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Gennep, Arnold Van

Gennep, Arnold Van



Charles-Arnold Kurr van Gennep (1873–1957), ethnographer and folklorist, who is best known for his work on rites of passage, was born in Wiirttemberg, Germany, of a Dutch father and a French mother. At his father’s death van Gennep was adopted by a French doctor, and thus his already strong ties with France were further strengthened. He received most of his education in France.

His career was not primarily an academic one. He served the French government for two periods, from 1903 to 1910 and again from 1919 to 1921, and worked for such cultural organizations as the Alliance Francaise and the International Congress of Popular Art. For relatively brief periods he held university appointments at Neuchatel, Oxford, and Cambridge.

In The Rites of Passage (1909), van Gennep systematically compared those ceremonies which celebrate an individual’s transition from one status to another within a given society; he concluded that most such ritual observances have a tripartite sequence. The major phases of this sequence are separation (separation), transition (marge), and incorporation (agregation). Van Gennep went beyond this analysis of rites of passage to an interpretation of their significance for the explanation of the continuing nature of life. He believed that rites of passage, with their symbolic representation of death and rebirth, illustrate the principles of the regenerative renewal required by any society.

Although van Gennep followed the prevailing system of classification of beliefs and rites associated with magic, when he analyzed rites of passage he introduced a new approach. Instead of utilizing a priori categories as the units of his taxonomy, he abstracted these units from the structure of the ceremonies themselves. This procedure led him to differentiate the rites-of-passage phases; separation, transition, and incorporation. His inductive procedure included consideration of the variables of time and space. Over a quarter of a century later Julian Huxley was to label this method of classification, in biology, as the “new systematics.”

Van Gennep was obviously impressed with the importance of the transitional, or liminal, phase that he had noted within a ceremony. One aspect of its importance is related to his concept of social regeneration. When individuals or groups are in a state of suspension (limen), separated from their previous condition and not yet incorporated into a new one, they constitute a threat to themselves and to the entire group. In this state they are outside the sphere of normal control and must be reintegrated in order to avoid becoming disruptive. The liminal period also has its own internal structure, and it is possible to observe stages of entry into the period, the period itself, and departure from the period of transition.

Some other contributions by van Gennep deserve brief mention. He established, for example, that the time of so-called puberty, or initiation, rites does not coincide with physiological puberty; rather, they are scheduled according to societal definitions. He also emphasized the importance of rit ual exchange and thus anticipated Malinowski’s analysis of reciprocity. Finally, he noted the similarity between the structure of individual and group rites when either kind is in a state of change. The subsequent designation of group ceremonies as “rites of intensification” by Chappie and Coon (1942) is a welcome conceptual extension.

Van Gennep was highly regarded for his work in the field of European folklore. He did much to change its orientation from its historical and antiquarian origins by introducing the methods and perspective of ethnography. European scholars of his time tended to view the customs of rural peoples as quaint reminders of the past and to treat them as elements of history. Van Gennep saw folk literature and practices as aspects of living culture, to be examined within the context of changes among individuals in their relations with each other. His concern with changes in traditional culture led him to study the disappearance of some of its elements in the urban centers of France and the spread of cosmopolitan culture.

Van Gennep was enormously energetic in the accumulation of folklore materials and in their publication. His writings include several score articles, numerous monographs, and the monumental Manuel de folklore frangais contemporain (1937–1958). Van Gennep’s editorial activity in this field also was prodigious: for over thirty years, from 1906 to 1939, he edited the section “Ethnographie-Folklore-Religions-Prehistoire” in the Mercure de France, and he founded and directed several French journals of ethnography and folklore.

Van Gennep’s adherence to the comparative method in ethnography helps us to understand his theoretical formulations. He based his interpretations on the assumption that man is a part of nature and is therefore subject to the great natural laws of stability, variability, and change. He considered his goal to be the formulation of general syntheses. On this basis he challenged the adequacy of the principles of individual psychology and apriorism. He thought regeneration a necessity of social and individual existence, noting similarities between the cyclical shift of seasons and the pas sage of the individual through the stages of life. In the ceremonies which celebrate both transitions, he noted the recurring theme of death and rebirth. For him, neither the individual nor the rites can be divorced from the social context, nor from time and space. He insisted that ceremonial patterns should be examined as wholes and that comparison should be based upon similarities in structure rather than upon content.

There are resemblances between van Gennep’s concerns and those of his contemporaries, but his approach was so radically different from theirs that the resemblances are largely of a superficial kind. For example, the interest in religion, magic, and myth, which he shared with Lang, Frazer, Marett, and others, proceeded from entirely different conceptual assumptions. Their rational, a priori approach was rooted in a historical perspective which sought to isolate stages of development such as fetishism, animism, animatism, or totemism and to provide definitions for each. Frazer in particular sought to ground his conclusions in universal psychological characteristics—the principle of association and the law of sympathy. In contrast, van Gennep was more interested in the dynamics of change than in the statics of classification and definition. For him, impersonal and personal power (dynamism and animism) unite to constitute religion, while magic consists of the techniques of control. In this he differed from Frazer, in whose view magic preceded religion and was in conflict with it. Van Gennep also differed from Hubert and Mauss, who defined religion as official doctrine and magic as socially prohibited (a view incorporated by Durkheim in his polarization of the sacred and the profane).

