Summary of "Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding"

Summary of

Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding

By Lisa Schirch

Summary written by Michelle Maiese, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Lisa Schirch, Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding, Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005. <

According to the author, ritual and symbols are important (though often ignored) tools for the contemporary peacebuilder. Rituals involve symbolic communication in a unique social space, and have the ability to transcend identities and worldviews. As such, ritual is a useful tool in the transformation of conflicts that are based on cultural differences.


Lisa Schirch suggests that the importance of ritual and symbol in solving complex, deep-rooted conflicts is often overlooked. Peacebuilding should be thought of as a stage that must be constructed so as to engage people's emotions and senses and capture their imagination and interest. In addition to direct and linear modes of peacebuilding and conflict transformation (such as principled negotiation), practitioners need to rely more on ritual.

Ritual has three specific characteristics. First, it occurs in a unique social space, set apart from everyday life. Second, communication operates through symbols and emotions rather than relying primarily on words or rational thought. In ritual, individuals learn by doing and utilize nonverbal communication. Third, ritual confirms and transforms people's worldviews, identities, and relationships with others.

In Schirch's view, rituals should be understood as symbolic physical actions that require interpretation. The messages that rituals convey do not directly discuss the people or events at hand. Instead, they communicate indirectly through symbols, myths, metaphors, and emotions. For example, the handshake does not communicate a direct message, but rather has come to represent or symbolize friendship. Symbolic acts that are repeated within a tradition come to be thought of as rituals. These rituals often take place in unique spaces that are set apart from everyday life and aim to transform people's worldviews and relationships. Their profound impact consists in their ability to penetrate the seemingly impenetrable, overwhelm the defensive, and convey complex messages without saying a word.

Ritual includes a wide array of activities, which may be religious or secular, traditional or improvised, formal or informal, forming or transforming, and destructive or constructive. In the opening chapters, Schirch presents some stories that illustrate how people in conflict can use ritual to pave the way for peace. She describes how the symbolic acts of eating a meal, dancing, fishing, and looking at a photograph were central in transforming parties' understandings of themselves, their "enemies," and their conflict. Through ritual, parties were able to form a relationship and establish a foundation for communicating about other, more important issues.

The Dimensions of Conflict

The author understands conflict as a struggle between at least two parties who believe they have incompatible goals. Conflict occurs in rational/material, relational/social, and symbolic/cultural "worlds," each of which can be discussed in terms of human needs and human rights. In the material dimension, conflict arises over land or material resources that people need or want. Rational approaches to such conflicts emphasize the use of objective and logical problem-solving methods. The social dimension of conflict, on the other hand, focuses on relationships and communication between parties. Conflict often results from the unequal status between the elite class and the underdogs. Common strategies to deal with these problems include creating new social structures and improving communication. Finally, the symbolic dimension focuses on how worldviews shape people's understanding of their problems. It includes the perceptual, emotional, cultural, value-based, and identity-driven aspects of conflict. When two cultures understand the world in vastly different ways, they may be unable to see conflict from the other's point of view. Symbolic approaches to peacebuilding involve creative strategies aimed at shifting perceptions.

Rather than focusing solely on one dimension of conflict, peacebuilders need to understand and engage all three. Rational approaches to conflict assume that conflicts can be resolved in a detached, objective, unemotional manner and recommend concise, step-by-step negotiation strategies. However, in many cases, processes that try to organize conflicts into neat packages are insufficient. This is particularly true for conflicts that revolve around relationships between groups, their identities and values, their perceptions of each other, and their symbolic actions. The rational approach may also be ineffective for dealing with conflicts in non-Western cultural settings that do not share Western-based notions of rationality.

Likewise, relational approaches will often prove to be insufficient on their own. While it is true that good relationships are central to peacebuilding, relational theories of conflict do not always take into account the different cultural ways of communicating and satisfying human needs. Many communication techniques employed by peacebuilders are grounded in Western assumptions about effective communication, which may turn out to ineffective and even offensive to other cultures. Moreover, balancing power between groups in conflict may be insufficient in cases where the groups hold different worldviews. Symbolic approaches to peacebuilding can help to resolve such difficulties.


The symbolic dimension of conflict has to do with how people construct and approach conflicts according to their worldviews. In order to understand a conflict's symbolic meaning, we must look to people's values and their sense of identity. Peacebuilding is a matter of transforming how people perceive and make sense of the world (i.e. their worldview.) Worldviews are shaped by five interacting elements: perception, emotional and sensual cognition, culture, values, and identity.

