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On Spiritual Edgework: The Logic of Extreme Ritual Performances

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Religion as a social form is constructed to provide adherents with a sense of empowerment and control. Rituals that involve a risk of physical or psychological injury or even death therefore would appear anomalous and indeed are frequently the objects of social scientific and journalistic denigration. Firewalking and serpent handling exemplify such rituals. I argue that these two radical ritual practices, which I term spiritual edgework, provide a valuable sociological window on how radical ritual practices are socially constructed. The social construction process involves the identification of a mythically relevant edge that offers: both contingency and certainty; individual and collective preparation for the impending edgework during which tensions are elevated for later ritual resolution; a ritualized process for successfully navigating the edge; and postedgework accounts that neutralize potential disconfirming injuries or deaths.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: David G. Bromley is Professor of Religious Studies and Sociology in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, 312 North Shafer St., Richmond, VA 23284-2021., Email:

Publication date: September 1, 2007

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