Anthropologists such as Anthony F. C. Wallace first employed the term revitalization movement in 1956. The term was created to explain how a society functions under severe stress. A movement would arise because of the complete disorganization and conflict within a society and the need for reform and transformation. Wallace explained that when members of a society feel that their needs are not being satisfied, this process enables them to reorganize and reestablish a more fulfilling culture. Usually, revitalization movements have a religious factor, but they may be pursued from a political stance. Religious revitalization movements frequently occurred in indigenous or traditional societies during colonial times and from first European contact. Other social movements and organizations that have been closely associated with revitalization movements include Cargo Cults, Terre sans mal movements, Madhist movements, Millenarian movements, Messianic movements, Nativistic movements, and separatist churches.
In his book Religion: An Anthropological View, Wallace stresses two aims for a revitalization movement: to provide “immediate salvation to the presently afflicted” and “to reorganize the culture in such a manner that a better way of life is brought into being to take the place of the old.”
A revitalization movement has five stages. The first stage is called “The Steady Stage.” It is characterized by small amounts of stress and disorganization within the society. There may be a number of incidents where deviance occurs; this is thought to be caused by society’s penalty for the current situation. The second stage is called “The Period of Increased Individual Stress.” The equilibrium becomes insecure and unsteady within the social system. Disease, war, social subordination, and acculturation arise, which leaves individuals uneasy and under a great deal of stress. Individuals feel that society has failed them and blame the current system. Crime and illness are significantly present even though the situation is still regarded as a temporary glitch in the system. “The Period of Cultural Distortion” is the next stage. Individual members of society attempt to take control of their lives by using self-destructive means such as drinking, gambling, sexual discrepancies, and attacking public figures in the community. Previously prominent individuals in the community begin to lose hope of reviving the community.
The fourth stage is “The Period of Revitalization.” Without the completion of this stage, the culture will die out, split into smaller groups with similar attributes, or integrate into another, more secure and stable society. There are six criteria that are associated with this stage. There must be the construction of a new order. This could be through formulation of a new religion, political system, or social organization, which becomes the central focus for achieving a superior society including a more profitable way of life. The initiative is to have an ideal system to work towards that can easily be contrasted to the present, unsuccessful system.
There is a specific routine or set of instructions that are followed in order to achieve this society. These steps promote a renewed sense of hope and confidence in the future. The next criterion involves communicating the message of this new culture or institution to others. The individuals who were the founders of this new ideal society must find ways to spread the news of their new code. They attempt to draw in as many people as possible who will follow and obey their code. The main attraction of this culture is the reassurance that it will lead the population to stability, organization, and salvation.
Organization is an important criterion within the revitalization. Society must be structured with the official who established this “utopian society” present. There must be a group of individuals who organize and delegate the mass with followers who will listen and follow instructions. These groups are referred to as disciples and their followers. The disciples insure that the movement towards their goal is in progress while the followers participate in the existing society supporting the disciples. The criterion involves adaptation. The disciples must be able to deal with and adapt to any flaws in their new system. This may include modifying the existing strategies within the code to defend the end product of the cultural revitalization. The followers must believe that this movement is truly for the best. Individuals who do not follow the code are referred to as deviant, or more severely, enemies of the state.
The last criterion of the Period of Revitalization is routinization. This criterion places emphasis on maintaining society’s transformation. There is no longer a need to convert individuals. Maintenance occurs through ritual, myth, and the recollection of why their society has transformed. Order and morale must be preserved within the social, political, and religious segments. The final stage of the revitalization movement is “The New Steady State.” Any changes that must be made to the code in order to keep equilibrium within the culture must be recognized. This may involve altering the focus of values to meet the needs of an ever-changing society. As ideas evolve, cultures evolve as well.
Past revitalization movements include the Cargo Cults in Melanesia, Terre sans mal movements in the South American tropical forest, Madhist movements in Islamic areas, Millenarian movements in Christian areas, Messianic movements in Judaic areas, Nativistic movements among the North American Indians, and Separatist churches among African Americans. There are four main attributes of these revitalization movements: revivalistic characteristics, as seen with the Ghost Dance; utopian characteristics, as seen with the Terre sans mal movements; assimilative characteristics, as seen with the American civil rights movements; and finally, expropriative characteristics, as seen with the Cargo Cults.
- Harkin, M. E. (Ed.). (2004). Reassessing revitalization movements: Perspectives from North America and the Pacific Islands. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Kehoe, A. B. (1989). The Ghost Dance religion: Ethnohistory & revitalization. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.
- Wallace, A. F. C. (1966). Religion: An anthropological view. New York: Random House.