The Problem of Ritual Efficacy

Ritual Efficacy

New York: Oxford University Press, 2010


Oxford Ritual Studies
193 pages, 15. January 2010
ISBN 978-0-19-539441-2 Paperback $ 33.95
ISBN 978-0-19-539440-5 Hardcover $ 115.00



Co-edited with William Sax and Jan Weinhold
William Sax, Professor of Anthropology, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg
Jan Weinhold, Research psychologist, Collaborative Research Centre, Institute of Medical Psychology, University of Heidelberg

“This collection of essays addresses the knotty and important problem of the efficacy of ritual from a variety of perspectives spanning the disciplines of anthropology and theology. Thematically focused and substantively rich, the volume will have considerable appeal to scholars and students in the fields of anthropology of religion, history of religions, ritual studies, and theology.”   • Thomas J. Csordas, author of Body/Meaning/Healing and The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing

“…no reader of Magic, Ritual, and Witchcreaft is likely to regret the purchase of this engaging and valuable book.”   • Claire Fanger, Rice University


How do rituals work? Although this is one of the first questions that people everywhere ask about rituals, little has been written explicitly on the topic. In The Problem of Ritual Efficacy, nine scholars address this issue, ranging across the fields of history, anthropology, medicine, and biblical studies.
For “modern” people, the very notion of ritual efficacy is suspicious because rituals are widely thought of as merely symbolic or expressive, so that – by definition – they cannot be efficacious. Nevertheless people in many cultures assume that rituals do indeed “work,” and when we take a closer look at who makes claims for ritual efficacy (and who disputes such claims), we learn a great deal about the social and historical contexts of such debates. Moving from the pre-modern era-in which the notion of ritual efficacy was not particularly controversial-into the skeptical present, the authors address a set of debates between positivists, natural scientists, and religious skeptics on the one side, and interpretive social scientists, phenomenologists, and religious believers on the other. Some contributors advance a particular theory of ritual efficacy while others ask whether the question makes any sense at all.
This path-breaking interdisciplinary collection will be of interest to readers in anthropology, history, religious studies, humanities and the social sciences broadly defined, and makes an important contribution to the larger conversation about what ritual does and why it matters to think about such things.


1. William S. Sax: Ritual and the Problem of Efficacy

2. Claus Ambos: Ritual Healing and the Investiture of the Babylonian King

3. Gerd Theiseen: Jesus and his Followers as Healers: Symbolic Healing in Early Christianity

4. Peter Dinzelbacher: Healing Rituals in the Mediaeval West

5. Paul Toebelmann: Excommunication in the Middle Ages: A meta-ritual and the many faces of its efficacy

6. Janice Boddy: The Work of Zâr: Women and Spirit Possession in Northern Sudan

7. Elizabeth Roberts: Ritual Humility in Modern Laboratories: Or, Why Ecuadorian IVF Practitioners Pray

8. Howard Brody: Ritual, Medicine, and the Placebo Response

9. Johannes Quack: Bell, Bourdieu and Wittgenstein on Ritual Sense