The biocultural impacts of rites of passage

by Andrew Sosanya | 2/22/17 2:05am

Everyone has gone through a rite of passage in their life, whether it be graduating high school, getting their first driver’s license or even just having their first kiss. These socially defined rituals help mark a shift in social status or identity.

Rites of passage are important because they provide meaning and structure to the everyday processes of life. They aren’t all happy experiences, however. A rite of passage could be a passage of loss, like the death of a loved one or a first serious medical diagnosis. They build who we are as individuals, change how others see us and change how we view the world.

Anthropology professor Sienna Craig and medicine and microbiology and immunology professor Tim Lahey co-teach Anthropology 50.17, “Rites of Passage: The Biology and Culture of Life’s Transitions.” In the class, they look at the range of moments in human experience through the concept of rites of passage, observing how they are both biological and sociocultural phenomena. Some of the course topics include sex, death, adolescence, mental illness, cancer and dementia.

Craig said that rites of passage help us understand life.

“[Rites of passage] provide people with a framework for understanding their individual experiences,” Craig said.

College is a rite of passage, where there is a spike of social and biological changes that happen within an individual. During their four years in college, students independently form a sense of self and graduate with a more solidified sense of who they are as adults.

“[College] makes for a rich time of personal formation and exploration,” Lahey wrote in an email. “This can heighten that sense of personal autonomy and self-sufficiency.”

Lahey said that our biological processes can be shaped by our personal experiences. Rites of passage can cause shifts in how our bodies function. Biological and social developments play out in college where students are still risk-takers but are expected to be mature.

“While these social changes occur, frontal lobe development continues, and with it [there is] improved impulse control,” Lahey wrote.

Rites of passage help form the identity of a community. A shared experience allows people to connect and relate to one another. Some students at Dartmouth bond over failing the same test or going on Dartmouth Outing Club trips together. Rites of passage also solidify community by passing on core knowledge, value and ethics from elders to young people.

One of the most talked about rites of passage at Dartmouth is rush. Students choose to engage in a ritual where they separate themselves from the greater Dartmouth community and align themselves with a fraternity or sorority to make it part of their primary identity. Then, they enter a transitional phase where they go through all sorts of challenging tests, the purpose of which Craig said is “to tear you down and build you back up again in the form of the organization you are joining.” After successful completion of the rush process, students gain a new social identity when they integrate back into the community.

“The world sees you differently, and you see yourself differently,” Craig said.

Some of these Dartmouth rites of passage are implicitly bound in biological processes, in the form of intoxication and other alterations of cognition. Rites of passage often involve an extreme or risky experience, according to Lahey.

Lahey wrote that he could write a whole book on the rites of passage that he has undergone.

“The first time I was inspired by a book, the first time I got in a fight, the first time I earned money, my first love, loss of virginity, living apart from my family, having my heart broken, voting, overseas travel, the death of someone I loved, getting married, graduating medical school, saving a life, seeing someone die, having a baby,” were all examples Lahey listed.

Craig says that she experienced one of her most influential rites of passage in high school, where she survived a bus accident during her study abroad program, in which two of her friends died.

“I came out transformed,” Craig said. “It was both a liberating experience and a traumatic experience realizing that death is everywhere.”

Lahey wrote that rites of passage affect every aspect of our lives.

“Rites of passage show us who we are, as organisms, as people within a culture, as unique people,” Lahey wrote.

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