initiation rites in female initiation ceremonies among the Freemasons or the importation of American democracy rituals to post-war Germany.

The emergence and disappearance of rituals is another subject that intrigues the researchers involved. Such phenomena are especially prominent when a new religion (say, Buddhism) takes shape via a critique of old rituals or when, as in India, pilgrimages are given a party-political twist to underline a claim to modernity. Two sub-projects can claim a special topicality: critiques of the formality of ritual in the commemoration of the Holocaust and the ritualisation of ceremonies for the presentation of literary awards.

Methodologically, the findings are compared at three different levels: intercultural comparison, comparison across time (sometimes at very large intervals, from ancient Egypt to the Internet) and comparison between text and context, e.g. ritual scripts and their use in the rituals themselves.

The project team has extensive material at its disposal, some of it being drawn upon for the first time: numerous ancient Egyptian pyramid and coffin texts, whole libraries of Assyrian ritual texts, "oceans" of ritual texts in Sanskrit, thirty volumes of Rajasthani courtly protocol regulations, extensive Greek cult instructions, manuals on Christian liturgy and its exegesis, etc. This is supplemented by extensive empirical surveys (field work, interviews, collection of documents, etc.), numerous images of rituals found in sanctuaries or on ritual equipment in the form of reliefs, frescoes or architectural features and photographs, videos and films of ritual performances.

Despite the strict methodological standards the project will live up to, the overarching topic is intentionally wide-ranging and far-flung. "After all," says Prof. Axel Michaels, the designated spokesman of the project, "what we are looking at here are highly topical aspects of identity formation and forms of communality, ritual as a repository of collective memorialisation and the function of ritual for the exercise of power, governance and social and political order." The team regards ritual largely as a species of action in its own right, comparable to games or theatre. "But," says Prof. Michaels, "our working assumption is that rituals are not rigid, empty and stereotypic but a highly dynamic and vital resource for sustaining and coming to terms with the unremitting tension between preservation and renewal, tradition and modernity."

Please address any inquiries on the project to
Prof. Dr. Axel Michaels (designated spokesman)
South East Asia Institute of the University of Heidelberg
Im Neuenheimer Feld 330, D-69120 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/548917, fax: 546338

For more general inquiries contact
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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Updated: 24.06.2002


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