Credit points


Campus offering

No unit offerings are currently available for this unit



Teaching organisation

This unit involves 150 hours of focused learning or the equivalent of 10 hours per week for 15 weeks. The total includes formally structured learning activities such as lectures, tutorials, online learning, video-conferencing, or supervision. The remaining hours typically involve reading, research, and the preparation of tasks for assessment.

Unit rationale, description and aim

Ritual is significant, performed human behaviour which conveys meaning, creates and sustains the identity and ethos of religious systems, and navigates the boundary experiences of human existence. This unit introduces students to the study of ritual utilising a variety of ethnographic and liturgical theological methods to plumb the polyvalent depths of ritual and map the ritual field. The range of meaning which is accessible in formal acts of worship goes well beyond what is found in printed liturgical texts and studying enacted rituals is essential to accessing the actual experience and perception of ritual participants. Students will learn the basics of the central methodology of ritual studies: participant observation, a type of experience-oriented research conducted in the ritual context, using observation, analysis, interpretation, judgment and reporting. Students will learn how to heighten individual perception, engage in critical evaluation of ritual praxis and explore the private, public and official horizons of meaning communicated through enacted ritual, with a specific focus on Catholic liturgical rites. This unit aims to foster informed theological reflection on Christian ritual practices and develop skills that can positively affect the ritual experience of worshiping assemblies.

Learning outcomes

To successfully complete this unit you will be able to demonstrate you have achieved the learning outcomes (LO) detailed in the below table.

Each outcome is informed by a number of graduate capabilities (GC) to ensure your work in this, and every unit, is part of a larger goal of graduating from ACU with the attributes of insight, empathy, imagination and impact.

Explore the graduate capabilities.

On successful completion of this unit, students should be able to:

LO1 - Exhibit comprehension of the foundational concepts and methodologies of ritual studies and why it is appropriately used in the field of liturgical studies. (GA5, GA8)

LO2 - Explain how ritual conveys meaning and creates and sustains identity and ethos in religious experiences. (GA5, GA8)

LO3 - Demonstrate capacity in the skills and methods of participant observation. (GA4, GA5)

LO4 - Work collaboratively in initial field-based research, analysis and reporting. (GA4, GA7, GA8)

LO5 - Evidence critical thinking skills in comparative analysis of enacted ritual and theological reflection on Christian ritual praxis. (GA4, GA5)

Graduate attributes

GA4 - think critically and reflectively 

GA5 - demonstrate values, knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the discipline and/or profession 

GA7 - work both autonomously and collaboratively 

GA8 - locate, organise, analyse, synthesise and evaluate information 


Topics will include:

  • What is ritual? What does it do? What difference does it make?
  • Modes of ritual sensibilities
  • The languages of ritual
  • The operation of signs, signals and symbols in ritual
  • Ethnographic methods used in ritual studies
  • Mapping the ritual field
  • Methods of participant observation
  • Heightening conscious awareness: recalling, recounting, documenting ritual experience
  • Accessing, attending and interpreting horizons of meaning in ritual
  • The theologian as ritual observer: exploding the myth of objectivity
  • Compilation, analysis and reporting of ritual data
  • Applying ritual studies critical praxis in liturgical assemblies 

Learning and teaching strategy and rationale

This unit involves 150 hours of focused learning or the equivalent of 10 hours per week for 15 weeks. The total includes formally structured learning activities such as lectures, tutorials, online learning, video-conferencing, or supervision. The remaining hours typically involve reading, research, and the preparation of tasks for assessment.

The unit is normally offered in intensive face-to-face mode which enables students to interact directly with the lecturer and fellow class members as they consider carefully structured and sequenced unit materials designed to support the achievement of the unit’s learning outcomes. In face-to-face class sessions students are provided with the opportunity to learn with experts in liturgy and ritual studies and to work collaboratively in groups to discuss key principles and critically analyse their application to specific practical examples; identify and assess their own presuppositions and current perceptions regarding ritual studies and how these might change in light of exposure to unit content; and engage in practical activities which enable them to reflect critically on key unit content, analyse and integrate new information with existing knowledge, draw meaningful new connections and then work individually to apply what they have learned in assessment tasks. Assessment tasks are integrated into the unit as appropriate to the mode in which it is offered (i.e., students may be asked to prepare and present an assessment task during the intensive week; if the unit is offered in a different mode – e.g., fully online, in-class presentation assessments may be replaced with different equivalent tasks appropriate to the mode of learning). Assessment tasks are designed to provide a variety of opportunities for students to demonstrate their achievement of the unit’s learning outcomes and to enable them to go beyond the unit materials presented during the face-to-face classes so that they can engage in analysis and research tasks which require them to apply the knowledge they have gained through exposure to the unit’s lectures, tutorials, reading, analyses, exercises and field-work.

