A ‘Rite de Passage’ in the Construction Industry

By Leonore van den Ende    A while ago, I witnessed the baptism and name-giving of a tunnel-boring machine used to excavate part of the North-South metro line of Amsterdam. This phenomenon stems from a long-standing ritual traditionally practiced by mine workers and tunnel builders for safety against hazards during the construction process. On this occasion, the ritual signified the launch of the third phase of tunnel construction, attended by a large group of project managers, employees, contractors, stakeholders and members of the press. This same ritual is held cyclically, every time the project enters a new construction phase.

It became clear that the ritual had commenced when a Catholic Priest dressed in traditional white and gold robes came to the fore at the dark, cold construction site reaching 25 meters underground. He started by imparting the significance of the ritual he would perform, while presenting a statue of Santa Barbara; a Patron Saint acknowledged by the Catholic Church as the protector of harm and later espoused by mine and tunnel workers for this very purpose. He explained that even though he would physically bless the statue and the machine, he would emblematically yet truly be blessing the tunnel workers who necessitated protection.

As he recited texts from the bible, he blessed the Santa Barbara statue with holy water from a shiny goblet. Afterward, eight engineers standing next to the priest recited a traditional German mining song – Glück Auf Close – while the statue of Santa Barbara was carried by one of the construction workers and delicately placed in a decorated glass cupboard hanging on the wall next to the machine. Subsequently, the name of the machine would be revealed. After the alderman of Amsterdam smashed a bottle of champagne against the machine followed the theatrical release of a giant poster displaying the name ‘Molly’ in big, bold, blue letters. The name was female as this belonged to the tradition, and it was chosen by a group of school children from Amsterdam who also attended the ceremony. At that moment, the Priest came to the fore once again and blessed the machine just as he had blessed the statue, finishing with the eminent words “in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit.” At the end of the ritual, in the midst of a fascinated and clapping audience, all attendees and participants further indulged themselves with food and drinks in the party tent set up alongside the abyss of the construction site, striking up vivid conversations and discussions in reflection of the bizarre yet intriguing phenomenon they had just collectively experienced.

What happened that day at the tunnel-boring site arouses much fascination in the research domain of ritual theory and practice. Why was the launch of this construction project phase ritualized? Why was the machine baptized and given a female name? What was a decorated shrine encasing Santa Barbara doing at the construction site? And, more importantly, what meaning did this event have for the project actors?

Applying Turner’s concept of liminality, this ritualized event serves as an illustration of a transitional moment in time presenting an ideal space for project members and associates to reassess and renew the project’s course of development and their positions within it. During this liminal space, all participants are induced to set aside their doubts and struggles concerning the construction process by collectively taking part in this ritual, perhaps reflecting the reinvigoration of integration and commitment among the project members and associates for the coming project phase. On a deeper level, the ritual can be seen as sincerely embedded in and emergent from the traditional safety culture of tunnel and mine construction workers. Indeed, when looking more closely the ritual implicitly reveals what this machine symbolizes for the people who work with it. Namely, the dangers and risks attributed to this machine’s capacity traditionally gave rise to the need to bless and baptize it for safety and personify it with a female name, perhaps to render it less hazardous.

It was unusual to see a decorated shrine encasing Santa Barbara, the holy protector of the tunnel workers, at the construction site. At first glance, this divine image seemed to clash with the setting in which it was presented; a highly technical and instrumental setting occupied by tough male construction workers, staging a colossal machine which would soon eat away the earth to create a gigantic burrow under the city. In the words of Smith and Stewart (2011: 11), “rituals seem to clash with the organizational drive for rationality, effectiveness, efficiency, and goal attainment.” However, even though a construction project is highly technological and goal-oriented with a dominant ‘rational’ character, the people who work for such a project do not always necessarily function as such. For example, Trice and Beyer (1993: 108-109) argue that technologies even stimulate the development of ritual behaviors “because such technologies give rise to new uncertainties that people must somehow manage”, demonstrating that “even in rationalized settings like workplaces, people resort to nonrational behaviors to manage their anxieties and conflicts and dissipate their uncertainties.” In this light, the statue of Santa Barbara watching over the workers from her shrine did not seem so strange any longer.

However, the question which comes to mind is: should we conceptualize ritual in terms of the dichotomous categories which it assumingly reintegrates; such as the irrational vs. rational, symbolic vs. pragmatic, and so forth? According to various authors (see e.g. Bell, 1992; Bell, 2009), we should move beyond the understanding of ritual as a magical or sacred activity in stark contrast with a technical or utilitarian activity. Rather, ritual should be seen as possessing both expressive and instrumental aspects simultaneously. Perhaps, ritual is more rational than we might expect…

References:

Bell C. (1992) Ritual theory, ritual practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA.

Bell C. (2009) Ritual: Perspectives and dimensions, Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press.

Smith ACT and Stewart B. (2011) Organizational Rituals: Features, Functions and Mechanisms. International Journal of Management Reviews 13: 113-133.

Trice MT and Beyer JM. (1993) The Cultures of Work Organizations, New Jersey. : Englewood Cliffs.

Leonore van den Ende is a PhD candidate at the VU in the department of organization science. Her research is about the practice and meaning of transition rituals in the construction industry where she is currently carrying out ethnographic fieldwork.

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One thought on “A ‘Rite de Passage’ in the Construction Industry

  1. drs ing Henk Uijttenhout 24/11/2012 / 11:41

    Door de negatieve manier, waarop over religie wordt gesproken, worden rituelen ook als leeg en zinloos beschouwd. De mijnbouw kent dergelijke rituelen nog, in Duitsland en Oostenrijk worden die als vanzelfsprekend beschouwd in technische processen. Mijnbouwstudenten in Delft hebben hun eigen cafe, vol symbolen die te maken hebben met allerlei rituelen. Soms zijn ze minder zichtbaar, omdat de industrie steeds rationeler en kostenbewuster is geworden. Met gevoelens van de werklieden en hun beleving als groep wordt geen rekening gehouden.
    Koppermaandag wordt nog steeds gekend in het grafisch bedrijf, als in het nieuwe jaar de individuele arbeids overeenkomsten werden verlengd voor een jaar. En ook tijdens het productieproces zijn er overgangsmomenten van goedkeuring, “fiat”. In de landbouw was een belangrijke overgang aan het einde van het groeiseizoen, met feest en al. Succes met je studie!

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