With Émile Durkheim’s functionalist perspective in mind, this sociological essay was written in the wake of the flurry of elaborate parties that transpired when my cohort turned 21, for NUS’ SC3101 Social Thought and Social Theory module in 2017.
Rituals are repetitive behaviors that communicate sacred symbols to members of a social group. A social ritual that is ubiquitous in our modern context would be the celebration of birthdays, the annual celebration of the day an individual was born. Birthday celebrations are “communal gatherings that intensify and enlarge the social experience” (Law, 2011, p. 49), making them symbolic activities that fosters solidarity among individuals in a society.
Durkheim postulates that social facts govern a human’s behavior in a social context. Since rituals are rules governing our behavior towards sacred objects, they can be categorized as social facts. Rituals have been passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next. External to individuals, rituals are often accepted without much consideration. Individuals today did not create the concept of celebrating the date of one’s birth; human kind established that for them. The celebration of birthdays has its roots in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and it has since been transmitted across cultures (Luling, 2013).
A ritual consists of artifacts, script, performance roles and an audience (Rook, 1985, p. 252). These components are germane to birthday celebrations. Ritual artifacts are materials utilized during the ritual, such as food, a birthday cake, balloons and gifts. The ritual script would be the preparation such as finding a proper venue, inviting guests and purchasing the ritual artifacts. It also includes the behavior during the celebration— having a meal together, singing the birthday song, giving presents and when the individual makes a wish and blow candles out on a birthday cake. The ritual audience are the guests, who are the kith and kin of the individual whose birthday is being celebrated. The ritual performance includes the birthday individual’s duty as a host to entertain and thank their guests.
Durkheim posits that rituals constrain individuals because compliance is a result of societal pressure. The failure to abide by the spoken or unspoken rules will expose individuals to judgement and disapproval, and they risk facing rejection by other members of the social unit. A salient example would be how guests bring gifts although there is no explicit rule that dictates so. People have been socialized to present gifts as an act of common courtesy. Failure to meet the social expectations of bringing gifts will result in consequences. “The absence of a gift is a lexical sign, signifying […] the desire to terminate a close relationship” (Caplow, 1984, pg. 1321). Apart from being perceived as a hostile signal that may inadvertently jeopardize the relationship between the guest and the birthday individual, the guest may be cast in a negative light, such as being seen as miserly. Hence, people are impelled to give gifts to avoid rejection and disapproval from the social unit.
Nevertheless, these ritualistic elements of a birthday celebration achieve the effect of singularizing the individual whose birthday is being celebrated. The individual is the “locus of social, cultural and religious life in modernity” and this notion is intensified during birthday celebrations (Obadia, 2014, p. 550). The individual is sanctified and “[their] rights [are] affirmed with more energy, since [they are] at the forefront of sacred things” (Durkheim, 1895). The birthday individual is at the center of attention. This is precisely because they are “isolated and protected by powerful interdictions” while everyone else is profane (Durkheim, 1912).
The veneration of the sacred object is evident from how the birthday individual is given special treatment during the celebration. Kith and kin take the opportunity to reflect upon the merits and virtues of the birthday individual. Birthday celebrations generate collective effervescence, “the inter-subjective emotional uplift” that arises when “individuals are assembled and in direct relations with one another, at the moment where everyone communes in the same idea or emotion” (Durkheim, 1912, p. 349). This reinforces the community’s “belief in the rituals [as well as] the distinction between the sacred and profane realms of experience” (Badia, 2016, p. 979). The success of the ritual is marked by collective effervescence, which promotes the repetition of the ritual in the future.
Next, a ritual like birthday celebrations promotes integration between members of a social unit. Apart from the fact that the guests are in close physical proximity during the celebration, interpersonal bonding occurs because of their “common passion”, such as feelings of love and fondness for the birthday individual. The guests “become susceptible to feelings and actions of which [they] are incapable of on [their] own” (Durkheim, 1898, p. 157). The kith and kin of the birthday individual do not have to know each other personally for “the homogeneity of […] common movements”, such as the singing of the birthday song, to create a “group consciousness” (Durkheim, 1912, p. 232).
Furthermore, rituals renew and reaffirm social bonds since individuals’ “moral harmony” with society ebbs and flows. As energy is lost ‘in the natural course of things’ (Durkheim, 1912, p. 250) during the remaining ordinary days, an annual ritual like birthday celebrations reinvigorates individuals and “sustains [their] appetite for society” (Law, 2011, p. 50).
The function of rituals is to achieve social solidarity, the adhesive that binds society together. Durkheim propounds that there is a discernible shift in the type of solidarity as societies transition from pre-modern into modern. In the past, mechanical solidarity arose from a collective consciousness, a set of beliefs and understanding shared by everyone. However, in the modern context, organic solidarity is derived from interdependence along with a concomitant increase in division of labor. Society is a body with multiple organs and while each possesses its own distinct role, interdependence enables the whole body to function. Thus, it is crucial that society continually reinforces the importance of every single individual.
The celebration of the individual through birthdays is a demonstration of how an “organ” is being valued through its routine elevation. The individual develops a healthy self-esteem and gains security in the knowledge that they are cherished by their social groups. This maintains the internal stability of familial and friendship networks. Therefore, the ritual of birthday celebrations reinforces the notion of individualism, which is imperative to the formation of organic solidarity.
In conclusion, birthday celebrations are among many rituals that serve to bind the members of a group together through collective effervescence. This reaffirmation of moral unity contributes positively to the equilibrium in society as it ensures that individuals have high levels of integration and strong ideas of community.
Feature image by Dilys Yeo
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Caplow, T. (1984). Rule Enforcement Without Visible Means: Christmas Gift Giving in Middletown. American Journal Of Sociology, 89(6), 1306-1323.
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