The intensive face-to-face learning mode requires students to attend class sessions and interact actively with the lecturer and fellow class members during those sessions to learn, assimilate and begin integrating key concepts covered in the unit; and sometimes to work in small groups to prepare and offer presentations in class. Students may be asked to complete some preparatory work prior to commencement of the intensive class. Following the class, students are expected to work independently to synthesise and embed concepts, information and principles covered during the class sessions through follow-up reading, individual research, writing and submission of assessment tasks.

Assessment strategy and rationale

To pass this unit students are required to attempt all assessment tasks and achieve a cumulative grade of Pass (50% or higher). The assessment tasks for this unit are designed to enable students to demonstrate their achievement of each learning outcome.

Assessment Task 1: Short definitional essay. Students will write a short essay defining the foundational concepts and methodologies of ritual studies and addressing the issue of why it is appropriate to use this approach in the study of liturgical rituals. This essay will address the question of how ritual generates meaning and how it works to create and sustain religious identity and convey religious ethos.

Assessment Task 2: Verbal presentation of Participant Observation Exercise findings. After working in groups to undertake beginning fieldwork in a ritual context using the methodology of participant observation, individual student members of the fieldwork groups will present their initial research findings. Each student will articulate, explain and provide justification for the conclusions they present on their fieldwork, identifying/analysing their presuppositions, reporting on and analysing their observations in light of the ritual map, comparing the rite observed with the official ritual, and identifying evident public, official and private meanings of the rite. Group comments will sum up the overall exercise findings.

Assessment Task 3: Analysis and Write-up of Participant Observation Exercise requires individual students to write an extended critical analytical report of the ritual observation exercise, its process, their findings, judgments and recommendations in dialogue with unit readings, group members’ observations, and other relevant materials. This report will enable individual students to demonstrate an integration of both theoretical materials covered in the unit and what they have learned through their field-work experience. The report will provide an opportunity for each student to engage in a critical analysis of the enacted ritual and to undertake a theological reflection on the conveyance of meaning in Christian ritual praxis.

Overview of assessments

Brief Description of Kind and Purpose of Assessment TasksWeightingLearning OutcomesGraduate Attributes

Short definitional essay: requires students to demonstrate comprehension of key concepts/methodology of ritual studies 


LO1, LO2

GA5, GA8

Verbal presentation of Participant Observation Exercise findings: requires students to present an initial articulation, explanation and justification of ritual observation findings.


LO3, LO4

GA4, GA5, GA7, GA8

Analysis and Write-up of Participant Observation Exercise: requires students to write an extended critical analysis and report of the ritual observation process, their findings, judgments and recommendations, in dialogue with unit readings and materials.


LO2, LO3, LO4, LO5

GA4, GA5, GA7, GA8

Representative texts and references

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997/2009.

Bradshaw, Paul and John Melloh, eds. Foundations in Ritual Studies: A Reader for Students of

Christian Worship. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2007.

Driver, Tom F. Liberating Rites: Understanding the Liberating Power of Ritual. Boulder: Westview, 1998.

Grimes, Ronald L. Beginnings in Ritual Studies. 3rd ed. Waterloo: Ritual Studies International, 2013. 

The Craft of Ritual Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

McGann, Mary E. Exploring Music as Worship and Theology: Research in Liturgical Practice. Collegeville: Liturgical, 2002.

Mitchell, Nathan. Liturgy and the Social Sciences. American Essays in Liturgy. Collegeville: Liturgical, 1999.

Morrill, Bruce T., Joanna E. Ziegler, Susan Rodgers, eds. Practicing Catholic: Ritual, Body, and

Contestation in Catholic Faith. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Rappaport, Roy. Ritual and Religion and the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1999.

Stephenson, Barry. Ritual: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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