Erikson and the Creation of
Rituals in Industrial Society

Linda Klann
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University


Rituals are an integral part of human existence. It was once said that, "there is something within humans that clings to ritual when all else is gone" (unknown). Erikson (1964, 1977) saw rituals as a vital part of development and incorporated them into his psychosocial stages. Through the works of Erikson it is possible to explore how and why some individuals choose alternate rituals and what aspects of self these rituals help to define.

When one begins to examine rituals in Western Industrial society, it becomes evident that they exist and are enacted on many levels. From the first greetings between a mother and infant, to the parades which regularly clog streets, rituals are used throughout life in many different ways to indoctrinate individuals to the beliefs of the dominant culture. Usually they are successful; millions of people operate and exist within industrial society, governed by these rituals.

For a small but growing number of people, the rituals that industrial society offers are not adequate. They seek individual rituals that would not be created or accepted by society at large, and may be termed abnormal. Whole subcultures have now been formed, from "Modern Primitive" societies, to "Sadomasochistic" societies. Here the extremes of human existence and physical boundaries are pushed by individuals and small groups in self-defined rituals. A visit to a magazine store will testify to the diversity and far-reaching impact of these groups. Row upon row of magazines dealing with tattooing, body piercing, S&M, scarification, etc. abound. These acts are spoken of as ceremonies, or rituals to mark important milestones of life. For some, such as Modern Primative Fakir Musafar, it is an important part of their life-style; for others - who are not the concern of this paper - a simple marking made, with no deeper meaning than decoration.

Why do some individuals turn to alternate rituals? What do they perceive as missing in Western Industrial Society that is contained in these rituals? Why is it in something so apparently extreme?

Rituals in the Eriksonian Perspective

Erikson sees ritual as an integral part of the life cycle, forming and shaping the individual to a larger societal view at each psychosocial stage. By examining Erikson's views on ritual and identity development and Fakir Musafar's self-created rituals, one can begin to see how and why society cannot and does not provide enough in its rituals for some, and begin to understand why they may counter-react in this manner.

Erikson (1977) proposes that societies begin to create rituals due to pseudo-speciation. When a child is born - in principle - he or she has the ability to become part of any culture. Due to the assumption that one's culture is the best and most advanced, society has developed rituals that shape and help the child develop in the 'best' way possible. Many of the functions of rituals revolve around this idea of pseudo- speciation, such as depicting those who do not participate as outsiders and unworthy. They also serve in bonding individuals to a greater collective whole. This is done over an extended period of dependence - childhood - during which indoctrination of the culture can be completed.

At each of the eight psychosocial stages exists a corresponding ritual to mark and shape an individual's development. There is a more positive outcome - ritualization - and a more negative one - ritualism. Parts of each are needed for the individual to progress and grow. As with the basic strengths and core pathologies that develop out of each stage's crisis, the ritualizations build upon past ones in an epigenetic progression, and the rituals of society and groups are a further synthesis of these individual patterns. This growth reaches an important milestone in adolescence with the development of the 'individual' identity.

Consequently, one of the more important functions of rituals is their ability to provide a psychosocial foundation for the development of an independent identity. The rituals allow identity to be linked to the individual and the group or culture (Erikson, 1977). It is here, in the adolescent identity crisis, that ritualization plays one of its most important roles. Now an individual is trying to bring together all the previous stages of ritualization and basic strengths, with new rituals that fulfill their expectations of self and will mark her or him as an individual. Humans are unique in their abilities to simultaneously see what they have been and what they might become (Erikson, 1964).

As previously mentioned each stage contains a ritualization and a ritualism. The ritualization of Adolescence is ideology: "Only some solidarity of conviction can now tie together all the elements developed in the ontogenetic sequence of ritualizations in a world image, provide a coherence of ideas and ideals" (Erikson, 1977, p. 107). The ritualism is totalism, "a fanatic and exclusive preoccupation with what seems unquestionably ideal within a tight system of ideas" (Erikson, 1977, p. 110). These two dialectic poles form a continuum upon which identity begins to develop.

