Last Wednesday I handed in my senior thesis, “A Sociological Study of Debutantes.” Sociology of Religion started the following Monday and it was my first class since before Thanksgiving break. I was excited to finally be able to forget about my thesis. I should have known that it wouldn’t be that easy to forget. Our first homework assignment was to read, Marx, Weber, and of course Durkheim–one of the theorists I had used to frame my thesis. I wasn’t surprised I had to read him, since he is one of the founding fathers of sociology, but I was surprised that reading him in this context would inspire me to add another section to the conclusion of my thesis.
For Durkheim, religion is a set of practices that unite people. He argues that rituals are communal acts that affirm beliefs and strengthen the group’s values. Debutante balls are rituals for the upper–class elite. While social status isn’t a “religion” in the traditional sense, the ritual of the debutante ball can be examined through a Durkheimian lens. Debutante balls unite the upper class through the shared practice of debuting and reproduces the values of the elite. In my thesis, I argue that debutante balls reinforce class privilege, reflect racial segregation, perpetuate gender norms, and normalize heterosexuality.
Debutante balls are rituals, but more specifically coming of age rituals for women. A coming of age ritual implies a changed, or new identity. However, I argue that debutante balls don’t change identities but reinforce them. The women I interviewed for my thesis didn’t really feel changed by their debutante balls. When doing my homework on Monday night, I found a new aspect of Durkheim on rituals that explained this. He argues that rituals function as a way for individuals to restate their loyalty to the group. Rituals elevate the the well being of the group while minimizing individual concerns. So while the debutante ball is a coming of age ritual, it isn’t about the individual debutantes, but rather about strengthening the values of the upper class elite. Debutante balls unite people through a shared practice, does that make them a religious experience?