First, perception has to do with how people make sense of their experiences and ascribe them meaning. While this sorting and interpretation process is essential, it can also have unfortunate outcomes. In order to avoid cognitive dissonance, individual tend to selectively perceive only that information that is consistent with their current understandings. Any information that runs counter to their worldview is likely to be discarded or distorted to fit current understandings. In addition, people project their current beliefs and values onto reality, making it all the more difficult to change the way they interpret and understand their world. Firmly engrained thinking patterns and old, even when they are destructive, are difficult to change.

The second component of people's worldviews is the emotional and sensual process of cognition. Humans look to their bodily senses and feelings to understand the world around them. In many cases, our bodies learn more quickly than our brain, so that it is more effective to learn by doing than by thinking. Emotions help people to recognize and understand the significance of events, objects, and people. Therefore, peacebuilders should approach conflict with more processes that appeal to bodily senses and emotions. This means relying on multiple methods and rituals, including writing activities, drama, eating, dancing, and walking outside together.

The third factor that shapes people's worldviews is culture, i.e. the way people live and make sense of their lives together. Cultural groups share common ways of living, values, social structures, and rules of interaction. They also tend to develop common ways of understanding and addressing conflict. This includes shared past experiences as well as common metaphors and language to use when talking about conflict. Symbolic approaches to peacebuilding view culture and tradition as resources that can help adversaries address their problems. Because most people today interact in many different cultures, with different values, they must decide which values will guide their life. Core values embody what individuals regard as the most important aspects of their lives, how they spend their time and money, and what they regard as their higher purpose in life. These values shape how people understand and behave in conflict. While the rational and relational approaches tend to overlook underlying value differences, rituals are extremely effective in communicating symbolically about basic values.

Identity is the final element of people's worldviews. Individuals define themselves in multiple ways based on the social or cultural groups that influence them. The human need for a sense of identity often influences conflict dynamics as individuals seek to increase their self-esteem and discriminate against the "out-group" or "other." In many cases, people come to believe that their group identity is superior to that of others. Because of this connection between conflict and identity, perceptions of self and other may need to be transformed. Ritual is one way to reaffirm or create new identities and transform people's perceptions of their adversaries' identity.

The importance of these elements makes it clear that peacebuilders need more tools to deal with the symbolic dimensions of conflict. Ritual offers a way for people to learn through their bodies, emotions, and senses and shift their perceptions. Ritual is also a way for people to recognize basic value differences and similarities so that they may transform their identities.

The Functions of Ritual

In Chapter four, Shirch explores the function of ritual in peacebuilding. Today the term 'peacebuilding' is typically used to refer to the tasks of preventing, reducing, and transforming violent conflict. This includes a wide range of activities, including human rights activism, dialogue, restorative and transitional justice, and development and relief aid. Schirch maintains that the four main approaches to peacebuilding are: Waging Conflict Nonviolently; Reducing Direct Violence; Transforming Relationships; and Building Capacity. Ritual is widely used in all four of these approaches. It can be used to symbolically communicate a commitment to nonviolence, to heal trauma, and to transform relationships. Creating and performing rituals help people in conflict to relate to one another and engage with oppressive social structures that need to be changed. By offering tools that stimulate the mind, body, and senses, ritual enables parties to get beyond hatred and violence.

However, ritual is meant only to complement other peacebuilding tools and processes, such as dialogue and mediation. On its own, ritual may not adequately address issues of distributive justice or power imbalances. In addition, due to ignorance about the way ritual operates, many people may feel uncomfortable with it and view it as "touchy-feely," strange, or irrational. In addition, the word 'ritual' may alienate people if it is associated with formality or religion. Practitioners must be careful not to engage groups in any ritual activities that may feel strange or irrational. However, rituals need not be hokey or "new age-ish" and may consist in ordinary activities, recreation, symbolic acts, or ceremonies. Discovering the potential functions of ritual requires that Westerners stretch their imaginations and question the concept of rationality.

Defining Characteristics

Ritual space is set apart from everyday life, so that what happens is very much connected to where it happens. In chapter 5, Schirch maintains that the context in which ritual takes place informs the meaning of the symbols that are used. Participants gain knowledge through interaction with their environment. Thus, peacebuilders need to create a space that can symbolically support the work of bringing people together. The physical context in which peacebuilding takes play should convey a message about what can and should take place within that space.