This is clearly an important stage in alternate ritual development, for it is here that "adolescents often develop their own formal rituals of belonging" (Monte, 1991, p. 286, italics added). This seems to be the time when those who form the subcultures, with whom this paper is concerned began their own searches. For example Fakir Musafar made his first piercing in the foreskin of his penis at thirteen. This was done secretly in the basement of his parents house in a long drawn out ceremony that spanned the entire afternoon, as cited in (Vale & June, 1989):

At age 13, for example, I made my first piercing in the foreskin of my penis...My first piercing wasn't quick. It was done with a clamp with a sharp point that presses down little by little. It takes many hours - in this case about a day - before the little stud came popping through the other side. The act of doing this slow piercing and surrendering to the experience is a transcendental spiritual event. But people in this culture have few precedents for such an exercise in self-transformations (p. 8).

Musafar is perhaps one of the most famous Modern Primitives of our time. What began with the piercing of his penis at thirteen years, has grown into a systematic exploration of the limits of the body, through rituals from different cultures and times. Musafar is a good example of someone who has turned to other rituals to shape his identity, for while leaving behind mainstream society in this one way, he participates in it on most other levels. He is a successful advertising executive and illustrates that most of the people seriously involved in self- defined rituals are not wholly alienated from the norm of society. By looking at Musafar's life and others like him, through an Eriksonian perspective, one can begin to grasp a personal, though not inclusive view of this process.

Adolescence is the time of shaping individual identity. Why then do some individuals, such as Musafar, feel the need to look outside of technological society for rituals that fulfill them? Erikson has proposed three concepts that help answer that question: empty rituals - or ritualism, de-individuation, and uprootedness.

"Ritualism is a ritualization that has become stereotyped and mechanical, an empty ceremony devoid of meaning and lacking the power to bind individuals" (Monte, 1991, p. 275). Our society is permeated with such ceremonies. Though they may differ slightly from individual to individual, their existence is indisputable. One need only look at one of the top selling books in the last few years, to grasp a sense of the void that has been left by today's technological society in yet another a generation of individuals. Generation X (Copeland, 1993) though 'trendy' and sarcastic, hits home to hundreds of thousands with phrases such as 'Mcjob' and 'Bleeding Heart Ponytail'. As with Copeland's social commentary more and more people are also choosing not to take part in the traditional wedding ceremonies set forth by our culture, but are rather creating their own rituals to mark the development of the ego strength of love. While these ceremonies may not be on the same level as Musafar's, they contain the same kernel of disdain with society and search for individuality through unique self-definition.

In Childhood and Society (1950) Erikson talks of ego- syntheses, where each individual integrates her or his experience into a group identity, in accordance with her or his space, time, and life-plan. "In our culture the image of man is expanding to one of increasing individuation due to the expansiveness of civilization with its stratification and specialization" (p. 237). The developing individual now has exposure to so many different identities that it is impossible to include them all in ego-synthesis. Individuals are adopting different elements into their ego-syntheses, providing increased individuation within our society, consciously separating themselves from others and certain rituals of mass culture.

Erikson further comments on how machines have not remained simple tools and extensions of human physiological functions. Instead they have shaped and created a society where whole organizations of people are extensions of machines. This theme is followed up in Insight and Responsibility (1964) where he introduces the concepts of uprootedness and wholeness to explain individual society's totemism of machines.

Erikson saw wholeness as an assembly of parts, some homogeneous and others quite diverse, into some kind of a fruitful organization. It is quite easy to lose a concept of wholeness in the search for identity, especially with an increasingly diversified culture offering up many possible identities. Sometimes during this shift one loses her or his essential wholeness and is forced to compensate for it and reconstruct her/himself by taking recourse in totemism. Erikson did not necessarily view this as regressive, but as an alternative, perhaps more primitive way of coping. He goes on to speak of human attempts to identify with machines and technology as a new totem animal; accordingly this has lead in the wrong direction, to a self perpetuating race for robot-like efficiency.

Conceivably then it is industrial society, and not those enacting individual rituals of other times and cultures, that is functioning at a level of ritualism not ritualization. This society with its increased technology has served to uproot the individual from his or her animal nature. Erikson describes the sense of alienation some feel as a sense of rootlessness at every stage of development. With this increasing individuation there are many moments in one's life that one feels they are neither the known or the knower (Erikson, 1967).

