Ritualisation & Game-Playing

Written by Zhen Goh

Ritualisation and Game-Playing environments possess the propensity for ritualised public expressions of dissent to reaffirm and sustain, or change the existing social order. In particular, ‘rituals of status reversal’ bears a striking resemblance to protest actions and demonstrations of the present day. During such ritualised incidences of dissent, hierarchies are temporarily inverted and normal codes of behaviour suspended.

Victor Turner’s 1969 thesis emphasised the role played by what he termed the ‘liminal’ in social rituals. For Turner, ‘liminality’ referred to all social occasions and interactions that lie at the threshold ‘betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial’ (Turner, 1969: 95). These zones of liminality disrupt structures of authority, and help to bring about communitas – a temporary state where everyone is seen as equal.

The social rituals associated with the liminal state, therefore, possess the propensity for ritualised public expressions of dissent to reaffirm and sustain, or change the existing social order. In particular, his description of what he calls, ‘rituals of status reversal’ bears a striking resemblance to protest actions and demonstrations of the present day.  During such ritualised incidences of dissent, hierarchies are temporarily inverted and normal codes of behaviour suspended. ‘The stronger are made weaker; the weak act as though they were strong’, often engaging in mimicry, masking and public castigation of structural superiors (ibid.: 168).

These rituals he claims, are characterised by a few dominant principles:

  • Liminality – The liminal is defined as the ‘in between’ state set temporarily apart from the normal pace of everyday life. Its social purpose is not to actually overthrow existing hierarchies but to therapeutically engage in role play, to act out revolutionary emotions as a form of catharsis, providing a ‘discharge of all the ill-feeling that has accumulated’ (Turner, 1969: 179). Norms and laws are temporarily suspended as common people are ceded control of public spaces – In our daily lives we usually fail to appreciate the importance of structured narrative in communication until someone breaks the unwritten codes that render that communication coherent. Ritualising dissent breaks those structured codes and allows for critique to arise from a temporarily level playing field.
  • Role reversal: ritualised reversal of traditionally hierarchical roles – Although this is not a necessary aspect of ritual dissent, this is a useful way to disrupt the direction and flow of information, critical assessment and decision-making. This allows for hierarchy to take a backseat to allow for a “game-playing” dissent to take place, without threatening the social order.

Turner’s thesis was concerned with ritualised dissent as a mode of discharging discontent by playing out dissent in a controlled and symbolic manner. Within ritual dissent as an activity, discontent or criticism toward new thinking is also voiced out – and provide basis for further iterations and fine-grained thinking to take place.

Ritual Dissent is meant to simulate the process of delivering new ideas to management or decision-makers, and to open up new thinking to necessary criticism and iterations. The process is meant to enforce listening, without disruption. The criticism that is leveled at  the proposed idea is “ritualised” by having the person metaphorically leave the room or put on a mask to indicate their absence. This enables the criticism to be depersonalised while forcing people to listen and accept the criticism on their ideas, without being able to issue a rebuttal.

The scenario replicates real-life proposal making especially with regards to new and non-conventional ideas – as more experimental approaches are commonly met with the most challenges from management.

To quote Dave Snowden on the topic, ritual dissent is “designed to prevent complacency or entrainment; the bland tyranny of premature consensus” (blogpost 21.07.2010) :

“Any idea needs to be challenged, vigorously and early, not to destroy it but to make it more resilient. Techniques like Ritual Dissent can make this easier, but there is nothing wrong with good old fashioned criticism provided it is done with respect… facilitators who prevent dissent or enforce a regime of positive stories are not doing anyone any favours. They are sacrificing sense-making for senselessness.”

As Kurtz and Snowden (2003) discussed in their paper on new dynamics of strategy, the increasingly complex world heightens the importance of focusing on “sense-making” rather than adherence to traditional logic. The nature of complexity implies that we need to move away from ‘best practice’ approaches, to focus on arbitrating between different perspectives to come up with blended approaches (Snowden, 2003). Ritual dissent provides a good avenue for this arbitration – with mixed grouping between different groups and hierarchies of people facilitating cross-silo interaction, which encourages innovation (2004).

References

C.F. Kurtz & D.J. Snowden, 2003, “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world” in IBM Systems Journal 42 (3): 462 to 483

D.J. Snowden, 2004, “Facilitating innovation within the organisation” in Finance & Management, Sept. 2004: 5 to 7

D.J. Snowden, 2003, “Managing for Serendipity; or why we should lay off ‘best practice’ in KM” in ARK Knowledge Management 6 (8) (reproduced by The Cynefin Centre in 2005, under Creative Commons License)

D.J. Snowden, 21.07.2010, blogpost

Turner, V., 1969, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Chicago: Aldine Publication Co.

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