Degradation Ceremony and its History

What is a degradation ceremony? History of Degradation Ceremonies
Degradation Ceremony and its History

What is a Degradation Ceremony?

A degradation ceremony is a process by which a person’s social status is lowered within a community or society, in general, to shame that person for violating the norms, laws, or rules. Degradation ceremonies also inflict punishment by taking away privileges and rights along with access to a group or community.

Degradation Ceremonies throughout History

The earliest documented degradation ceremony was within military groups. It exists even now and is known as cashiering. When a member of the military violates norms,

  • they are stripped of their rank, and/or
  • publicly shamed by removing the stripes from their uniform.

As a result, they are either immediately demoted from their ranks, and/or expelled from their respective units.

Degradation ceremonies can range from formal to informal, and dramatic to subtle. What unifies all these processes is the objective behind them: to lower the social status of an individual and limit their participation in the community. (Read Why Do We Celebrate Memorial Day?)

Harold Garfinkel, a famous sociologist, coined the term status degradation ceremonies as an alternative to degradation ceremonies. This term can be found in the essay, Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies which was published in the American Journal of Sociology in the year 1956.  Harold has explained that degradation ceremonies tend to follow moral outrage after a person has violated regulations. Hence, degradation ceremonies can be understood under the sociology of deviance. The process of degradation ceremonies reaffirms the importance of laws by punishing the violator or the deviant.

David Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist has also discussed similar processes of degradation ceremonies and wrote The Rules of Sociological Method. He wrote that criminal punishment expresses passionate emotional responses to behaviors a society considers morally outrageous. He believed that it is shame that doubles most punishments. (See What does it feel like to be in prison?)

The Initiation Rituals

On various occasions, people have made use of degradation ceremony to send deviants to mental institutions, military units, or even prisons. The entire purpose of these processes is to snatch away the dignity of the offenders and make them more accepting of external control.

  • The sentencing of a criminal to jail publicly, in a court of law, is one example of an initiation ritual.
  • Another degradation ceremony example is the perp walk, where the suspected person is made to walk to a police car or a station in front of everybody.

In such cases, the deviants lose their previous rights and privileges they enjoyed as private citizens and are labeled as criminals, thus lowering their status in society.

However, it is also crucial to recognize that informal degradation ceremony also takes place within the community. For example, if a woman is slut-shamed publicly, she will lose all the privileges she enjoyed within her peer group as the community has lowered her social status. This sort of degradation is a modernized version of the Puritans forcing the adulterers to wear AD on their clothing in the olden days. (See Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies)

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