Perhaps in order to escape from hollow technological rituals, Musafar and others have turned in alternate directions to re-create ritualization. When the reasoning behind such choices is discussed, the issue of de-individualization of humans and society arises again and again (Vale & June, 1989). Vale and June see the de-individuation process as originating in the mass production of images which assault modern culture on many levels.

These images have acted as a "virus", replacing many "active" creative activities such as sewing or music with "passive" images of someone else's interpretation of life. This is achieved to a large degree through television. "People all over the world share a common image bank of spurious memories and experiences, gestures, role models - even nuances of various linguistic styles, ranging from that of Peewee Herman to JFK to the latest commercial" (Vale & June, 1989, p. 5). How with all these false images of reality, they ask, can one create a true identity? In this way people's experiences and identities have become extensions of the machine as Erikson foresaw.

At each stage Erikson saw individuals developing on three different levels, soma, polis/ethos and psyche. An individual is considered incomplete without each of these areas being given equal attention and capacity to develop. It seems that the western technological society of today has focused primarily on the socio-cultural aspects/rituals of a person, to the detriment and exclusion of the others. Western society has many taboos and restrictions revolving around the body and sexuality.

Freud stated that sadism and masochism were innate human drives (1923/1960). Though Erikson never directly addressed these when discussing ritual, they seem to lie at the root of rituals connected to the soma. Maybe individuals within industrial society, with their passive totemism of technology and de-individuation, have removed themselves so far from their natural drives that these drives are now entirely in the unconscious, thus given rise to in only a few socially acceptable ways, such as violent sports or body-shaping. As Musafar points out (Vale & June, 1989), bodybuilders engage in a form of mutilation, by literally ripping the muscles apart when they lift increasingly heavy weights. In such ways these drives are proven to exist although society has demanded they be repressed.

It is interesting to note that the majority of rituals from these subcultures have revolved around the body. It is here people such as Musafar feel something is lacking in society for complete development of all aspects of self. Many people in Vale and Juno's book speak of undergoing rituals in order to increase sexual or body awareness, in some cases even transcend it - perhaps getting closer to the transcendental center of awareness Erikson spoke of. Corseting, piercing, flagellation and deprivation all have been linked to sexuality and transcendence. These rituals have emerged from different societies, thus have existed and were considered important by someone at some time. Even Christianity at one time practiced and encouraged rituals that revolved around pushing the body's limits. Flagellation and deprivation have deep Christen roots, as do many other body centered acts.

There is no simple way to progress from childhood to adulthood, and with the incorporation of different aspects not everyone can use the same societal, time-honored mechanisms or rights of passage. By using Erikson to look at rituals in western industrial culture it is possible to see how technology has lead to increasing de-individuation and increased use of mechanistic totemism. I have proposed that the subcultures such as the Modern Primitives are trying to escape from the path of ritualism and find one of ritualization by enacting adopted rituals.

With so many different images for ego-syntheses to integrate, people are becoming more isolated from others and society. Individuals such as Musafar seem to be trying to reintegrate all the parts of themselves - soma, psyche, polis/ethos - by creating rituals that will allow development of these underacknownedged components. How successful these people are is unknown - they have turned their backs on technology, and this is one method of coping. Erikson though, for as much as he saw technology as overbearing in society, also saw it as the key to human advancement. Humans are technological creatures, thus it is technology that will eventually enable them to develop in an integrated manner on all levels.

From an Eriksonian perspective the need to create these soma centred rituals is very real, the turn away from technology though is a step in the wrong direction.

About the Author

Linda Klann is a fourth year undergraduate who plans on becoming a clinical psychologist. Her interests range from the role of mythological themes in everyday psychology to the examination of psychological theories as expressions of art.


Copeland, D. (1993). Generation X. San Francisco: Granata Publishing Limited.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Erikson, E. H. (1964). Insight and Responsibility. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Erikson, E. H. (1977). Toys and Reasons. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Freud, S. (1923/1960). The Ego and the Id. New York: Norton.

Monte, C. F. (1991). Beneath the Mask: An Introduction to Theories of Personality (4th ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Vale, V. & June, A. (1989). Modern Primitives. San Francisco: Research Publications.