Thus, van Gennep saw the tradition, methods, and goals of ethnography as different from those of both the French sociologists and the British school of anthropology. The full exposition of these differences awaits future scholarship. A recently renewed interest in the study of rites of passage is evidenced by the writings of Whiting and Child (1953), Young (1965), and Turner (1964). This resurgence may extend to further study of van Gennep’s ethnographic method and of his theoretical formulations.

Solon T. Kimball

[For the historical context of van Gennep’s work, see the biographies ofFrazer; Marett; Mauss; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeLife Cycle; Myth and Symbol; Ritual; Theology, Primitive.]


1908—1914 Religions, moeurs, et légendes: Essais d’ethnographie et de linguistiqite. 5th series. Paris: Mercure de France.

(1909) 1960 The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge; Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in French.

1937-1958 Manuel de folklore frangais contemporain. Volumes 1, 3-4 in 9 parts. Paris: Picard. → Volume 2 will not be published.


Chapple, Eliot D.; and Coon, Carleton S. 1942 Principles of Anthropology.New York: Holt.

LecottÉ, Roger 1958 Arnold van Gennep: 1873–1957. Fabula2:178-180 .

Turner, Victor W. 1964 Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de passage. American Ethnological Society, Proceedings[1964]:4–20.

Whiting, John W.; and Child, Irvin L. 1953 Child Training and Personality: A Cross-cultural Study. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962.

Young, Frank W. 1965 Initiation Ceremonies: A Cross-cultural Study of Status Dramatization. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill.

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"Gennep, Arnold Van." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 21 Aug. 2017 <>.

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Gennep, Arnold Van

Gennep, Arnold van

Arnold van Gennep was born in 1873 and educated at the Sorbonne. He died in 1957 without ever having been accepted into Émile Durkheim's circle of sociologists, a neglect the anthropologist Rodney Needham speaks of as "an academic disgrace" in his preface to The Semi-Scholars (Gennep 1967, xi). Nevertheless, van Gennep's 1909 concept of "rites of passage" represents his prime contribution to thanatology, and subsequently became a major means of interpreting funerary ritual.

Rites of passage are transition rituals that move individuals from one social status to another in a three-phased schema of separation, segregation, and incorporation. It is as though society conducts individuals from one status to another, as from one room in a house to another, always passing over thresholds. This spatial element is important since changed status often involves changing locality. The "magico-religious aspect of crossing frontiers" intrigued van Gennep. For him, religion meant abstract ideas or doctrine and magic meant ritual action, so magico-religious was his idiosyncratic description of practical religious action quite unlike Durkheim's distinction between religion as collective and magic as privately selfish activity. According to van Gennep, in his book The Rites of Passage, the dynamic of rites of transition depends upon "the pivoting of sacredness" during the middle liminal phase, emphasizing why door and threshold (or limen in Latin), in both a literal and metaphorical sense, were important for him. Paradoxically he also thought that numerous landmarks were a form of phallus but devoid of "truly sexual significance." The fear inherent in changing status and responsibilities was managed ritually even if they were not concurrent with biological changes in adolescence. These rites mark a journey through life reflecting physical changes and altering responsibilities. The anthropologist Ioan Lewis expressed this when he referred to rites of passage as "rites of way," describing the phases in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (Lewis 1985, pp. 131132).

Funerals both extend this journey to the other world in a series of transition rites and help structure the mourning process of survivors. Transition rather than separation is singled out as the predominating element of funerary rites, affecting both the living and the dead and involving potential danger for each as ritual changes in identity occur. Yet, almost as a law of life, these changes also involve a renewal of much-needed energy. One ignored element in van Gennep's work concerns fear, for funerals may be "defensive procedures," protecting against departed souls or the "contagion of death," and helping to "dispose of eternal enemies" of the survivors. He was an early critic of the French anthropologist Robert Hertz's overemphasis on positive aspects of funeral rites, and underemphasis on burial or cremation as effecting a dissociation of body and soul(s). Van Gennep's energy model of society whose rituals periodically regenerated its power and gave sense to repeating patterns of death and regeneration presaged both Durkheim's basic argument on totemic ritual (made in 1912) and the British anthropologists Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry's late-twentieth-century analysis of death and regeneration.

See also: Durkheim, Émile; Hertz, Robert; Rites of Passage


Bloch, Maurice, and Jonathan Parry. Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1915.

Gennep, Arnold van. The Semi-Scholars, translated and edited by Rodney Needham. 1911. Reprint, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.

Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. 1909. Reprint, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960.

Lewis, I. M. Social Anthropology in Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Parkin, Robert. The Dark Side of Humanity: The World of Robert Hertz and Its Legacy. Australia: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996.


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