One way to understand the space in which ritual takes place is in terms of "liminal space," a set-aside context in which the rules for acting and interpreting meaning are different from the rest of life. Ritual space is set off from normal space in a number of different ways, including time, location, architecture, symbols, smells, tastes, and sounds. This is especially useful in conflicts, when interacting in the usual spaces may be emotionally or physically dangerous or painful. Ritual offers an opportunity to interact in a space where the conflict seems to have no currency and where the social structures that often feed conflict no longer operate. Instead, people are reminded of their relationships and their shared desire for peace. Schirch uses examples from the First Nation's smudging ceremony, feminist groups, and the Cypriot peacebuilding workshop to show how ritual space can be created. She believes that all peacebuilders should search for more significant ways to create a ritual space for mediation.

In Chapter 6, Schirch describes ritual as a nonverbal form of communication that is delivered through the body's senses and relies on feeling and emotion for its significance. Because it relies on symbols, sensory cues, and emotional expression, it can communicate different things to different people. This may allow people with vastly different worldviews to have shared experiences that are meaningful and transformative. There are some topics, issues, and feelings that can be communicated only through ritual. Because individuals learn by doing, peacebuilding should emphasize ritual action and nonverbal communication rather than focusing solely on rational discussion. Through ritual, humans try out new ways of being together and create a new reality for themselves.

The Transformative Power of Ritual

All of this is connected to the transformative power of ritual. In chapters 7-9, Schirch describes the various ways that ritual transformation aids in the peacebuilding process. First, ritual helps to transform worldviews and enables people to make sense of the larger conflict. It can allow parties to create and affirm a shared view of the world and develop new ways of living and solving difficult problems. Peacebuilders can use ritual to build worldviews supportive of peace and justice. At times when worldviews are crumbling, ritual can create new ways of thinking and dramatically alter the ways people see the world. It can also make conflict less destructive by reframing the issues at stake and allowing people to approach problems in new ways. Some believe that ritual may actually change the physical structure of the brain, prompting it to process information differently. Symbolic forms of communication such as ritual are thought to have the power to penetrate, integrate, and communicate between different parts of the body and brain. In biological terms, worldview transformation can be thought of as the creation of new grooves between sections of the brain. Schirch sets forth three case studies that highlight the role that ritual can play in shifting people's worldviews.

Ritual also plays a role in building, creating, affirming, and healing identities. This transformation of identity is crucial for peacebuilding. Ritual can assist peacebuilders in responding to the process of dehumanization and increasing the flexibility of identity. Those with a flexible sense of identity can see themselves and others as belonging to a number of different cultural groups. This may allow people to find some shared identities even with their enemies. Ritualized contexts can help people to find these common identities and transform their perceptions about the identity of the enemy. Some ways to transform or build identities are rites of passage, ceremonies, vigils, demonstrations, nonviolent actions, songs, and symbolic gestures. Ritual may enable people in conflict to legitimize or reinvent their identities in ways that express their commonality and interdependence. It can also help to heal and protect identities that have been threatened by conflict.

Finally, ritual can be used to bring people together and create meaningful relationships. It is essential to building relationships in both religious and secular settings. Performing ritual activities brings people together by allowing them to do something together. It also provides social rules and guidelines that tell people how to treat each other, which in turn serves to maintain relational boundaries. Rituals either maintain community structures by affirming the existing social order or revolutionize that social order. In some cases, ritual acts as a form of protection against the existing social structure and allows for the creation of new relational patterns. In other cases, it reaffirms that social structure or creates a way to transform the system without destroying it. Schirch is hopeful that ritual may have positive and long-term impact on relationships and social structures.


This book hopes to move peacebuilding scholars from an intuitive sense that ritual is important to their work toward a theoretical justification of the need to incorporate ritual spaces and dramas. Peacebuilders need to begin to recognize the potential of ritual in their work, and more research needs to be done to discover ritual's transformative capacities. Various questions about how to use ritual effectively still remain: What is the appropriate balance between ritual and more direct, verbal methods of peacebuilding? When is the best time to use ritual within the cycles and stages of conflict? What kinds of rituals are currently being used throughout the world? Are there any dangers associated with using ritual? How effective are mass rituals in working toward peace?

These questions are just a sample of possible directions for future research. While Schirch admits that rituals will look very different depending on the cultural context, she notes three key principles to rely upon when developing rituals. First, peacebuilders need to "create an oasis for peace," a "safe space" that is conducive to transformation. Second, the peacebuilding process should use multiple ways of knowing and communicating which engage people's bodies, senses, and emotions. Third, it is important to recognize ritual's potential to create and transform identities and worldviews. Schirch concludes with some brief observations about how peacebuilders can begin to design both informal and formal rituals.