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Social Situations and the Impact of Things: The Example of Catholic Liturgy

nature and cultureThe following is a guest blog post from Torsten Cress, author of the article Social Situations and the Impact of Things: The Example of Catholic Liturgy” appearing in Nature and Culture Volume 10, Issue 3


In my contribution, I pick up a question that has significantly gained in importance in recent times: Which role do material things play in culture and society? I consider this question to be very fascinating – it has been capturing my attention since studying sociology. In my discipline (as well as in many other social and cultural sciences), we have been debating for a while that descriptions exclusively concentrating on what people do and how they interact – somewhat pretending that human behaviour takes place in a vacuum – ignore a crucial issue: that we are living in a material world, that we use things incessantly, and that things are an indispensable element in keeping society and culture alive – and will do so in the long run; based on this understanding, we can ask how individual objects do that.


Here, I approach this issue on an interactional and situational level, which is due to the methodical approach I have chosen for this investigation. As an ethnographer and participant observer, my particular interest is not so much in abstract structures but in what actually happens in a situation, what people do and how they do it, in brief: in the particular processes that can be observed there. In other words, my interest is on the micro-level of the social, and social situations appear to be a good conceptual starting point for investigating things: If we live in a material world, this means that we are surrounded by particular things in whichever situation and that these things then play a more or less significant role in a particular situation.


It may be unusual to study religious rituals from this perspective. It would seem more likely – and this seems to be a more common approach – to consider contexts that are influenced more strongly by science and technology: After all, the often crucial role of things is especially obvious where technological objects or systems are in operation. However, I think that the insight into the basic materiality of any imaginable social situation offers a good argument for broadening one’s scope beyond technology and for asking where else we have to deal with situations that are strongly determined by the incorporation of things: All of a sudden, entirely different contexts seem to be adequate to systematically investigate the role of objects, and religious rituals can be seen as such a context. Particularly, research in the interdisciplinary field of material religion stress to what extent religion is over and again based on the systematic incorporation of objects.


In a context such as the Roman-Catholic liturgy – with Roman Catholicism having a very pronounced relation to the world of objects anyway – we are confronted with a wide variety of very heterogeneous objects which partly remain in the background, partly play a minor role, and are partly incorporated into ritual activities; some objects mainly functioning through the meaning that is ascribed to them, and some objects mainly unfolding their impact through their physical composition; some objects going through some kind of transformation during the ritual, which raises questions about their ambiguity and stability; objects that help structure time and space and enable interactions with transcendental entities. The religious ritual can therefore be seen as a specific context from which we can generally assume how the impact of things can also be studied in completely different contexts within the scope of social situations. For me, the religious ritual is therefore a starting point in order to contemplate systematic ethnographic research of things, thus contributing to give objects a systematic significance in the discourse and research of the social and cultural sciences.



Torsten Cress is a research associate at the Sociology Department at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. He studied sociology and history in Mainz and currently does his doctoral research on the material dimension of religious practice, investigating the diverse interrelations between material and immaterial worlds. His main research interests include theories of practice, sociology and materiality, the sociology of religion, material religion, material culture studies, and qualitative research methods.