21 with Durkheim; Birthdays and Rites: by Nicholas Angelici

For this blog entry, I decided I was going to explore the possibility that one’s 21st birthday, often filled with excessive amounts of alcohol consumption, could be considered a right of passage. A right of passage can be described as “A form of ritual intended to a company or accomplish a change of status”(ELLER, 2013). Using this definition, I will create my own theory as to how such an important event in a persons life can be considered a right of passage. Afterwords I will use participant observation to either confirm or disprove my hypothesis. I will also be comparing it to Nuer practices of rights of passage as well as explaining these similarities using anthropological theory.

Based on my initial understanding, I presume that the social excursion would consist of a period of separation. During this time the person who has just reached their 21st birthday will be segregated from the rest of his family by a handful of specially selected friends. This group of friends will be his comrades and will have had a long history with him. During this period of separation, they will consume copious amounts of alcohol. During the phase of liminality, one would be separated from society. In my view this will probably be during the portion known as the hangover. This is the side effects of drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Although I do not fully understand the symptoms I will explain them in further detail in the second half of this article. The following phase is reincorporation. During this phase, one is joined by his compatriots once again, this time without the alcohol consumption. This will be the theory I frame my research around. During the event, I will take notes to either confirm or deny my hypothesis.

After the experience, and the recovery from it, one of the best comparison so I can find for this right passage would be the Nuer. One of their practices involve the ritual laceration of the forehead (The Nuer, 1940:249). Both of these rituals involve intense pain to the person receiving them. While I did not receive any lasting scars from my participant observation, I did receive more than a mild headache the day after. This would have been during my hypothesized liminality. I can certainly confirm that during this time, I was cut off from society.

But how does this relate to theory? Durkheim has a marvelous explanation for this event. As he theorizes, conformity is the main driving force behind society (Moberg, 2013:89). Although drunken behavior is considered an unfavorable experience, During ones 21st birthday it would be considered rude and unusual for one not to engage fully in alcohol. While I have had alcohol before, (I was in Australia after I turned 18, the national drinking age of that country) it was the social interaction between myself and my friends theat demonstrated I was a part of the group.


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